The Alps

A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond



TThe best description of the Alps I’ve seen comes from a geologist, Richard Fortey, in his book, The Earth: An Intimate History. In writing of the stupendous collision of European and African tectonic plates, he says, “Alpine mountains might be seen as a badly made lasagne, crudely layered and buckled in the cooking.” The homely metaphor reassures. The result of an mountain-building process that began over two hundred million years ago, the Alps are a fearsome, gargantuan intrusion of stone inconveniently located not at the edge but square in the middle of Europe.

I lived almost two decades in Paris, then another few years near Perpignan, in the shadow of the Pyrenees. Yet all the while I was drawn to Europe’s most evocative mountain range, the Alps, again and again. I have overflown them, taken trains through their tunnels, driven over their heart-stopping passes and skied down their slopes. Despite all that, I did not know what to make of them.

There is a temptation to dismiss the Alps as simply a winter wonderland, destined for skiers taking pictures of themselves with stuffed marmots. They are much more than that, and always have been. The Alps impede the passage between northern and southern Europe. Their very size and difficulty of access have made them the creator of divisions, in language, cuisine, culture, religion, history and much else. It is this human geography that interests me. Their hidden valleys have seen the march of armies since Antiquity, witnessed the clanking of Crusaders and tramp of pilgrim. Tradesmen have struggled over their passes, as have bishops, emperors, noblewomen, and thieves. Fourteen million people live in the Alps, and many of them cannot talk to each other, so great are the language barriers created by the mountains. Disruption, to use a term now in vogue, has been their role in a shared history.

Before satisfying my curiosity by embarking on a journey in their midst, I was unaware that these mountains were the midwife of the Romantic Revolution, that they changed the very way we look at nature, that what was once considered forbidding ineluctably became erotic. The Alps more or less invented tourism, and they ushered in the mania for winter sports. They have inspired artists and criminals. They have also stood as a challenge for people of great courage and intellect. Mountain-climbing came of age in the Alps, as did the science of geology. They have been the stage of marvelous engineering achievement and the setting for horrible disaster.

Taken together, the various Alpine ranges cover a Kansas-sized 210,000 square kilometers and stretch from France to Slovenia in a 1,200-kilometer arc that is 200 kilometers at its widest. That makes for thousands of peaks – monstrous, medium, and modest – as one proceeds from west to east. There are 1,599 Alpine peaks with an altitude exceeding 2,000 meters. After much head-scratching, I opted to take a route from west to east, from Lake Geneva in Switzerland to Trieste in Italy. This meant I could engage with the mammoth heights first, while I was still fresh. More important, I decided to concentrate on the high passes of the Alps rather than their high peaks. It is by cresting a pass that one sees the diversity of in human geography, learns the different stories told on either side of the height, finds out that what is goofy on one side may be grand on the other. With a high pass you go through the trees, then they fade away, until you are at a tundra height overlain with snow. Downward you go, past dozens of hairpins, and usually you end up in someplace entirely different. You may have passed the lard line (pork fat vs. olive oil), a national boundary, a linguistic cleavage (gone from the Germanic to the Latin or the Slavic), a shift in architecture or a sudden change in human behavior and custom. To someone who has always been interested in boundaries and differences, the Alpine passes proved irresistible. I am hardly alone in this feeling. Writing in 1904, British mountaineer William Conway observed, “to climb a peak is to make an expedition, but to cross a pass is to travel. In the one case you normally return to the spot whence you set out; in the other you go from the known to the unknown, from the visible to what is beyond. The peak, which is before you when you set out to climb it, is only explained, not revealed, as you ascend; but every pass is a revelation: it takes you over into another region. You leave one area behind and you enter another; you come down amongst new people and into fresh surroundings. You shut out all that was familiar yesterday and open up another world.”

This trip will necessarily be automotive, a vertical road trip for the stout of heart The ground to be covered is vast – seven of the Alpine countries, hundreds of miles, tens of thousands of meters up and down, up and down. I do not intend this to be an exhausive itinerary, covering every pass – that is an outright impossibility given their number. Rather, I will concentrate on those with the most stories to tell. The vistas will be magnificent, scary even, but the insight gained might just well be worth the effort and the fright.

And did I mention that I’m afraid of heights?