We are now in eastern Switzerland. From Lake Constance and Bregenz we drove due south west for about 90 minutes to the Toggenburg – a steep sided valley some 30 kms east of Zurich. This is the mid-level Alps; peaks around us are about 2500m, and although much lower than the core Alpine areas, still offer intrinsically the same walking experience.
Through Guest2Guest we have use of an old farmhouse for a couple of weeks, situated above the valley floor at 750m. It took some finding; it’s off a rough track and then down a steep grassy slope – 4X4 vehicles only. The house is completely constructed from wood over 200 years ago and has been sympathetically modernized inside with all mod cons, but in a highly environmentally friendly manner. It’s quiet, no WiFi, no TV. About 10 minute’s drive from the nearest town in the valley floor.
But the walking is right on the doorstep! Yesterday we did an exploratory walk, picking up a Wanderweg just metres from our door and following to a restaurant at about 1000m. We walked around a nature reserve close by then descending by the same route. An easy walk, overall time 3 hours, approx. height gain 300m.
Today we followed the same wanderweg to 1000m and then picked up a circuit (rundweg) which provided access to a higher ridge, which we took to 1575m part of a longer distance path. A more difficult walk, overall time 5.5 hours, approx. height gain 900m, distance 17kms.
It’s a while since we did alpine walking. The first thing we remember is the incredible steepness of the hills. The “in your face” and “never ending” effort required, particularly in the typical Alpine summer temperatures. And crucially the great care needed to descend safely. But the benefits of Alpine walking haven’t changed. Wherever you walk, the routes are incredibly well organized and signed. The maps are excellent and available both as ordinance survey quality (1km = 3cm) as well as tourist information level leaflets that provide guidance on timing, difficulty etc which are very helpful in route planning. And the hills and mountains are literally covered in walks, together with huts, restaurants and cafés. And there are no expensive information boards or similar. There are three types of walk defined in the OS maps and shown with different legends. The Wanderweg is a hiking route. Intended for all walkers they do not place particular requirements on users. The Mountain Hiking Trail is intended for experienced users who are sure footed, unafraid of heights, physically fit and experienced mountain hikers. The Alpine Hiking Trail in addition to the Mountain Trail category requires users to be physically very fit, Alpine experienced with adequate gear.
On a practical level the signage approach hasn’t changed in years. Colour coding which seems to be a European wide standard, is implemented as sign posting and repeater flashes along the route. Like the UK the paths give access across farmland; however, it’s noticeable that there’s great cooperation in place. There are almost no stiles – we have only seen one so far. Instead farmers use an insulated handle with a hooked end to allow the walker to open and close electric fences. No maintenance, dead easy for all parties. Also, we note farmers are good at communicating risks – one sign we saw today said (in German), Beware, Mother Cows Suckling – keep your distance because mothers will protect their calves.
But in the end the Alpine experience is the majesty of the towering mountains which provide the backdrop for the extraordinary neatness of the high-level meadows and the profusion of flora and fauna. The meadows are a profusion of classic Alpine flowers which bring so much colour to the hills. And the birds of prey are amazing in their ordinariness. They are everywhere. Buzzards and I think Red Kites glide, climb and dive everywhere. To either side of the old house we have two rows of high trees, some very old pines and deciduous species. We see the great birds sitting in the tree tops, then flopping in and out of the trees with such regularity that suggests they have nests there. And from time to time there are several of the birds in the air together, swooping low above and around us. The garden surrounding the house has been left in a natural state, just long grasses with a few shrubs, and the butterflies are prolific.
It’s noticeable the hills at least around here are not very busy. Whilst there’s lots of people around the heads of the ski lifts and restaurants, as you head out onto the paths it’s very quiet. And yet July is the peak summer tourist season. And from our previous experience in the French, Italian and German Alps, we know that the real tourist season is in winter and the higher level Ski Lifts are closed in summer. Walking is clearly important, but very much second priority to the winter tourist business. What’s not to like? As walkers we get privileged access to amazing walking routes that are not over crowded, at no charge.
Having established a basic understanding of the available walking in the Toggenburg we plan to walk a good few routes over the next week and will report in due course.