The non-skier's guide to the Alps
The poet Brian Patten, below, thought snowy mountains were the exclusive territory of winter sports fans. But this year he was tempted to find out what they might hold for holidaymakers who just want to stand and stare. He discovered a magical kingdom
Sunday 17 February 2008
I've just returned from an absolutely brilliant holiday in the Swiss Alps among some of the most stunning scenery in the world, and I nearly didn't go just because I couldn't ski.
When I was young I thought photographs of the Swiss Alps looked impossibly exotic. Then, as I grew older, the images became more and more commonplace. Endless bleached-out photographs of the same group of Alps kept cropping up in laundromats and railway station canteens. They appeared on cheap placemats and jigsaw puzzles; they adorned the walls of doctors' surgeries and appeared on advertisements for air fresheners. Eventually, I became immune to their beauty.
But recently, after a fascinating visit to the Lofoten Islands in the Arctic Circle, I realised I'd been missing out on a whole different kind of holiday. One for which you don't need hot weather, shorts, or mosquito repellent. Once more the Swiss Alps loomed into view.
As a non-skier, looking at enticing pictures of the Alps and other snowy destinations began to leave me feeling that life was unfair. Photographs in the winter travel pages of begoggled, Lycra-clad figures speeding effortlessly through a glittering white landscape only heightened my sense of missing out on something. It was as if by not skiing I was barred from some magical, snowy kingdom. And so, with my partner – another non-skier – I decided to find out how much skiing really mattered to one's enjoyment of the snow and all things alpine.
Before setting out for Switzerland it had bothered us that there might not be enough to do. We pictured ourselves sitting in a café drinking endless cups of hot chocolate while people with glowing faces whizzed down mountainsides or held riveting conversations about the hottest bars and the coolest resorts. If we'd gone on holiday with a group of skiers and stayed in a major ski resort, this might have been the case. But, luckily, our choice of destinations proved to be a winner. We settled on the Goms Valley in the Valais canton of Switzerland for a number of reasons: the area has a great transport system as well as the 10 highest mountains in the country, snow is more or less guaranteed until the end of March, and the region's traditional architecture has been preserved.
When we landed in Geneva, we were still three hours and two train rides away from our final destination, the small village of Blitzingen. Normally, this would have mitigated against the holiday, yet the rail journeys turned out to be one of its highlights. The trains were clean and warm, with large picture windows and comfy seats – we'd bought first-class tickets inexpensively by booking in advance on the internet. We were in a moving theatre and the play beyond the train window was Switzerland itself.
By the time we'd arrived in Visp and boarded the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, the Swiss Alps of my childhood had become a reality. Travelling through the Goms by train was a revelation. It was like having a secret pass to travel through Narnia. There were no witches, no elves, no golden lions, just glorious snow. It was the kind of snow that looked, when the sun came out, as if someone had scattered a bucketful of diamonds across it.
The Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn is a small train. Pillar-box red and toy-like, it covers a network of 145km between Zermatt and Göschenen, stopping at a string of picturesque villages that rise up the Goms Valley. You can take in glacier ravines, gorges and frozen waterfalls while gaping at the 4,000m peaks above you. The little train moves through the heart of this region like an escaped tube train, making travel effortless for skiers and non-skiers alike.
It is one of Europe's most magical journeys, strutting along the valley's narrow-gauge track, and accompanied for most of its length by the infant Rhone. Here, this major European river – which flows on through France and out into the Mediterranean – is shallow and in places is a mere two metres wide. Hikers clamber gingerly across it from boulder to boulder and the wasseramsel – the water blackbird – splashes about in the shallows like a tiny, demented penguin.
There are numerous hotels in the valley, most of them scattered among the 12 main villages, but my partner and I were keen to stay somewhere off the beaten track and had chosen Hotel Castle, a mile or so above Blitzingen. The hotel is the only one in the immediate area, and is perfectly positioned halfway up a snow-covered mountain. It was Peter Gschwendtner, its owner, who identified the wasseramsel for me. A naturalist and fount of knowledge about the area's flora and fauna, Peter was part of the two-man Swiss expedition that climbed Everest in 2004. He is also one of the country's most renowned chefs and has worked with our own Jamie Oliver. Given the mouth-watering and inventive dinners he and his staff served up each evening, the Hotel Castle was amazing value.
Peter and his wife Brigitte run a shuttle service for guests between the hotel and the station, which means you're never really isolated or out of touch. Yet standing on the balcony of our hotel suite gazing across the valley at the mountains, we felt a million miles from anywhere. In 1779, one of Germany's greatest poets, Wolfgang von Goethe, stayed a little way along the valley in the village of Munster. One of his most famous short poems is called "Wanderer's Night Song". A rough translation of it runs: "Over all the mountains is a quietness./In all the tree-tops you hear barely a breath;/The little birds are silent in the trees:/Only wait, soon like these/you too will rest and know great calm."
Goethe was spot on, and little has changed in the 200 or more years since he wrote those lines. Walking the compressed and easy to navigate paths high up above the hotel, my partner and I experienced the calmness he wrote of. On either side of the paths the snow was unbroken but for the tracks of animals. Deer, rabbits, alpine hares, stone martens, stoats and weasels. You could read their prints like a language – a frozen Braille in the snow. The mountain silence was accentuated now and then by the barking of a fox, the chatter of a magpie, or the creak of branches breaking free of the ice that had glued them together. Sacrilegious I know, but I couldn't really see the point of skiing. Who on earth would want to rush through all this, I thought.
Being immune to the pleasures of speeding downhill on mountain bikes, or paragliding over the mountains, we could well have spent all our time traipsing the snowy mountain paths or walking in the valley beside the Rhone, were it not for the fact that the Eggishorn and the phenomenon that is the Aletsch Glacier were a few train stops away. The little train from Blitzingen to Fiesch takes all of 17 minutes. You simply hop on then hop off again. From Fiesch you can take the Fiesch-Eggishorn cable car up to Fiescherlap, a ski-resort midway up the mountainside. From here the cable car ascends yet again till, dizzied by the heights, you are deposited on the Eggishorn itself, 2,900m above sea level.
The Aletsch Glacier is a 25 billion ton river of solid ice. Elsewhere in the Alps, glaciers are things you look up to. But from the top of the Eggishorn you can actually look down through tumbling clouds on to this colossal wonder. Also, surreal as it might sound, you can have a bowl of soup or a glass of red wine while doing so. The Swiss are certainly into comfort.
There is a little café – the Horli Hütte – at the very top of the mountain. Outside are trestle tables at which it's delicious to sit, face pointing up like a frozen sunflower towards a bright blue sky. Inside the café, the walls are decorated with a cuckoo clock, a wooden crucifix, a few troll masks and pink gingham curtains. The café's existence does make it that bit harder to fantasise about being an intrepid mountaineer, but it can't take away from the grandeur of the view.
I thought that returning home and leaving this winter wonderland would be a glum experience. But once again the train rides back from Blitzingen to Geneva airport were a delight, another visual treat of fir trees dusted with snow, of valleys, mountain passes, dark ravines and shuttered villas. The answer to the question "Do you need to be able to ski to enjoy a winter holiday in Switzerland?" is, of course, a resounding "No". The truth is you might even end up doing many more things than if you could ski.
How to get there
Geneva is served by a number of airlines, including easyJet (09058 210 905; easyJet.com), British Airways (08708 509 850; ba.com), Swiss (08456 010 956; swiss.com) and Flybe (0871 522 6100; flybe.com). Information and bookings for trains from Geneva to the Goms are available from the Swiss Travel System (020-7420 4900; swisstravelsystem.com). Swiss Transfer Tickets, which offer return rail transfers to any location in Switzerland from any Swiss airport or border, are particularly useful, costing from Sfr127 (£58) per person. Doubles at Hotel Castle, Blitzingen (00 41 27 970 1700; hotel-castle.ch) start at Sfr130 (£59.50) per person, half board. Inntravel (O1653 617906; inntravel.co.uk) offers a Skiing and Much More break, based at the Hotel Castle from £748, including seven nights' half board, return British Airways flights from Heathrow to Geneva, rail transfers to Blitzingen and a ski permit and travel pass for the Upper Goms valley.
Blitzingen Tourism (00 41 27 971 1715; blitzingen.ch), Switzerland Tourism (00 800 100 200 30; myswitzerland.com).
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