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It’s hard to believe that the Tour du Mont Blanc is supposed to be one of the most popular multi-day treks in Europe. No one I talk to has ever heard of it! Maybe I’m not running in the proper circles. I don’t know many people that own trekking poles.

Old Friends

 

 

Planning the route and hiding from the rain at the same time...

 

Anyway, this ten day hike was a chance to catch up with one of my oldest and dearest friends and her lovely husband and to see some awe-inspiring scenery to boot. We met in Switzerland and set out for ~144kms through three countries. We stayed in mountain refuges – fully functional dorm accommodation with night-time meal included. Hiking on the West coast of Canada (where I grew up) is a different breed altogether. Up in the alps one feels quite civilized. You can shower almost every night! We also stopped though a few towns along the way so we were able to pick up supplies as needed, and to celebrate milestones and new countries with a pint, or a wee bit of fois gras.

This is quite a tramp and it doesn’t take all that long to get into the swing of things even if you’re not that much of a long distance hiker. One of my favourite moments occurred on the second day in. I think we were en route to the Grand Col Ferret (2537m) which marks the border between Switzerland and Italy.  We were slugging up yet another summit, sweat and sunscreen pouring into our eyes, sun blaring down on us, packs digging into our backs.  My good friend Diana casually looks at me, and with a resigned but somewhat enthusiastic smile says, “mhh, and to think…we could have been sailing in the Mediterranean right now!”

I’m fairly certain I stopped dead. “Pardon me??” …confused laughter escaping my parched and sun-burnt lips.

Answering with a casual chuckle and a shrug of the shoulders, “oh yeah, didn’t we tell you? If we hadn’t done this hike we were going to charter a boat and sail around the Med for two weeks.”

As my jaw dropped, she added proudly: “Jeff and I are both Skippers.” Broad smile. My uncontrollable laughter was a reaction to the altitude, I’m sure.

The Mediterranean aside, this was a fantastic journey and although it was many weeks later that any of could fully enjoy cheese or sausage (after eating them every day on the trail), the scenery was enough to put one in one’s place.

We worked really hard through heat, rain, wind and even snow…. and we met some great people too.  It was an amazing experience but I won’t hesitate to volunteer as a deck hand on our next vacation together.

worth a thousand words...

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Switzerland is very much like a story book. The hills are definitely alive with the sound of music, and no matter how you’re travelling you can’t help but notice the cleanliness, the politeness, and the over-all put-togetherness of both the people, and the beautiful towns and cities.

Yes, towns here are way more polite than back home.

All this cleanliness and picture-perfectness comes at a price, of course – it’s damned expensive!

Case in point: I asked my friend from London to pick up hiking socks for me. She bought two pairs for less than it would have cost me for one, here in Switzerland. Imagine: cost-savings from the UK!?

I’m no expert, but I thought I might offer a few practical tips for the traveller on a budget. These have worked for me!

  • Buy groceries. Everything seems a little pricier here, but man, oh man, nothing beats a good loaf of bread and a block/wheel of FANTASTIC Swiss cheese… Add a tomato, sausage, beer – well, you’ve got all the bases covered!

  • Plan your trip around the first Saturday in the month – most galleries and museums are free! A bigger city might be an idea – you’ll have more choice and can realistically “museum hop”

  • Find new Swiss friends to share fondue with. The price per portion are better with bigger groups…although it may be hard to find locals who will eat this famous national dish when snow isn’t lining the ground. Other travellers may collude with you to eat liquid cheese & wine out-of-season….even if it isn’t actually cheaper sharing, it’s waaaay more fun.

  • Spend most of your time hiking, wandering towns, or swimming. These are free and healthy!!! You can work off the cheese and bread and chocolate that you’re bound to be consuming.

  • Camp. Zero-star accommodation can be five-stars of FUN!

  • Couchsurf and be amazed. (www.couchsurfing.com)

  • Invest in a ½ Price Swiss Rail Card. The cost is $99CHF and it’s valid for all rail/bus passes in the country for one month. Even if your itinerary only allows a week or two in Switzerland, this may be worth while if you’re moving around a lot. You can order online a few weeks ahead, or pick one up from a major train station when you arrive in the country. Start here: (http://mct.sbb.ch/mct/en/sts.htm)

  • Check out second hand stores for cheap souvenirs. There seems to be an abundance of cookery items and mugs and national flags…full fondue sets, figurines, cow bells…

  • Take a break from the internet, and if you can’t manage that, alternatively make a “to do” for when you decide to pay the exorbitant prices (just so that you don’t spend all your time on Facebook stalking your friends and looking at pictures of people’s children and your exes…)

  • Go during the off-season (not in August!)…sigh

    This isn’t my usual style for this blog, I realize, but a little travel advice never hurt anyone. Hope it’s helpful!!

    The Matterhorn

    The Swiss experience cannot be complete without an up-close and personal glimpse of the mystical, magical Matterhorn. Luckily you don’t have to be a mountaineer to appreciate the astounding beauty of the (second) highest mountain in the Swiss Alps. It’s obvious that this 4478m monolith has indeed caught the attention of the world … there is a chocolate bar based on it’s shape. Do you know which one?

    Catrin & Jill..and the big mountain in the background!

    We arrived in Zermatt, the small village at the base of the Matterhorn, early in the day. The train was full but not uncomfortable. There were less young people than I thought there would be, but then I considered how expensive Zermatt must be (picture Whistler in a really expensive country and you’ve got the idea), and then I understood that although it’s a very popular place, it’s not necessarily on the “backpacking circuit”.

    Safety First! The First Sunscreen Application.

    Alpine Wild Flowers

    With the money we were saving by camping and bringing our own groceries, well we could maybe pick up some souvenirs… I had my eye on one of the watches in the stores selling for $42,000 and change.

    So we found our camp spot and it was as basic as they come. Actually it was sort of just a field…maybe even more like a yard, with a fence around it. The sign “Camp Ground” actually had 5 stars engraved on the bottom, yet NONE of them were filled in. Our accommodation was “no star”!! It was perfect enough. We set off to explore. There are dozens of hikes from Zermatt. We pointed ourselves upward and walked for a couple of hours. How we enjoyed the graceful views of the Matterhorn in the dying daylight; the sun hitting the surrounding peaks and glaciers was exactly perfect.

    A view from the Zero Star Accommodation

    The second day we set off early. With our nice strong, dark café warming our tummies, we sprung off the dark, cool valley floor and climbed until we found sunlight in which to eat our morning feast. Glaciers and mountains, wooly sheep, small derelict cabins, and the sound of roosters announcing another day (and helicopters starting their scenic tours) were a great accompaniment to our bread and cheese. We completed the 18km circuit of the Höhenweg Höhbalmen in about six hours.

    A rest at the top with views of the glacier

    The trail was quite busy, but we had some spectacular views and were able to take a rest in the valley (the Höhbalmen). I was convinced that Heidi was going to come bounding over the next hill. This was exactly how I have picture walking in the alps.

    There sure is a lot of time to think when one is climbing a mountain – or even traversing across it. This is quite a feeling.

    My mind wanders and analyzes on a constant basis; this is true of most of us. We relive events, and delve into new ideas all the time….all the time. There’s that certain beautiful point during any extended activity, were the mind suddenly relaxes.

    Jill, Joe, Catriin & The Matterhorn

    Ahhhh…. It’s nice to get to a point where you’re just concentrating on the next step.. or the wild flower at your feet, or the fact that there are dozens of butterflies landing beside you; on you. The first marmot is spotted, and then you search the rocky hills above for more. You watch the mountains creating clouds in the clear blue sky and your thoughts get bigger – they get perspective – they put you in your place. There’s nothing like the grandeur of mother nature to make you realize how small you are. It’s wonderful, and Switzerland is full of it.

    Theme Song:

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