Three awe­some Alps ad­ven­tures

Toronto Sun - - TRAVEL - RICK STEVES Spe­cial to Post­media Net­work rick@rick­steves.com

Stretch­ing across roughly 1,200 km, Europe’s high­est moun­tain range, the Alps, arcs across eight coun­tries, from the Mediter­ranean coast of France to the east­ern fringes in Aus­tria and Slove­nia. Along the way, alpine cul­tures and land­scapes of­fer a fas­ci­nat­ing va­ri­ety of ex­pe­ri­ences.

France may be home to the tallest peak (Mont Blanc), but Switzer­land’s Alps are the high point for most trav­ellers. With ma­jes­tic snow-capped sum­mits, wa­ter­fall-laced cliffs, and pic­turesque lakes, they have hiker-friendly ameni­ties — well-marked trails, rest­ful moun­tain huts, and a sys­tem of lifts and trains that let you ef­fort­lessly as­cend to dra­matic heights.

As fa­mously great engi­neers, and ar­dent na­ture lovers, the Swiss know how to make alpine thrills ac­ces­si­ble to al­most ev­ery­one, re­gard­less of stamina or skills.

My favourite re­gion in the Swiss Alps is the Berner Ober­land, south of Bern and crowned by a trio of for­mi­da­ble peaks: The Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.

A good, easy hike is along the ridge be­tween Mannlichen and Kleine Schei­degg, which sep­a­rates the Grindel­wald and Lauter­brun­nen val­leys. To do this hike with min­i­mal ex­er­tion, take the train from the val­ley base of Lauter­brun­nen up to Wen­gen, then a gon­dola to Mannlichen. From there, the trail winds gen­tly down past stag­ger­ing views, con­tented cows, a per­fect pic­nic spot, and a fine restau­rant.

You’ll get a loftier view of those same moun­tains from the 3,050-me­tre Schilthorn sum­mit. The Schilthorn­bahn ca­ble car takes rid­ers up in four stages. At about $100 round-trip, it’s pricey, but when you’re sur­rounded by cut-glass peaks and breath­ing fresh moun­tain air, it’s one of Europe’s great deals.

The Swiss love to cap their peaks with restau­rants, and one of the most pop­u­lar is the Schilthorn’s re­volv­ing Piz Glo­ria. It was the set­ting of key scenes in the James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Se­cret Ser­vice. To­day, there’s a fun 007 ex­hibit — even Bondthemed toi­lets.

Ca­sual hik­ers can take the ca­ble car down to Birg sta­tion. The sta­tion, while a fine spring­board for hikes, also of­fers the Skyline Walk — a view­ing plat­form with a trans­par­ent floor that juts over the cliff edge, and the Thrill Walk, a 183-me­tre course with a steel-and-glass­bot­tom floor, rope bridge, and tun­nel. From Birg, you can walk down to the rus­tic ham­let of Gim­mel­wald (a great place for a post-hike beer or overnight stay).

The French Alps are no less dra­matic than Switzer­land’s — and cheaper (Switzer­land is Europe’s most ex­pen­sive coun­try). My pick there is the range that hov­ers just above the re­sort of Cha­monix — near the junc­tion of France, Switzer­land and Italy.

In Cha­monix, if the weather’s right, there’s noth­ing bet­ter than rid­ing the ca­ble car to Aigu­ille du Midi, a 3,840-me­tre rock “nee­dle of mid­day” high above town and across from Mont Blanc.

Up there, the air is thin, visi­tors are giddy, and even when the sun’s out, it’s still bit­terly cold in July. Europe’s high­est gon­dola glides along a 4.8-km ca­ble, dan­gling over the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) to Hel­bron­ner Point.

Above Cha­monix Val­ley, the Grand Bal­con Sud hike is lovely. Be­ing a hik­ing light­weight, I pre­fer a trail where I can ride a lift to one end, en­joy high-moun­tain kicks (with min­i­mal al­ti­tude gain), and then ride the lift down from the other end. This three-hour walk comes with un­for­get­table views of Mont Blanc, glaciers, and wild­flow­ers.

Much far­ther east, near the Aus­trian bor­der, Italy’s Dolomites of­fer a dif­fer­ent alpine flavour. This re­gion is unique for its Aus­trian roots, which still sur­vive from the food to the bilin­gual Ger­man/ Ital­ian-speak­ing lo­cals.

The city of Bolzano — blend­ing Aus­trian tidi­ness with an Ital­ian love for life — is the Dolomites’ gate­way. But I pre­fer set­tling in higher up, in Kastel­ruth, right in the midst of moun­tain splen­dour.

Both towns pro­vide easy ac­cess to the Seiser Alm, Europe’s largest alpine meadow with rush­ing streams and ev­er­greens, Seiser Alm is a well-run na­tional park with buses, well-kept huts, trails and lifts, fab views and lots of dairy cows. On a sum­mer day, it’s like a day at the beach.

No mat­ter which cor­ner you ex­plore, the Alps pro­vide a sym­phony of ex­pe­ri­ences that can end­lessly de­light.

DOMINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI PHOTO

The su­per-scenic walk from Mannlichen to Kleine Schei­degg in Switzer­land is both dra­matic and rel­a­tively easy — and comes with great views and fine com­pany.

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