Over the hills and far away

Thailand July 02, 2014 00:00


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Travelling through ancient passes in the Alps by rail, bus, bike and on foot

Marcella is optimistic ahead of a five-day expedition on which she will lead a small group of like-minded hikers from Lausanne in Switzerland, southwards along old alpine paths and through steep passes, into Italy.
The special feature of this jaunt to Domodossola on the Italian side of the border: the hikers haven’t got a car.
“Hannibal, the Romans, Napoleon and Goethe made it over without cars. Why shouldn’t we manage it too?” says the member of the permanent secretariat of the Alpine Convention which devotes itself to sustainable uses of the Alps and who prefers to go just by her Christian name.
The Alps today are criss-crossed by superb roads. By car, this trip would amount to almost 600 kilometres. 
“Six million cars travel through the Alps every year. Not even the most robust environment could cope with that,” the energetic Italian says.
By contrast, her alpine tour will make use of public transport, pushbikes and hiking boots.
The trip begins from Lausanne with just a change of clothes in a rucksack, hiking sticks, a smartphone and a credit card. 
Visitors to the ancient university city are issued with a chip card in their hotels, allowing free use of local public transport.
The train takes them to Lake Geneva, where a ferry sails to Evian-les-Bains in France.
With the aim of making the first day relatively easy, Marcella has secured bus tickets to Chatel, and from there transport by mountain bike to Lake Montriond.
The reason for her environmental concern is immediately apparent. The mountain bike trails have ploughed out furrows in the soil and the mountain ridges and slopes, damaging the grass cover. Erosion now threatens the thin top layer of soil.
The next stage on the trip is through Chamonix, where tourists have free travel by rail. Although up to 50,000 people visit the valley every day in the ski season, the rail offer has helped to cut the number of cars on the road.
There are long queues at the cableway taking the small party up to Aiguille du Midi, which offers superb views out over alpine peaks that remain capped with snow right through the summer.
Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, gleams white in the sun in the distance. Here on top of the world, the mountains still look pristine.
The trip by cableway to Courmayeur has to be called off because it is under repair, so Marcella digs out her smartphone and consults the app that proposes an alternative: a bus trip towards the Italy’s Aosta Valley.
The first long hiking trail begins after the bus trip to Cogne, Italy. 
The snowscapes are soon reached, and serpentines along the Giroparco route lead over the 2,827-metre pass at Mont Avic through a snow-bedecked mountain landscape to Lake Misurina and then on to Dondena. 
Splashing streams and grazing goats lend an impression of unpolluted nature. Only the high-voltage masts running through the Aosta Valley disrupt that impression.
The next day the group heads off on a six-hour hike over one of the most famous passages in the western Alps, the St Bernhard Pass.
The route runs for part of the way along the Via Alpina, a route that starts at 1,600 metres above sea level and rises to 2,469 metres. Several short bus rides are then needed to complete the next stage to Ulrichen, Switzerland.
Swiss Rail, which runs the bus routes, has the departure and arrival times well coordinated, so there are no long waits.
Ulrichen in Valais Canton has 200 German-speaking residents. Like so many picture-postcard Alpine villages, it seems sleepy, but is sparkling clean and well kept. The local cuisine and beer are excellent.
The last day is by minibus leading down to the start of an ancient mule track, used for centuries by merchants to cross the Alps with their wares. This goes to Lake Gries and on to the 2,479-metre Gries Pass, behind which lies the Italian frontier once more.
In summer, the way is covered with snow and puddles. Unwary hikers often get wet boots as they gaze out over the magnificent panoramas in the alpine mist lifting in the early morning.
The bus takes the party down to the end point of the tour in Domodossola, an Italian town of 18,000 inhabitants with many good restaurants in its historic centre.
Five days by train, bus, bike and on foot have demonstrated that an alpine tour is well possible without a car, and that without personal transport, the expedition is more eventful, healthier and more relaxing.