Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.
Thoughts of exploring either of these mountain chains have been scotched by myself for various reasons until now. Life circumstances were among these and I also felt that I had plenty to keep me going in Britain and Ireland. Usual haunts will not be abandoned but my horizons are broadening after a recent life event and I am starting to look further afield. For now, this is more from the standpoint of curiosity than anything else but who knows what can become of such inquiries in time?
Of course, there are plenty of other mountain chains to be found on the European peninsula but the scale of both the Alps and the Pyrenees probably leaves more than enough exploration for anyone. Given that the latter extends over 490 km while the former forms an arc of around 1200 km in length, it can be hard to know where to start at all.
The aforementioned dimensions should put anyone in their place so it is best to tame ambitions and be satisfied with a sample if only a few visits are possible. One person who was going to take on the immense Via d'Alpina over the course of a year was thwarted when the enormity of what she was attempting hit home. In the end, she sensibly stuck with exploring one end of the Alps. For any first timer, I reckon that could be how it needs to be and I cannot recall how much exploring of the Alps this person had been doing anyway.
That enormity that has me wondering where one might get started on any of these and it really hit me while sat on the floor with my back against a bookcase in the Manchester Deansgate branch of Waterstones book store when perusing walking guidebooks for Alpine mountain ranges. Since then, various inroads have been made, all the while thinking back to those first excursions around Scotland.
There was a time when I hardly knew Britain so that seems opportune to ask how I got to know the place. Being based in locations like Edinburgh, Skipton and Macclesfield certainly helped because I was in the vicinity of many attractions. That made an iterative approach using guidebooks and the web work and it allowed knowledge to build over time. What hit me when I looked towards continental Europe was how much I was trying to do at once.
The temptation is to do an overview and then drill down from there. First surveys of the web revealed a number of websites where those first details could be acquired and here is a table with a summary:
|World Travel Guide||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y|
Every "Y" above is a link taking you to an article or a section on any of the listed web portals. They do have a use when working why the existence of places like Slovenia had not lodged in my memory but you do have to watch that you do not get too much generality at once. That partly was the cause of my conundrum.
Of course, these are just bare introductions and anyone need to take things further before a visit. Practicalities like travel and accommodation need sorting as well as things to see and do. Those take a little more country by country investigation and what follows is a section for each country since France hosts both mountain chains. Andorra and Spain are the other countries have shares of the Pyrenees while the Alps extend east from France with Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy and the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia all having Alpine ranges of their own. In between Austria and Switzerland, we also have the Principality of Lichtenstein with its own Alpine scenery.
Another upshot of facing destinations in nine countries at once is that there can be a lot of books that need consulting. Of course, a library can be consulted to save on the financial outlay but looking through books takes time too so here are a few ideas that I have found helpful so far.
Initially, I considered that overviews would be of use and, since walking through mountain landscapes is my interest, I began with Walking in the Alps by Kev Reynolds and that was followed by a title from Cicerone's World Mountain Ranges series called The Swiss Alps, again by Kev Reynolds, that finally guided me towards Switzerland with its good transport system and its well signed paths. In so doing, I no longer was floating over central Europe but had landed somewhere, albeit in a virtual sense.
What had caused that was perceiving the prospect of paths and tracks allowing a range of abilities to explore an area. That is attractive because it means that an independent walker can make their own choices and use their discretion regarding a walking route. After all, many a guidebook extols the virtue of high mountain routes so its good to see more accessible possibilities shared too. There are different grades of walk and it is too easy to be blind-sided by the exceptional that would reach greater heights and to miss what is lower down that would be just as pleasant.
With Switzerland somewhat opened up, it was France that followed suit. While at secondary school, there were two weeks spent around Saint Malo on school language trip but the Alps are at the other end of France so it was handy that some chapters of the Rough Guide to France are revealing too and there are ones on the Pyrenees as well as the Alps and Franche-Comté. Both are available in the imprint's Snapshots series too, which is an added bonus because you can have them as Kindle editions for a reasonable price. What general guidebooks like these do is identify what locations can be used as a base for further explorations. This is what Kev Reynolds and others calls centrist in that you find a base where you stay for a while and see what is around it. There also is travelling around and that is called ex-centrist in the same circles. To me, the first approach sounds more sensible for now.
So far, my inquiries have led me beyond starting points that I have uncovered and I plan to add to my knowledge over time rather than all at once. That means finding somewhere to start and it looks as if I have found that now. Next steps will involve going a little deeper and I am happy to wait for a possible plan to come together.
Andorra is a small principality among the Pyrenees surrounded by France and Spain. Its location should grant it some pleasing scenery and the country's official visitor portal has an unsurprising name, Visit Andorra. It was when I first went looking that I came to realise just how year round hill walking is in Britain. In Andorra, it is a summertime activity with skiing dominating the winter season. Shopping is a year activity and there are concerns about a resulting ongoing building boom so I hope sense prevails before it is too late. Getting there means travelling to a nearby airport or train station in either France or Spain and using the services of AndorraDirectBus or Grup Montmantell to get the rest of the way. Air Andorra and Andorra Airlines have been planning to operate flights with connections into the principality but there is little sign of bookings being taken on either website so using another operator might be wiser.
Given that it is a German speaking nation, I have been left wondering why Austria was left out of the 1870 German reunification overseen by Prussia. Apparently, it would appear that Prussia wished to dominate the new German state so Austria was kept out of it since the Hapsburgs who ruled the place at the time once also ruled over all Germany as part of the Holy Roman Empire. In that light, it looks as if Prussia wanted no competition in the newly unified Germany and even Bavaria was put under its subjugation.
With its isolation from other German states, Austria turned its attention to its dual monarchy with Hungary and the Balkan peninsula, setting it off on a road that would lead everyone to World War I. That was not the end of turbulence in the twentieth century for reparations were needed after that conflagration and it lost its territories in Eastern Europe too. Both of those meant an economy under pressure and the political mood darkened like it did in Germany too. Fascists were to come to prominence and the Nazi annexation of the Anschluss had its Austrian supporters too. It was the only occasion in modern times that a Greater Germany (albeit not the Austria-dominated on that the Habsburgs would have had in mind) can into being and it was not to be a happy one for many.
After Word War II, Austria regained its independence though it took until 1955 for the country to gain full sovereignty with the condition of military neutrality that precludes full membership of NATO even today. The Nazi was recalled in its own way by The Sound of Music and that film was made in much happier times than the period in which it was set. Politically, the country has been very stable since the war with consensual politics brought about by the use of a proportionately representative voting systems though that consensus is fraying at the edges a little in recent years.
Its relative political stability makes going to Austria to savour its urban and rural landscapes less daunting. That the former includes heritage from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire makes it espcially alluring. For instance, both Vienna and Salzburg still retain grand buildings from this era and that is what makes them such outstanding cities to visit.
As stunning as these city destinations may be, it is the Austrian Alps that ensure the country's inclusion here and the official national visitor portal Austria, Arrive and Revive makes a good place to start. Then, there are regional counterparts to this too. Vienna has been mentioned already and other regions include the easternmost Burgenland, Carinthia in the south, Upper Austria, Salzburgerland, Styria, the illustrious Tirol and East Tirol together with the westernmost Vorarlberg.
Each region then has its own delectable areas. For instance, Carinthia has Grossglockner Heiligenblut, Donau Niederösterreich and Lower Austria. The first of these features the famous Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse (or High Alpen Road), a privatley owned toll road that is open for part of the year. Salzburgerland has more than the city of Salzburg and Grossglockner Zellersee is another of its delights. In Upper Austria, there is Pyhrn-Priel, Salzkammergut and Danube Upper Austria.
A feature in Country Walking highlighted the attractions of Zillertal in the Tirol for walkers so this piqued my interest in the area and a visit featured as part of my first ever trip to the Tirol along with wanderings about Innsbruck that took in the Nordkette rather than others like Patscherkofel so there is more to sample there yet. This became my first taste of the Austrian Alps and cable car travel, which unnerved me and having one on the Penkenbahn coming to a complete if momentary halt on the way down did not help matters. Nevertheless, I still could steel myself for future cable car excursions and I now know why so many movie fight scenes are staged in them to elicit more in the way of suspense. As it happened, Mayrhofen in the Zillertal was quiet when I visited on a day trip from Innsbruck and I wonder if the timing had anything to do with it for it was on a Sunday and rain rather than sunshine was what the forecast offered.
There are a myriad of other delights in the Tirol that my short stay meant that I did not get to savour. It sort of pained me that I did not have more time for valleys like Stubaital and Ötztal were tempting. Setting aside a week for a first visit now sounds the more sensible option. As if to prove that you have to visit somewhere to learn more about what it has to offer, a few of these only became known while I was there. Achensee is a case in point and there is a delightful steam railway that gets you there from Jenbach while the Karwendel Bergbahn gives a leg up to those who fancy walking among lofty heights. Since then, I have spotted an article in Active Traveller about Wilder Kaiser so that gets added to the list and there could be more to follow.
Austria appears to offer a variety of options when it comes to places to overnight. Looking through this list of websites could give you a steer so long as things do not appear overwhelming: Tiscover, Austrian Hotel Reservation, Hotel DE, Camping, Almhütten, Farm Holidays, Kinderhotels, Bio Hotels, Wanderhotels and Wanderdörfer. The first three on the list cover the more conventional hotel offerings and last three offer a variation on that theme that allows guest to feel that bit closer to nature. In between, you get camping, mountain huts, farmhouse accommodation and even specifically child-friendly places to stay.
Unless rail or sea travel is an option, getting to Austria from afar is sure to involve air travel. Though now owned by Lufthansa, Austrian is the national flag carrier with a hub at Vienna airport. Since it is not the only airline serving Austria, Skyscanner remains worth a check. There are other airports at Salzburg and Innsbruck, with the latter getting more international flights during the skiing season. If Tirol's capital were served year round like this, it would be very useful for alpine walking trips.
For getting to Tirol, Munich's airport makes a good place to arrive before continuing by rail and that is what I did on my first trip there. A combination of DB's S-Bahn together with the EuroCity rail network shared with ÖBB works well with a single change at München Ost train station. All in all, the journey takes just over two hours if you go via Kufstein.
Though ÖBB have a good rail network with high speed RailJet services, it still takes over four hours to get to Vienna so it feels as if you are going well east only to come west again if you go to Innsbruck via Austria's capital city. If you do go and visit Vienna and there are plenty of reasons to do so, its City Airport Train is operated by ÖBB and Wiener Linien is the main operator of public transport services in the city if you fancy spending longer there.
Like their Swiss counterparts, ÖBB Postbus operates bus services that extend the reach of the company's transport services and complement the rail network to increase service frequency and the number of destinations that are served too. Along with regional trains, they also form part of Tirol's VVT network.
Many if not all of Austria's regions feature some form of mountainous country and large lakes like Lake Neusiedler make up for the fact that this is a landlocked country. For an example one in mountain country, there is another near Zell am See Kaprun and its location takes my fancy.
There also are a number of National Parks and the Hohe Tauern National Park is one that gets much attention. After all, there are a number of websites with one dating from 2012, a later one that comes under the auspices of Salburgerland and another again that comes under the umbrella of the Carinthia region. If this were not enough, the National Park also is shared with Tirol too. Its highlights are Austria's country top, the 3798 metre high Grossglockner, as well as the Grossglockner High Alpine Road. The latter only is open during daytime hours from May to October or early November because it reaches around 2400 metres in altitude so it is dramatically affected by winter weather. Even, the route followed was used for centuries before the road was built and Kaiser Franz-Joseph made his way here and the first ascents of Grossglockner itself involved senior Austrian clergy.
Of course, there are other National Parks too. Some like Gesäuse National Park in Styria, Kalkalpen National Park in Upper Austria or Nockberge Biosphere Park in Carinthia are mountainous so Alpine scenery is a major attraction. As if to prove that there is more to Austria than the Alps, others are very different. For instance, Donau-Auen National Park conserves wetlands around the River Danube. Conservation especially remains the theme with the Thayatal National Park and it is a re-wilded valley that is being managed here and one with a resident wildcat population too. Neusidler See Seewinkel National Park is very different again and it has a partner on the Hungarian side of the border with Austria. Neusidler See is a large inland lake with smaller salt lakes, meadow and pasture land round about it and conserving all of these led to the creation of the National Park over twenty years ago.
In similar countryside in the U.K., explorations on foot arouse my interest and it is the same with Austria so the ÖAV, Alpenvereinaktiv and AACUK websites of the Austrian Alpine Club or Alpenveiren Österreich are of interest too. Austria has a good reputation for waymarked trails and its longer distance trails include the 320 km Eagle Walk around Tirol, the 1200 km Arnoweg, the 350 km Salzburger Almenweg and the 100 km Stubai High Trail. More of these may be found on on-tour.at with bergfex.com adding to that offer. For those seeking the top of Grossglockner, then are mountain guides based in Heiligenblut whose services may be retained.
It may have much in the way of mountainous terrain but there also appears to a lot for the recreational cyclist in Austria too. For route ideas, you can look through Radtouren and specific examples that I have seen include Danube Cycling Path, Lake Constance Cycle Path and Salzburger Almen-Tour. The last of these appears to be a higher level mountain bike tour while the others are gentler affairs. For those not wanting to bring their own bikes, Intersport is a pervasive chain offering bike rental.
France is not limited to the two mountain ranges that inspired me to create this article since there is at least the Massif Central and the Jura. Also, there are plenty of walking and cycling destinations to go with the country's share of both the Pyrenees and the Alps, with Corsica being among them. However, it is two of France's frontiers that interest with the Spanish and Andorran one being lined by the Pyrenees while the Alps form part of the borders with Italy and Switzerland.
In its early days, it was the former of these that offered devilishly unmetalled and cobbled roads to be used as part of the Tour de France and mountain stages still add to the challenge of the world famous cycle race today. Since those formative times, roads have been surfaced with tarmac and Alpine stages have been included. Maybe it is little wonder then that the race is one of the world's most celebrated sporting events.
France's official national visitor website gets the charming name of Rendez Vous en France and it is complemented by France This Way, which goes about its task in a somewhat more accessible way, and About France. Remaining on the multi-region track, there also is Les Plus Beaux Villages de France and this highlights special villages across the country. The French are very proud of their own language yet each of these websites has an English version and that is where the links all lead. Maybe the need for an international audience is what has brought about this multilingual approach.
Many local visitor information websites have English language versions too. The translations may be incomplete or imperfect in places but credit has to be given for whatever efforts are made, and the use of Google's translation engine is better than nothing. There remain some websites with only a version in France's official language so a knowledge of French and/or use of a translation tool may be needed. If anything, these may help with your getting to know the local language anyway.
Like many other countries, France is further divided into regions and those regions get divided up into departments like others would have counties. For the Alps, there are two regions where they can be found: Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. The visitor website for the former intriguingly takes the form of a search engine, which is something that I have not seen done anywhere else. Of course, that does mean that you cannot just browse what the region has to offer and there are departmental websites that compensate for that anyway with Savoie & Haute-Savoie and Isére being the ones that you need.. There is a visitor portal for the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region that takes a much more conventional course and contains all sorts of useful information though it may be an independent effort rather than something sponsored by officialdom. Those for Hautes-Alpes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence differ in this regard and so are well worth a look too.
It appears that the departments of Savoie & Haute-Savoie get the highest mountains for the 4810 metre high Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco as it is known to Italians, some of whom reckoning it should be theirs but that is another story) is found near Chamonix, which has two visitor websites: Chamonix-Mont-Blanc and Chamonix.net. Specific accommodation providers include My French Chalet and Camping de la Mer de Glace. There is a lot of high altitude walking around here with the Tour du Mont Blanc and the Haute Route to Zermatt in Switzerland being among them. That trek itself reaches a high point of 3710 metres above sea level so there is plenty for the adventurous so long as they are prepared. To take on the highest point in France and in Western Europe though, use of a guide has to be recommended and there are other causes to use such services too.
France also has its national parks and there naturally are a few in and around the Alps. There is the Vanoise National Park in Savoie, Parc National des Écrins shared between Isére and Haute-Alps and Parc National du Mercantour, with its Valley of Marvels, in Alpes-Maritimes. The last of these has an entry on Walking World if you fancy reading something about the place in English. Complementing the national parks are two regional nature parks: La Chartreuse (the visitor portal associated with Parc Naturel Regional Chartreuse and it usefully is English too) in Isére, Parc Naturel Régional du Queyras in Haute-Alpes. Strictly speaking, the first of these is not alpine as such but it comes so close that I am leaving it in and lower mountains can offer opportunities when loftier ones will not play ball.
The Alps are not all about spending time mountaineering among high mountains there are accessible lakes too. Savoie and Haute-Savoie alone have three major ones: Lac Annecy, Lac Bourget near Aix-les-Bains and Lac Léman (or Lake Geneva as it is otherwise known). Promotional photos leave one with the impression that they are treated somewhat like seasides, albeit inland and with freshwater lakes instead. The water on Lac Léman can get rather choppy too so the sea analogy may not be as far fetched as it might sound.
Loads of towns get their own visitor websites and many are in English too. Along the French shore of Lac Léman, Évian, Yvoire, Sciez-sur-Léman and Thonon-les-Bains are to be found and only the last of these only has a website in French. Évian is where the mineral water of the same name originates and the French Alps do have a lot of spa springs so they have attracted visitors in the past if not so much today. Around Parc National des Écrins, we find spread across two departments and regions Grenoble, Bourg d'Oisans, La Grave, Briançon, Embrun and Gap. The valley of Serre Chevalier is not far away from Pays des Écrins either and it has winter and summer versions of its website with skiing featuring on the former and hiking on the latter. Both Guillestre and Saint-Veran are near Parc Naturel Régional du Queyras with the first of these having the rare distinction of an English language visitor portal when everywhere else around there appears to like their French.
For air travellers to Rhône-Alpes, Chambéry usefully has its own airport as does Grenoble. However, flights from international destinations are more limited than the likes of Lyon or Geneva so they are worth considering too. It also helps that Mountain Drop-offs, Aerocar and Altibus offer bus connections from many of these to popular destinations in Rhône-Alpes while Deluxe Transfers, Chamonix Valley Transfers and Easybus all operate from Geneva. The Alps in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur probably are best accessed by air travel using Nice as a point of arrival and some of the airports in its neighbouring Alpine region can be of use too.
In recent decades, rail travel has become a valid option for British travellers thanks to the Channel Tunnel rail link to the continent. Therefore, we can look at websites like Snowcarbon, SNCB or Voyages-SNCF for information on getting about in a more environmentally friendly way than going by plane and without need to look at ferry crossings of the English Channel (or La Manche as the French call it) too. Ferries run across Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman) too and CGN that does this between Geneva and its neighbouring French spa towns along the shore of the same lake.
The Alps not only cross borders but some of the component mountain chains even mark out international boundaries. That is even more true of the Pyrenees and it only was a matter of centuries ago when the border between Spain and France was settled by a treaty between what then were two monarchies. Quite what that meant for Andorra is something that I have yet to learn and there is a Spanish enclave completely surrounded by French territory too.
It is not just the mountains that cross lines on a map around here but also regions such as Basque and Catalonia. Folk in the French Basque and Catalan country appear to be more comfortable with the idea of remaining French though the same cannot be said for their Spanish counterparts. Another ethnic aspect to the area's history is Cathar Country, highlighting a former religious sect that was extinguished by the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church. These days it has a tourist train travelling through it to show you a number of its sights.
The Pyrenees also have a maritime influence with the Atlantic at the Basque western end and the Mediterranean at the Catalan eastern end. With this coast to coast aspect to their nature, it should as no surprise that there are long trails between them with the GR10 on the French side and the GR11 on the Spanish one. There is one national park on the French side too as well as two regional nature parks: Parc Naturel Régional Pyrenées Ariégeoises and Parc Naturel Régional Pyrenées Catalanes.
Pyrenean boundary crossing does not stop with international borders for the mountain chain extends across different regions and departments. After all, there are three regions and five departments. Going from west to east, the regions are Acquitane, Midi-Pyrenees and Languedoc-Roussillon and the departments within these are Pyrenées-Atlantiques, Hautes-Pyrenées, Haute-Gauronne, Ariège and Pyrenées-Orientales.
The first of above listed departments is where you find French Basque country and that is reflected in the name of its official visitor website. For a while, places on the coast such as Bayonne, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz and others would have attracted well heeled holiday makers but now are recovering after a slump caused the apparently more glamorous Cote d'Azur. While there was a time when cultural glamour might have glittered for me, that has passed and it is those places nearer to hill and mountain country that get my vote in spite of some not themselves looking the prettiest (Fort William in Scotland comes to mind here). Pau may not be that near but it does have an airport for international travel incursions, with most of these needing a change in Paris and Altiservice conveying any arrivals further afield, and there are towns and villages like Sare, Cambo-les-Bains, Espelette, Gourette (Eaux-Bonnes) and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in Pays Basque that are nearer the Pyrenees than others. La Bastide Clairance is an inland conurbation that is not as near to the Pyrenees as those others.
Moving into the middle of Pyrenees chain, we come to Lourdes. Most come here for religious reasons since apparitions of the Virgin Mary to a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous took place in the late nineteenth century. The number of sick people that visit mean that the local airport apparently is an example to all others when it comes to accessibility. With all the pilgrimage traffic, there probably is less of a focus on folk arriving for mountain walking but I suppose that it always is worth a look. Straying not too far from Lourdes, we come to places in the midst of mountains such as Cauterets, Luz St. Sauveur, Gavarnie, Grand Tourmalet and Val d'Azun, right in the heart of winter sports country. Still in the mid Pyrenees but further to the east is Foix, one of the smallest capitals of a department. Other places within its vicinity include Limoux, Mirepoix,
Along the Mediterranean coast, you will find places like Perpignan, Collioure and Banyuls sur Mer with the likes of Céret, Pardes-Conflent, Villefranche-de-Conflent and Prats de Mollo la Prest found further inland.
It is all too easy to let its turbulent modern history overshadow Germany's scenic charms. Even today, it is seen as a major aggressor in two world wars though a reading of Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 should leave you with a more nuanced impression of its involvement in the first of these. Was there a feeling of injustice after the Treaty of Versailles and did it lead to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party? Regardless of the answer to that question, the period has left painful memories that even the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent reunification have failed to overshadow. It does not help that Nazi symbols appeared during Greek anti-austerity protests following the Great Recession either and they are not the only ones unwilling to let that past be forgotten.
After the travails of the twentieth century, Germany is a place whose history is stabilising so we should be able to savour its attractions. To survey these, you could start with Tourism in Germany since that is the official visitor website. After all, this is a big country with much regional variety on offer.
Bavaria is of particular interest since this where the German portion of the Alps is to be found. That is not all though since a rediscovered leaflet that came inserted in a walking magazine featured non-Alpine areas like Altmühltal Nature Park and Fichtel Mountains too. These are north of Munich and my first visit to Austria saw me making use of its airport and the flatness of the countryside around there struck me so any mountain regions must be quite a distance away from the Bavarian capital. The Alpine ones to the south also are like this with names like Ammergau Alps, Alpenwelt Karwendel, Berchtesgaden National Park, Chiemgau, Chiemsee, Inzell, Lake Chiemsee, Oberaudorf, Ruhpolding and Zugspitze not meaning so much to me until I added to my map collection during that Austrian excursion. It often takes a visit, even a fleeting one, for things to feel that bit more real.
The area is a compact one too since Germany gets a smaller share of the Alps than neighbouring countries like Austria or Switzerland. Even so, the range gives the place gets its country top near Garmisch Partenkirchen in the form of Zugspitze. Then, there are stunningly situated lakes like Alpsee and Chiemsee so Germans should not feel short-changed. That there is a scattering of castles to set off the scenery around these only adds to the allure.
When it comes to practicalities, you do not need a car to get everywhere for Deutsche Bahn (handily, the website also offers train journey planning for most of Europe) run train services throughout the area and their Oberbayernbus network provides bus services as well. Should you decide to base yourself in Munich for a while, MVV will have a use for getting about the city. For accommodation, Explorer Hotels are but one option among many and there are resorts like Garmisch Partenkirchen one owned by Best of the Alps too.
It is the collision of the Italian landmass with the rest of the European peninsula over millions of years that has led to the rise of the Alps in the first place. Italy has its share of these and many ranges are shared with neighbouring countries like France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. Abutting the southern foothills of these are several grand lakes that extend from Piemonte through Lombardia to Trentino. As well as sharing mountains with other countries, Italy also has its own home grown ranges that rejoice under the Dolomites label, with the weird and wonderful shapes that they take after years of formation, uplift and erosion. These extend through Trentino, South Tirol, Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia.
One might think that a line of lofty mountains would fix country borders and limit human migration but you would be wrong in the case of Italy's northern regions. For instance, many places in Valle d'Aosta have a French aspect, having been governed from there in the not too distant past and being overlooked by Mont Blanc anyway. Other areas like South Tirol and Trentino once were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire so German still is heard predominantly in much of these and, taken together with the Austrian Tirol, they are recognised as a cross-border region by the European Union. This largely corresponds to the area covered by the Tirol in former times. The German language incursion does not stop there for there are Walsers from Switzerland in some valleys near Valle d'Aosta and Piemonte's Ossolo valleys too. After that there are indigenous cultures such as Ladin and other languages spoken include Friulian, Venezian and Giulian with two of these suitably being limited to Friuli Venezia Giulia and the middle one being understood also in Veneto. Mussolini's Italianisation, which was most prevalent in South Tirol, clearly was far from being completely successful with some recovery since the end of World War II.
Still, Italian remains the first official language for all of Italy and that is apparent from the initial load of the Italian Tourism website. However, there also are versions for English, French, German and Spanish speakers so there is a wider appeal here and English speakers do not need to resort to the North American portal. Both of these introduce the twenty regions of Italy, five of these being autonomous. There also is a parks portal, with the same language options as the main visitor information website, that contains information about the country's protected landscapes. There are various classes of park such as National Parks, Interregional Parks, Regional Parks, Marine Protected Areas, National Nature Reserves, Regional Nature Reserves and Wetlands with the various lists adding up to a serious number protected landscapes for locals and outsiders to visit and enjoy. It is when you count the number of parks in the Italian Alps that this point really hits you.
Just like Italy's border, these extend west to east and we will start with Valle d'Aosta in the west. This is where you will find Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso (there is an entry on Parks.it as well as a standalone web portal), a former hunting reserve of King Vittorio Emmuel II and King Vittorio Emmuel III. It was the latter who gifted the 2,100 hectares making up the park to the nation in 1920. After its foundation in 1922, the park had mixed fortunes until after word War II but conservation has improved since then, which just as well for the ibex who live there and have gone on to repopulate other parts of the Alps where they had become extinct due to human overexploitation. As it happens, Gran Paradiso, the mountain after which the park is named, is Italy's country top but would not be so but for a failed claim on nearby Mont Blanc. That proximity tells you of the quality of the countryside around here and the early designation of national park status saved it from being a skiing destination too. Thus, organisations like Consorzia Gran Paradiso Natura get other delights to promote. Nearby, there are places like La Thuile and Cogne from which visits can be based and Aosta is the main town in this alluring region too.
Continuing with the National Parks theme, Piemonte (also known as Piedmont in English) gets one of its own in its Alpine quarters, Parco Nazionale della Val Grande (the park's own website is in Italian alone so you will need its Parks.it entry if you speak either of English, French or German), and there is a Nature Park too in the form of Parco Naturale Alpi Marittime. The first of these suffered abandonment of Alpine farming in the area that has allowed the re-wilding that makes it more alluring to visitors today and it is not so far from the well known Lago Maggiore (more on that later) either. The Nature Park is the Italian counterpart to the French Parc National du Mercantour and both cover the southwestern extremity of the Alpine range, the Maritime Alps. As if these were insufficient, the region also is home to Capo di Ponte, a place noted for its historic rock art from a time in our history predating the development of writing.
Then, there is South Tirol and it comes under both the German name of Südtirol and its Italian counterpart of Alto Adige. It just depends on whether the destination in question is primarily German or Italian speaking. Thus seeing a name like Bolzano and Merano tells you have an Italian speaking destination with Bruneck pointing out a German speaking populace. In German though, Bolzano becomes Bozen and Merano becomes Meran while Bruneck is Brunico in Italian so bilingualism is maintained. Incidentally, the name Alto Adige comes about since the region features the upper reaches of the river Adige.
After working out where he lay with respect to the current border between Italy and Austria, it was Bolzano's South Tirol Archaeology Museum that got to be the home to Ötzi the Iceman. The 5,000 year old mummified remains were discovered by walkers in September 1991. Then, the find was a media sensation and the remains are kept now in a special refrigerated and humidified container with only a small window through which visitors can view them. Apparently, the Iceman may have lived around Vinschgau, or the Venosta Valley as it is known in English. However, Schnalstal, or Val Senales, also stakes its claim to involvement in the story so it certainly appears to be one that is a source of considerable interest for the locals.
Schnalstal also gets a mention on the Merano & Environs website. The area also is called Meraner Land in the original language of the area and there is more here than either that or the spa town of Merano. That it gets promoted under the banner of the Alpine-Mediteranean way of life is a way of telling you what is there to be savoured is at a crossroads between two things that some might consider never to meet each other in Italy. Much of what you will find here lies along the southern and western boundary of the Texelgruppe Nature Park, the largest of South Tirol's regional parks and a mixture of mountains and lakes. Places that fall into this category include Partschins, Rabland & Töll (in Italian, Parcines, Rablà and Tel), Algund, (Lagunda), Naturns (Naturno), Dorf Tirol and Passeiertal; unless stated otherwise, all names in brackets are in Italian. Between Bolzano and Merano then, the Adige valley has places such as Nals, Tisens Prissian, Marling and Lana to explore. Staring not so far away from the last of these, Ultental (Val d'Ultimo) extends southwest towards the Stelvio National Park area with nearby Deutschnonsberg (Alta Val di Non) extending so far south that Bolzano becomes the nearest big town or city when you do far enough. Returning nearer to Merano, there is a plateau overlooking the town that is promoted by the Avelengo, Verano & Merano 2000 (the first two of these are known in German as Hafling and Vören, respectively) website.This also has been called Merano's sun terrace so that is trying to tell you what sort of weather to expect when following any of the walking trails to be found around there in the summer season. The same sort of attraction is said to abound around Schenna (Scenna) too, not so much of a surprise when you look at a map of the area.
There previously mentioned Venosta Valley and South Tirol's regional top Ortler both are in the vicinity of one of the Alps' largest National Parks and it reflects its presence by being bilingually named too: Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio in Italian and Nationalpark Stilfersjoch in German. However, the park also crosses into Lombardia as well as Trentino. For getting information from near and far, the entry on Parks.it possibly is the best place to find out about the place if you are not an Italian speaker since there are English, French or German versions available; the park authority website unfortunately is in Italian alone. The Swiss National Park is its counterpart on that side of the border with Switzerland too.
The Alpine incursions do not stop in east with South Tirol for the Carnic Alps extend into Friuli Venezia Giulia (and to a much lesser extent Veneto) from Austria and the ridge demarcates something of a weather boundary between both sides of the border too. The Giulia portion of the region's name refers to none other than Julius Caesar himself and there is another Alpine range to be found and it too bears his name. The Julian Alps may be better known from a Slovenian point of view, especially since the country top of Triglav is among them, but Italy has its share of these Limestone mountains too.
In 1789, the rock type of which what then were known as the Pale Mounts are composed was identified by French mineralogist Déodat de Dolomieu as a variant of limestone that contains magnesium as well as the more common calcium, carbon and oxygen mixture. It was later on that the newly discovered mineral was named dolomite after him and the mountains composed of it got the same name in the English language. For what it is worth, it is best to realise that Italians call them Dolomiti.
Either way, they stretch across South Tirol, Trentino and Veneto, with several of their number being only an hour from Venice by car. Being an iconic bunch of mountains, it hardly is surprising that they feature on a not inconsiderable number of visitor information websites. To start, there is Visit Dolomites, Dolomiti.it and Consorzio Dolomiti.
To drill down a little further, let us continue with Trentino which has Madonna di Compiglio, Pinzola & Val Rendena, Val di Sole, Val di Fiemme, Val di Fassa, San Martino, Dolomiti Paganella, Parco Naturale Adamello Brenta and Parco Naturale Paneveggio - Pale di San Martino. There are mountain huts allowing multi-day The Dolomiti di Brenta Bike website shows you cycling opportunities for exploring the last of these on a mountain biking tour of the area and Associazione Rifugi Trentino is where the regional mountain hut association tells you what it has on offer.
Moving on to South Tirol gets in Alta Badia, Val Gardena, Alpe di Siusi, Catores and Sterzing. Südtirol Rad lets you in on cycling opportunities throughout the region as does Walking and Hiking in South Tirol for pedestrian exploration with Südtirol Ferien providing information on mountain huts.
In Veneto, you find Provincia di Belluno Dolomiti and Cinque Torri as useful places to start looking for information. Within the aforementioned province you get a national park with an entry on Parks.it and a standalone website of its own too: Parco Nazionale Dolomiti Bellunesi.
Shared between Lombardia, Trentino and Veneto are a number of large and not so large lakes that have gained international star billing in the north of Italy. What gets these included here is the fact that they abut the southern foothills of the Alps and any mountainous backdrops become more pervasive the further north you go. All this means that there are plenty of walking possibilities too so visits to these are not just about lazing around though those options abound for those fancying a spot of relaxation.
Of the lot, it is Lago di Garda that extends into each of the aforementioned regions with the portion that extends into Trentino not far from Rovereto having its own visitor portal as does Malcesine in Provincia di Verona. While there is Isole del Garda on Lago di Garda, Lago Maggiore has its Isole Borromee not far from Stresa so it does better when it comes to alluring islands that possess some exquisite architecture to set off their surroundings. The lake also gets featured on Distretto Turistico dei Laghi along with Lago d'Orta, Lago d'Iseo and Valli d'Ossola. The last of these is no lake but valleys do have their uses for mountain walking and cycling escapes. Lago di Como once was a stop of Grand Tours undertaken by British aristocrats and literati and the scenery surrounding it would explain why. Then, there are towns on its banks like Menaggio with its Belle Epoque heritage, Bellagio with its "Pearl of Lake Como" billing and Varenna with its castle. These only are a few of the many that line these shores since there are plenty more to explore.
To get to any islands on Lago Maggiore or Lago di Garada or to hop from place to place along the shore of any of Italy's northern lakes, ferry travel has it uses. For Lago Maggiore, Lago di Garda and Lago di Como, there is Navigazione Laghi while Navigazione Lago d'Orta and Navigazione Lago d'Iseo each serve the lakes that their names suggest they do. Usefully, the Lago Maggiore Express combines ferry and train travel on land for round robin trips of one of more days in duration around the said lake that takes in part of the canton of Ticino in the south of Switzerland as well. The same Swiss canton also shares Lago di Lugano with Italy and the lake naturally has its own ferry services too.
When coming to the Italian Alpine areas from afar, chances are that you will arriving by plane so knowing where the airports are situated could be handy. Depending on where you are headed, one of Bolzano, Trieste, Orio al Serio, Verona, Corrado Gex, Milano-Linate, Milano-Malpensa, Cuneo, Torino, Venice or Treviso could have its uses. When it comes to train travel, Trenitalia remains the main Italian operator and there is Italo and Ferrovia Vigezzina too. Trentino Trasporti then is multi-modal transport organisation for its part of Italy. Beyond all of these, there are different bus companies serving different areas and the list included Dolomitibus, Cortina Express, Bus Company, ATAP, Savda, SVAP, SAF, Comazzi, ASF Autolinee, ATB, Silbernagl, SAD and Arriva Italia. For the Orio al Serio airport, there is the Orio Shuttle for getting you to and from there.
In a lot of ways, the Principality of Liechtenstein reminds me of how some European countries were governed prior to World War I. Historically, it emerged from the Holy Roman Empire when the House of Liechtenstein acquired it and remains a largely Roman Catholic country even today. Unlike the British monarchy, the Princely House of Liechtenstein is more involved in the government of the principality having got powers to dismiss parliament for warrantable reasons and to govern by decree in emergencies following a referendum of the people in 2003. That all sounds rather autocratic though there also are confidence votes in the prince too so the people of the principal have some leverage on their monarch.
Being sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria does mean that it gets a share of Alpine scenery too. Of course, the official visitor information portal, Liechtenstein Tourism, has its places when sorting out what to see and do as well as where to stay. For those interested in hiking, the Interactive Walking Trails Map comes in very useful with its high resolution mapping once you magnify it sufficiently.
Did your childhood ever bring you across geographic encyclopedias? Mine did and its ones from Hamlyn and Purnell that I encountered. If I was to look at these now, they would bring home to me quite how much Europe has changed since the most recent one was acquired in the middle of the 1980's. An atlas showing the evolution of nations throughout the centuries came from that time too and a few more maps of Europe could be added to that collection in the intervening years to show how things have altered over the last few decades.
A momentous change was started late in 1989 and its effects are felt today too. Events like the fall of the Berlin Wall set in train the extinction of a whole swathe of communist regimes across Eastern Europe. Within years, the U.S.S.R. too was set to fall apart. The tumult produced so many new nation states that I hardly have caught up since the Cold War years that preceded the upheaval.
That may be one of the reasons why Slovenia has never attracted much of my attention. Nevertheless, I have encountered articles in walking magazines that mentioned trips to the country's share of the Julian Alps that it shares with Italy. It is not for nothing that there is an organisation like the Planinska zveza Slovenije (PZS, Alpine Association of Slovenia in English). The organisation originally came into existence in order to avoid non-Slovenian taking all the credit for first ascents of any alpine summits in Slovenia but since has turned to looking after hiking trails and mountain huts. That makes the organisation well placed to offer information on what lies within their national borders.
Slovenia's highest point of Triglav and it too is alpine though it is summitted by everyone from children to grandparents, such is its regard among Slovenians. There also is a tradition of slapping backsides with branches as a celebration of reaching the top that may appear odd to some observers. Even so, the mountain gives its name to the Triglav National Park that conserves the nearby area and has the Soca Valley as a gateway from nearby Bovec. Also near at hand is Lake Bled, a particular favourite of many, so there is a lot to see here.
The aforementioned delights are just a few in a land with yet more pretty towns, castles, château and churches to savour. Also included among these is the country's capital, Ljubljana, which possibly is most outsider's starting point and could be mine too if I get to making a visit. While on the subject of first explorations, the official tourism portal, uniquely called I Feel Slovenia, makes a good place to begin and does not overlook practicalities such as accommodation and travel. Regarding the latter, the country's train service operator makes a good follow on port of call since some of us might want to relax and enjoy the sights as we make the most of a short stay.
Due to a lapse on my part, Spain nearly got left out of this collection and it hosts a share of the Pyrenees as well as a good few other mountain ranges that it has to itself. Some of these are on islands like Tenerife and a list of walking destinations that are better known for other things now includes Gran Canario too. Returning to the Spanish mainland, there are other walking areas like Asturias and Galicia to consider so Spain hardly is short of them. Of course, you always can started uncovering more about these and other destinations on the official national tourism portal and Tour of Spain is another option whose mention I have encountered.
So fare, neither of the latter pair have needed use in anger for planning Spanish incursion since I have yet to visit the country. The same cannot be said of my brother for he passed through the Pyrenees way on an adventurous school trip during the summer of 1979 that visited both it and France. There are stories of bullfights (Pamplona is not so far removed from those northern mountainous fringes) and broken spectacles that hazily remain in my memory though I barely was in primary school in those more analogue times. What does have a greater hold on my recollection are photos of desiccated locations that look somewhat lunar to an lad reared in a mild and wet maritime climate. It all takes me back to an era with regularly broadcasted television advertisements for Harp lager with an Irish expatriate in a hot country longing for Irish rain and we keep complaining about the stuff and wishing for it to go to Spain instead. Ironic.
Along with marking out a national boundary, the Pyrenees also display differing weather patterns depending on which side of them you are. In the main, the French slopes are north facing though there is one Spanish enclave that is an exception and faces in the same direction. Otherwise, the Spanish Pyrenees are south facing so they should catch more of the sun.
Like Italy, it also seems that Spain's northern regions have yearnings for greater autonomy with Basque separatists having resorted to acts of terrorism while Catalonians have stuck to peaceful democratic means. Of these, Catalonia hosts sections of the Pyrenees with Lleida making a base for some of these and Benvinguts making a good place to look for accommodation. There are other Pyrenean parts in Aragon and Navarre, and the latter may have its Basque political tensions but it is nowhere near as much as it is in the Spanish Basque Country, itself with star visitor attractions like San Sebastián and Pamplona.
Unsurprisingly for such mountainous regions, there are national parks to be explored too and these should get you away from any such political tensions. Catalonia has Aigüestortes and Estany de Sant Maurici National Park with its multitude of lakes to be found among its high mountains. There also is a hut to hut walk called Carros de Foc that goes around part of the park too. The other national park for the Pyrenees is Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park and that is to be found in Aragon. At a lofty 3348 metres above sea level, it is little surprise that Monte Perdido finds its way into the name of the park and there are less strenuous hiking options than that heady summit too.
To get to Spain, there always is the flag carrying airline, Iberia, along with a whole host of others that include Air Europa. For Aragon, Zaragoza is the main airport so it has its uses for inbound air travellers to the area's Pyrenean heights. Renfe is the country's rail operator and there are high speed railway lines too so this has to be a port of call for anyone considering a Spanish excursion with a good deal of travel involved. Travel by coach is another possibility with operators including Avanza as well as the Spanish National Express subsidiary ALSA.
For whatever reason, Switzerland always has struck me as a peaceful part of the world but that development is more recent than I had realised, given that religious tensions led to the last civil war there in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, the confederation of cantons remained neutral during both world wars, so saving it a lot of trouble, and ensuring that it is prosperous today with elegant cities, such as Bern and Geneva, to match. However, the high standard of living can make it an expensive place to visit so that is something to bear in mind.
Of course, it is the abundance of Alpine scenery that secures Switzerland's place here. That lakes like Lugano and Maggiore in Ticino in the south accompany the mountainous terrain is an added bonus. Those lakes are shared with Italy much as Lac Léman near Geneva is shared with France. The French theme continues in Geneva continues with sighting of that countries mountains for what now is firmly within Switzerland. On clear days, it is possible to glimpse even Mont Blanc from the place on clear days. Though it is distinguished by having everything within Switzerland itself, Lucerne too has its lake as well as nearby mountain areas around the likes of Pilatus, Rigi, Titlis and Engelberg. Mixing mountain scenery with lakeside vistas produces a combination that pleases the senses and there is plenty to be found.
Zermatt in Valais practically is guaranteed a mention among these because of its proximity to the iconic Matterhorn, first climbed in 1865. As I discovered during a day trip in September 2015, there is more here than even these for even the Italian country top of Monte Rosa is there to be seen among a myriad of other lofty mountains. Also in Valais, there is Nendaz near Sion with its four nearby valleys among its surrounding mountains and it promotes hikes along its Bisses, irrigation channels that have been in place for hundreds of years. Though much softened by greenery and human habitation in places, the effects of glaciation are there to see and active glaciers remain even if climate change is causing their retreat. The Aletsch Arena is home to the biggest of these so you can see how things must have looked during colder periods in the planet's history.
Places in the Jungfrau region like Grindelwald, Wengen, Lauterbrunnen and Mürren all offer a copious range of walking possibilities. With legendary summits like the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau to be seen, there is many a rising for plying these trails and all looks glorious on a sunny day. Elsewhere in Berner Oberland, there is Kandersteg bordering the Jungfrau region and Haslital with its nearby mountains accessible from places like Meringen-Hasliberg. It allows for alternative vantage points for gazing upon the lofty rocky eminences of the Jungfrau region.
The abundance of natural beauty not only draws those like me but it also has led to the creation of a network of parks. The Swiss National Park, near Zernez in Graubünden, was the first one that came to my attention and that shadows the Italian Stelvio National Park found to its south. So far there is a solitary park in Switzerland but there is a proposed Locarnese National Park for conserving the northern shores of Lake Maggiore that may complement it yet. In the meantime, there are a swathe of regional and biosphere parks that are worth exploring.
All of these only can scratch the surface and it really takes an actual visit to more fully get to know anywhere, as I found out during September 2015. Still, the official visitor portal MySwitzerland.com is a comprehensive effort so it makes a worthwhile stop for starting any acquaintance with the country. After all it is a place with restaurants and huts, such as Bussalp near Grindelwald or Fluhalp near Zermatt, in locations and at altitudes that surprise those of us from maritime countries. There is much that is unique to this part of Central Europe that is worth getting to know.
To do that exploring, you need to get there and this is where the Swiss renown for transport efficiency comes into play. For air travel, there is the flag carrying airline, Swiss, along with other numerous other airlines serving the likes of Zurich and Geneva. My 2015 excursion saw me fly from Manchester to the latter with Easyjet so that is a useful option.
When it comes to ground travel, the Switzerland Travel Centre or STC make good ports of call for sorting out rail, bus and boat travel plans together with self-driving excursions like the Grand Tour of Switzerland. Countrywide multi-day travel passes are on sale and I recommend getting one of these in advance since trains fares are far from cheap as I was to discover on my trip. The passes themselves may look somewhat costly but they actually do save you a lot of money when you are there. Efficient transportation can be costly.
In addition to the main train operator (SBB/CFF/FFS, in the main languages of the country) there are other companies serving particular areas, especially those dominated by mountains, with Jungfrau (includes the famed Jungfraujoch) in Bernese Oberland being one notable example. There also is Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, with the Glacier Express that they share with Rhaetian Railway (who also operate the Bernina Express) and their own Gornergrat Bahn at Zermatt. Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn also operate frequent trains between Brig, Visp, Täsch and Zermatt. The famed Glacier Express takes around eight hours to go between Zermatt and St. Moritz of these so the slow pace allows plenty of time to enjoy the scenery around such places as Andermatt. After these, Postbus reaches places not served by trains and regions themselves have multi-modal transport networks such as Ticino's unfortunately abbreviated FART.