Few places in the world are so uniquely symbolic that their name evolves into an adjective.
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Yet, the Alps dominate our concept of mountain ranges and mountain culture to the point that the adjective “Alpine” — meaning Alps-like — is used to describe mountain scenery, sports and experiences the world over.Story: Where in the World is Matt? It's a 'cool' location ...
The Alps earned its reputation as the great mountain range of Western Europe, stretching through France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and Slovenia. The name alone conjures thoughts of the Von Trapps, Heidi and Hannibal with his elephants. But more than these characters, it brings to mind scenery: immaculate mountain villages, clean air, azure lakes, dazzling snow-capped peaks and neon green pastures.
Fortunately, all of these stereotypes hold true.
Tens of millions of visitors come to the Alps throughout the summer and winter to enjoy world-class skiing, snowboarding, hiking, biking and mountaineering. But you need not be in search of outdoor adrenaline to visit the Alps. Many millions more come for the views, leisurely strolls, impeccable hospitality and to marvel at the engineering feats of high-altitude tunnels, railways and cable cars.
"Everyone can find their own sense of recreation in the Alps by practicing any sort of sports or just relaxing in a great atmosphere," said Josef Gruber, owner of Style and Sport, an events agency in Oberstdorf (on the border of the Austrian and German Alps). "The power of the surrounding mountains, in combination with breathtaking scenery and the provebial Gemütlichkeit [roughly meaning "coziness" or "welcoming"], make the Alps a unique place — and not just for mountaineers."Video: Take a treacherous trek above the clouds (on this page)
Perhaps the most famous site in the Alps is the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland. This "saddle" between the Mönch and the Jungfrau peaks is known as the "Top of Europe" for its status as one of the continent’s most stunning viewpoints.
The Jungfraujoch can only be reached by the Jungfraubahn (train). Almost the entire 5.8 miles of this cog railway ascends a steep tunnel bored through the Eiger and Mönch mountains. Passengers are able to disembark at two points along the tunnel to admire the mountain scenery through huge panoramic windows carved into the mountainside.Video: Take a ride on ‘railway to heaven’ (on this page)
At over 11,000 feet, the Jungfraubahn’s terminus at the Jungfraujoch is the highest rail station in Europe. A final elevator carries visitors up to the viewing platform. Beyond the bird's-eye view of the Alps, there are other activities, including gigantic ice caves, skiing and dogsledding.Video: How to survive in a snow cave (on this page)
"From the top, I've actually waved to people flying by in private planes — below me," said Dave Fox, frequent Alps guide for Globejotting.com. "And when you gulp in the chilly air, it's like deep-cleaning your lungs."
While the Jungfraujoch may be known as the Top of Europe, the actual highest point in the Alps is Mont Blanc at 15,782 feet on the French and Italian border. The closest towns to Mont Blanc are Courmayeur on the Italian side and Chamonix in France. Chamonix also happens to be the birthplace of Alpine (downhill) skiing.
"Anyone who considers themselves to be a serious skier or snowboarder should check out Chamonix, at least once in their lives, because its combination of vertical drop and insanely beautiful scenery delivers a heady mix," said Dan Milner, a mountain and skiing photographer based out of Chamonix.
Unlike regular ski resorts with ski patrol, roped-off boundaries and a skiers’ code of conduct, Chamonix’s cable car simply drops skiers off at the 12,605-foot peak of Aiguille du Midi from where they are on their own to pick their way down — however they like.
"The emphasis on self-reliance and responsibility means free access to some of the world's most majestic glacial terrain and is guaranteed to bring even the most jaded black-diamond skier to a halt, just to stand and gawp," Milner added.Video: From Switzerland with love! You can be Bond (on this page)
In the summer months, it is possible to cross Mont Blanc by cable car into Italy or start from Entréves in Italy’s Aosta Valley and arrive in Chamonix.You get all of the high-Alpine views and can experience it in your street shoes.
One of Europe’s most popular hiking trails, the Tour du Mont Blanc (known as the TMB), is right down the road. The trail circles Mont Blanc and covers a distance of roughly 105 miles through France, Italy and Switzerland.
You can break it up into smaller pieces or do the full seven to 10 days from numerous starting points in any of the three countries. There are quality accommodations and restaurants along the entire route, and there are trails to suit any level of hiker (or day hiker).
No matter your taste for outdoor adventure, the picture-perfect villages and distinctive mountain culture of the Alps are sure to impress. Even tiny hamlets, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, have hundreds of years of history and boast local charms such as traditional village liquors brewed by monks and unique seasonal festivals. And, of course, every village seems to have better fondue and more Gemütlichkeit than the next.
If you go: When visiting the Jungfraujoch
The town of Interlaken, which is the rail departure point to the Jungfraujoch, has the greatest variety of quality accommodations. The regal Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa is a worthwhile splurge.
Höheweg 41, CH-3800 Interlaken, Switzerland, +41 (0)33 828 28 28, email@example.com
The Schiltorn is another spectacular peak with a viewpoint near the Jungfraujoch. It is accessed by cable car and has the revolving Piz Gloria restaurant at the top providing lunch, great views and a dose of kitsch as it was the bad guy’s hideout in the 1969 James Bond film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."
Schilthorn Cableway, Höheweg 2, CH-3800 Interlaken, Switzerland, +41 33 82 60 007, firstname.lastname@example.org
A Eurail Pass will let you explore a number of countries that are home to the Alps and get you to Interlaken from Zurich or Geneva (make sure to buy a pass that is valid in Switzerland, as special rules apply).
A Eurail pass will also get discounts for both adults and children for roundtrip tickets from Interlaken to Kleine Scheidegg and on to Jungfraujoch. Check with Eurail for current rates.
Thomas Kohnstamm is author of "Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?" Learn more about him on his website.
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