Alps much more than great views of snowy vil­lages

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TRAVEL - RICK STEVES

The Alps, Europe’s high­est moun­tain range, arc from Vi­enna to Mar­seilles, France. They in­clude stretches in eight coun­tries, each with a unique taste of alpine cul­ture.

Of the 750 miles of peaks, the Swiss Alps are a trav­eler’s alpine dream come true. 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 drops you off at the top. The Swiss, who are great engi­neers and na­ture lovers, know how to make alpine thrills ac­ces­si­ble to al­most ev­ery­one.

My fa­vorite 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 Maennlichen and Kleine Schei­degg ridges, which sep­a­rate the Grindel­wald and Lauter­brun­nen valleys. I rec­om­mend tak­ing the moun­tain train from Lauter­brun­nen up to the town of Wen­gen, then a gon­dola to Maennlichen. From there, the trail winds gen­tly down­hill past moun­tain views, con­tented cows, a per­fect pic­nic spot and a fine res­tau­rant.

You’ll get a loftier view of those moun­tains from the 10,000-foot Schilthorn sum­mit. The Schilthorn­bahn cable car takes rid­ers up ef­fort­lessly 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. Whether filled with skiers in win­ter or hik­ers in sum­mer, there’s a happy en­ergy as you as­cend in that glass-and-steel bub­ble of moun­tain joy.

The Swiss love to cap their peaks with restau­rants, and one of the most pop­u­lar is the Schilthorn’s re­volv­ing Piz Glo­ria. Be­fore open­ing to the public in 1969, 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 and Bond-theme toi­lets.

While grav­elly trails lead down from the Schilthorn, ca­sual hik­ers pre­fer tak­ing the cable car down to Birg sta­tion. The sta­tion, while a fine spring­board for hikes, is also en­ter­tain­ing, of­fer­ing the Sky­line Walk, a view­ing plat­form with a trans­par­ent floor that juts out over the cliff edge, and the Thrill Walk, a fun, 200-yard course with a steel-and-glass-bot­tom floor, rope bridge, and tun­nel. From Birg, you can walk down to the rus­tic ham­let of Gim­mel­wald (a great place to en­joy a post-hike beer — or bet­ter, spend the night).

The Swiss Alps, while great, are in per­haps the most ex­pen­sive coun­try in Europe. The French Alps above the re­sort town of Cha­monix — near the junc­tion of France, Switzer­land, and Italy — are nearly as ex­hil­a­rat­ing and a lot less ex­pen­sive.

In Cha­monix, if the weather’s right, there’s noth­ing bet­ter than rid­ing the cable car to the Aigu­ille du Midi, the 12,600-foot rock “nee­dle of mid­day” high above town and across from Mont Blanc. Up here, the air is thin, peo­ple are giddy and even when the sun’s out it’s still bit­ter cold in July. From here, a cute red gon­dola — Europe’s high­est lift — glides slowly along a three-mile cable, dan­gling silently over the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) to Hel­bron­ner Point, at the border of Italy.

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 all along (with min­i­mal al­ti­tude gain), and then ride the lift down from the other end. This three-hour walk comes with stag­ger­ing views of Mont Blanc, glaciers and wild­flow­ers — and a frac­tion of the Aigu­ille du Midi crowds.

Italy’s Dolomites of­fer an en­tirely dif­fer­ent fla­vor of the Alps. Dolomite — a sed­i­men­tary rock sim­i­lar to lime­stone — gives th­ese moun­tains their dis­tinc­tive shape and color. This re­gion — part of Italy only since World War I — is also 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 Castel­rotto — right in the midst of moun­tain splen­dor, yet with­out that empty skire­sort-in-the-sum­mer feel­ing.

Both towns pro­vide easy ac­cess to the Alpe di Siusi, Europe’s largest alpine meadow. Un­du­lat­ing rather than flat, bro­ken by rush­ing streams and dap­pled with shapely ev­er­greens, the Alpe di Siusi is a well-run na­tional park. It boasts shut­tle buses, well-kept huts, trails and lifts, along with spec­tac­u­lar views of the sur­round­ing Dolomite peaks and lots of cows — who pro­duce two mil­lion gal­lons of milk an­nu­ally. Be­ing here on a sunny sum­mer day comes with the am­bi­ence of a day at the beach.

No mat­ter which cor­ner you’re ex­plor­ing — Switzer­land, France, Italy or be­yond — the Alps pro­vide a sym­phony of ex­pe­ri­ences that can end­lessly de­light lovers of cul­ture, his­tory and na­ture. They cer­tainly have for me.

Rick Steves’ Europe/RICK STEVES

Near Cha­monix, th­ese “tele­cab­ines” float rid­ers from France into Italy for Europe’s most ex­cit­ing border cross­ing.

Rick Steves’ Europe/DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI

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

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