In our harshly divided partisan world, in which people who like to go to mountains are forever locked in conflict with those who prefer the beach, I’m a mountain person. For years I allowed children and other distracting influences to drag me to the ocean, but I’ve recently been making up for decades of sandy experiential squandering. For the past two summers my family and I have hiked around central and southwest Colorado, but this was finally our year for the Swiss and French Alps.
I’ve long read about hut-to-hut Alpine hikes, mountain treks with no heavy packs and delightful huts with great food, and for cheap. How could this not be a winner? I needed to go before I lose my knees.
As trip planning is my leading obsessive hobby, I began online research back in March, followed by compulsive ordering of guidebooks and maps as the plans evolved. I had the vacation reserved by early April, with a June 21 departure from New York (we left on my younger son’s last day of school). The whole family couldn’t make it this year, so it was just young Abe and my wife, Ski, who has generously and compassionately given herself over to mountain travel. While Abe is not an outspoken proponent of hiking vacations, he does yet not wield sufficient coercive power to put a stop to them.
June 21 proved to be a smart departure day. European school vacations didn’t start until after of July 6th, so we were still traveling at an off-peak time, yet it was late enough in June to promise good weather and no more roads or trails blocked by snow.
Before proceeding, let me recommend the one essential resource for planning a hiking, walking trip in the Alps — the books put out by UK-based Cicerone Press . Author Kev Reynolds is the ultimate guru of Alpine trekking — his books on the Bernese Oberland (which includes the Jungfrau area) and the Vanoise (in the French Alps) are beyond definitive.
I didn’t know much about the Alps. Yes, they are big mountains in Europe. But when you start contemplating a trip, the subject is a bit overwhelming — the Alps stretch over six countries, guidebooks divide the countries into separate regions, and the Alps themselves consist of many topographical sub ranges (Switzerland — which is the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined — has five main mountain ranges).
I wanted to get the best, ultimate, classic, iconic, total, most mind-blowing Alpine experience. After studying the work of Kev Reynolds, cross referencing his work against postings in online forums, official tourism sites and the Michelin green guidebooks, and after studying the National Geographic map of the Alps, I came to this conclusion: the definitive spot one must see in Switzerland IS the Jungfrau region. It’s most famous for the three adjoining 13,000-ft-plus peaks, the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch. Beyond those three peaks lies the largest glacier in the Alps, Aletsch Glacier. The range is in central Switzerland, and it seemed promising that nearby Geneva could be a possible fly-in airport. Finally, the Jungfrau is an easy day’s drive from the French Vanoise range, which was my plan for the second half of the trip.
As I got deeper into planning, another key consideration emerged: Switzerland is very expensive. I first noticed how pricey Switzerland is when I tried to book hotels near Geneva and Interlaken, with an added issue being that I was, mysteriously, having a hard time finding vacancies for the fourth weekend in June. So early on I decided to limit the pocketbook damage and head to France as quickly as possible, but still wanted to have the feeling of doing Switzerland.
The financial hit from expensive hotel (and restaurant) prices would be further limited by our plan to stay as much as possible in mountain huts, in both the Jungfrau and the Vanoise. Hut prices aren’t too different between the two countries.
Now to the specifics. We arrived in Geneva June 22 and returned to NYC July 5. What follows are a few key points about each stop along the way, including short notes about different hiking routes. As I go along, I address some very specific information, mundane matters that I find to be of great importance — traffic, avoiding crowds, overpricing…etc.
The Flight, Geneva Airport and CDW
Flight was non-stop on United, JFK to GVA, GVA to EWR. GVA has the rather odd feature of being both in Switzerland and France. We picked up bags in Switzerland, and then trundled to the French sector to pick up our car from Avis. The car was a little Renault with a manual transmission. Great car, fun to drive, managed to book it for very, very low price. Biggest bargain of the trip. One minor aside: when I first booked the car online, I put off getting collision insurance, which I splurge on when in Europe. When I tried to add collision on the Avis website a few months after I booked, it wouldn’t let me do it without rebooking the reservation at a much higher, new price. I panicked a bit and bought insurance through a 3rd party insurer. When I got to the counter at GVA, it turned out that I could have added insurance at the desk, which may have been a better outcome.
Thun (Day 1)
Drive from GVA to Thun, a town on the eastern end of Lake Thun (on the opposite end of the lake is Interlaken, which is the major town adjacent to the Jungfrau area). Here I must first thank Ms. Hambagahle, a highly informed Switzerland travel expert who responds to posts on Tripadvisor. She recommended an excellent route, which took us on the north side of Lake Geneva, over the mountain pass Col des Mosses, with a stop in Etivaz for cheese, and then on to Thun. Spent the afternoon and evening in the old part of Thun, which has a lovely river with cafes and bars beside it, and we had some expensive hamburgers to placate young Abe. We stayed in the Hotel Schutzen Steffisburg — a clean, modern hotel outside Thun. It was somewhat odd, in that it was in an industrial-commercial suburban area, but it was no fuss and they gave us a good deal on a second room for Abe. My only gripe: puzzling that the hotel doesn’t have AC.
Schynige Platte (Day 2 and 3)
Our next destination: Schynige Platte and the hotel there. Schynige Platte is a small ridge, about about 6500 feet, that is perfectly situated for a view of the mountain trinity of Jungrau, Monch, and Eiger. Kev Reynold convinced me that SP could be that sought-after iconic spot moment that was the primary quest in our time in Switzerland. “No book of walks in the Bernese Oberland would be complete without this one,” Kev writes. “It is, quite simply, one of the classic walks of the Alps, and it doesn’t matter how often you walk it, nor how many others have done so before you, it is always worth tackling.”
We drove along the north side of Lake Thun, stopping only once, at a 12th century lakeside castle, Oberhofen . The castle juts out into the lake, and a nearby dock offered our first amazing view of the Jungfrau. We bypassed Interlaken and arrived early at Wilderswil train station. It was at this point that I discovered that there was a major cultural, totally from left field, event taking place in Interlaken, which may have explained the scarcity of Airbnb and hotel rooms in the area: The Trucker Country Festival, featuring more than 1400 big rigs, plus three days of country music and other festivities (scheduled for June 28-30 in 2019 for those who want to book early). I am a fan of truckers, country, and country songs about truckers. I hummed a Commander Cody trucking song as we drove by 18-wheelers parked in neat diagonal roads in the fair grounds. I had not close encounters with any large Swiss truck drivers suffering from White Line Fever.
We boarded the cog railway that chugs up the mountain to SP. The railroads date to the 19th century and offers great views; downside is the $64 round-trip per person fare. We had reserved two nights at the Hotel Schynige Platte, at the top of SP. This was going to be another two nights on the splurge budget, but it sounded like it would be worth it. Start with a bang, I say.
We spent two glorious days. There’s an alpine botanical garden on SP — it has a huge range of plant species, but has been cultivated naturalistically so as to remain apart of the mountain landscape. Ski loved the place: she is a serious gardener with a particular interest in rock and alpine gardens. The next day we hiked along the ridge leading to Faulhorn, Kev Reynolds’s class walk. It wasn’t supposed to be hard, but it was our first day out, and it turned into a challenging seven-hour day. This one was supposed to be fairly easy, but we:
1) didn’t reach our intended destination
2) required about double the time recommended by guidebooks
3) encountered a few spots that most hikers would traverse with little difficulty, except for those with a pathological fear of heights, such as my wife.
The hotel is old style quant, thoughtfully preserved even though it’s attached to a modern, glassy dining room and tourist center. Demi-pension food was quite good.
Gasterntal (Day 4 and 5)
Returned to Wilderswil on the cog railway, drove a bit along the south side of Lake Thun, then turned into the Kandertal Valley. Not particularly spectacular — our main accomplishment along the way was to drop into asmall big box grocery store, where we bought a pack of the cheapest, generic sliced salami that we could find, and some other supplies. We arrived at the head of the valley in Kandersteg — a tourist town still quiet before peak season — to park at the toll machine controlling access to our next stop, the Gasterntal Valley. Traffic alternates on the one-lane mountain road that enters the valley. I was befuddled by the toll machine and pumped it with far more Swiss francs than was necessary, but we got our tickets. It was quite an impressive mountain road, not so much for the hairpin turns and steep grades, but more for the way that the road had been blasted into the rock. The big scare was more shaving off the mirror and the side of the car, rather than tumbling over the edge, rolling down a cliff and exploding.
I had high hopes for the Gasterntal. Kev Reynolds extolled the place: “a peaceful valley whose walls are streaked with waterfalls and whose meadows are so rich in flowers that it’s sometimes difficult to find the grass.” He was right.
We checked into Hotel Steinbock-Gasterntal. Steinbock is a lovely rustic inn, located deep in the remote Gasterntal valley. A mountain brook flows along one side of the inn’s back lawn, the Kander River is across the tiny road. The same family has run the inn for generations; Ann and Christain Kunzi since 1980. To partly recoup the hotel splurge of our first three night, we had booked dormitory bunks at Steinbock. That proved wise, because crowds had yet to arrive, and we had the dorm to ourselves. We spent the afternoon on a short hike to visit waterfalls cascading down the mountains. Abe enjoyed walking on a balance beam on the Steinbock’s green lawn.
The next day’s expedition took us up the valley toward the Kanderfin glacier. It was another “easy” hike — it took us maybe five hours to go about four miles, with an elevation gain of about 3000 feet. Abe lagged and got grumpy, and eventually Ski reluctantly decided to stop with him, allowing me to continue. We were only about 10 or 15 minutes from the goal, the pass at the top of the valley, and a view of the glacier. I agree with the hikers coming in the opposite direction that urged us on and said the hike was worth it. Apologies to Ski.
Aosta (Day 6)
We renegotiated the one-lane road out of depart Shangri La, and returned to Kandersteg, where we drove onto a very cool car train that took us through the Lötschberg tunnel, knocking several hours off our driving time. We drove a highway paralleling the Rhone, made detour up and down an extremely curvy mountain road to Champex (location of an alpine garden, thumbs up from Ski), bought a basket of expensive but delicious apricots, and continued toward Italy. Eager to arrive in a new country, I piloted the Renault through the Great St. Bernard Tunnel, rather then taking the pass. I regretted the decision at toll-paying time -I would have been happy to do an extra hour or two of hairpinning and downshifting to save the $33. Entered Italy, got a bit lost in Aosta, but found our apartment and connected with our Airbnb host Andrea, a friendly former professional soccer player.
We enjoyed strolling the old city of Aosta, passing the ruins of the old Roman theater, and had pizza for dinner, sitting on the spacious outdoor lawn dining area of the Bataclan restaurant (opened and named prior to the terrorist attack on the Bataclan theater in Paris). The items on the menu were less expensive than in Switzerland; we assumed that meant small portions, so we ordered a vast amount of food. The waiter was shocked, and had to explain to us that we had ordered enough for several families
Pralognan-la-Vanoise (Day 7 and 8)
We followed an excellent route into France, taking a small road that climbed into the mountains past the Italian ski resort of La Thuile, and over a lesser known pass, Col Du Petit Saint-Bernard. At the top we discovered yet another botanical garden, Jardin Botanique Chanousia, named after an abbot from a hospice of the Mauritian Order, just a few hundred yards away from the garden. Snow was still on the ground, and garden was closed. It was lovely traipsing there.
We continued past another promising looking ski resort, La Rosiere, dropped into the next valley, and within a couple of hours had arrived at our primary destination for the entire trip, Parc National de la Vanoise, and our initial HQ, Hotel Les Airelles in the resort town of Parlognan-la-Vanoise. Here Abraham would be able to spend an entire day in a swimming pool, part of a compensation package known as “Abe Appreciation Day.” The deal also included an excellent hamburger in the town. Les Airelles was particular notable for its gracious and hardworking innkeeper, Olivier, who checked us in, served dinner and generally provided a smiling gracious atmosphere from his usual post at the front desk.
While Abe splashed in the small pool, I took advantage of Ski’s generous offer of a parental furlough, and O hiked up a trail past the hut Refuge du Rod de la Peche and then to Refuge de Peclet-Polset, a trail that is part of the well known trekking loop, Le Tour des Glaciers de la Vanoise. The trail rises rather gently up the valley toward the high pass. Along the way there’s a working cheese farm, with chevre available and probably beaufort ( the delicious and favored regional cow milk cheese). I sat on a lawn chair at the Peclet-Poset hut while some teenagers had a snowball fight. A five-mile walk with a 2000 ft elevation gain.
Col de Vanoise (Day 9)
We left Pralognan and set off on a long day of hiking toward the Refuge du Col de de la Vanoise, a hut near the base of La Grande Casse, largest mountain in the Vanoise. On the first leg of the walk, the trail often ran along ski trails and under a chair lift that goes as far as Refuge les Barmettes. We passed Barmettes and press on, and after a long full day of hiking (again vastly exceeding the guidebook estimate) we arrived at the refuge at the Col, a beautifully designed modern hut, with enough room for more than 100 overnighters. We had a great meal at a communal table, and then retreated to our dormitory. In this instance, all the bunks were full. I only wish that my eight or so bunkmates had heeded the advice about bringing ear plugs. I’m afraid I engaged in high volume snoring and allegedly periodic flatulence. Dinner had been a delicious vegetable soup, and unfortunately for my bunkmates, curried pork.
Barmettes (Day 10 and 11)
We began the day with a hike toward the glacier that is perhaps the most famous feature of the Vanoise — it was behind peaks and ridges visible from the hut. We saw many hiking groups of glacier climbers — identifiable because they carried ice axes and ropes. These are the people who actually use all the loops and straps on their Patagonia packs. The three of us set off, having a hard time finding the trail (it’s not clearly marked or signed in any way). Ski and Abe decided to lollygag on a rock rather than to continue up the steepest part of the hike. I pressed on, but after another 45 minutes, with the glacier still not in view, I got nervous about keeping the family waiting and turned back. The rest of the day we walked back down, stopping at the Refuge les Barmettes.
At Barmettes, we had a very nice three-person “dortoir,” really a hotel room, which had a small shower and sink. Glass doors looked out on the hut’s lawn, where there were several dozen bright Coca Cola logo lawn chairs. The hut doubles as a ski chalet in winter — it’s located at the top of the lift we walked under on Day 9. The lift operates on some days during the summer peak season, but fortunately was not going while we were there.
Here the hard working proprietor doesn’t speak English, he and I communicated in broken French. He’s a bit of a stickler, but I appreciated his Gallic professionalism. He runs an excellent dining room, serving large portions of heavy Savoyard cuisine. The first night was a potato/cheese/bacon gratin, the second night a Savoyard lasagna. We spent our next full day at Barmettes walking back up the valley, admiring a gorgeous waterfall at the head of the valley, and ascending again on a mountain shoulder branching off from the main trail. It was lovely to relax and take in the ineffable alpine beauty for one last time.
Annecy (Day 12 and 13)
We walked back down to the car, and stopped to do some shopping at the Pralognan farmer’s market. We bought an enormous wedge of Beaufort cheese — eating it became one of the major themes of the remainder of the trip, and actually continued on into our refrigerator after our return to Yonkers. Then we headed for our last stop, Annecy. We tried a modified scenic route, going over the Col Des Aravis. Somewhere on the pass we pulled off the road, walked into a field, and spent some time lying against a rock. We took pictures to remind ourselves of what it looks like to be happy in an idyllic place.
Continued the drive to Annecy. We arrived a bit early, so we drove along Lake Annecy a bit. Vacation houses clustered along the lake, still not crowded. A big nice lake. Fell a bit short of expectations. We headed for our Airbnb. Parking in downtown Annecy is tough, as our host Mathieu had warned, particularly because the apartment was on a pedestrian-only street. However, Mathieu brilliantly sent me to Park Les Romains, a large outdoor lot about a 10 minute walk from the apartment. It happened to be closed that day until 9 p.m. because a market is held there on Tuesdays, but it was a marvelous find for the rest of our stay. Unfortunately, he told me that the free parking ends in September.
Annecy is a quaint, cheerful French town with a large old city and lively pedestrian streets. Parts of the medieval quarter are along canals lined with busy cafes. We walked and ate gelato. One our full Annecy day, we indulged in a final splurge with lunch at highly rated Une Autre Histoire. My desert was a “tasting” desert with 6 or 7 little cups of fruity, creamy and chocolaty sweet things. I’m not a desert person generally, but this was the culinary peak of the trip for me.
While we were there, it finally occurred to me why I had always wanted to go to Annecy. I had a hunch it had something to do with an Eric Rhomer film I had seen maybe 40 years ago. And it did — I finally figured out it was Claire’s Knee.
Annecy to Geneva
We drove to Geneva fast as planned, arrived in time for our early morning flight. It was a bit complex navigating back to the French sector of the airport, and burdensome to drag the bags from sector to sector Still filled with fresh mountain air, sunshine and Beaufort, we got on the plane.
Next year: Back to the Alps.