Most people see Switzerland as a winter destination, a place for winter sports and apres-ski, but it's also glorious for walking all year round.
It's a glorious sunny evening when I arrive in the small village of Riederalp via cable car. From my room at the Art Furrer Resort there's a line of snow-capped mountains on the horizon and I can just make out the jagged outline of the Matterhorn. I'm here for a couple of day's walking and the weather forecast couldn't be better. Up here there are no motor vehicles and, next morning, I take the electric bus to Bettmeralp and then the cableway to Bettmerhorn. This is one of the advantages of the ski facilities - you can get to altitude quickly with the minimum of effort.
I climb upwards with my guide Peter, who tells me that this route was only constructed recently. I see what he means as I reach the ridge overlooking the great Aletsch Glacier, the longest iceflow in the Alps. This is almost a knife edge and, in the impassable parts, they've added wooden walkways and chains in the rocks to steady yourself. Vertigo sufferers beware, but it's an exhilarating trek with stunning views of the glacier with the Jungfrau and the Eiger plainly visible in the distance. Two hours later I reach the café, just below the Eggishorn, and tuck into a well-deserved lunch of rosti, cheese, bacon and eggs.
I take the cable car down to the village of Fiescheralp and follow the contour back to Riederalp, pausing along the way to visit the tiny chapel of Maria zum Schnee, in a picture book position overlooking the valley. The lack of the sound of motor vehicles means the silence is extra-ordinary here and I enjoy a pleasant swim back at my hotel. Later I'm ready for a traditional dish of Raclette - melted cheese with boiled potatoes and pickles. I suppose that in the winter, that's all they had, and it's none the worse for that - particularly as they keep on refilling your plate until you can eat no more.
Next day I'm in the capable hands of Art Furrer himself - now 75, he's a legend in these parts for his work in the USA teaching the Kennedys to ski. After visiting the Villa Cassel, a baroque mansion built in the early 20th century, we set out for Belalp. It's a glorious walk downhill to the new suspension bridge which spans 124 metres across the gorge, originally hollowed out by the glacier. Art tells me that when he was young the ice was still here, but it's now retreated further up the valley. He believes that this is part of the natural climatic cycle and has nothing to do with global warming, so who am I to argue?
The bridge itself is a marvel of modern engineering and you need a certain resolve to get across and ignore the raging torrent beneath. It's then a long climb up to Belalp but Art takes it slow and steady - this is the reason, he tells me, that he can still tackle these trails at his ripe old age. There's the added benefit of a cold beer at the top where we stumble across a wedding party from the nearby chapel. Above this is the house built by John Tyndall, a Victorian scientist famous for his study of glaciers. He was mistakenly poisoned by his wife and she erected a memorial stone to him nearby.
I say farewell to Art and check in at the Hamilton Lodge, just down the hill from the cable car station. This is a delightful Swiss chalet hotel situated just above the cow sheds, and I'm awoken early by the sound of their bells as they come in for morning milking. There's just time for a short circular walk along the edge of the mountain before descending to the valley below and catching the train back to Zurich. It's a shock to be back in civilisation but I feel privileged to have enjoyed the calm and beauty of the mountains. Hiking here is not just limited to the summer and winter walks are increasing in popularity. I'll certainly be back to try them out.
SWISS operates daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich, Geneva or Basel.
The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination. Prices are £90 in second class and £145 in first class.
Valais Tourism has information on the region.
My Switzerland has information about the country.
All pictures copyright Rupert Parker
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