Take an Alpine walk in early summer, says Anthony Lambert - the hills are alive with dazzling wild flowers
Sunday 16 January 2005
I still remember my sense of amazement when, aged nine, I swung open the shutters of our hotel bedroom in Mürren and gazed at the immense grey-brown bulk of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountains. We had reached the Bernese Alps after dark, so I had glimpsed nothing but black outlines the night before. Standing on the bedroom balcony, I had never seen anything as vast and stupendous as these weather-beaten rock faces, their every ledge and gulley etched by the morning sun. I was hooked. Goodbye sandcastles and rock pools. Welcome to mountain walks.
Now I am back with my nine-year-old son. Will Gabriel feel as enlivened as I was by the unrivalled sense of freedom and space that comes from sitting atop a mountain, taking in the panorama? Or will the awakening of calf muscles and absence for a whole day of electronic stimuli herald a "Do we have to?" retort whenever I suggest a walk.
Car-free Mürren is best known as the cradle of Alpine skiing. George Lazenby as James Bond diced with death on the descent to Mürren from the Schilthorn mountain in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, swerving down the course taken by the Inferno ski race, regarded as the "craziest ski race in the world". But in June, when the last of the snow in the upland meadows has seeped into the earth, the Alpine flora can offer an incredible kaleidoscope of colours from such plants as primroses, globeflowers, gentian, carline thistles, Turk's cap, rhododendron and edelweiss.
After equipping Gabriel with a pair of walking poles, we leave Mürren for the Rotstockhütte, a traditional mountain hut at the foot of the Schilthorn which provides spartan overnight accommodation for skiers or walkers, and serves fortifying lunch dishes such as cheese rosti.
Gabriel sets the pace, following the ubiquitous signs that waymark paths in Switzerland: footpaths suitable for walking shoes or trainers are plain yellow; paths requiring boots, equipment and provisions have a red-and-white flash. Walking times are generally given. Taking an old carriage road on easy gradients, we pass wooden water troughs hollowed out by an adze and fed by clear water channelled from a stream. The path climbs past small chalet-style wooden barns standing in hay meadows that have the sort of flowers that can be seen only in landscapes where farmers have turned their back on intensive methods.
A steep zig-zag path requires concentration but once on a high-level path we have an hour's walking along grassy slopes, the peace broken only by the flat note of cowbells and the thinner tinkling bells of goats and sheep. Below us, the slope often steepens into a cliff, and the opposite flank of the valley is a textbook in physical geography, with corries, hanging valleys and terminal moraines. Tiers of glaciers twist down from the peaks, crowned with snow at all times of the year.
We round a spur of mountain, and the Rotstockhütte comes into view, a solid stone building as idyllic as the landscape it is set in, with red shutters, window- boxes with red and white geraniums and a welcoming terrace of wooden tables.
Parents who walk obviously hope their offspring will derive as much pleasure from it as they do. If some of Europe's most impressive landscapes don't overawe, there's not much hope that Chiltern beechwoods will do the trick. But Gabriel is as captivated by the whole experience as I had been, and during Christmas-time conversations about where we might go on holiday in 2005, even suggests we head back to the Swiss Alps and try some more challenging walks.
A range of mountain walks
Arguably the Mediterranean's least- spoilt island, Corsica offers numerous walks of varying difficulty in the 772sq m national park that encompasses its central mountain chain. June and September are the best months for walking.
Almost a dozen Grand Randonnee routes criss-cross the mountain range that has some of Europe's wildest landscapes, but there are plenty of spectacular areas for those who do not want to stray too far from good hotels.
Perhaps the ultimate challenge for walkers with a head for heights and the effects of altitude, Nepal offers the chance to sit in meadows at 4,000m overlooked by 8,000m peaks. In springtime, the meadows are ablaze with the colours of alpine flowers.
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