Since dawn, we have been hiking across a glacier riven with crevasses, along a narrow path we hope will bear our weight. It is freezing cold, and hard going when the slippery route ascends steeply. At the top the wind drowns out all sound and the air is thin, but a final, shivering traverse brings us to just below the rocky summit of the Klein Matterhorn, at 3,883m. There, automatic glass doors slide open to reveal a restaurant and a gift shop full of Japanese tourists buying cuddly marmots.
That’s the thing about the Alps – they are grand, wild, dangerous, and yet, unlike the wildernesses of the US, Scandinavia or even Scotland, they have been farmed for centuries and are full of villages and ancient trading footpaths. This means that no matter how extreme your trek, you are never far from a decent restaurant, shop, or – increasingly – a stylish little hotel. The trick is finding them.
Last summer I decided to spend a holiday doing the Tour de Monte Rosa, a classic long-distance hike around Switzerland’s highest mountain, through the Swiss and Italian Alps, among 10 peaks over 4,000m. The joy of the Alps is that the footpaths are so well-established that it is possible to dispense with guides and group tours, and go independently, so I bought maps and guidebooks. Invariably they recommended staying in walkers’ refuges each night (it’s a trip of at least eight days). But being somewhat averse to smelly dormitories full of snoring men, I wondered if there might be an alternative.
It took a lot of research, but after many evenings poring over maps and websites, my boyfriend and I devised a route that deviated slightly from the classic tour, but allowed us to stay at small boutique hotels – most of them fairly new, and costing little more than the one refuge to which there was no alternative, the Rifugio Teodulo above Zermatt, which charged us €45 each.
We start not in the major ski resort of Saas Fee, as many do, but in neighbouring Saas Almagell, a smaller Swiss village easy to reach from Geneva (train to Visp, then a bus) and home to the Hotel Pirmin Zurbriggen. Swiss tradition meets contemporary design at this revamped four-star with spa run by the family of ski-racing stars Pirmin, Heidi and Silvan Zurbriggen. We dine among their medals on “green cappuccino” and haddock and potato cakes served by waitresses in dirndls, in a room decorated with industrial chandeliers by way-out Swiss designer Heinz Julen.
Our first day takes us into Italy’s Piedmont region over the 2,868m Monte Moro pass, named after the Moors who invaded the Saas valley in 939AD, and left a legacy of Moorish place names (and, say locals, noses).
The scenery is like I’d imagine a TV advert for anti-depressants. Wild flowers, sunshine, Christmassy pine trees, cows with giant bells, waterfalls, lurid green fields and the milky blue Mattmark lake. Then the anti-depressants wear off and it’s scree slopes, boulders and cloud, up to the huge golden Madonna statue at the top of the pass, where walkers start saying buon giorno! instead of grüss gott!
The brutal peaks of the Monte Rosa massif occasionally appear through the clouds while we eat our picnic of bread, ham and pickles, bought from a Swiss supermarket for £12 that morning, which seems a rip-off when we go for a beer in the cafe at the top of the cable car from Macugnaga, and see truffle pasta on the menu for €7. Italy is clearly much better value for money than Switzerland, for those converting from pounds.
Macugnaga is beautiful, with its ancient flower-decked chalets beneath the sheer east face of the massif and western Europe’s second-tallest peak, the 4,634m Dufourspitze, Monte Rosa’s summit. But the poshing-up of the Alps seems to have passed it by, and it feels like nothing has changed since the 1950s, including the hotels.
We have booked a room at the Zumstein, where the landlady leads us past a dismal old people’s home lounge to our room, which is dusty as a tomb. We can’t bear to hand over £100 for this so do a runner, ending up instead at the Hotel Flora, which is slightly better, even though the landlady refuses to let us see a room first, insisting, “No! It is bellissima!” When we return from dinner at the ungodly hour of 9.20pm, we have to be let in by the night watchman. Macugnaga is a funny little place, tinged with sadness – there are far too many young adventurers buried in the moving mountaineers’ cemetery beside the 600-year-old Chiesa Vecchia.
The joy of starting a walking day in Italy is buying your picnic. The village has a deli stocked with dozens of salamis, mountain cheeses, chocolates and cakes, which set us up nicely for the strenuous day ahead, a 16km slog over Colle del Turlo (2,738m), passing forests and turquoise whirlpools. It is early September, a wonderful time to hike because most days are warm and sunny, and the lower slopes are covered in wild berry bushes. There are raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries everywhere, and the thought of what they would cost in Sainsbury’s means I just can’t pass without picking.
The old Roman path at the top is surprisingly well-preserved, with neat slab steps. The weather turns misty and rainy, as it often does at the summits, but I’m distracted from impeding misery by a sudden flurry of movement from some German hikers coming the other way. Unlike the busy Tour de Mont Blanc route, the Monte Rosa is quiet, especially at this time of year. Encounters are rare, and we have seen only two other people all day; even so, the enthusiasm with which the Germans are waving seems excessive. Then I spot him. Between us on the misty track stands a magnificent steinbock, or Alpine ibex, with great curling horns.
The eight-hour hike ends in Alagna, the most beautiful Alpine village I’ve seen, tucked into a narrow, steep-sided valley. It’s totally bling-free, its dark wooden buildings housing only small delis, dairies, gelato shops and cafes, its churches painted with frescoes. Hikers often stay at the pretty Rifugio Pastore on a grassy plain under the south wall of the Monte Rosa, but we have set our sights four kilometres further down the valley at the Tre Alberi Liberi, a wonderful family-run B&B, stylishly decorated and reasonably priced, in Riva Valdobbia.
We must look a bedraggled mess when we arrive because lovely owners Elena and Roberto rush to dry us and warm us up, show us our cosy larch-floored room and give us drinks, and even the keys to their car, so that we can drive to the nearest restaurant still open, in Alagna. La Marmotta has delicious ravioli, rösti, and Langhe Nebbiolo wine, perfect service, and Elena’s guests get 10% off.
Fresh homemade peach cake, blueberry tart, smoothies, bresaola and cheese make a feast at breakfast, and then we cheat, accepting a lift (well it is raining) from Roberto up the Vogna valley as far as the rocky track will take us, to the hamlet of Peccia. Most Monte Rosa trekkers take the Passo Salati for this section, but the Vogna is prettier, less spoilt by ski lifts, and allows us a stop at Alpe Lareccho, an agriturismo with a cafe in a tiny wooden hut. There are shoes lined up against the woodburning stove in the corner, a bra hanging above it. The family who live there all summer have a pot of soup on the go, board games and spirits line the shelves, and it is very hard to drag myself back out into the rain.
The day turns grim – the only really rainy one of the trip. We walk uphill in torrential rain for three hours. I am soaked to the skin, cold, and my feet are covered in blisters. Visibility’s non-existent and we don’t have any food. I am like a pilgrim of old: exhausted, hungry, weak, desperate for a kindly refuge. And this being the Alps, of course, there is one. Ospizio Sottile, on the border of Italy’s Piemonte and Aosta regions, which I fantasise will feature a sauna, soft blankets, Michelin-starred linguine …
When we reach it I strip off all my clothes in the draughty chapel (sorry lord), change into dry ones (a perk of carrying all your clothes on your back) and bound into the dining room. What’s on the menu, we ask the two young men who live up here for months by themselves. “Well, we have soup …” Yes, I think, yes! And what else? Lasagne? Roast chicken? But that’s it. Just watery vegetable soup. Mine has one pasta hoop in it, and they have run out of bread.
After lunch a steep, wiggling descent takes us into Gressoney, a large ski town with many hotels, but we have opted to hike up the other side, to Alpenzu, where there’s a particularly lovely refuge, dating from 1779. I have made an exception for it because it has private rooms. We arrive at 7.20pm, almost 12 hours after setting off (thank god we accepted the lift). The sheets look and feel like Wundaweb, the iron-on stuff you hem trousers with, and there are no towels, but the food is fantastic: cured meats, grilled courgettes and aubergines, cheese and saffron knefflene (a local pasta), salad, sausages and steak, then four types of cheese. We eat it all and really need it.
The next night’s meal is even more fantastic, at a gem of a hotel, Frantze Le Rascard, in the small Walser settlement of Val d’Ayas on a hillside above the ski resort of Champoluc. The Walsers are the people who first inhabited these high pastures, emigrating from south-west Germany in the 1400s and 1700s. The hotel is in a traditional Walser building dating from 1721 and accessible only on foot or by ski lift, but has been made luxurious, with a sauna, shutters with heart-shaped holes, and gorgeous bedrooms in the former hayloft.
Dinner is incredible – mocetta (air-dried beef, more herby than bresaola) with battered courgette flowers, farfalle with mascarpone, homemade gnocchi and thinly sliced beef, then brown-bread semifreddo with honey.
By this time we are well into the swing of the trip, more nimble on our feet, fitter, happier, in love with the landscapes and the ancient way of life – up on the highest pasture, farmers spend all summer with their cattle, as they have for centuries. We have developed habits – dangling our wet washing off our rucksacks to dry in the sun, two lunches a day, long stops for marmot watching, photos and chocolate at every summit, an afternoon pint. Each day we walk for between six and eight hours, up and over moutain passes of around 3,000m. Sometimes we talk, or make up games, or sing. I frequently zone out and it feels like meditation, restorative.
A skiers’ cable car takes us down to Champoluc next morning, and we are on our way back to Switzerland, up a gorgeous valley to the linked ski resorts of Italian Cervinia and Swiss Zermatt. The Matterhorn is visible now, and we spot other famous glaciated peaks, the Weisshorn and Breithorn. After several hours’ climb, passing ice-blue lakes and summery plains, we are faced with a bizarre moonscape, JCBs and pylons on the plateau that links the resorts. It’s a huge, ugly thing to cross, and we make the journey longer by doing a 30-minute detour to use the loo at a cafe, the Gran Sometta, which turns out to be closed.
The family who own it are doing renovations. “So sorry, we have no water!” says the mum. “But please, have a drink, come in! We never see people up here in summer!”
They insist on showing us round, won’t let us pay for our Cokes, and are so disappointed that we don’t think we can carry the bottle of wine they really want to give us as a gift, that they insist we return in winter to drink it.
That night is refuge night, at the Rifugio Teodulo, 3,317m up on the Theodul Pass, which connects the two countries. It is fantastic to stay somewhere so high, and somewhere so important to mountaineering history, one of the classic refuges in this area where the sport began. We have our dormitory to ourselves, the views are staggering, and it is fun and sociable (everyone gets a bedtime shot of génépi to send them to sleep). But as expected, the scratchy blankets are covered in hairs, the food is poor and the bathroom horrible (we queue to clean our teeth at the one working tap while a man washes his feet at it).
But this stretch feels like real adventure, crossing the snowy glacier, avoiding crevasses, seeing one of the most astonishing mountain panoramas in the world: Monte Rosa, Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Breithorn and hundreds more peaks surround us.
Zermatt, with its Indian TV crews, crowds of tourists, megabucks price-tags and luxury hotels comes as a shock, and though we spend a rest day there, in bars, and the brilliant new museum, we can’t wait to be back in the wilderness on deserted paths.
Rather than head back towards the Saas Valley in the east via Grächen, we head west, taking a train to St Niklaus, a cable car to Jungu, then hike east to Gruben, to stay at the historic but simple Hotel Schwarzhorn, before ending our epic journey with a final night in luxury, at the charming hotel Bella Tola in St-Luc. The spa has taxidermy above the pool, antiques complement floral wallpapers, cowhides and antlers abound, and after several nights in villages without such options, I have to appreciate the vision of the hotel owners who have created such beautiful, contemporary places to stay in such remoteness.
Of course, no matter where you stay, this is an incredible walking route, and it is the mountains that make it so. Our trip over, we take one final look out from our luxurious room, back up the valley to the stupendous Matterhorn, and agree no amount of interior design wizardry can compete with that view.
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