Alps of France and Switzerland
From the French town of Chamonix, we hop on a gondola lift with Rick and glide past Mt. Blanc and glistening glaciers, touching down in Italy. Then we train over to Appenzell, Switzerland, on the Glacier Express Railway and find Swiss traditions thriving in yodel-happy, cowbell country.
- Read the script from the show.
This is easily the valley's (and arguably, Europe's) most spectacular and popular lift. If the weather's clear, the price doesn't matter. Pile into the téléphérique (gondola) and soar to the tip of a rock needle 12,600 feet above sea level. Chamonix shrinks as trees fly by, soon replaced by whizzing rocks, ice, and snow until you reach the top. No matter how sunny it is, it's cold. The air is thin. People are giddy (those prone to altitude sickness are less giddy). Fun things can happen at Aiguille du Midi (ay-gwee doo mee-dee) if you're not too winded to join the locals in the halfway-to-heaven tango.
From the top of the lift station, you have several options. Follow ascenseur signs through a tunnel, then ride the elevator through the rock to the summit of this pinnacle. Missing the elevator is a kind of Alpus-Interruptus I'd rather not experience. The Alps spread out before you. In the distance and behind a broader mountain, you can see the bent little Matterhorn — the tall, shady pyramid listed in French on the observation table as "Cervin — 4,505 meters" (14,775 feet). And looming just over there is Mont Blanc, the Alps' highest point at 4,810 meters (15,771 feet). Use the telescopes to spot mountain climbers; more than 2,000 scale this mountain each year. That rusty tin-can needle above you serves as a communication tower. Check the temperature next to the elevator. Plan on 32 degrees Fahrenheit, even on a sunny day. Sunglasses are essential.
Explore Europe 's tallest lift station. More than 150 yards of tunnels lead to a cafeteria, restaurant, gift shop, and the icicle-covered gateway to the glacial world. This "ice tunnel" is where summer skiers and mountain climbers depart. Just observing is exhilarating. Peek down the icy cliff and ponder the value of an ice ax (tel. 04 50 53 22 75).
Berggasthaus Aescher promises a memorable experience. The 170-year-old house has only rainwater and no shower. Friday and Saturday nights sometimes have great live music, but are often crowded and noisy, with up to 40 people, and parties going into the wee hours. July and August are pretty busy, but otherwise, Monday through Thursday, you'll normally get a small, woody dorm to yourself. The hut is actually built into the cliff; its back wall is the rock itself. From the toilet, you can study this alpine architecture. Sip your coffee on the deck, sheltered from drips by the gnarly overhang 100 feet above. The guest book goes back to 1940, there's a fun drawer filled with an alpine percussion section, and the piano in the comfortable dining/living room is filled with happy hikers dining on Rösti and sipping coffee spiked with schnapps and topped with whipped cream. Claudia can show you rock-climbing charts. For a strenuous 45-minute pre-dinner hike, copy the goats: Take the high trail toward the lake, circle clockwise up toward the peak and the lift, then hike down the way you originally came (12 min by steep trail below top of lift, tel. 071-799-1142, run by Claudia and Beny Knechtle-Wyss and their 5 children — Bernhardt, Reto, Lukas, Lilian, and Dominik — plus 35 sheep, 20 rabbits, five chickens, three pigs, a donkey, and a dog).
For up-to-date specifics, see the latest edition of the Rick Steves' France travel guide or the Rick Steves' Switzerland travel guide — or join us on one of our free-spirited France tours or Switzerland tours.