Travel Jottings

My wanderings are urban as well as rural, and several have taken me overseas around Europe and to North America. All have needed at least some planning: knowing what to see and where to stay remain ever present needs. That and remaining ever open to new possibilities have contributed to what you find here. Everything builds up over time, and I hope that the horizons continue expanding to mean that I can continue to share new things with you here.

Mountains that Cross Borders: The Pyrenees & The Alps

Logarska Valley, Slovenia

For a long time, thoughts of exploring either of these mountain chains got dismissed for various reasons. 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 broadened after a life event and I started to look further afield, so one trip each to Switzerland and Austria came to fruition. They only scratched the surface, so more visits are due when circumstances allow.

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 difficult 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.

Making a Start

That enormity 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 near 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:

Website Andorra Austria France Germany Italy Lichtenstein Slovenia Spain Switzerland
Wikipedia Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Wikitravel Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
World Travel Guide Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Lonely Planet Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Rough Guides N Y Y Y Y N Y Y Y
BBC News 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 partially was the cause of my conundrum.

Of course, these are just bare introductions and anyone needing 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 that 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.

Searching for Good Books

Another upshot of facing destinations in nine countries at once is that there can be countless 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 the late Kev Reynolds, that finally guided me towards Switzerland with its good transport system and its well-signed paths. In so doing, I was not floating over Central Europe any more but had landed somewhere, albeit in a virtual sense.

The cause of 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 independent walkers 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 it's good to see more accessible possibilities shared too. There are different grades of walking, 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 a 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 call 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 enquiries 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. Any 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 hillwalking is in Britain. In Andorra, it is a summer activity, with skiing dominating winter. 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.


Dienten, Hochkonig, Salzburg, Austria

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 Habsburgs 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, as 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 one that the Habsburgs would have had in mind) can into being, and it was not to be a happy one for many.

After World 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 using a proportionately representative voting system, though that consensus is fraying at the edges a little lately.

First Places to Look, and a First Incursion

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 especially 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 Holidays in Austria 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, SalzburgerlandStyria, 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 Alpine Road), a privately owned toll road that is open for part of the year. Salzburgerland has more than the city of Salzburg, with Hochkönig together with the villages of Bruck and Fusch being among its other 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 so many other delights in the Tirol that longer stays are needed to do any justice to the area. My own encounter was a short one, and it pained me that I did not have more time because valleys like Stubaital and Ötztal were tempting. After those, there are places in the east like Alpbachtal, Kitzbühel along with the nearby Kitzbüheler Alpen, and Wildschönau. In the west, there is St. Anton am Arlberg with the Tiroler Zupspitz Arena in the north (strangely, there is another website with the same name covering the same area, so some get very enthusiastic about this place). Each of these probably needs a few days of exploration in their own right, so it is easy how even setting aside a week for a first visit only scratches the surface of what is to be found in this part of Austria.

Then, there are always things that you find when you actually spend time somewhere. 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. Of course, exploration does not stop when you leave either, and I have read an article in Active Traveller about Wilder Kaiser so that gets added to the list and there could be more to follow. It is easy to see how return visits could happen again and again.

Places to Stay

Austria appears to offer various 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, CampingAlmhütten, Farm Holidays, Kinderhotels, Bio Hotels, Wanderhotels and Wanderdörfer. The first three on the list cover the more conventional hotel offerings, and the last three offer a variation on that theme that allows guests 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. Alternatively, you can make use of transfer services by road offered by the likes of Four Seasons Travel, and they will get you directly to places like Kitzbühel.

Though ÖBB has 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.

Special Places

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 of 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 Salzburgerland and another again that comes under the umbrella of the Carinthia region. If this were not enough, the National Park is shared with Tirol too. Its highlights are Austria's country top, the 3798-metre high Grossglockner. The latter is open only 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 so, the underlying route was used for centuries before the road was built and Kaiser Franz-Joseph made his way here and the first ascents of the 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 rewilded 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 within 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 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. As if that were not enough, there is more to be found on with, so there may be a lifetime's multi-day trekking to be enjoyed. For those seeking the top of the Grossglockner or other mountains in the Alps, 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 be 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 of sports and outdoor pursuits equipment shops 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 name Explore 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.

French Alps

Les Sybelles & Aiguilles D'Arves, Savoie, Rhône-Alpes, France

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: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. 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 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, the 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, since 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 rather like seaside resorts, 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 plenty 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 SNCF for information on getting about in a more environmentally friendly way than going by plane and without needing 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 does this between Geneva and its neighbouring French spa towns along the shore of the same lake.

French Pyrenees

Vallée d'Aspe, Lescun, Pyrenées-Atlantiques, France

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 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 areas appear to be more comfortable with the idea of remaining French, though the same cannot be said for their Spanish counterparts. Another ethnic aspect of 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 as the mountain chain extends across different departments, though there is now a single region made from three predecessors: Occitanie. In all, there are five departments and these are Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Hautes-Pyrénées, Haute-Garonne, Ariège and Pyrénées-Orientales.

The first of the above-listed departments is where you find the French Basque Country, and that is reflected in the name of its official visitor website. For a while, places on the coast such as BayonneSaint-Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz and others would have attracted well-heeled holidaymakers but now are recovering after a slump caused by the apparently more glamorous Côte 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 gets my vote despite 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 the 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 who visit means 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 is always 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 and Mirepoix while along the Mediterranean coast, you will find places like Perpignan, Collioure and Banyuls sur Mer with the likes of CéretPrades-ConflentVillefranche-de-Conflent and Prats de Mollo la Prest found further inland with at least one of these getting a mention on the Conflent Canigo tourism website.


Lake Alpsee and Hohenschwangau Castle, Neuschwanstein, Bavaria, Germany

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 is 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 compact, too, since Germany gets a smaller share of the Alps than neighbouring countries like Austria or Switzerland. Even so, the range gives the place 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. If you decide to base yourself in Munich for a while, MVV will have a use for getting around 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.


Sexten Dolomites, South Tyrol, Italy

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 the German language 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 park classifications 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 of 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.

More about the Alpine Borderlands

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 as well as a standalone web portal), a former hunting reserve of King Vittorio Emanuele II and King Vittorio Emanuele 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 World 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. 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 entry if you speak either of English, French or German), and there is a Nature Park too in the form of Parco Naturale Alpi Maritime. The first of these suffered the 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 south-western 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 that 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 relative 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-Mediterranean 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 south-west 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 go 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 summer. 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.

The previously mentioned Venosta Valley and South Tirol's regional top Ortler both are near 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 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; though it links to other subsidiary websites with English versions, the park authority home page 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 the 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 was 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 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 to offer.

Moving on to South Tirol gets in Alta Badia, Val Gardena, Alpe di Siusi, Catores and SterzingSüdtirol 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 and a standalone website of its own too: Parco Nazionale Dolomiti Bellunesi.

Some Lakes near the Alps

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 on 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 Époque 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 Garda or to hop from place to place along the shore of Italy's northern lakes, ferry travel has its 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 or 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.

More on Transport

When coming to the Italian Alpine areas from afar, chances are that you will be 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 a 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 many ways, the Principality of Liechtenstein reminds me of how some European countries were governed before 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.


Lake Bled, Slovenia

Did your childhood ever bring you across geographic encyclopaedias? Mine did, and it was ones from Hamlyn and Purnell that I encountered. If I were 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 to avoid non-Slovenians taking all the credit for first ascents of any alpine summits in Slovenia, but since has turned to the maintenance of 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 ascended 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 outsiders' starting point and could be mine too if I get around 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 calling point since some of us might want to relax and enjoy the sights, even as we make the most of a short stay.


Eastern Pyrenees, Catalonia, Spain

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 Canaria too. Returning to the Spanish mainland, there are other walking areas like Asturias and Galicia to consider, so Spain is hardly short of them. Of course, you always can start uncovering more about these and other destinations on the official national tourism portal, and the Tour of Spain is another option whose mention I have encountered.

So far, neither of the latter pair have needed to be used in anger for planning a Spanish incursion, since I have yet to visit the mainland. 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 was barely in primary school in those more analogue times. Something that does have a greater hold on my recollection are photos of desiccated locations that look rather lunar to a 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 possibly acting as a base for visiting some of these. There are other Pyrenean parts in Aragon and Navarre, and the latter may have its Basque political tensions, but this 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 is also 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 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.


Matterhorn & Stellisee, Zermatt, Valais, Switzerland

For whatever reason, Switzerland always 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 the sighting of that country's 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 also has its lakes 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 Meiringen-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 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 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 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 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 makes a good port 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 train fares are far from cheap, as I was to discover on my trip. The passes themselves may look rather 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 the 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 operates frequent trains between Brig, Visp, Täsch and Zermatt. The famed Glacier Express takes around eight hours to go between Zermatt and St. Moritz, 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.