Alps much more than great views of snowy villages
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.
Near Chamonix, these “telecabines” float riders from France into Italy for Europe’s most exciting border crossing.
The super-scenic walk from Maennlichen to Kleine Scheidegg in Switzerland is dramatic and relatively easy — and comes with great views and fine company.