Wednesday 24 April 2019

Switzerland: Done the Camino? Try the stunning Via Alpina

Katy Harrington embarks on a solo adventure across a section of the Via Alpina

The climb to Kleine Scheidegg over undulating meadows is gentle, the rock and ice scenery of the North Face of the Eiger close and awe-inspiring
The climb to Kleine Scheidegg over undulating meadows is gentle, the rock and ice scenery of the North Face of the Eiger close and awe-inspiring
Gletscherschlucht Rosenlaui

Katy Harrington

I stand out like a sore thumb at Zurich Airport amid the bankers in sharp suits and the 'smart-cas' weekend travellers.

As they glide their pristine wheelie suitcases towards the exit, I haul my battered rucksack towards the platform to catch a double-decker train to take me (some of the way) towards the first stop of my trip.

Luckily, where I'm going no one's going to care what I look like.

The train journeys upwards past shining lakes and verdant mountains - a patchwork of green - until we reach the Bernese Oberland resort of Meiringen, where Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes faked his death and meringues were born.

It's late afternoon by the time I arrive and there's not much to do so I dump my bags in the Alpin Sherpa Hotel and head out to get some food, alone.

When I told people I was planning to walk/hike across a section of the famous Via Alpina route (which crosses 14 of the most scenic Alpine passes) in Switzerland by myself, most people looked at me like I was crazy.

That night as I ate my dinner in a small restaurant opposite the railway station I wondered if they were right.

The first leg of my journey from Meiringen to Grindelwald is one of the longest of the trek but I woke feeling fresh and ready for the challenge.

What I wasn't ready for is how resplendent and immaculate the Swiss scenery is - even the mountains look manicured: has someone been up there with a lawnmower, or maybe even nail scissors?

Day one involves about eight hours of walking. I leave Meiringen in the direction of the Reichenbach Falls (a beautiful cascade of seven waterfalls) and head upwards via Rosenlaui (stopping at the Rosenlaui Glacier Gorge on the way) to the Grosse Scheidegg pass.

The gentle descent at the foot of the Wetterhorn leads to Grindelwald, the stage destination in the heart of the Jungfrau region.

After only a few hours into walking on my own, a few of my major worries were allayed.

First of all - I'm not completely alone all the time. On the lower stretches in particular there are other humans (some who will serve you coffee) and plenty of cows swishing their tails as the bells around their neck jangle.

Secondly, for the first time in my life I've packed right (adhering to the 'onion principle' of wearing lots of light layers). This is essential because one minute in the Alps you are sweating like a pig in blinding sunshine, the next you are being attacked by hailstones.

But the biggest achievement of the first day is not getting lost. At home I couldn't find my way out of a paper bag, but my route here is so well marked I soon stop fretting about dying in a ravine and start enjoying the spectacular views instead.

Day two's trek takes me from Grindelwald to Wengen, a moderate hike that takes just under seven hours. The climb to Kleine Scheidegg over undulating meadows is gentle, the rock and ice scenery of the North Face of the Eiger close and awe-inspiring.

I feel more confident and relaxed, listening to podcasts on the longer stretches (Atlanta Monster for a grisly true crime fix, Esther Perel's Where Should We Begin? for some deep human psychology and Athletico Mince for laughs).

At times I have to stop and stare (and catch my breath) at the mountains around me - snow-capped peaks like fresh cream dished out with a serving spoon, and rocky pinpoints so sharp they look like the results of a polygraph test against the sky.

After a sunny high-level trail, I arrive at my end destination, the charming car-free village of Wengen at the foot of the Jungfrau: altitude 1,274m. It's here I stay at my favourite hotel, the Hotel Belvedere, a quirky art nouveau building that Wes Anderson could have dreamt up.

One of the best decisions I made on the trip was to take the cable car from the village to the summit of Mannlichen. It's a 10-minute journey and for a few quid extra you can have the 'balcony experience', i.e. standing out on the roof of the cable car as you ascend the very lofty heights and arrive at the most amazing panoramic views I've ever seen.

By the time I make it back to the hotel I am so tired I think about skipping dinner and just going straight to bed but I decide if I've stood on the top of a cable car travelling to 2,343m I can brave dinner alone.

I find an Italian restaurant in the centre of the town and order a bowl of pasta and a large glass of red. While I wait for my food to arrive, I eavesdrop on an American couple at the table next to me. They squabble about money, the next day's itinerary, what to order and then (because he ordered something small and then wanted to eat half her dinner) they have a full blown fight at the table.

I gobble my food, leave a tip and head back to my Wes Anderson dream and fall asleep within 30 seconds of my head hitting the pillow. When I wake up at 6am, I step out on to the balcony and take in the view around me. I'm not just happy to be where I am, I'm happy to be alone.

Two things to note: one, when you walk the Via Alpina you can arrange to leave your overnight bag in the hotel every morning and as if by magic it will appear in your next hotel by the time you arrive after your hike - weary and in need of deodorant and a change of clothes.

Secondly, if you don't feel up to hiking all day, every day, you can usually take a train or bus from your staring point to save your legs a little - but just remember once you get out into the wilds, there's only one way to the next stop and that's on foot.

On my last day I have the option to take the train and save about 3.5 hours of hiking.

Feeling brave, and probably foolish, I decide not to take the shortcut and make the most of my last full day of walking. It's one of the best days I have had, not just on the trip, in my life.

There are passages of pure peace, with the freshest air, bluest skies, and greenest pastures. I drink out of glacial steams and cross dizzying high ridge trails. I walk through charming alpine meadows and stare up at craggy rock faces, knowing in a few hours I'll be on the other side of it. The experience is relaxing and adventurous. I walk for eight miles and see not one single person but I don't for a second feel lonely.

I'll admit on the last day, I went off course accidentally and slipped. Tired and shaky I started to cry but I picked myself up, got back on track and carried on. A few hours later when I saw the tops of wooden houses in a not-too-distant valley I cried a bit more, overjoyed that my final destination was in sight.

I arrived at the Hotel Griesalp after 6pm, having hiked/walked and almost crawled for over nine hours. My knees felt like old floorboards and the relief when I finally pulled my hiking boots and sweaty socks off was close to post-coital bliss.

I showered, rummaged in my bag for my one remaining clean T-shirt and then took the stairs downstairs (slowly) very glad to be having dinner in the hotel.

I ate delicious lamb's lettuce salad, followed by pumpkin soup and an unidentified main course which contained sprouts, cabbage, mushroom sauce, something I think was gnocchi and stewed apple - it sounds revolting but was utterly warming and restorative. I wish I could have fed it to my knees.

My last day was spent travelling, coming back down to earth and eventually back to Zurich Airport where I arrived looking even more dishevelled than the day I left.

Five days earlier I stood in the same spot thinking I was crazy to go up the Alps alone.

Getting ready to board the flight back I think I would have been mad not to.

Take Two: Top attractions

Dramatic detour

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Gletscherschlucht Rosenlaui

The Gletscherschlucht Rosenlaui (open May-October) was one of my favourite detours. After thousands of years the thrashing, bubbling, foaming and raging water has created works of art out of rock.

Hotel Belvedere

Maybe it was because I had walked so far but when I reached Hotel Belvedere in the picturesque mountain village of Wengen I felt elated, and a little like I was walking on to the set of a Wes Anderson movie.

Getting there

For more information on Switzerland visit MySwitzerland.com, call the Switzerland Travel Centre on the international freephone 00800 100 200 30 or email info.uk@myswitzerland.com.

For packages, trains and air tickets email sales@stc.co.uk.

SWISS operates up to 180 weekly flights to Switzerland from Dublin, London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh (seasonal during summer) from as little as £55* one way (*Economy Light fare only includes hand luggage).

For more information visit swiss.com or call 0345 601 0956.

For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit swisstravelsystem.co.uk.

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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