Why the Tour du Mont Blanc should not be on your bucket list

I’ve been leading hiking groups on the Tour du Mont Blanc for exactly twenty years, and it’s always been a spectacular trip, with a climb of up to 1000m every morning, followed by a similar descent, as we make our way around the whole Mont Blanc massif in (as a rule) an anti-clockwise direction. The first day out of Chamonix, from Bellevue to Les Contamines, has always been busy, with the front of one group getting tangled up in the rear of the one in front and the rear getting tangled up in another coming up behind (not to mention individual hikers and family groups) – but the rest of the circuit has got much, much busier recently.

In the last five years or so, the TMB, already well established as a good hike, has somehow made its way onto half the world’s bucket list, on a par with the Camino de Santiago and the Inca Trail. It’s become much more crowded, and, specifically, much more anglophone, with lots of Americans and Australians, as well as groups from Japan, South Korea and even Malaysia. Sometimes I hear a European language which I just can’t recognise, probably Basque as a rule, given their love of the mountains, though there must be a few hikers from the Baltic states too.

The French word for mountain running races is ‘trail’

In addition, there’s a new breed of skinny people out and about in the Alps – once upon a time, people who went to the mountains were mostly like me, big and hairy (including the women) and able to carry heavy rucksacks up big hills – but now all these other people – who’ve been occupying themselves with 5Ks and marathons and their PBs for the last decade or two – have started running up and down the mountains with ridiculous ease, wearing skimpy lycra, compression socks and minimal shoes and carrying virtually nothing but water and energy gels. There are lots of so-called ‘trail’ races now, such as Sierre-Zinal, the Mont-Blanc Marathon, and above all the Ultratrail du Mont-Blanc, which pretty much follows the course of the TMB. There simply isn’t enough room for hikers and runners, and mountainbikers too –  geography dictates that essentially everyone has to go over the same passes, so even where variants are available elsewhere, everyone is still funnelled together at the pinchpoints. Not surprisingly, there’s very little wildlife to be seen now.

Montain bikers getting tangled up with Japanese and American hikers
Mountain biker getting more than he bargained for on the Col de Seigne

Working for the excellent Wilderness Travel, we do of course have our own cunning ways of avoiding the crowds in a few places. We used the balcony route from La Peule to Ferret long before it was marked on maps or signs – happily, it remains little used and is still lovely. More variants are needed – but not the Fenêtre d’Arpette (between Champex and Trient), which is in very bad condition, and is always a much tougher option than the Bovine route, and, to be honest, less attractive, if more macho. In parts, the path has been widened to allow mule-trekking, which doesn’t seem that popular at the moment, but it also encourages mountain bikers, alas.

Thinking of trail maintenance, I’m not clear how the TMB is managed by the three countries it passes through, and which benefit from the money it brings (see my previous comments on the Cornish Coast Path). It seems that some municipalities send their general maintenance guys out with strimmers and so on, but some stretches are in terrible condition (notably from the Col de Balme to Trient, where poor drainage has left a gully down the middle of the trail). On the other hand, just on the other side of Trient there’s a splendid new footbridge over the main road to the Col de Forclaz, built purely for hikers.

 And the Haute Route

I went on to lead a group on the Haute Route, from Chamonix to Zermatt (which shares its first two days with the TMB, although in reverse). It’s no more crowded than it used to be, largely because access to the central section is limited by the capacity of the Mont-Fort, Louvie and Prafleuri huts, but also because the Prafleuri hut is temporarily closed (just for a few weeks – due to bedbugs, rumour has it…). But it’s a harder trip, so not a like-for-like alternative to the TMB. Part of the section from Mont-Fort to Prafleuri is now marked in blue (rather than red), to indicate that it’s a difficult trail, although there is a longer alternative path available.

Having seen no large wildlife on the TMB, we saw ibex in the places we’d expect to see them on the Haute Route, but no chamois – but that’s been the story of the last two decades, as we’ve seen fewer and fewer chamois. Likewise, we found edelweiss, but you do need an experienced leader to point it out (on the Haute Route, but not on the TMB).

 And also

I was also ‘researching’ wheat beers and noticed a spectrum from west to east, from the French-style bière blanche, refreshing but not that interesting, to the proper Bavarian Weissbier to be had in German-speaking Switzerland, which is properly satisfying. To be fair, many French brewers (even 1664) are producing new wheat beers, but I’m just not convinced. On the wine front, I’ve bravely sampled the Valais (Rhône Valley) wines for many years, but have finally come to the conclusion that French grapes are best (we had lovely bottles of Merlot-Cabernet and Viognier this time) rather than hoping that the local Swiss grape varieties (Humagne, Cornalin, Chasselas) will produce something better than average. Though I will make an exception for Fendant, the quintessential wine to have with raclette or fondu.

Finally, I went up to the Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge, also (wrongly) known as the Europabrücke because it’s on the Europaweg, the stunning two-day balcony route up the Mattertal towards Zermatt. Opened in 2017, this is the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge, at 494 metres. It’s a 610m climb from the village of Randa, and if you take the southern option (ie an anticlockwise loop) it’s a pretty easy climb of one to two hours. The usual way down, to the north, is a dreadful path, however – particularly slow today due to the large number of overloaded climbers struggling up to the Europahütte. Presumably they missed the sharp right turn as you come up out of the old village of Randa, which confirms my views about most climbers not being that bright – though some do write beautifully. In fact if I did it again, I’d go up and down on the southern path – although the best thing would be to continue (southwards, ideally, for Matterhorn views) on the Europaweg.

 

Davos – just dropping in

I spend a lot of time in Switzerland every summer (on expenses, thank goodness), usually going to familiar towns and hiking routes, and I have nothing new to say about them – but I did manage a quick visit to somewhere new and vaguely interesting this year. Davos used to be known for TB sanatoria and as the setting of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and as a ski resort (some people confuse it with neighbouring Klosters, thinking this is where the British royal family ski). Now it seems to be better known for the World Economic Forum, where the likes of Bill Gates, George Soros and Bono confer with the world’s political and industrial leaders. We actually stayed in the Intercontinental, where the high-fliers stay during the WEF – it looms over the town like a cruise liner over Venice, but its design is actually said to be inspired by a pine-cone. It’s very comfortable, but you probably didn’t need to be told that. We usually stay in the more historic Hotel Schatzalp, also sitting a funicular ride above the town. There are plenty of other hotels, and a youth hostel, now rebranded as Youthpalace Davos.

However for me the main interest, apart from excellent hiking, was discovering that the painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had lived here for the last two decades of his life. He came in 1917 after suffering a breakdown while serving in the German army, and lived here until his suicide in 1938 – he had been targeted by the Nazis in the notorious Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937, which attacked Jewish and modernist artists. I knew about Kirchner’s earlier career due to writing the Bradt guide to Dresden, where he had co-founded Die Brücke (The Bridge), the group which created German Expressionism. Here in Davos he developed a late style which was more abstract and emblematic, and much less angst-ridden than early Expressionism – I liked it very much. There’s a selection of these works in the small but perfectly formed Kirchner Museum, a simple glass-box design with bare concrete walls inside which has won various architectural awards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s also the admirable Heimat Museum, covering traditional local life and history (and less than half the cost of the Kirchner Museum), and a Winter Sports Museum, which I haven’t visited.

Most of the town’s restaurants seem to be Italian – we ate at Da Elio and Der Pate (The Godfather, with plenty of moody shots of Marlon Brando), both busy and cheery and exactly what Italian restaurants should be. The food was excellent too (pizza, pasta and more), and the prices were fair for Switzerland. I couldn’t help noticing that there’s a large number of mini-supermarkets here (and bigger ones too) – there are multiple branches of Co-op, Spar, Migros and Migrolino (a mini-Migros, on railway stations and so on).

Did I say excellent hiking??