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 scenic train route and find Swiss traditions thriving in yodel-happy cowbell country.
The Aiguille du Midi (ay-gwee doo mee-dee) is easily the valley’s (and, arguably, Europe’s) most spectacular and popular lift. If the weather’s clear, the price doesn’t matter. Take an early lift and have breakfast above 12,000 feet.
Pile into the téléphérique (gondola) and soar to the tip of a rock needle 12,600 feet above sea level (you’ll be packed into the gondola like sardines; take off your daypack to allow more room). Get a spot on the right side for glacier views. Chamonix shrinks as trees fly by, soon replaced by whizzing rocks, ice, and snow. Change gondolas at Plan de l’Aiguille to reach the top (the café just outside the lift station sells sunglasses for cheap). No matter how sunny it is, it’s cold and the air is thin. People are giddy with delight (those prone to altitude sickness or agoraphobia are less so). Fun things can happen at Aiguille du Midi 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. Find the orientation posters to identify key peaks. If it’s really clear, 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 on the other side is Mont Blanc, the Alps’ highest point, at 4,810 meters (15,771 feet). Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn were first connected by intrepid backcountry skiers in 1903 via La Route Haute (The High Route). Today, it’s one of the most popular ski trails (not difficult from a technical point of view). Skiers cover approximately 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) over about eight days, sleeping in hiking huts overnight.
Use the telescopes to spot mountain climbers; more than 2,000 scale this mountain each year. A long but not technically challenging climb, it was first scaled in 1786, more than 170 years before this lift was built (are you kidding?). Find the giant’s tooth, spot the télécabines to Italy, and identify lift stations of the Aiguilles Rouges mountain range on the other side of Chamonix. That rusty tin-can needle above you serves as a communications tower. Check the temperature next to the elevator. Plan on 32 degrees Fahrenheit, even on a sunny day. Sunglasses are essential.
Back down, follow la Vallée Blanche signs to a drippy “ice tunnel” where skiers and mountain climbers make their exit. The views are sensational; merely observing is exhilarating. Peek down the icy cliff and ponder the value of an ice ax. Skiers make the 11-mile run to the Mer de Glace in about half a day (in winter they can ski 13 miles all the way back to the valley at Argentière). The Access Belvedere walkway leads to bird’s-eye views of the télécabines to Helbronner and to more amazing mountain views.
For your own private glacial dream world, get into the little red télécabine (called Panoramic Mont Blanc) and sail south to Helbronner Point, the Italian border station (typically open late June–early Sept). This line stretches three miles with no solid pylon. (It’s propped by a “suspended pylon,” a line stretched between two peaks 1,300 feet from the Italian end.) In a gondola for four, you’ll dangle silently for 40 minutes as you glide over glaciers and past a forest of peaks to Italy. Hang your head out the window and explore every corner of your view. From Helbronner Point, you’ll turn around and return to Aiguille du Midi (as construction currently prevents access down into Italy from Helbronner Point).
From Aiguille du Midi, you can ride all the way back to Chamonix; or — way, way better — get off halfway down at Plan de l’Aiguille, where you’ll find a scenic café with sandwiches, drinks, cheap sunglasses, and outdoor tables, and paragliders jumping off cliffs (except in July–Aug). But the best reason to get off here is to follow the wonderful trail to the Mer de Glace, then catch the train back into Chamonix.
Berggasthaus Aescher promises a memorable experience. Built in 1805, the 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. But on Monday through Thursday, it’ll likely feel like a quiet mountain refuge (outside of July and August, which can be a little busy). The hut is actually built into the cliff; its back wall is the rock itself. You can study this alpine architecture from the toilet. 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 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 (run by Claudia and Beny Knechtle-Wyss and their five adult children — Bernhard, Reto, Lukas, Lilian, and Dominik — plus 35 sheep, 20 rabbits, 5 chickens, 3 pigs, and a dog).
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
 Bonjour, I'm Rick Steves. Thanks for joining us. In this program we're giving you some dizzy alpine thrills. We're on the tip of a peak high above the French resort town of Chamonix.
This time we'll experience breathtaking views of Mount Blanc in the French Alps; take a gondola ride over the border to the Italian side; tunnel into the icy world of the Mer de Glacé glacier, weave down a mountain side on a luge and feast on a little fondue in Chamonix. Then we'll ride the Glacier express to the region of Apenzell were we'll spend the night in a rustic mountain hut.
In Western Europe, France and tiny Switzerland come together high in the Alps. Starting in the French alpine resort of Chamonix we'll cross the width of Switzerland to Appenzell, seeing spectacular sights along the way.
But first let's backtrack a bit. A scenic slalom of Alpine wonders fills the valley right here in the shadow of Mount Blanc.
And down there is were we woke up, in the town of Chamonix, a world class climbing center. We began very early — to minimize the crowds and clouds. Both tend to gather in the afternoon. These two climbers are pointing to Mount Blanc.
Monsieur Balmot and Monsieur Paccard were the first to climb it, back in 1786. Mountain climbing became fashionable, and Chamonix boomed. Its streets and squares were named for famous climbers like Balmot and Paccard.
And the mountains still draw the climbers. Europe's greatest Alpine lift starts running early when the tour groups are sleeping and only the most serious mountain enthusiasts are up.
Aiguilles du Midi — the 12,600 foot high tip of that rock needle — is our goal. We'll ride the lift up. Conquer the summit with this elevator. And later, catch a little gondola all the way to Italy.
A little scary, I know. But remind yourself that this lift's been going back and forth now since 1954; surely it'll make it one more time.
This is Europe's tallest lift station. Everything is breathtaking. At 12,000 feet, even the stairs are breath-taking.
150 meters of tunnels connect plenty of thin air amusements. This "ice tunnel" — the gateway to oblivion — is where summer-skiers and mountain climbers depart. It's fun to peek down the icy cliff and ponder the value of an ice axe.
And, for our final ascent — we simply ride the elevator. Before us spread the Alps. And back there on the floor of the valley, 9000 feet below, barely visible is the town of Chamonix. You can almost reach out and pat the head of Mont Blanc — at 15,781 feet, the top of Western Europe.
Mont Blanc is climbed by about 2000 people a year. At this altitude, even sunshine is cold. The air is thin. People are awestruck by the grandeur of these Alps. For your own private glacial dream world — and Europe's most exciting border crossing — board the petite gondola and head south to Helbronner Point, the Italian border station.
It's just you and your partner, dangling silently for 40 minutes as you glide over the glacier to Italy. This line stretches three miles with no solid pylon or support. It's supported by a "suspended pylon", a line stretched 300 yards between two peaks. That peak's called the "giant's tooth." It's one of the last to be conquered. It wasn't climbed until 1882. And here comes Italy.
Hellbronner point is the French/Italian border station. But now that Europe is uniting, no one wants to see my passport — much less stamp it. From this 11,000 foot high perch, the lift descends into Italy's remote Valley of Aosta. But today, the views are in France — so we're heading back to Chamonix.
Chamonix hosted the first winter Olympics in 1924 — and it still feels like an international festival. Whether it's Apre-ski or apre-hike, the evening streets of Chamonix are always lively. And with all this strolling ambiance, one of my favorite valley walks is simply through the town.
The savvy travelers here have found out that Chamonix is not expensive especially when compared to Alpine resorts just over the border in Switzerland. The town has plenty of reasonable places to eat and sleep.
We're staying in Hotel Touring, right on Chamonix's main street. It's simple, it's inexpensive, it's certainly central. And when those clouds clear, the people on Aiguille du Midi can look right through my window.
Chamonix makes a great homebase for cable cars rides and day-hikes. The best serious hikes are across the valley from Mont Blanc on the Gran Balcon Sud. Lifts go from Chamonix up to this "grand south balcony" — a world of pristine lakes and trails where mountain sports abound.
For those who need some help in finding just the right hike, the hard-working tourist office can get you oriented. The staff speaks some English, has the latest weather report, and will explain the most interesting hikes in the area.
Woman: It's an easy walk — about two hours walking, and from there you come down to Le Prague where you can take a bus, back to Chamonix
Rick: 'you think I can do this?'
Woman: It depends on how you walk...
Rick: Great, what is the weather today?
Woman: Today is should be quite sunny in the morning.
Chamonix was one of the original Alpine resorts. Until about the year 1800, people didn't hike or climb or paint mountains. Mountains were a pain. Then, in the 19th century, the Romantic Movement had people all over Europe communing with nature.
Realizing you could climb a mountain simply "because it's there," early tourists put Chamonix on the Grand Tour route. Louis Napoleon's visit in 1860 further boosted Chamonix's popularity. Chamonix locals enjoyed watching the visiting city folk. They found the ladies hiking and skiing in their fancy wide dresses comical — they called them "rising balloons."
But engineers constructed a state-of-the-art array of trains and lifts to get the city folk to the mountains.
One of the oldest lifts, this two-car cogwheel train rolled turn-of-the-century visitors to the edge of a glacier called the Mer de Glace, or Sea of Ice. And it's still doling out Alpine thrills.
This turn-of-the-century line was built over the objection of 300 guides and 200 mule owners who figured it would cost them their jobs. They were probably right. The Mer de Glace is France's longest glacier — almost 5 miles long.
In the 1600s the glacier extended much farther — actually threatening to block off the valley. Concerned locals had the priest from Geneva come down to exorcise the glacier. He did — and the glacier has behaved itself ever since.
Each year a cave is dug to entertain visitors. Hiking into the cave you'll find yourself deep in a glacier — a cool, dripping, textured world of translucent blue — on no-slip astroturf. The Glacier's a river of ice, which actually flows a few inches every day. How much is that? You can see the remains of last year's cave about 12 months' flow down stream from this year's cave.
Modern-day tourists enjoy one Alpine thrill their predecessors didn't — the luge. You ride a chair lift up and scream down the mountains windy, banked concrete slalom course on a wheeled sled.
Are you a hare or a snail? Chamonix has two roughly parallel courses, one for speed demons, and one for sightseers. Young or old, speedy or slow, any fit person can manage a luge.
Pull your stick to break, push to fly. Keep both hands on the stick or you'll leave a little piece of your elbow on the track.
Back down in Chamonix it's time to relax. Whether you're luging or hiking, or just huffing and puffing up stairs at 12,000 feet, you'll have a mountainous appetite by dinner time. Chamonix is French;.eating gets plenty of attention. A fun place to enjoy French Alpine cuisine is here in the Bistro des Sports.
For local cuisine, your key word is Savoie — that's this region of France. Robust and hearty, the Savoie cuisine borrows much from the Swiss. Both fondue and raclette get you involved in the actual cooking.
Raclette is gobs of melted cheese served over boiled potatoes, pickles, cured meats and smoked ham ...with some good wine. Bon Appetite!
We've slipped from Chamonix into Switzerland. And now we're riding the rails across southern Switzerland on the Glacier Express. Designed to maximize your sightseeing thrills, it's a masterpiece of railway engineering — crossing 291 bridges and viaducts and going through 91 tunnels.
We're traveling from Chamonix to Appenzel, through the town of Chur. The map that came with my railpass shows a gap from Brig to Disentis. We're in this gap now.
Rail passes cover all the national train lines in the country — but not the odd private lines like this one. Private lines are generally very scenic — built for sightseeing purposes.
The Glacier Express map shows this private line continuing even between these two mountainous towns Even with a rail pass, you'll have to pay extra for this private segment.
From the town of Andermatt the visual thrills increase with the altitude. The train works its way up Oberalp Pass. With steep gradients, a rack rail system is necessary. A toothed rack between the tracks helps the hard working train drag itself up to the nearly 7,000 foot summit. Later these same teeth help slow the train on the downhill section.
A quarter of a million Alp-lovers ride this train each year. It's kept open through the snowy winter with powerful snowplow engines. They can blow 19 tons of snow a minute off the tracks. We're traveling in late summer — fine weather and no snow on the track or on the trails.
Down below is tiny Tschamut. It's the first village on the Rhine. Mighty rivers like the Rhine and Rhone are born in glaciers high above the sight-seers. From here the baby Rhine flows and grows all the way to Holland where it meets the sea.
We changed trains in Chur and we're back on the national train line. With my railpass I don't bother with individual tickets and rarely need a reservation. I hop on just about any train going my way and flash my pass when the conductor stops by.
Railpasses are available in more varieties than ever.
Savvy travelers do their research to figure out which pass will work best for their trip. Passes generally are not sold in Europe; travelers get them from travel agents before leaving home. Rather than the all Europe pass, we're using a pass that covers fewer countries.
And most train passes come in consecutive-day, or flexible-day versions. Rather than getting a pass offering, for example, 15 days in a row, we're saving money with a flexi pass. We bought five days, to be used a day here and a day there, as we need them, within a two month period.
Now we're trading away some of the staggering alpine peaks for some staggering alpine culture. This is Appenzell — cowbell country — moo-mellow and storybook-friendly.
According to legend, the devil was flying over here with a sack full of houses. A sharp peak tore a hole in the sack, and thousands of chalets scattered over the countryside. And even today, the farms and hamlets remain widely separated. Tradition rules in Appenzel.
We're picnicking at a thought-provoking perch marking the site of an early Swiss victory over Habsburg Austria. This monument celebrates the 500th anniversary of a battle in which 400 Appenzellers defeated 3000 Austrians. This win solidified and expanded Switzerland's independence, gained a century earlier by the country's best know hero.
Under the legendary William Tell, the three original Swiss Cantons or states joined together to fight Hapsburg rule. By 1291 they won their freedom. Now I don't know about the arrows and apples, but eventually this historic nucleus of modern Switzerland grew to include today's 26 cantons.
A picnic stop here is a good welcome-to-Appenzell break — and a necessity if you're on a budget. Because Switzerland is one of Europe's most expensive countries.
This canton of Appenzell is one of Switzerland's most traditional regions. In fact it is so traditional that Appenzellers are the butt of many jokes by sophisticates in big city Switzerland.
The stubborn survival of local traditions is what makes this such a great place to visit.
Switzerland achieved full independence in 1648 — a full 200 years before the democratic revolutions of 1848 swept through the rest of Europe. In some ways Switzerland's independence isolated it from European high culture. Back then, it took a rich nobility or the Roman Catholic church to pay for big time cultural achievements.
So instead of grand palaces and cathedrals, we can see how Swiss culture showed off on a small and personal scale. The Appenzell folk museum gives travelers a great peek into the cow culture. You'll see traditional costumes, living rooms, art, and crafts.
The laissez-faire Swiss confederation allowed each canton to have its own religion, language, economic planning and so on. In Appenzell, entire villages met in town squares to vote, and they still do. Historically, only the men voted, by raising the family sword. It wasn't until 1990 that Appenzell women, even without swords, were given full voting privileges.
The museum's collection is a folksy reminder that this canton stays close to its roots. The town of Appenzell is a handy base for exploring area. This has been the capital of the canton for 400 years, and many of the buildings date back to that time.
Here in traditional Appenzell a yodel-fest is a great outing. Back before email and cell phones', yodeling was the way one goat herder communicated with another across isolated Alpine pastures.
Swiss folk culture is most vivid on the exciting days late in the summer when the farmers parade through town as they march their cows and goats from the high pastures home to the barn for the winter.
Life jolts to a halt in town as shoppers and shop keepers alike run to the street. The three best milk cows proudly swing the biggest bells. And for the impromptu festival, schools out.
This traditional dairy farming, so securely a part of our image of Switzerland, really couldn't survive today without a little help. Traditional farmers get subsidies from the government to guarantee this part of the Swiss heritage doesn't go the way of the small farm in America.
In Switzerland people don't call these scenic wonderlands national parks, they call them simply home.
Rather than spend the night in town, we're sleeping high in the Alps. This gondola takes us from Wasseraun to the summit of Ebenalp. In the Alps, locals know that the weather blows in and the weather blows out. And a little rain dampens no one's holiday spirit.
To enjoy Europe's Alpine thrills to the max, we're not only getting off the beaten path, we're sleeping off the beaten path...In a mountain hut. Tonight we're bedding down with the goats — well, at least near the goats — at Gasthous Ascher. The hut is actually built onto the cliff side; its back wall is the mountain.
Imagine, you can hike from France to Slovenia, finding a hut or remote village for each overnight, and never come out of these Alps. Gasthaus Ascher isn't just any hut. It was originally built to house pilgrims who came here to pray with a hermit monk.
Hermit monks lived in this cave for about 200 years...until 1853. This is their church, the Wildkirchli. Pilgrims came from all over this part of Switzerland to worship here long before the lift was around to make the trip an easy one.
Today the monks are long gone but Gasthaus Ascher still houses pilgrims like us communing with nature.
It's run by Claudia and Bennie Knechtle-Wyss. Population: Claudia, Bennie, their five children, 2 pigs, 3 donkeys, 14 sheep, a bunny...and 3 goats.
From this 5000-foot high perch, you can almost hear the cows munching on the far side of the valley. In my guidebook about Switzerland I rave about this place. But I warn my readers that conditions are Spartan; this 150-year-old house has only rainwater and no shower. On weekdays, you'll normally get a small woody dorm to yourself and a good night's sleep. Each mattress comes with blankets but sheets are neither required nor provided.
OK, hikers, no party until we make our beds! If you're looking for peace and quiet, avoid Friday and Saturday nights. Bennie cooks a mean Rosti. Rosti is the quintessential Swiss mountain dish — basically hashbrowns, often under melted cheese and eggs.
The Swiss seem to keep their wine to themselves. It's good, but expensive. The Appenzeller beer famous, good, and about the only thing cheap in the region.
Tomorrow we'll hike back down to the train station. But tonight, we'll tap our toes to the old culture with new friends, high in Switzerland.
This is good travel. And we've got lots more to share. I'm Rick Steves, wishing you happy travels!