SWITZERLAND and the ALPS hiking guide 2022

The Alps of Europe are a paradise for hikers. This article describes how to plan your hiking trip beneath spectacular peaks such as Eiger, Jungfrau, Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and Piz Palü. Here are the Alps in a nutshell:

  1. Switzerland: Berner Oberland & neighboring Loetschental.
  2. France–Switzerland: The Walker’s Haute Route & Valais Canton: from Chamonix to Zermatt & the Matterhorn; Saas-Fee; Bettmerhorn & Eggishorn
  3. France–Italy–Switzerland: Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB)
  4. Switzerland: Engadine Valley: trek 5+ days admiring distinctive architecture & icy peaks.
  5. Switzerland: Appenzell: trek 1-5 days via a splendid microcosm of Swiss mountain traditions.
  6. Switzerland: Schaffhausen canton: 1-2 days old town, Rhine Falls & historic Stein am Rhein. 

Separate articles cover the Dolomites plus Venice in ITALY and Julian/Slovenian Alps in SLOVENIA.

My Alps trips include 2022 (Tour du Mont Blanc, Saas-Fee, Swiss Via Alpina), 2016, 2013, 2011, 2005, and 1981.

Click here to view Tom’s Portfolio of Alps favorite images from hiking in Switzerland, France, Italy, and Slovenia. In the following video captured at unforgettable Eigeralp farm in Bussalp above Grindelwald, the cheesemaker gave an impromptu accordion concert, inspiring some to dance:

Practical advice for self-guided trips in Switzerland and the Alps
  • Transportation:
    • In your home country before departure, buy a Swiss Pass [Rick Steves external link] for significant travel savings on most Swiss rail lines, PostBuses, and lifts. Good for a month, the Swiss Half Fare Card was the best value for doing the Swiss Via Alpina (where we had a few long rail trips across the country and frequently sought 50% discounts on pricey lifts). Compare to the price versus savings of the Swiss Travel Pass Flex, which is valid on 3, 4, 6, 8, or 15 freely selectable days within one month.
    • For one-way hikes within Switzerland: Post your luggage ahead to train and Post stations, or have hotels send your bags ahead.
    • Renting a car can beat train prices for 3 or more people traveling together (though parking can be a problem in big cities).
  • Money: travel costs in Switzerland are on par with resort areas of the USA, except restaurants may be more expensive. In 2022, the Euro and Swiss Franc exchange rates with the US dollar were at parity, good for American visitors. From 2005-2016, exchanging the US dollar for Swiss Francs was better than for the Euro (used in France, Italy, and Austria). 
  • Food: In Northern Europe, shopping at local grocery stores for delicious gourmet picnic dinners & lunches saves lots of money and time! Most major train stations, airports, and town centers include full grocery outlets. When dining at hotels or restaurants in the Alps, we were frequently frustrated by slow multi-course service and meal times which often started later than desired. Instead of using hotels’ Half or Full Board meal plans, we prefer Breakfast Only (or no meal plan) for greater flexibility. Finding a flat with kitchen worked great in the Dolomites! Spend less on food by assembling a sack lunch and dinner from grocery stores (such as Coop, our Swiss favorite, Migros, or Carrefour) and by carrying a thermos bottle to fill at your hotel in the morning for hot drinks during the day.
  • Use hiking poles (as do Europeans) to assist ascents, protect your joints on descents and improve hiking stamina by 20%.
  • Time change: set your watch +9 hours from Pacific Standard Time (PST=west coast USA) to get Central European time (CEST is GMT+1). Allow a full day to recover from travel weariness and severe jet lag, plus 2 or 3 days to recover your sleep schedule.
  • Guidebooks: Buy a travel guidebook plus hiking guidebook at bottom of this article for planning and reference along the way.
Switzerland map 1: five-week hiking itinerary, August 2016
A geographic travel map of Switzerland shows a month itinerary starting from Zurich (doing 25 hikes in 35 days July 27-August 30) in Schaffhausen, Stein am Rhein, Appenzell, Berner Oberland, Valais canton (Fiesch, Verbier, Zermatt) and Engadine Valley, in Europe. (Tom Dempsey)

Map 1: A geographic travel map of Switzerland shows a 5-week itinerary starting from Zurich (doing 25 hikes in 35 days July 27-August 30, 2016) in Schaffhausen, Stein am Rhein, Appenzell, Berner Oberland, Valais canton (Fiesch, Verbier, Zermatt) and Engadine Valley. (Tom Dempsey)

Switzerland map 2: one-month hiking itinerary, September 2005
A geographic travel map of Switzerland shows a month itinerary starting from Zurich and doing 20 hikes in Berner Oberland, Chamonix (France), Zermatt, and Engadine Valley, Europe. (Tom Dempsey)

Map 2: In 2005, Carol and Tom Dempsey hiked 20 days during a month in Switzerland, via Zurich, Berner Oberland, the High Route from Chamonix (France) to Zermatt, and Engadine Valley. (Tom Dempsey)

Weather and hiking season in the Alps (Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy)
  • July 1 through August 15 is high tourist season, after which local kids go back to school and parents don’t have as much time to visit the tourist areas, which are then less crowded. Our trip July 27-August 30, 2016 had almost perfect weather, vast variety of wildflowers, and little problem with crowds (lots of lodging options).
  • July to early August has the best wild flower displays. We were still impressed by flowers in September 2005.
  • Late August through September is a great time to go for good weather and also avoiding crowds. Yellow larch and other impressive fall colors begin in middle to late September. Many mountain huts start closing in early September. Stay in valley hotels all year. Hiking season continues through October in the Dolomites, Italy, which are consistently clearer, warmer and drier than the Alps of Switzerland, France & Austria, which are further north.
  • Swiss hiking season ends about late September or early October due to snow in the mountains and the closure of many visitor facilities. When winter snowpack builds up a few months later, the Alps throng with skiers, creating bigger winter crowds than summer in ski areas such as Zermatt, where building booms have provided lots of lodging.

Mountain weather varies by region:

  • A north wind generally means good weather in the Alps.
  • Check the useful weather forecast for specific ranges, peaks, and altitudes:
  • Check weather forecasts and start hiking early in the morning. In many mountain areas, sun heating the ground in the morning can often build up clouds and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Patient photographers can look for attractive cloud breaks in the hours around sunset.
  • Switzerland:
    • The Valais, Zermatt, and Matterhorn tend to be sunny and dry with the highest hikes in the country.
    • Bernese Oberland and the Eiger are much rainier than the Valais and Engadine. The astounding beauty of ice clad peaks soaring high above verdant green pastures sprinkled with wildflowers must be seen to be believed.
  • France: Chamonix climate is somewhere between Geneva and Zermatt, one of the drier alps areas in the rain shadow of Mont Blanc. September to early October is best hiking weather.
  • Dolomites, Italy (click for article): September through October are consistently clearer, warmer, drier in the Dolomites than in the Alps of Switzerland, France & Austria. Southern and southeastern areas are foggier than the rest of the Dolomites. Excellent overnight hut walking options include:
    • Rifugio Lagazuoi
    • Tre Cime di Lavaredo (in Italian), Drei Zinnen (in German), or “Three Pinnacles” (in English) circuit with refugios.
Global warming is quickly melting most Alps glaciers

1. Switzerland: Berner Oberland and neighboring Loetschental

The Berner Oberland (aka Bernese Alps, Bernese Highlands, or Bernese Oberland) is the southern and higher elevation part of Bern canton in Switzerland.

How to get there: From Zurich downtown train station, ride 4 hours to Interlaken, where you board a train to scenic Grindelwald Valley or spectacular Lauterbrunnen Valley.

TIP: by adding 7 to 10 days to your itinerary, the most dramatic way to reach the Berner Oberland is by walking across Switzerland from the eastern border, following the “Swiss Via Alpina trek” which we did in 2022. Best guidebook:

Click “i” to read descriptive Captions. Click the dotted square to scroll a set of thumbnail images. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

UNESCO lists Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn as a World Heritage Area featuring the most glaciated part of the Alps, Europe’s largest glacier, and a range of classic glacial features such as U-shaped valleys, cirques, horn peaks, and moraines. The ongoing uplift and compression that formed the High Alps has left an outstanding geological record. A diversity of flora and wildlife thrives in a range of Alpine and sub-Alpine habitats. In the wake of retreating glaciers, witness the colonization and succession of flowers and plants. The impressive vista of the North Wall of the High Alps, centered on the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks, has played an important role in European art and literature.

Berner Oberland and Loetschental hiking tips, Switzerland

See the external site: www.myswissalps.com/berneseoberland/ which thoroughly describes most Berner Oberland hikes, of which I’ve done the following:

1a. Mannlichen Gipfel
  • is the wonderful site of my best-selling imageEiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau 81ALP-04-15.
  • Männlichen Royal Walk: Männlichen mountain (2343 meters elevation or 7687 feet) gives a stunning view of the peaks of Eiger (Ogre 13,026 feet), Mönch (Monk), and Jungfrau (Virgin 13,600 feet) with a foreground ridge enhancing the sense of scale. Männlichen can be reached from Wengen by the Luftseilbahn Wengen-Männlichen (LWM) cable car, or from Grindelwald using the Gondelbahn Grindelwald-Männlichen (GM) gondola. Then walk 15 minutes on a paved path to the summit. Go before 1:30PM to avoid frequent afternoon cloud buildup. Return down the hill, then traverse 2 leisurely hours to Kleine Scheidegg train station, facing stunning mountain views at every turn! A special cog train runs from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen to Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald and back.
1b. Lauterbrunnen Valley
  • Wander around Lauterbrunnen for amazing views, including 1000-foot-high Staubbach Falls, in one of the world’s most spectacular glaciated valleys.
  • Schilthorn cable car affords a spectacular vista of the stunning peaks framing the length of Lauterbrunnen Valley. Ride the Schilthornbahn from Stechelberg via Gimmelwald and Mürren villages to Birg station and the Schilthorn (2,970 metres or 9,744 ft). In 2005, Carol and I loved hiking from Mürren via Wasenegg Ridge to Birg (4700 ft ascent, 1400 ft descent, cumulative) then riding down. Riding up then hiking down would also be spectacular, with less work, if you don’t mind pounding your knees. Piz Gloria, the panoramic revolving restaurant at Schilthorn summit, was featured in the 1969 James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” After considering a number of locations, the stalled construction of the sports bar atop the Schilthorn was chosen when the film’s producer financed the completion of the now-famous revolving platform for the right to use it for his film. In 2022, the James Bond exhibits at Piz Gloria were mostly hokey and passé, but the short video about making the 1969 Bond film was fascinating, albeit cringe-worthy for its sexist 1960s sensibilities.
    • Or walk from Mürren to Griesalp one way 10 miles, 3000-4000 feet gain, then take the Kiental bus out. Optionally stay overnight in Griesalp and continue walking from Griesalp to Kandersteg, following the Via Alpina.
  • Don’t miss Trümmelbach Falls (German: Trümmelbachfälle), a series of ten glacier-fed waterfalls plunging inside the mountain, ingeniously made accessible by stairs, illumination, and a tunnel-funicular built in 1913. The creek called Trümmelbach drains the northerly glaciers of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks. To avoid crowds, arrive in the morning a few minutes before first opening. Walking the stairs both up and down avoids lines of people waiting for the optional lift.
  • We loved hiking to the quiet retreat of Berghotel Obersteinberg, which offers tremendous views of waterfalls and peaks in Upper Lauterbrunnen Valley, spotlit at sunset. Lit by candle light at night, this romantic escape built in the 1880s recalls an earlier era without power. The main luxuries here are flush toilets down the hall, and traditional Swiss hot meals. The private double rooms lack electricity, and bowls of water serve as bath and sink. Obersteinberg is a 2-hour walk from Stechelberg, or 4 hours from Mürren. From Obersteinberg, don’t miss the 2-3 hours round trip to the deep-blue tarn of Oberhornsee in the upper glacial basin, beneath snowcapped Grosshorn, Breithorn and Tschingelhorn.

Video from within the slot canyon of Trummelbach Falls, Lauterbrunnen:

1c. Grindelwald Valley
  • The Faulhorn Trail from Schynige Platte to First is one of the finest hikes in Switzerland (which we did in July 2022).
    • Walk 6.5 hours, 9 miles, ~2700 feet elevation gain. (Optionally reverse direction for less uphill, 2300 feet total, arriving at Schynige Platte by 17:00 or 18:00 to catch the last train.) A sunny uncloudy day is required to see vast mountain views. See hike #39 in “100 Hikes in the Alps” by The Mountaineers. Directions: Stage the hike from lodging in Grindelwald. Take Wilderswil cog rail 1 hour to trailhead at Schynige Platte (2068m). Hike by fantastic rock shapes in a deep valley. Walk on the east side of Bachalpsee. Ascend 15 minutes side trip to Faulhorn. Optionally overnight on top in atmospheric Berghotel Faulhorn for stunning sunset and sunrise views. Photographers should plan to reach spectacular First at the end the hike in the afternoon, because sun striking early morning haze obscures mountain details. At First (2168 meters elevation), lift down to Grindelwald, or from Mittelläger take the ~hourly Post bus.
    • Better yet, start at Eigeralp farm in Bussalp (above Grindelwald) with a fresh farm breakfast, watch alpine cheese-making, then hike a shorter route to First gondola. Hike a very spectacular trail from Eigeralp farm in upper Bussalp, around Faulhorn to Bachalpsee, finishing at the gondola lift station at First, which descends to Grindelwald BGF. Every day, Eigeralp farm produces a variety of artisan cheeses and Alpine butter from raw milk in a large cauldron over an open fire. For breakfast, enjoy fresh bread from the oven, Alpine butter, various cheeses, yogurt, homemade jams, coffee, tea and fresh milk! While Eigeralp’s huts were built in 1892, its traditional cheese hut dates from the 1600s. While breakfasting, gaze over the peaks of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau in astoundingly spectacular high meadows. Getting there: ride the private GrindelwaldBus.ch to the last stop in Bussalp, then ascend 40 minutes on foot.
  • Gleckstein Hut (Glecksteinhütte) is an exciting, steep hike high above Grindelwald (6 miles round trip, 3000 feet up and down). Run by the Swiss Alpine Club, the hut is at 7600 feet elevation, with great views of the Upper Grindelwald Glacier. Climbers use it as a base for the ascent of the Wetterhorn and the Schreckhorn. It makes a wonderful goal for hardy hikers or overnight trekkers. Beware of cliff exposure which may frighten those who are afraid of heights — what was thrilling for me was scary for others. Cables are provided to hang onto for security. A fun feature was walking behind a small waterfall, where metal gratings provided secure steps. Directions: From Grindelwald, take the PostBus towards Grosse Scheidegg and stop at Abzweigung Gleckstein at 1557 m elevation, halfway between Hotel Wetterhorn and Grosse Scheidegg pass. (Note: hiking from the Hotel Wetterhorn’s trailhead at 1275 meters elevation will add 900 feet of climb for 3900 ft total gain.)
  • Hike comfortably along a steep hillside from Pfingstegg gondola to eat tasty desserts at scenic Berghaus Bäregg (5 miles round trip, 1500 ft) across from the eastern foot of the Eiger, high above the White Lütschine river.
  • Walk boardwalks and tunnels through the dramatic Gletscherschlucht of Grindelwald, a deep gorge of the White Lütschine river, flowing from Lower Grindelwald Glacier. From Gletscherschlucht Hotel-Restaurant, a wooden walkway leads over raging water, through galleries and rocky tunnels over 1000 meters into the ravine, under 100-meter high cliffs. To test your fear of heights, totter across a blue net over the foaming torrent. Walk there in 35 minutes from the center of Grindelwald (recommended via the LandArt-Grindelwald.ch exhibit along the river), or take the bus.
1d. Rosenlaui valley, Meiringen, and Engstlenalp on Swiss Via Alpina National Route 1
  • The Via Alpina enters the Berner Oberland at Engstlenalp and continues to Meiringen and Grindelwald, as described in “2022 July: Swiss Via Alpina trek (National Route 1)
  • Meringue, the dessert made from whipped egg whites, was invented in Meiringen. As part of our Via Alpina in 2022, starting in Meiringen, we rode the Reichenbachfallbahn funicular to see the impressive Reichenbach Falls. From there, we hiked uphill to Schwartzwaldalp (6 miles, 2000 feet gain), where due to rain, we caught the PostBus over the pass of Grosse Scheidegg to reach the stupendous Grindelwald Valley. Hiking and/or bussing like this in a southwest direction over Grosse Scheidegg is scenically more dramatic than the reverse. We’ve done both ways. In 2016, we hiked from First gondola lift station above Grindelwald, headed northeast across Grosse Sheidegg pass, then down the quiet, protected pastures of Rosenlaui valley beneath soaring peaks, to Rosenlaui PostBus station for a ride down to Meiringen. Along the way, we walked the narrow walkway carved through Rosenlaui Glacier Gorge / Gletscherschlucht. In this deep ravine, the Weissenbach River has eroded potholes into a natural cathedral of slate and limestone. However, if your time is limited, instead visit the more impressive Aare Gorge (German: Aareschlucht) in Meiringen (and best of all, experience Trümmelbach Falls raging through the mountain in Lauterbrunnen).
  • Nearby, Grimselpass / Grimsel Pass has interesting bare granite geology colored by lichen, but the extensive system of hydro-electric dams built in the 1920s and 1950s dominates the scenery and the aging hotels didn’t look attractive. We considered but didn’t do the Sidelhorn hike: Starting at Postbus stop at Historic Alpine Hotel Grimsel Hospiz, take Sidelhorn aerial cable car to the foot of Sidelhorn mountain, an easy hike 1-3.5 hours with panoramic views of Grimsel area, Goms area, Bernese Alps, Rhone & Oberaar glaciers, rivers and 12+ alpine lakes (Lake Grimsel, deep blue Totensee at top of the pass and alpine tarns on southern flanks). Along the descent, see idyllic Triebtenseewli and Bäregg hut from where the panorama opens out onto the UNESCO World Heritage area. Return via Chessituren and the pass road to Grimsel Hospiz or along Oberaar road back to Grimsel pass. Or lift back down.
1e. Kandersteg

is a scenic base for several hikes, reached by train or road from Brig to the south or Spiez to the north.

  • Oeschinensee is a wonderful alpine lake walled with high cliffs, one of my favorite Swiss sights. To avoid crowds, start early and go midweek. From the top of Gondelbahn Kandersteg – Oeschinensee, walk 15 minutes to reach the lake. Follow the lakeside trail then complete a counterclockwise loop via Ober Bergli back to the lift (5.2 miles with 1395 feet gain) via the higher, more-spectacular ledge trail. Overnight options: On a one-way traverse, we took the higher trail for the best lake views then climbed steeply over Hohtürli Pass (where you could sleep in dorms at Blüemlisalp hut), then down to comfy Griesalp Hotels where we rested in the remote valley of Kiental (1120 meters up and 1380 m down in 13.3 km). Although stairs and ladders helped handle the exposure, the route felt much longer than 8 miles due to steep, exposed rocky & gravelly slopes for a grueling 3700 feet up and 4500 feet down. We rode the Postbus (steepest in Europe) out of Kiental instead of hiking over Sefinenfurke pass to Lauterbrunnen Valley (which saved our weary bodies from climbing another 4000 feet in the same scenery that we had just descended). (See Stages 11 & 12 of the Swiss Via Alpina.)
  • Walk through the deeply glaciated U-shaped valley of Gasterntal (or Gasteretal / Gasterental) to explore the idyllic headwaters of the Kander River. A family-friendly 7 km walk (390 m gain) wanders up to Selden, starting from the bus stop for Luftseilbahn Kandersteg-Sunnbüel (a lift to the scenic Gemmipass hike, for next time). From Selden, take the PostBus back (reservations required) to Kandersteg Hauptbahnhof (train station). Or stay in quiet Selden at Hotel Gasterntal or Hotel Steinbock. The next day offers an epic traverse of a rapidly-melting glacier (where hiking poles help you to cross the snowfield and to hop rocks):
  • The next day from Selden, we enjoyed an adventurous traverse across Lötsch glacier and Lötschen Pass (German: Lötschenpass, Swiss German: Lötschepass) to neighboring Lötschental in Valais canton. The walk starts with a reserved Postbus ride from Kandersteg to Selden, climbs 1350 meters, descends 925 m, and ends 13 km later at Lauchernalp lift station, which descends to Wiler in Lötschental, to reach Goppenstein via Postbus, back to Kandersteg via train. You can also reverse the route or stay overnight in dorms at Lötschepass hut.
1f. Lötschental / Loetschental

is a lesser-visited valley in Valais Canton (over Lötschen Pass, just south of Kandersteg):

  • Stay in attractive Blatten. Enjoy a 3-mile walk one way up valley to Kuhmad Chapel (built 1758), past historic wood hayloft buildings and restored wooden chalets. Catch bus at Fafleralp and return to Blatten.
  • For best views of Loetschental and the sharp ridge of the Bietschorn, from Fafleralp, hike to Krindellücke (5 miles round trip, 2.5 hours, 1542 feet gain). See Hike #30 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”

2. France–Switzerland: The Walker’s Haute Route & Valais Canton

The Walker’s Haute Route (2b) starts from the Mont Blanc Massif in Chamonix (France), crosses Switzerland’s Valais canton, and ends at the Matterhorn in Zermatt. This section also covers hiking in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (2a) in France and walking in the Valais Canton of Switzerland, including Zermatt (2c), Saas-Fee resort (2d), Bettmerhorn and Eggishorn (2e) (to view the vast Aletsch Glacier). “Valais” = French for “Valley” = “Wallis” in German.

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2a. Mountain excursions from Chamonix, France
  • Lac Blanc: a superlative circuit visits both Lac Blanc and Lac de Chéserys, starting atop the lift, “Télécabine Flégère–Les Praz” (5.8 miles with 1930 feet ascent and descent). This rewarding lake loop covers the most scenic parts of Stage 10 of the Tour du Mont Blanc, but with much less effort. Behold the stunning Mont Blanc Massif across the valley. Lifts and weather may allow hiking from June 1 to Nov 1. Directions: La Flégère cable car ascends from Les Praz de Chamonix, one train stop from Chamonix or 10 minutes by bus. A shorter version we’ve done goes 4 miles with 2300 feet vertical gain one way from atop La Flégère station to Lac Blanc, finishing with an hour walk up to L’Index lift station (Google maps). Optionally stay in overnight dormitories at Refuge du Lac Blanc for sunset and sunrise reflections of the spectacular rock needles rising above Chamonix Valley. In 2005 during our Haute Route, we walked the “TMB Stage 10” backwards, from La Flégère in the direction of Argentière, along the Col de Montet route. (We avoided the version that connects to Tré-le-Champ via a series of exposed ladders near the imposing Aiguillette d’Argentière.) TMB hikers doing the full Stage 10 including the Lac Blanc extension might start with the earliest bus to Col des Montets, then walk southwest to Lac Blanc and finish at L’Index lift (5 miles one way, 3000 ft gain).
  • Lacs Noirs and Cornu: Take the lift from Chamonix to Planpraz to access the trail to these remote lakes (5.5 miles round trip, 2000 feet up and down). Lac Blanc can be added as follows, in a spectacular Aiguilles Rouges Traverse: start from Planpraz lift station, hike to Col Cornu and Col de la Gliere (8,074 ft), walk past L’Index top station to Lac Blanc, then head for La Flégère lift station (7.6 mi/2500 ft up/2900 ft down). If you have extra energy, loop back from La Flégère to where you started at Planpraz (11.2 miles total circuit, with 3500 feet up and down vertically). Doing either hike in effect covers the best views from TMB Stage 11. In 2022, we did the shortest version (without lakes), following the Grand Balcony South: starting from atop Télécabine Flégère–Les Praz lift, we hiked from La Flégère to Planpraz (3.6 miles, 940 feet ascent, 600 ft descent). From Planpraz, we rode Le Brévent cable car round trip for sightseeing on high, then caught the Télécabine Planpraz lift down to Chamonix.
  • While you’re at Planpraz (such as before or after hiking), don’t miss the round trip upwards to the stunning Le Brévent viewpoint via télécabine gondola lift.
  • Aiguille du Midi: Don’t miss the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi cable car from Chamonix (France) to a spectacular shoulder of the Mont Blanc Massif.
    • Take the world’s highest vertical ascent cable car, from 1035 meters to 3842 m (12,605 feet elevation) for an unforgettable, must-do experience. Optionally hike from Plan de l’Aiguille (below).
    • If weather is clear atop Aiguille du Midi, don’t miss the breathtaking Télécabine Panoramic Mont-Blanc which connects to Pointe Helbronner in Italy (which is alternatively accessible from Skyway Monte Bianco in Courmayeur).
    • In good weather, take the lifts round trip. Or bus from La Palud (near Courmayeur) through the Mont Blanc Tunnel back to Chamonix.
  • Grand North Balcony: walk from Plan de l’Aiguille to Montenvers via Le Signal Forbes Trail option (4.3 miles one way with 2000 feet vertical ascent and 700 feet descent). Admire the Mer de Glace (“Sea of Ice”) glacier emerging from a vast cirque under the Needles of Chamonix. Return via the Montenvers train to Chamonix (or else add 2800 feet of descent by trail). This makes a good first hike for acclimatization to the thin air at 7500 feet above sea level.
  • TMB Stage 9 could be done as a day hike from Chamonix or Argentière. From high green pastures, admire a broad vista of Aiguille du Chardonnet, Aiguille Verte, and Mont Blanc. Directions: Take public transportation to reach Col de la Forclaz in Switzerland then hike via Col de Balme and L’ Aiguillettes des Possettes to Argentière, France (10 miles one way, 3000 feet ascent, 3835 ft descent). Or for simpler logistics, hike a counterclockwise loop starting from Argentière, Montroc, or “Parking du Tour – Balme” in France. Check if lifts are operational.
  • Les Grands Montets to Chamonix (Google maps): 6 miles back to your hotel, 3125 feet down. Directions: take transit to Chamonix-Lognan les Grands Montets lift (near Argentiere), then lift to Les Grands Montets for views, take the same lift back down to TPH Lognan station, then walk to scenic Le Chapeau Chalet for lunch or snack, then walk to Chamonix.
  • Bellevue lift and Tramway du Mont-Blanc (external link) (coincidental acronym TMB): starting from Les Houches, lift to the top station of Bellevue gondola (PDF map external link). Option A: catch the Tramway (cash only here) to top station Nid d’Aigle (first reached by this cog railway in 1913). Option B: after sightseeing the top, get off at Bellevue or Col de Voza to start Stage 1 of the Tour du Mont Blanc, thereby saving 2600 feet gain. Optionally return from Les Contamines to your Chamonix hotel via taxi in 40 minutes (whereas bus would require changing in St Gervais where infrequent connections leave every 2 hours). Between Voza Pass (1,653m) and Bellevue (1,794m), the ridge trail and tramway give a 360° view over Contamines Valley, Aiguille du Goûter, Aiguilles Rouges massif and Aiguille du Midi. Option C: Day hike to Col de Tricot and Mont Vorassay (external link) round trip from Bellevue (5 miles round trip, 1900 ft up and down).
  • Chalet du Glacier des Bossons and Chalet des Pyramides Trail: views become every more spectacular as you ascend the steep, airy ridge towards the Gîte at Balmat and La Jonction (see external trail guide), very close to the Glacier des Bossons and Taconnaz. See a magnificent panorama of the peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges reserve.
2b. The Walker’s Haute Route (High Route)

The 112-mile Walker’s Haute Route from Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (France) to Zermatt (Switzerland) offers Old World charm and dramatic scenery from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn. If desired, the trip’s highlights can be done piecemeal on separate trips, in a more relaxed fashion. Tips below come from our luxury trip in 2005 (edited in 2021) trekking the “Hiker’s Haute Route” on photographic assignment for Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures, self-guided. Best guidebook with detailed maps:

History: “The High Level Route” was originally developed as a mountaineering route from Chamonix to Zermatt in the mid 1800s by the English Alpine Club. This technical route became known as the Haute Route when done on skis in 1911. In modern times, an easier non-technical path was developed, called the Walker’s High Route, or Haute Route, which is a portion of what the Swiss call the “Alpine Passes Trail” (labelled Trail #6 in their online maps) which passes through the Graubunden and Valais Alps in 39 stages.

Day by day description of the Walker’s Haute Route:

  • Day 0: The Haute Route starts in Chamonix, which demands extra days for spectacular exploration, as described above. Don’t miss the stunning hike to Lac Blanc (4+ miles using lifts). In 2005, we began our Haute Route by hiking 5.3 miles from La Flégère lift station eastwards to Argentiere, where the descent from Lac Blanc was a knee-pounding 3700 feet (avoidable by exiting via l’Index lift). If you’ve already done or plan to do the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), consider skipping the following days which overlap (from Chamonix to Argentiere to Champex):
  • Day 1 (5-7 hours hiking): A short hop by train takes you from Chamonix to Argentiere to begin trekking. Look for ibex (wild goats) on the way to Col de Balme, the first of up to 11 high passes on the Haute Route. End the day in Trient, where Alpenwild recommends the Grande Ourse hotel.
  • Day 2 (5-7 hours, 11 miles, 4600 feet up, 4200 feet down): After a rocky climb to Fênetre d’Arpette, with views of the Glacier du Trient, descend through meadows to Champex.

Departing Champex on the morning of Day 3, you can keep walking, or skip ahead via bus and public transit to Verbier or Arolla. If walking, the 4 days from Champex to Arolla can be trekked mostly via shared dormitory huts, or else day hiked entirely from hotels, as noted.

  • Day 3a: In 2005, we skipped the 4-day trek from Champex to Arolla, and instead took public transit directly to Arolla, staying in a private ensuite double room in Hotel du Pigne d’Arolla with nice balcony view. If you choose this shorter option, jump to Day 4a further below.
  • Day 3b: If time is limited, you may want to skip the 8-mile trail from Champex to Le Châble (Verbier), which ascends 350 feet and descends 2457 feet — a path via quaint Swiss towns having pastoral beauty but lacking in views of glacier-capped peaks. If staying in Verbier, consider Hotel Ermitage. Then for the next 3 days (two nights), only shared dormitory accommodation is available (in Cabane de Louvie or Cabane de Mont Fort, and in Cabane de Prafleuri) along the Walker’s Haute Route. To better recharge for the next day, we prefer private rooms (with hot showers), which are available using alternative routings, as described.
  • Day 4b: The next hiking stage starts atop a lift station of Verbier and treks to a mountain hut with dormitory-style beds, either Cabane Mont-Fort or Cabane de Louvie. Alternatives include:
    • Based from nearby Martigny in 2016, we enjoyed a dramatic day hike to Lac Louvie (which we had skipped in 2005). The scenic Chamois Path (Sentier des Chamois) starts at Verbier’s La Chaux ski lift and ends at Fionnay PostBus (traversing 8 miles/13km, 2100 ft/640 m up, 4640 ft/1415 m down in 8.5 hours). We crossed Col Termin (2648m/8688 ft) in Haut Val de Bagnes nature reserve and descended southwards via 1800s stone barns to Lake Louvie, then pounded down to Fionnay.
    • For a more challenging, higher-altitude day hike, consider the Tour du Mont Fort for 10-11 miles, with a punishing descent of 4000+ feet, despite help from lifts. Staying overnight in a hut partway would mitigate the descent per day to protect knees.
    • For an easier day, simply explore Verbier’s extensive lift system, climaxing atop Mont Fort itself. Optionally day hike along the lift system, as the spirit moves you. One could stay 2 nights at Hotel Ermitage in Verbier.
  • Day 5b: If you don’t mind dormitory accommodation, hike to Cabane de Louvie on Day 4b to stay overnight. Then on Day 5b, continue hiking the Haute Route over the passes of Col de Louvie and Col de Prafleuri, to reach Cabane Prafleuri (10 mi, 3609 ft up, 2247 ft down) to sleep overnight.
    • This trekking day can be replaced with an easier day hike, based at a comfortable hotel in Sion, or at the trailhead Hôtel – Restaurant du Barrage at the lift station for Grande Dixence dam. Take the dam lift and hike the Alpine Ibex Trail (Sentier des Bouquetins) to Cabane de Prafleuri (2636m elev) and loop back, for a total distance of 6 miles with 2000 ft gain and loss. Adding the side trip to Mont Blava (1-mile roundtrip, 300 ft gain and loss) affords sweeping views across Lac des Dix. Directions: take the PostBus from Sion to Grande Dixence dam (tallest dam in Europe, 285 meters high; see sbb.ch or Google timetables), and lift to the top. Extending this hike to Col de Prafleuri reaches some of the best views (8.6 miles total round trip with 3100 ft gain and loss).
  • Day 6b: The standard stage from Cabane de Prafleuri crosses Pas de Chevres to Arolla village, in the municipality of Evolène, in Val d’Hérens. The standard stage can be shortened as follows (saving a net 0.8 miles and 1065 feet of downhill, by avoiding the descent from Prafleuri):
    • From atop Grande Dixence dam, hike the Tour du Val d’Hérens “Stage 2” (11.2 miles/17.9 km, ascent 2923 ft/891 m, descent 3373 ft/1028 m). This stage requires grappling with a series of ladders that are secured on exposed rock faces.
The peaks of Grand Combin (4314 metres / 14,154 feet on left), Combin de Corbassière (center), and Petit Combin (right) rise above Cabane de Louvie hut on Lake Louvie in the Pennine/Valais Alps, Switzerland, Europe. Optionally stay overnight in dorms at Cabane de Louvie. The dramatic Chamois Path (Sentier des Chamois) starts at La Chaux ski lift and ends at Fionnay PostBus. Cross Col Termin (2648m/8688 ft) in Haut Val de Bagnes nature reserve and descend to Lake Louvie via 1800s stone barns to the north, then to Fionnay (640 m up, 1415 m down in 8.5 hours). (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The peaks of Grand Combin (4314 metres / 14,154 feet on left), Combin de Corbassière (center), and Petit Combin (right) rise above Cabane de Louvie hut on Lake Louvie in the Pennine/Valais Alps, Switzerland. Optionally stay overnight in dorms at Cabane de Louvie.  

My High Route photographs continue as follows, with help from lifts and buses letting us hike high in the alps then sleep low in comfortable valley hotels:

  • Day 4a (or 7b): From Arolla in 2005, we day hiked upwards via herding sheds in Alp Pra Gra to see the peaks of Les Dents des Veisivi reflected in a tarn. On this trail, one can optionally stay in dormitories in mountain refuge Cabane des Aiguilles Rouges overlooking Aiguilles de la Tsa and Mont Collon (3637 meters / 11,932 feet) at the head of Val d’Hérens. After the scenic day hike, we bused down the valley to stay overnight in Les Haudères (through a section walked by some Haute Route package tours, such as Pygmy-Elephant.com, whereas others stay in La Sage, closer to tomorrow’s trailhead).
  • Day 5a (or 8b): From Les Haudères in Val d’Hérens, we crossed Col du Torrent, seeing Dent Blanche (“White Tooth” 14,291 feet / 4356 m) in the Pennine Alps, and descended to the beautiful turquoise reservoir of Lake Moiry. Fireweed bloomed pink along the trail. Overnight in ritzy Hotel Bella Tolla in the French village of Saint Luc.
  • Day 6a (or 9b): We walked eastwards from St. Luc, rode up the Tignousa funicular, hiked up 2500 feet to Meidpass, then descended 3400 feet to the German village of Gruben, accumulating 9 miles on foot. Meidpass is the boundary between French and German cultural areas in Valais/Wallis canton.
  • Day 7a (or 10b): In Gruben the next day, snow in Augstborgpass caused us to take public transit to reach Zermatt instead of hiking (8 miles with 3517 ft ascent, and taking St Niklaus cable car reduces the mighty descent to 3079 ft).

Lodging options:

  • Huts/refuges provide meals and lodging at reasonable cost. Photographs can capture more spectacular sunrise/sunset light up in huts than from hotels down in valleys. Swiss Alpine Club.
  • Valley hotels: Take lifts, hike high, and sleep low in comfortable hotels or hostels nestled in each valley. Alpenwild.com (where I’m an “Artist in Residence”) offers great package trips, both self-guided and guided. We loved a 10-day self-guided Hiker’s Haute Route luxury package from Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures done in 2005 on photographic commission.
2c. Hikes in Zermatt, in the Pennine Alps, Switzerland
  • How to get there: The famous mountaineering and ski resort of Zermatt lies at 1620 meters (5310 feet) elevation at the head of Mattertal (Matter Valley) in the Pennine Alps, Valais canton, Switzerland. Most visitors reach Zermatt by cog railway train from the nearby town of Täsch (Zermatt shuttle). Trains also depart for Zermatt from farther down the valley at Visp and Brig on the main Swiss rail network. Small electric taxis serve Zermatt, which bars combustion-engine cars to help preserve small village atmosphere and prevent air pollution.
  • Gornergrat is spectacular cog train terminus located at 10,134 feet / 3130m elevation. The Gornergrat is the first point on a ridge that runs out to Hohtälligrat (3286m) and Stockhorn (3407m amidst a sea of ice) all linked by cable car from Gornergrat.
    • The Gornergrat cog wheel train ride takes 47 minutes from Zermatt station. 25% discount for holders of the Swiss Pass. Take the special dawn train for great a sunrise lighting up the Matterhorn. Leaving Zermatt, the earliest departures are 07:10, 08:00, 08:24… and the last departure is 19:12 as of 2005.
    • Sit on right-hand side of Gornergrat cog train for magical Matterhorn vistas. Hike up or down any portion:
      1. Take the cog rail to the Rotenboden stop, then hike east to Gornergrat 1000feet / 300m up in 1 hour, in 2.1 miles / 3.5 kilometers.
      2. A short walk on foot will reveal a sunrise reflection of the Matterhorn in Riffelsee and other tarns (ponds). Hike back via Gagihaupt peak (2568m).
      3. Hiking one way from Gornergrat down to Zermatt is 7.5 miles, down 5060 feet/1535meters, down in about 4 hours.
      4. Overnight option: Riffelberg Hotel (a stop of Gornergrat cog train) sits on spectacular exposed platform above the valley. Dorm beds 75 Swiss Francs per person with half board (dinner & breakfast, 2005); open until mid-October.
    • See hike #33 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
  • Höhbalmen offers great views of the Matterhorn from high pastures uncluttered by ski lifts. We hiked this 13.4-mile loop (21.6 km) via Bergrestaurant Edelweiss, Trift Hut, Hohenweg trail, and the interesting Zmutt Valley, with a punishing 4000 feet cumulative gain and loss. I was delighted by the route, except Carol’s feet hurt badly on the final stretch.
  • Stellisee & Fluhalp: the popular Five Lakes Trail (5-Seenweg) starts from Sunnegga Express funicular (a fast 7-minute underground train on east side of Visp River in Zermatt halfway between cemetery and Gornergrat cog rail).
    • Although especially nice for families, the 5 Seenweg (7 miles with 1800 ft gain circling up to Fluhalp) is blemished with ski slope infrastructure throughout (dusty roads, power lines, lifts, snow-making sprinklers, 5 dammed artificial lakes, etc). In compensation are the venerable wood buildings in upper Findeln, the beautiful reflecting lakes of Grindjisee and Stellisee, and majestic views of the Matterhorn.
    • Directions: Exiting atop Sunnegga, follow 5-Seenweg Trail past Leisee pond and switchback down 60 meters to upper Findeln (Findelen) village to admire authentic Walser houses, barns, and stores built of larch timber blackened by the sun. [The Walser people are named after Wallis (Valais, the uppermost Rhône valley), where they settled from the 900s in the late phase of the migration of the Alamanni (confederation of Germanic tribes) crossing from the Bernese Oberland.] Among the five lakes, the dammed Mosjesee and Grüensee (halfway dried up in August) were least attractive and can be skipped by returning to Sunnegga and taking the lift to Blauherd for quickest access to Stellisee:
    • Scenic Stellisee is a 30-minute walk up from Blauherd lift station. Stellisee best reflects the Matterhorn during the glow of sunrise, which you can see after an overnight stay at Bergrestaurant Fluhalp (half board meals, coin showers, private rooms & dormitory; 40 minutes walk up from Blauherd lift, or 1.5 hours hike up from Sunnegga). Views around the Sunnegga-Blauherd-Rothorn lifts may be prettiest when covered in snow during ski season.
  • Gorner Gorge (Gornerschlucht) is a pleasant outing if you have extra time, such as on a rainy day.
2d. Valais/Wallis Canton: Hikes in Saas-Fee, Switzerland

See “2022 July: hiking Saas-Fee resort, Switzerland

2e. Valais/Wallis Canton: Bettmerhorn & Eggishorn: Grosser Aletsch Glacier 

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When passing through Valais Canton in clear weather, don’t miss seeing the magnificent Grosser Aletsch Glacier (Großer Aletschgletscher) which flows from the Jungfrau. For weather flexibility, I recommend for hikers to stay 1 or 2 nights at the car-free village of Bettmeralp, where frequent lifts can reach the walkable ridge for viewing the Aletschgletscher. Easily reached by lift from Betten Talstation (a railway station in the valley below), Bettmeralp offers charming Swiss atmosphere and a handy Coop grocery store.

Optimally start from Betten Talstation, lift to Bettmeralp, then lift to Bettmerhorn for great views. From the Bettmerhorn (Bettmergrat gondola station) you can walk 5 miles almost entirely downhill along the spectacular ridge to Hohbalm, Moosfluh, Hohfluh, fancy Berghotel Riederfurka, and Riederalp, where a cable car goes down to Mörel train station. From Mörel, you can ride up valley towards Fiesch or down valley towards Brig. Fiesch is only 1.5 hours by train from Kandersteg or Bern. From Fiesch, the Eggishorn lift also offers fabulous views, highly recommended. (However, we learned that starting our ridge walk from the Eggishorn cable car’s mid station Fiesheralp unnecessarily added 1100 feet of elevation gain when hiking across ski slopes to reach Bettmerhorn.)

3. France–Italy–Switzerland: Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB)

Delayed for 2 years by the pandemic, we finally hiked the TMB, described here: “2022 July: trek Tour du Mont Blanc.” Trekkers most commonly walk this circuit around Europe’s highest peak in 8 to 11 stages in a counterclockwise direction, from France to Italy to Switzerland to France, staying each night in mountain hotels and/or refuges.

Because the popular Tour du Mont Blanc requires booking about 9 months in advance, consider instead hiking it more spontaneously as day hikes. Avoiding a package tour allows aligning hikes with good 1- or 2-day weather forecasts. Using a base hotel for multiple day hikes requires fewer luggage transfers, but adds commuting time. Chamonix, France and Courmayeur, Italy serve as convenient bases for day hiking Stages 1, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, & 11 as described under “2a. Chamonix” and “3a. Courmayeur”. (If you’ve already done or plan to do the Walker’s Haute Route, then skip the days which overlap with TMB, between Champex and Chamonix).

3a. Hikes and lifts in Courmayeur, Italy
  • Mont Blanc in French is called Monte Bianco in Italian.
  • Courmayeur is a short bus or car ride from Chamonix through the convenient Mont Blanc Tunnel. I felt more relaxed in quiet Courmayeur than in teeming Chamonix.
  • In clear weather, don’t miss the breathtaking vistas from Skyway Monte Bianco cable car system. Pointe Helbronner station unveils stunning perspectives on the Mont Blanc massif. One of the peak experiences of my life is the 5-kilometer ride on “Télécabine Panoramic Mont-Blanc” – an incredible system of triplet cabins strung between Pointe Helbronner (Italy) across France to the stunning Aiguille du Midi station (which is alternatively reachable by lift from Chamonix).
  • Monte Bianco View (TMB Stage 4): See stunning views of mountain savagery including Aiguile Noir from a spur of Mount Favre (5 miles with 1600 feet ascent and 2000 ft descent one way). Along the way Lac Chécrouit reflects the mountain splendor. Directions: From Courmayeur take the Val Veni bus westwards to Cabane du Combal, then hike to Rifugio Maison Vieille (which offers a festive lunch) at Col Chécrouit, where a chairlift and gondola descend to Dolonne, where a bus connects further into Courmayeur.
  • Hike northeast of Courmayeur:
    • Montagne de la Saxe ridge (TMB Stage 5): 11 miles, 5200 feet gain one way Courmayeur to Lavachey, sleep there or bus back. Hike high above Val Ferret through larch forest to some of the widest and grandest panoramas of the Mont Blanc Circuit. Look up Val Veni to Col de la Seigne and the Mont Blanc Massif. Close rocky peaks form an impressive wall: Géant, Grandes Jorasses, Leschaux, Triolet, and Mont Dolent.
    • Grand Col du Ferret (TMB Stage 6): Drive a car or take the bus to Chalet Val Ferret, then hike round trip steeply up 3000 feet. Or hike into Swiss Val Ferret, and bus/train back to Courmayeur via Martigny, or continue hiking around the popular Mont Blanc Circuit.

4. Switzerland: Engadine trekking advice: Itinerary for 5+ days

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The Swiss valley of Engadine translates as the “garden of the En (or Inn) River” (Engadin in German, Engiadina in Romansh, Engadina in Italian), and is part of the Danube basin. Don’t miss hikes near glacier-clad Bernina Range in this suggested itinerary:

Ratings Key:  **** four stars = Fantastic.  *** three stars = Must do.  ** two stars = Worthwhile.  * one star = only if time allows.

  1. ** Day 1: Stay at in Scuol**, which has very attractive historic buildings and a covered bridge over the Inn/En River, with high mountains for an impressive backdrop. Hotel Guardaval** in Scuol has a great view and very friendly staff.
  2. ** Day 2: Walk from Scuol** to Guarda***, via Tarasp** historic castle and Ardez** (great sgraffito).
    • Alternative Route: Hike a longer, remote, higher route which starts from atop Motta Naluns ski lift, hiking via the pleasant & remote Tasna valley* along high pastures and forest to Guarda***.
    • Stay at Hotel Meisser** in beautifully preserved historic Guarda*** (call ahead).
    • * Optional Extra Day: Hike from Cinuos Chel Brail train station to Val Susauna* (a small village with a pretty church in an isolated valley) to Zuoz*, which is bigger but has a pleasant town square. A nice view of Upper Engadine opens out as you approach within a mile of Zuoz and on into the town.
  3. ** Day 3: From Muottas Muragl funicular** hike to Segantini Hut down to Pontresina via Alp Languard’s Sessellift (chair lift)**.
    • Optional extension: From Alp Languard, you can also add (or do on its own) a great loop trip along a ridge to Chamanna Paradis** Restaurant, which has a spectacular view of Piz Bernina massif and Morterasch Glacier. Nice moderate grades and great views, but very popular, so don’t expect solitude.
    • Pontresina lodging: Hotel Steinbock** had a tasty buffet included with excellent dinner.
  4. **** Day 4: Walk from Morteratsch (second train stop from Pontresina towards Bernina Pass) to Boval Hut. Boval Hut offers close views of Morteratsch Glacier amid an impressive cirque of the icy Bernina Massif. Optionally stay overnight in Boval Hut for a good sunrise light on the spectacular massif. The trail is well graded, not steep, only 5 or 6 miles round trip and 2700 feet gain/loss. Return via lower trail for partial loop. A world favorite day hike!
    • *** Alternative or extra day: continue from Pontresina on the Bernina Express*** train line (the most spectacular train in Switzerland) to the top of the pass, and get off at an interesting area such as Alp Grüm. Optional day hike to Sassal Mason hut. Optionally take the Diavolezza*** lift to stunning views, similar to Boval Hut but 1500-feet higher.
    • *** Alternative or extra day: Spectacular hike from Pontresina up the Roseg Valley to Coaz Hut and over Surlej Pass down to St Moritz. Or hike round trip to Tschierva Hut (a long day, 15.5 miles roundtrip, 2800 ft), also in Roseg Valley.
    • Sils Maria* is a quiet, pretty village on attractive Lake Segl*, reached via Post Bus, more relaxed and cheaper than staying in St Moritz. In Sils Maria, Hotel Edelweiss** is very luxurious, with dinner and good breakfast in a huge ornate ballroom with live piano. Alternative: Explore scraffito in the village of **Samedan, overnight.
    • * Extra Day: Walk from Sils Maria to “pasturesque” Grevasalvas* (setting for the movie Heidi, with some nice old stone buildings), to Lake Lunghin, and optionally up to alpine Piz Lunghin** then descend to Maloja Pass to catch the Post Bus back to Sils Maria.
  5. **** Day 5: Ride the Bernina-Diavolezza cable car for spectacular views of the Bernina Range. If not afraid of heights at Diavolezza, don’t miss the short, scenic, rocky hike to Munt Pers*** which gains 265 meters over 2 km one way.
  6. *** Day 6: Hike from comfy 1881 SportHotel Pontresina*** up idyllic Roseg Valley** to Fuorcla Surlej**** for stunning views of Piz Bernina and Piz Roseg, finishing at Corvatsch Mittelstation Murtel cable car. Walking 14 km, we went up 1100 meters and down 150 m. Then take the cable car upwards to Corvatsch top station to see the impressive view, before lifting downwards to Murtel and Lake Silvaplana to catch the PostBus. Optionally shorten the day to an easy out-and-back hike of just 4 kilometers via round trip lift from Murtel.
  7. *** Day 7: Walk from Cassacia (or Vicosoprano) to Soglio*** village (11 miles, 2000 feet up, 2900 feet down) on the Sentiero Panaramico***, a scenic trail marked with little yellow hiking signs. All three villages are on the Post Bus line. If starting at Cassacia (via Post Bus), the first hiking hour is through pleasant pastures and woods, but within earshot of a busy highway, and follows powerlines, past a dam retaining pretty turquoise water, and within view of another dam (forming lake Lagh da L’Albigna) looming amazingly high on the other side of the valley. After a few hours the Sentiero Panaramico leaves the power lines and progressively gets more aesthetically pleasing, with more and more spectacular views of the Sciora Range*** the closer you get to Soglio***, an attractive town with medieval narrow streets.
    • Lodging in Soglio***: Hotel La Soglina*** has a great view and large, modern, comfortable rooms.

5. Switzerland: Appenzell

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Appenzell offers wonderful trekking for 1-5 days in picture-perfect Swiss scenery, supported by lifts and cozy private double mountain hotels! Appenzell Innerrhoden is Switzerland’s most traditional and smallest-population canton (second smallest by area). The Appenzell Alps rise in northeast Switzerland between Lake Walen and Lake Constance.

Appenzell: a perfect trek of 2-4 days

  1. Our great walking trek (with Alpenwild.com tours) started with a 10-minute bus ride from quaint Appenzell village to Brülisau, where a cable car whisks up to Hoher Kasten (1795 m/5876 ft) mountain in the Alpstein limestone range of the Appenzell Alps. A spectacular ridge walk above the Rhine Valley reaches Berggasthaus Bollenwees, founded in 1903 at scenic Fälensee lake, a wonderful place to stay overnight in private double ensuite (or dormitory rooms). If you choose to ascend Hoher Kasten summit (1794 m) on foot instead of taking the lift, optionally stay overnight midway at Berggasthaus Staubern. Via cable car, Hoher Kasten ridge can also be done as a long day hike.
  2. The next day, admire sunrise on Fälensee lake. Cross Bötzel pass (in sight of Santis peak, our goal for day 3). Descend to Berggasthaus Meglisalp, which can only be reached on foot in the spectacular heart of the Alpstein range. This authentic mountain hostelry, owned by the same family for five generations, dates from 1897. Meglisalp is a working dairy farm, restaurant and guest house surrounded by majestic peaks (Altmann peak 2435m) rising above green pastures.
  3. From Meglisalp, a long ascent reaches Berggasthaus Rotsteinpass (2120 m) for lunch at a remote restaurant. Everyone was excited to see a large family of ibex crossing rocky & snowy slopes above. Weaving through limestone outcroppings, we ascended the stunning Lisengrat, a sinuous chain-protected trail to the summit of Säntis, one of the most exciting trails in the Alps. The rocky route is safely assisted by chains, but can be scary for those with fear of heights. Shared by three cantons, Säntis can be reached easily via cable car or with effort via trails, to see vast mountain views across six countries: Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, France and Italy. Säntis makes a great day trip, dining experience, or overnighter including fun walking the Lisengrat. When starting at Säntis (2502 m / 8218 feet elevation), the full Lisengrat ridge route goes down to Rotsteinpass then up to Altmann (2435 m / 7989 ft), connecting the two highest peaks in the Alpstein.
  4. In good morning weather atop Säntis, continue walking to scenic EbenalpBerggasthaus Aescher, and Wildkirchli cave, then descend to Wasserauen via cable car to catch the bus. (On Day 4 we escaped rain with a quick cable car descent from Säntis back to Appenzell via bus.)

6. Switzerland: Schaffhausen canton

is worth an excursion from Zurich or staying overnight a few days exploring the impressive Munot castle reflecting in the Rhine River at night, Schaffhausen’s Old Town, and nearby Rhine Falls:

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If you have extra days near Zurich or Schaffhausen, don’t miss the photogenic fresco-covered village of Stein am Rhein and historic St. George’s Abbey:

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Recommended Alps travel guidebooks from Amazon.com:

Search for latest “Alps travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years). Bring a good country guide plus a detailed hiking guidebook:

Alps hiking books by Cicerone Guides are essential for planning a hiking trip and carrying along.

2022: 2020: 2019:
2021: 2019: 2014:

SLOVENIA: Julian Alps, Lake Bled, Skocjan Caves

Our fun Slovenia trips in summer 2013 and 2011 produced the following travel tips, photographs, and suggested itinerary.

Triglav National Park in Slovenia makes an excellent driving loop of 2+ days from Venice, Italy. View Slovenia photos including: Skocjan Caves (Skocjanske jame), Predjama Castle, the Julian Alps, Mojstrana, Lake Bled (Blejsko jezero), Bled Castle, Triglav National Park (Triglavski narodni park/TNP), Vintgar Gorge (Blejski Vintgar/Soteska Vintgar), Vrata Valley, Pericnik Waterfall, Krma Valley, Tolmin gorges (Tolminska korita), Soca Trail (Soska pot) along Soca River gorge, Kluze Fortress, Boka waterfall, Veliki Kozjak Waterfall.

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Summer 2013 was one of our best ever trips: a month starting with 4 nights in Venice, then day-hiking the Dolomites of Italy, plus looping through Croatia and Slovenia. This page also includes Tom’s 2011 Slovenia photos taken after his Alps Photo Workshop.

Itinerary recommended for Slovenia 2-8 days

From Venice (Italy), drive about 3 hours one way to popular Lake Bled in Slovenia via Trieste and Ljubljana, and return via Kranjska Gora and Udine. Lake Bled is halfway around this loop of mostly fast autostrada/expressway. The worthwhile Vrsic Pass option (below) takes a few hours longer via twisty mountain roads in scenic Triglav National Park. The Julian Alps are most impressive on the north side of Triglav National Park between Kranjska Gora and Mojstrana on highway 201 in Slovenia (3 hours from Venice).

If you have a week (or at least 2 days), drive this loop itinerary counterclockwise from Venice to Ljubljana (Lubiana) and Triglavski National Park, in Slovenia:

Key:  ***Must see.  **High priority.  *Do it if time allows.

  1. Drive on the autostrada from Venice towards Trieste, taking the E70 into Slovenia towards Ljubljana (Lubiana).
  2. **Piran is a picturesque walled medieval village on a peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, easily seen in a few hours or absorbed overnight. Stroll along harbor-front ambiance and Tartini Square, ascend the bell tower, see the Maritime Museum, and admire sunset glow. Park in a lot by the town gate, €8 per day. Optionally drive into the restricted center to drop off luggage at your hotel, with a pass good for 6 hours. **Val Hostel and Garni Hotel, www.hostel-val.com, has good value private rooms €25 per person (2013) with breakfast, shared kitchen available, tel (+386) (0)5 673-2555, address: Gregorčičeva 38a, 6330 Piran.
  3. ***Skocjon Caves (Skocjanske jame) are a fun walking adventure for 2 hours (2 miles) along a raging underground river, guide required, departing hourly on summer days. Don’t miss part 2 of the tour, a self-guided extension over exciting bridges and dim passageways along the underground river. Directions: Exit the A-1 expressway in Slovenia at Divaca and follow signs to Škocjan Caves. €57 was a great value for a large new apartment with kitchen at ***Apartmaji Domacija Jankovi, www.kmetija-jankovi.com, address: Vremski Britof 11.
  4. Cliffside *Predjama Castle looks interesting but has little to tour inside. (Exit the A-1 expressway at Postojna.)
  5. In the capitol of *Ljubljana (Lubiana), sights include: unique ambiance; Joze Plecnik House, home of the idyllic city’s architect; Riverside Market; Ljubljana Castle; and the National Library.
  6. ***Lake Bled: I walked a trail up the hill on the south side of Lake Bled for famous views. Also enjoy walking 3.5 miles around the lake for relaxing, ever changing views. The Chapel in Bled Castle was photogenic. Paddle or ride a boat to Bled Island (Blejski otok, the only natural island in Slovenia) to visit the romantic Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary, built in the 1400s, now popular for weddings.
  7. ***Vintgar Gorge (Blejski Vintgar / Soteska Vintgar) is an enchanting canyon of pools and rapids 1.6-km long (1 mile) four km northwest of Bled, near Zgornje Gorje.
  8. ***Triglav National Park: Drive from Lake Bled through Jesenice, to highway 201 to Mojstrana village.
    • In 2013, we enjoyed an inexpensive large apartment with kitchen in idyllic Mojstrana, but adjacent Dovje has a better view of Mount Triglav. The Mojstrana Tourist Office is super helpful for finding lodging and things to do!
    • Drive through **Vrata valley, the most dramatic in Slovenia, under a nice mixed forest of beech, spruce, and fir, along crystal clear Triglavska Bistrica creek. On right is beautiful **Pericnik waterfall, which you can walk behind in an alcove lightly misted by spray. At the end of the road at Aljazev Dom hut (overnight option), admire the mighty north face of Mount Triglav and the Skrlatica group to the south.
    • The best hike in Slovenia may be ***Mount Triglav (the highest peak of the Julian Alps, 2864 meter/9396 feet). Mount Triglav is a national symbol proudly depicted on the Slovenian coat of arms and flag. Drive south from Mojstrana to the trailhead in **Krma valley. Hike to spectacular Kredarica Hut (2515m, Slovenia’s highest, a worthy destination unto itself), staying 1-2 nights. Or hike to scenic Stanicev Dom hut 2332m or Planika hut 2401m. (A popular multi-day route on longer, gradual trails starts from other roads to the southeast.) Above the huts, demanding iron routes (vie ferrate) provide cables and hand grips on steep, exposed (non-technical) paths to the summit of Triglav, not advised for those with fear of heights. This external site describes a good 4-day trek. Climbing info:  www.summitpost.org/triglav/150787
  9. Gozd Martuljek is a nice village where my overnight lodging looked upon the spectacular **Martuljek mountain group.
  10. On highway 201 at Kranjska Gora, either continue west to the autostrada in Italy (to Udine and Venice), or turn south over the longer but worthwhile **Vrsic Pass:
    • **Vrsic Pass (Slovene: Prelaz Vršič; Italian: Passo della Moistrocca; German: Werschetzpass) in Triglav National Park:
      • From highway 201 at Kranjska Gora, turn south into town, then up the side of an awesomely steep valley in Triglav National Park on a twisty mountain road. Continue over historic Vrsic Pass to Soca River valley.
        • History: Vrsic Pass (1611 meters elevation) is the highest pass road in Slovenia. The military-built Russian Road supplied the Isonzo front of World War I. Opened in late 1915, the road was originally named after archduke Eugen of Austria-Hungary but in 2006 was renamed as Ruska cesta (Russian Road) to honor the prisoners of war who had been forced to build it. Russian Road connects Upper Carniola with the Trenta Valley, rising from the town of Kranjska Gora in a series of 50 hairpin bends before descending into the Soca (Isonzo) Valley.
      • After a sharp descent on hairpin turns south of Vrsic Pass, a signed walking trail goes 20k from the source of the Soca River downstream along the tumbling crystal clear green water, through attractive little gorges, sometimes following the road. Hikers can be dropped off at various places and picked up further down the **Soca River Trail, and drivers can step out of the car at several places to admire the natural beauty.
      • *Boka waterfall (Slap Boka) plunges freely 106 meters plus another 30-meter cascade below. View from the road between Zaga and Bovec.
      • South of Bovec, at Kobarid (Caporetto), either drive westwards back to Venice (2.5-3 hrs) through the mountains, or continue a loop southeastward within Slovenia.
      • *Veliki Kozjak Waterfall (Slap Kozjak, 15 meters high) is a pleasant walk in a gorge near Kobarid.
      • **Tolmin gorges (Tolminska korita) are among the longest and deepest gorges in Slovenia and are the lowest point (180 meters elevation) in Triglav National Park. Walk a trail to the confluence of two gorges (Tolminka and Zadlascica rivers), then along Zadlascica river canyon (locally called Skakalce, “the jumps”) up to a chock stone called the “Bear’s Head.” Walk onwards to the scenic Devil’s Bridge (Hudicev most, built 1907), which carries Tolmin-Cadrg road sixty meters above Tolminka River, then loop on foot back to the parking lot at the Triglavski narodni park (TNP) sign, near Zatolmin.

Julian Alps: Lake Bled and Triglav National Park (expanded gallery)

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Skocjan Caves and Predjama Castle (expanded gallery)

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Slovenia travel tips

  • An ATM is called a Bankomat. Slovenia began using the Euro  in 2007.
  • Hours:
    • Shopping is usually 8am-7pm weekdays, to 1pm Saturdays.
    • Chain stores in big city centers may open Sunday morning, plus a few bakeries, all else closed Sundays.
    • Banks 9am-12:30, 1:30-4 or 5pm weekdays.
  • Phones: Slovenia uses tri-band GSM. Buy €10 SIM card from Mobitel or others. Our Italian SIM worked fine in Slovenia. Ignore the number within parentheses +386 (0)2 when calling Slovenia from outside, but within Slovenia you must dial it plus area code, for example: 02 etc.
  • Internet cafes: 2-3€ per hour or free at hotels, libraries, and TIC tourist centers for 15 min. Look for WiFi Točke. 
  • US Embassy telephone: Ljubljana (01) 200 5500, (1) 200 5555
  • TIC = Turisticno Informacijski Centers generously provide free maps and lodging referrals for local rooms. A sobe will be much a better value than hotels:
    • sobe = room with registered star ratings:
      • ***private bath/AC, **bath down hall, *basic.
      • Call between 9-10am on day of arrival, and most sobe or hotels will hold until 4pm without deposit.
      • Ask for dates in the form day/mo/year through day of departure.
    • apartman = private apartment w/bath + small kitchen
    • Guesthouses (pension, gostisce, privatno prenociste, prenocisca) are cozy and a better value than hotels. Rates for a Double are often quoted per person.
    • omladinsko prenociste = youth hostel
    • Booking with travel agencies costs 10-30% extra but is free at TIC (which may ask you to carry a paper for the lodging’s accounting). Save 20-50% on 3+night stays compared to the listed rate.
    • Planinski domovi (dom) = mountain huts
    • Toilets: Moski/men, Zenske/women
    • Tourist Farms:  www.turisticnekmetije.si can be an interesting cultural experience.
  • Young people speak good English, older people speak German, and most everyone speaks Slovene/Slovenian.
  • Slovenian/Slovene language:
    • Two-word place names use lowercase on 2nd word.
    • ulica = ul. = street
    • Trg = Square
    • cesta = c. = road
    • Cankarjeva ul = poet Ivan Cankar’s street = possessive case in street names.

Recommended Slovenia guidebooks from Amazon.com:

Search for latest “Slovenia travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

See more Alps articles:


Norway offers beauty around every corner, from fjordland to Nordland. Norway, home of the Nobel Peace Prize, is a model world citizen respecting both people and the natural world. Tortured terrain, turbulent history, cold winters and brief summers evolved hardy Vikings and modern Norwegians who live close to the land. In fact they tunnel right through it. One day we drove 30 tunnels, one as long as 7 miles!

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Carol and I enjoyed a rental car tour of Norway July 21-August 13, 2011. Our favorite town was Reine in northern Norway, visited July 22-28. Based on fond memories from 1981, we joined DNT (Norwegian Trekking Association) to get a discount on mountain lodges, but ended up day hiking everywhere and sleeping in more economical private campground cabins with kitchens ($80-$100 per night), plus some Bed & Breakfasts and hotels ($125-$210 night double). Supermarket food cost double or triple that of Seattle, and restaurants cost triple to quadruple. At AutoEurope.com, car rental was $84 per day for 17 days from Oslo (OSL Gardermoen Airport) and $108 per day for 5 days from Evenes Airport (EVE) in Nordland County. Norway also has an excellent public bus and train system. Read my separate article:

1981 solo 2-month trip in Norway when I was 25 years old.

Norwegian land and people

Roads starting from sea level must negotiate three to six thousand feet up steep cliffs to reach the central plateau that forms most of Norway. Deep seawater stretches inland through the Scandinavian Mountain Range as far as 125 miles at Sognefjord. If unraveled, the fjord-pierced coastline would stretch for 21,000 miles. “The sea unites, but the land divides.” Since Viking times (about 800 to 1000 AD), boats have linked remote coastal towns. Impenetrable terrain resisted roads, railways and communication lines until North Sea oil was discovered. Oil helps pay for impressive bridges, tunnels, rails and generous social support (long maternity/paternity leaves, free education including college, retirement Pension Fund for all). Norway has 5 million people in an area 20% smaller than California.

Despite its high latitude, Norway’s climate is relatively mild. The North Atlantic Drift, partly fed by America’s warm Gulf Stream, keeps fjords ice-free in winter as far north as Hammerfest, at 71° North latitude (icy Alaska’s northerly tip). Two out of three days are cloudy in summer, surrounding the peaks and plateaus with mysterious mists, until every third day when sun shines glory upon the glacier-carved mountains. Norwegians pioneered the study of weather because their home gets so much of it!

Norwegian History, Stave Churches, culture

Stave Church images include Heddal, Eidsborg, Borgund, Lom, and Urnes. Stave refers to the load-bearing posts which support interior beams. The state Church of Norway (Den norske kirke in Bokmål or Den norske kyrkja in Nynorsk) was established after the Lutheran reformation in Denmark-Norway in 1536-1537 broke ties to the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church. When driving from Oslo to Heddal to Lysefjord, tour the Rygnestadtunet farm museum which dates from 1590 AD in Valle municipality, Setesdal, Aust-Agder. See the Hardanger Folk Museum in Utne to learn of fiddles, lacework, and the national costume.

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Nordland: Lofoten islandsNorthern Norway map of driving route over mountainous terrain, bridges, and tunnels from Evenes Airport (EVE) to Reine in the Lofoten and Vesteralen Islands, Nordland county, Norway, Europe (from Google.com). (Tom Dempsey)

Above map: Rent a car at Evenes Airport (EVE) and drive round trip to our favorite town of Reine in northern Norway. July 22-28, 2011.

The “Norwegian traditional district” known as Lofoten is a beautiful archipelago of islands above the Arctic Circle in the county of Nordland.

Explore the scenic towns of Svolvaer, Stamsund, Nusfjord, Hamnøy, Sakrisøy, Reine, and Å. Admire vistas of Torsfjorden and Selfjorden. Above Reine village, ascend a harrowingly steep trail to Reinebringen for spectacular views of sharply glaciated peaks surrounding Reinefjord, on Moskenesøya (the Moskenes Island). Take a passenger ferry on scenic Reinefjord to Vindstad for a fun and easy walk to Bunes Beach.

Lodging is tight in Reine at the most spectacular end of the Lofoten islands. Reserve rooms or rorbus 3 months in advance. No problem sleeping in a tent or camper.

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Southern Norway and western fjordland

Southern Norway map, driving route. (Tom Dempsey)
Above map: 17 days of car rental allows a great touring loop of southern Norway (July 28-August 13, 2011), marked in blue starting from Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport (OSL) to Jorpeland (the Pulpit), Ulvik, Gudvangen, Hafslo, Skjolden, Geiranger, Andalsnes, Bessheim, Loen, Kvam, and back to OSL. Alternatively, start from Bergen Airport Flesland (BGO) or Sogndal (SOG) to save travel time when visiting the heart of fjordland.

Starting in southwest “fjordland” near Stavanger, hike to Pulpit Rock (Preikestolen / Prekestolen) for a breathtaking view high above Lysefjord. Drive northwards along the edge of Hardanger plateau, through a cultural heartland (Hardanger Folk Museum, Utne). Admire Vøringsfossen waterfall and dramatic gorge. Proceed north to impressive Sognefjord. View Nærøy Valley (Nærøydalen) and Jordalsnuten mountain from Stalheim Hotel and descend the old Royal Mail road of Stalheimskleiva (18% grade). Admire the scenic contrast of Norway’s highest mountains (see Jotunheimen section further below) adjacent to the country’s longest fjord, Sognefjord (with branches Aurlandsfjord, Nærøyfjord, Lustrafjord, Lærdalsfjord). On Innvikfjorden arm of Nordfjord, based in the villages of Olden and Loen (stay at idyllic Lovatnet lake), explore deeply glaciated valleys beneath the tongues of Jostedalsbreen glacier, the largest ice sheet in continental Europe. In Jostedalsbreen National Park, athletically ascend 6047 feet (1841 meters) to Skålatårnet (or Kloumanntårnet) on Skåla, the highest tidewater mountain in Norway. Further north, admire classically beautiful Geirangerfjord branch of Storfjord. Drive Trollstigen (the Troll’s Ladder) to the Troll Wall (Trollveggen) and Trolltindane (Troll Peaks) in Roms Valley. Complete a driving loop back to Oslo.

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Jotunheimen mountains, “The Home of the Giants”

Memorable hiking in the Jotunheim mountains (Jotunheimen or “The Home of the Giants”) includes: the mountain ridge of Besseggen (or Besseggi), Lake Gjende, Knutshøe ridge, Fannaråken mountain (or Fannaråki), Store Styggedalstind, and the Hurrungane range.

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Global warming: climate change in Norway

Almost all inland glaciers in Norway have retreated since 1900. After many Norwegian glaciers temporarily advanced from heavy winter snow in the 1990s, according to the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (the most extensive national glacier monitoring program in the world), twenty-five monitored glaciers retreated an average of 190 meters (3% of their total length) from 2000 to 2010. Read more about global warming and climate change.

Recommended Norway books from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Norway travel books” at Amazon.com.

ITALY: Venice, Dolomites 2013, 2011

Romantic Venice and the scenic Dolomites mountains together make a perfect trip of a week or more in Europe! Teaching a photo workshop in 2011 helped me plan our exciting 2013 trip full of classic day hikes in the glorious Dolomites of Italy, with 4 nights in romantic Venice plus a varied loop through Slovenia and Croatia. At bottom, see our recommended 30-day Itinerary: “Self-guided Dolomites driving & hiking tour.

Tom photographed the Italy galleries below in summer 2013 and while teaching his Alps Photo Workshop in 2011.

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For trip planning, study our suggested Itinerary (at bottom) and use the following wonderful hiking guidebook, the basis for our trip:


Venice Marco Polo airport (VCE) gives quick access to historic Venice Lagoon (just 40 minutes by bus) and the striking Dolomites Mountains (2.5 hours by car).

Ryanair Airlines: Once you learn its many rules and add-on fees, Ryanair’s inexpensive flights efficiently connect Venice to suburban airports in many European cities. Oddly, Ryanair.com web site rejected my USA credit card address, requiring booking by phone, where their customer service phone fees per minute almost totally ate up my cost savings versus competitors. Beware! Carefully weigh your bag to fit within 15 kilograms, or else pay significantly more for 20 kg luggage limit (as I did). But in the end, I enjoyed the conveniently direct Ryanair flight from Venice to Oslo Rygge Airport, Norway.

Venice gallery 1: St Mark’s Square, Rialto, gondolas, canals, architecture

Explore Saint Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco, including the Piazzetta which extends to the Venice Lagoon) and Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace of the Republic of Venice, Rialto Bridge, Redentore Festival July 2011 pontoon bridge and fireworks, fish & produce markets, gondolas, canals, flowers, and architecture.

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Venice gallery 2: Murano, Burano, and Torcello islands

In 1291 AD, to avoid risk of fire, all Venice glassmakers were forced to move to Murano island, which has become a world renowned center for glass making and lampworking (modern torchworking). Take the vaporetto (public boat) 40 minutes further to colorfully painted houses in the quiet village of Burano, my favorite photo spot in the Venice Lagoon.

Then a short ferry hop takes you to historic Torcello island, where the Church of Santa Fosca and Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta date from the 1000s AD. Italy’s Veneto region is named for the ancient Veneti people from the 900s BC. Barbarian invasions, such as Huns in 452 AD, drove mainland Veniti people to settle some of the more than 100 small islands that spread across the marshy Venetian Lagoon (along the Adriatic Sea). The population of Torcello actually peaked in the 900s AD with more people than the city of Venice. The Republic of Venice was a major maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a staging area for the Crusades, and a major center of art and commerce (silk, grain and spice trade) from the 1200s to 1600s. The wealthy legacy of Venice stands today in a rich architecture combining Gothic, Byzantine, and Arab styles.

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Global warming: sea level is rising on Venice

Built on a sinking marsh, Venice floods often due to tides and weather. On one island, a Roman walkway is now 5 feet below sea level. Industrial pumping of groundwater (now banned) unfortunately sank Venice by 10 centimeters from 1920-1970. But global warming now raises sea level by 1.3 inches (3.2 centimeters) per decade, much faster than the marsh sediments are compacting downwards. See for yourself as the ocean rises on historic structures of Venice. Global warming is quickly melting most Alps glaciers:

Brenta Dolomites and Venice locater map, Italy, Europe (from Google Earth). (Tom Dempsey)

Above map of northern Italy: When visiting Venice, don’t miss the nearby Dolomites − both are impressive UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Our driving route shown in purple connects all major Dolomites Groups, including the separate Brenta Group marked with red arrow.

Dolomites geology, weather, and history

200-265 million years ago, Permian-Triassic coral reefs became deeply buried by marine sediments and gradually fossilized into Dolomite rock. During the Tertiary (between 60 and 5 million years ago), collision between African and European continents deformed the earth’s crust to lift the Dolomites along with the Southern Limestone Alps.

World War I divided the Euroregion of “Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino”; now Italy and Austria share this semi-autonomous, culturally-independent area. The Dolomiti range is shared by the Veneto region and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) region of Italy. These spiky peaks rise impressively from blocky groups rising above fertile green pastures interspersed with manicured resort villages.

Dolomites mountain weather forecast for specific peaks: www.mountain-forecast.com/subranges/dolomites-1/locations

Dolomites galleries

Dolomites Groups map, Italy, Europe (from Google Earth). Mapped Dolomites Groups include: Brenta, Rosengarten/Catinaccio, Langkofel/Sassolungo, Geisler/Odle, Sella, Marmolada, Monte Civetta, Monte Pelmo, Pale di San Martino/Pala Group, Ampezzo, Braies/Prags, Sesto. (Tom Dempsey)

Above: Dolomites Groups map: A cluster of knife-shaped peaks served with ski resort lifts makes the Dolomiti range a perfect playground for summer hikers, climbers, and bicyclists. Our driving route is shown in purple.

Dolomites gallery 1: Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Sesto Group

The mountain ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo (Ladin: Anpëz, German: Hayden, at 1224 meters/4016 feet elevation, at the top of Valle del Boite) makes a central home base to visit much of the Dolomites. Arriving in the pricey peak season of early August, we settled on the Hotel Olimpia (on its quieter north side) in Cortina for 3 nights, after finding that local apartments require 1-week minimum stay. From Cortina, take the spectacular lift to Tofana di Mezzo, third highest peak in the Dolomites. Another lift to Forcella Staunies on Monte Cristallo gives unforgettable views over Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti d’Ampezzo and beyond. Day trips by car take you to some classic hikes with optional overnight stays at the many rifugios (mountain hotels, lodges, or huts). From atop the Rifugio Auronzo toll road, walk the spectacular loop around Tre Cime di Lavaredo (“Three Peaks of Lavaredo,” also called Drei Zinnen or “Three Merlons” in German), with unforgettable views of spiky Cadini di Misurina. In the area, stop at scenic Lake Misurina, Lake Antorno, Lake Dobbiaco/Toblacher SeeLandro Lake/Dürrensee, and Lake Santa Caterina. Walk historic World War I trails and bunkers around Cinque Torri in the Dolomiti Ampezzane. Hike or drive onwards to scenic Passo di Giau which offers excellent hiking in several directions. Stay overnight and see sunset/sunrise. Book a hut to hut hiking trip to better experience sunset/sunrise mountain photography and escape urban life.

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Dolomites gallery 2: Corvara in Badia, Val Gardena, Val di Funes, Puez-Geisler (Odle) Park, Castelrotto

Corvara in Badia is a mostly Ladin-speaking a mountain ski resort town in the Dolomites. Don’t worry, you can usually find an English speaker. Explore nearby Val di Funes (Villnöß valley) with its onion-domed Church of St. Johann in Ranui and stunning peaks of the Geisler/Odle Group. See the Alps town of Kastelruth (or Castelrotto) near Alpe di Siusi (or Seiser Alm, the largest high altitude Alpine meadow in Europe).

The beautiful ski resort of Selva di Val Gardena (German: Wolkenstein in Gröden; Ladin: Sëlva Gherdëine) makes a great hiking base. For our favorite hike in the Dolomites, start from Selva with the first morning bus to Ortisei, take the Seceda lift, admire great views up at the cross on the edge of Val di Funes/Villnöss, then walk 12 miles (2000 feet up, 5000 feet down) via the steep pass Furcela Forces De Sieles (Forcella Forces de Sielles) to beautiful Vallunga (trail #2 to 16), finishing where you started in Selva. The hike traverses the Geisler/Odle and Puez Groups from verdant pastures to alpine wonders, all preserved in a vast Nature Park: Parco Naturale Puez-Odle (German: Naturpark Puez-Geisler; Ladin: Parch Natural Pöz-Odles), including the deeply glaciated U-shaped valley of Vallunga (Langental).

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In Italy’s province of Alto Adige/Südtirol/South Tyrol, 64% speak German as mother tongue, 25% speak Italian, and 4% speak native Ladin (from Vulgar Latin) as of 2001.

Dolomites gallery 3: Brenta Group

The Brenta Group (Italian: Dolomiti di Brenta) is an impressive subrange of the Rhaetian Alps in the Southern Limestone Alps. Because geologically they are the only dolomitic group west of river Adige, they are sometimes called the Western Dolomites. From the ski resort of Madonna di Campiglio in South Tyrol, Italy, the Passo Groste lift takes you directly into the Brenta Dolomites to enjoy scenic mountain hiking trails.

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Dolomites gallery 4: Marmolada, Passo Pordoi, Sella Group, Bindelweg/Viel del Pan

Many spectacular hikes surround Passo Pordoi (or Pordoijoch, the highest paved pass road in Dolomites), at the top of Val di Fassa, on the border between the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) region and the Veneto region of Italy. We enjoyed a wonderful apartment at Hotel Gonzaga, where a pond reflects Langkofel/Sassolungo Group. On the Padon chain, hike the wondrous Bindelweg/Viel del Pan trail, directly across from glacier-clad Marmolada (3343 meters/10,968 feet, highest of the Dolomites). Lake Fedaia reflects peaks nicely. A lift to Sass Pordoi on the Sella Group gives another great perspective. From Malga Ciapela village, take my favorite Dolomites lift: to the top of Marmolada above the biggest (and only skiable) glacier in the Dolomiti. At the middle lift station, a World War I history museum describes the amazing City of Ice (Die Eisstadt, 1917), where Austrian soldiers inside the Marmolada Glacier built quarters in tunnels extending 12 kilometers.

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Dolomites gallery 5: Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group, Bolzano

The Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group is yet another impressive mountain massif in the Dolomitesl. Nearby, see a great reconstruction of the 5000-year-old Iceman (Ötzi) plus his actual mummy in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology near Walther Square in Bolzano. From Pera di Fassa village (in Pozza di Fassa comune) in Val di Fassa, we took a bus to visit Rifugio Gardeccia Hutte (also accessible by lift plus 45 minute walk) and to hike in the Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group.

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Dolomites gallery 6: Pala Group/Pale di San Martino

Among the most striking of the Dolomites is the Pala Group (Italian: Pale di San Martino, Dolomiti delle Pale, or Gruppo delle Pale). Rising majestically above Passo Rolle, the sharp pyramid of Cimon della Pala (or Cimone, 3184 m/10,446 ft) is known as the Matterhorn of the Dolomites (il Cervino delle Dolomiti). Visit the mountain resort of San Martino di Castrozza, in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) region of Italy.

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Dolomites gallery 7: Monte Civetta, Monte Pelmo, Alleghe Village

Monte Civetta (3220 meters or 10,564 feet) rises high above hiker trails accessible via lift from Alleghe resort village, in the Dolomites, Belluno province, Veneto region of Italy. Admire or hike around Monte Pelmo (3169 meters or 10,397 feet) to the northeast. Monte Cernera rises above Santa Fosca/Pescul village on the way to Monte Pelmo along a scenic back road, Strada Statale 251.

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Itinerary: classic Venice & Dolomites of Italy, plus Slovenia & Croatia

We suggest 1-3 weeks of day-hiking in the Dolomites (using valley accommodation or mountain refuges) starting from Venice, optionally looping into Slovenia and Croatia. We heartily recommend the following bible of wonderful Dolomites hikes, where we used the Second Edition for our 2013 trip (referred to as SWD Hike# in our itinerary below):

Pre-booking a hut-to-hut hiking package in the mountains lets you escape urban life and experience beautiful photographic sunsets/sunrises, with no worries for day after day. Or, rent a car like us and stay spontaneously in comfortable valley apartments, where kitchens saved money and freed us from hotel meal schedules:

Self-guided Dolomites driving & hiking tour

Driving stress was greatly reduced by pre-programming our Garmin Nuvi 2595LMT GPS (installed with City Navigator Europe NT) to speak turn by turn directions to hotels and hikes marked on its 5-inch map using Garmin BaseCamp. Drivers should be alert for constantly aggressive tailgaters and motorcycles passing on blind curves, which is standard practice in Italy.

Arriving in a new town by morning or mid day usually let us find good lodging, often with the help of the local valley tourist office (which often don’t cover adjacent valleys). In peak season, reduce your worries by booking at least one night ahead in popular areas such as Cortina, CorvaraVal di Funes/Villnöß, and Innichen/San Candido. Nice three-star-rated hotel rooms with half board (dinner + breakfast; with breakfasts usually after 7:30, dinners after 19:30) deliciously tempted us to overeat, but often didn’t jive with our hunger times or prime hours for photography. In comparison to mountain refuges, the valley hotels or apartments (our favorite) offer better meals and cheaper rooms per person with much more privacy, especially for a couple/Double. Plan to finish hikes by about 15:00, as afternoon thundershowers are common in July.

Itinerary key:  ***Amazing/must see.  **High priority.  *Do it if time allows.

  1. July 12, 2013 Fri: Fly Seattle late afternoon overnight to Amsterdam.
  2. July 13 Sat: Arrive in Venice late afternoon. Venice night 1 of 4. We enjoyed **Antica Raffineria, a clean, quiet hotel with air conditioning (crucial in summer), one of the best values in Cannaregio sestiere. Relax while you overcome jet lag.
  3. July 14 Sun: Venice night 2 of 4, Antica Raffineria.
  4. July 15 Mon: Venice night 3 of 4, Antica Raffineria.
  5. July 16 Tues: Venice night 4 of 4, Antica Raffineria.
  6. July 17 Wed: Venice car rental > drive 4 hours > ***Brenta Dolomites: Rifugio Tucket and Rifugio Brentei are perfect destinations for day hiking or sleeping overnight. SWD Hike #49. If you stay in Madonna di Campiglio, **Hotel Italo offers friendly staff and good meals.
  7. July 18 Thu: Hike out. Flexible/rain day. Drive 1.7 hrs > Bolzano: see the *Iceman (Ötzi) and  *Castelo Roncolo/Runkelstein Castel.  
  8. July 19 Fri: Drive 45min > **Karersee/L.Carezza, **hike 0-5+ miles/0-1500+ feet gain, SWD Hike #38. Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group: *Rif. Paolina lift+night+hike, SWD Hike #37.
  9. July 20 Sat: Hike the **Inner Catinacchio to Passo Principe (with optional steep side trip to * Vaiolet Towers and Rifugio Vaiolet 3+ hours round trip), SWD Hike #36. Stay at spectacular ***Rifugio Gardeccia Hutte via shuttle bus (or lift+walk).
  10. July 21 Sun: Bus (or hike+lift) down. Drive 2 hours > ***San Martino di Castrozza: Rosetta lift (plus optional SWD Hike #46 if snow allows). Walk from ***Passo Rolle hotel to see ***Rifugio Segantini at sunset, optionally trekking as far as SWD Hike #45. Our best view from a Dolomites Hotel was of Matterhorn-like Cimon della Pala peak, right outside our window at roadside ***Albergo Vezzana.
  11. July 22 Mon: Drive 1.1 hr > **Alleghe: hike on Civetta 5-10 mi/1800 ft to Lake Coldai and beyond, overnight option Rifugio ColdaiSWD Hike #17.
  12. July 23 Tu: Malga Ciapela: ***Marmolada lift (plus SWD Hike #432 miles/500 ft gain, if snow allows), including World War I history museum. Passo Pordoi: ***Bindelweg hike 4+ mi/1500 ft (optional lift, bus, or walk round trip), SWD Hike #41. Great apartment with kitchen and view: ***Hotel Gonzaga.
  13. July 24 Wed: **Passo Pordoi: north lift to Sass Pordoi for view (plus optional SWD Hike #40 but patchy snow made us instead choose ***Bindelweg SWD Hike #41). Passo Sella: *Rifugio Demetz lift + options for overnight and SWD Hike #39. Flexible free time.
  14. July 25 Thu: Stay in ***Selva di Val Gardena/Wolkenstein at the great Bed & Breakfast ***Garni Murfried to stage our favorite Dolomites hike: take the first morning bus to Ortisei (or St. Christina), take  ***Seceda lift, admire great views up at the cross on the edge of Val di Funes (Villnöss), then walk 12 miles (2000 feet up, 5000 feet down) via the steep pass Furcela Forces De Sieles to beautiful Vallunga (trail #2 to 16), finishing where you started in Selva. The hike traverses Puez-Geisler Group from verdant pastures to alpine wonders to U-shaped Vallunga valley, all preserved in a vast Nature Park: Parco Naturale Puez-Odle (German: Naturpark Puez-Geisler; Ladin: Parch Natural Pöz-Odles). Or try a shorter **SWD Hike #31 or easy *SWD Hike #32.
  15. July 26 Fri:  ***Geisler/Odle Group SWD Hike #29 or flexible day. ***Val di Funes (Villnöß/Villnoss) : Santa Maddalena: sunset/sunrise photos.
  16. July 27 Sat: *Passo delle Erbe. Optional **SWD Hike #28: 10mi/3700 ft.
  17. July 28 Sun:  Drive 1.5 hrs > **Lago di Braies hike 0-10 mi/0-3300 ft, SWD Hike #1 or #2.
  18. July 29 Mon: Drive 40min > ***Sesto: Val Fiscalina loop 10.5mi/4000ft, SWD Hike #8 with 3 scenic Rifugio overnight options. Our best value Dolomites apartment: ***Gruberhof (Köch Anna/Koeck Anna), St.-Silvester-Straße 6 (in Winnebach/Prato Drava village), 39038 Innichen/San Candido, telephone 0474 966684 (be prepared to speak German), near the Austrian border.
  19. July 30 Tue: Hike out from overnight hut on *** Sesto: Val Fiscalina loop. *Croda Rossa lift. Flex day.
  20. July 31 Wed:  Drive 1 hour > ***Cadini di Misurina 5 mi loop SWD Hike #10 (overnight option **Rifugio Savio). Cortina: ***Forcella Staunies lift.
  21. Aug 1 Thu: **Lago Sorapiss 8 mile loop SWD Hike #13. Stay at a scenic pass above Cortina d’Ampezzo: ***Hotel – Restaurant Passo Giau. Good nearby walks include **SWD Hike #10 Round the Croda da Lago for stunning larch fall foliage colors or *SWD Hike #20 Cinque Torri which is good all summer and includes a World War I outdoor history museum.
  22. Aug 2 Fri:  Drive 50 min > **Rifugio Lagazuoi lift to lodge with private or dorm rooms + optional SWD Hike #23 or 24. *World War I history center.
  23. Aug 3 Sat:  Depart Rifugio Lagazuoi. Drive 2.5 hours > Domegge + gravel road + very short walk to Rifugio Padova. Optional 8mi/3300 ft hike SWD Hike #15.
  24. Aug 4 Su: Drive from Rifugio Padova Domegge > drive 3.5hours > see Vrata Valley, Slovenia.
  25. Aug 5 Mon: Slovenia (read my separate article)Krma Valley hike 6 miles/3900 feet gain one way to stay overnight in scenic Stanicev Dom hut  (or 12.5 mi round trip in a tiring day) or further up to Kredarica Hut. Above the huts, demanding iron routes (vie ferrate) provide cables and hand grips on steep, exposed (non-technical) paths to the summit of Triglav, not advised for those with fear of heights.
  26. Aug 6 Tues: Slovenia: Stanicev Dom hut: hike out 6 miles > drive 40min > Lake Bled.
  27. Aug 7 Wed: Slovenia: Lake Bled > drive 3.5 hrs > Croatia: Plitvice Lakes NP: walk in for evening views.
  28. Aug 8 Th: Croatia (read my separate article): Get up 6:00am, ticket office for boat shuttle opens at 7am, then walk Plitvice Lakes NP.  Drive 3.5hrs > Piran Youth Hostel, Slovenia.
  29. Aug 9 Fri: Slovenia: Piran > drive 1 hour > Skocjan Caves > drive 2.5 hours > ITALY: **Titian Inn includes free shuttle to adjacent Venice Marco Polo (VCE) airport.
  30. Aug 10, 2013 Sat: Fly early morning Venice > Seattle at lunchtime.

For an expanded list of hotel and hiking options, click Tom’s 12-page “Italy’s Dolomites & Venice + Croatia, Slovenia: drive/hike tour.”

Mobile phones tips in Europe

Before leaving the USA, we contacted T-Mobile for the simple codes to unlock our Sony Ericsson Equinox 4-band GSM phone for use with other SIM cards and mobile phone networks worldwide. If you expect to call home or multiple countries outside of the SIM card’s home, buy a prepaid international calling card in USA such as from Costco.

Wind Telephonia Mobile store in Venice sold and installed a cheap 25 Euro SIM into our phone, good for our month in Europe. Wind helpfully texted our credit balance automatically after each call (but ask how to check balance before leaving the store, anyway). When the store activates the SIM, test using the shop’s or other phone. Using your phone’s menu, turn off the option to require a password on each call. If calling from the SIM card’s home country, expect about 10 to 20 cents per minute for domestic calls to fixed lines, more to mobile phones, more if roaming outside SIM’s country, and free to receive calls.

How to use mobile phones in Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia

  • When calling within Italy leave off the 39, then dial entire number, including initial zero (no “city codes” anymore) plus area code (even from within it).
  • Italian land line numbers all start with a “0” (041 for Venice, 06 for Rome, 055 for Florence).
  • Italian cell phone numbers start with 338, 339, 439, or any other trio of non-zero numbers. Toll-free numbers in Italy now start with 800, free within the country but cannot be called from outside.
  • In Italy, to call home, first dial Italian international prefix 00, then your country code (US/CAN: 1, UK: 44, AUS: 61, NZ: 64), then area code and local number, but this is expensive unless using an international calling card (Costco’s) or using Internet cafe email or Skype.
  • When calling to Italy from outside countries, start with your country’s international dialing prefix (US/CAN: 011, UK/IRE: 00, AUS 0011, NZ: 00), then dial number with initial 39.
  • How to call Slovenia from Italy: dial 00 + 386 + number.
  • How to dial Croatia from Slovenia: 00 + 385 + Areacode + #. Mobile phone: 00 + 385 + 9xx.xxx.xxx.
  • Only within Croatia do you dial the number (0) shown within parentheses.
  • Slovenia uses tri-band GSM. Buy €10 SIM card from Mobitel or others. Ignore the number within parentheses +386 (0)2 when calling Slovenia from outside, but within Slovenia you must dial it plus area code, for example: 02…

Recommended Italy books from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Italy travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years). Bring good country and city guides on the trip. Hikers and trekkers should add a walking guidebook. Get the latest ebook versions, which are searchable and lighter-weight than printed books (for smartphone, Kindle, tablet, and PC).

  • DK Eyewitness Italy (Travel Guide) Paperback – June 22, 2021: helped me quickly plan and prioritize a meaningful trip to Venice, the Veneto, and Dolomites.
  • Lonely Planet Italy 15 (Travel Guide) Paperback with Folded Map, October 26, 2021: covers the country in great detail
  • Rick Steves Italy Paperback with Folded Map, January 19, 2021: defines concise and efficient tour itineraries for those with limited time. Rick Steves updates the books every year for each country in Europe, saving time and money on heartfelt experiences.
  • Rick Steves Venice (Rick Steves Travel Guide) Paperback – 2019

  • Shorter Walks in the Dolomites (Cicerone Guide) Paperback – Illustrated, 3rd edition June 16, 2015: encourages hiking combined with public transportation
  • 100 Hut Walks in the Alps: Routes for day and multi-day walks (Cicerone Guides) Paperback – August 30, 2014
  • The latest Alps hiking books by Cicerone Guides are essential for planning a hiking trip and carrying along, from hut to hut or based in hotels.
  • Rubicon by Tom Holland, Paperback novel (2005): rousing historical fiction: “In 49 BC, the seven hundred fifth year since the founding of Rome, Julius Caesar crossed a small border river called the Rubicon and plunged Rome into cataclysmic civil war. Tom Holland’s enthralling account tells the story of Caesar’s generation, witness to the twilight of the Republic and its bloody transformation into an empire. From Cicero, Spartacus, and Brutus, to Cleopatra, Virgil, and Augustus, here are some of the most legendary figures in history brought thrillingly to life. Combining verve and freshness with scrupulous scholarship, Rubicon is not only an engrossing history of this pivotal era but a uniquely resonant portrait of a great civilization in all its extremes of self-sacrifice and rivalry, decadence and catastrophe, intrigue, war, and world-shaking ambition.”
  • Gladiator (Blu-ray) starring Russell Crowe. One of my favorite dramatic movies.
  • Rome: The Complete Series by Kevin McKidd, Blu-ray/multiformat GIFTSET, 10 discs, 20 hours and 29 minutes (2014): One of my favorite dramatic series portrays Roman times with more depth and drama than ever before seen on film. This lavish spectacle of Rome in 52 BC expertly weaves human dramas of historical figures and fictional characters, featuring family dysfunction, treachery, betrayal, brutal violence, and graphic sex.

See more Alps articles:

TURKEY in 1999

Neither earthquakes nor reckless taxi drivers stopped us from enjoying the amazing Republic of Turkey, where my wife and I encountered the friendliest people whom we have ever met. To our Western eyes, Turkey is more exotic than its well-touristed neighbor Greece. We hiked the Kaçkar Mountains, danced with Hemşin and Laz people, drank lots of tea, sailed the Aegean Sea, and witnessed a total eclipse of the sun, all in 6.5 weeks from July 24 to September 9, 1999. A two-week tour package warmed us up for the ensuing month traveling on our own.

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Ephesus, Turkey: the Library of Celsus, built 114 AD

Turkey offers a rich variety for travelers:

  • Turkey is a democratic, secular, western-looking, rapidly modernizing, capitalistic, NATO ally of the USA.
  • Turkey has the lowest travel costs in Europe.
    • Easy, cheap, and comfortable travel on the extensive bus system.
    • Travel without a tour package to meet more people, accept generous local hospitality, and experience serendipity.
    • High quality gold jewelry costs half of US prices.
  • Turkey is safe and has low crime.
    • The crime rate in Turkey is lower than in the United States.
    • The risk of terrorism for tourists is very low — no more risky than being struck by lightening. (See section on the Kurds.)
    • Tourism in Turkey has been hurt by negative press and misperceptions, and resulting empty hotel rooms and uncrowded sights make Turkey very attractive for spontaneous visitors.
    • The tragic August 17, 1999 earthquake in İstanbul’s poorly-built suburbs did not damage the airport or any tourist areas. Your chances of experiencing an earthquake are no different than for visiting California.
  • Turkey has fresh and tasty food.
    • Enjoy fresh peaches, watermelons, böreks, baklava, meatballs, breads, a hundred eggplant dishes, and more.
    • Turkey is the world’s biggest producer of hazelnuts, figs, and apricots.
    • Turkey is one of only 7 countries in the world that can feed itself without imports.
    • Eat döner kebap in the family room of a “self-servis” cafeteria, where the welcome is warm. Döner kebab is a Turkish dish made of meat cooked on a vertical spit and sliced off to order. The meat may be lamb, mutton, beef, or chicken. Alternative names include kebap, donair, döner, doner or donner. Döner Kebab is the origin of other similar Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes such as shawarma and gyros.
  • Turkey offers fascinating historic cities where East meets West. İstanbul makes a fabulous destination for a week or more.
  • Turkey offers majestic architecture and ruins from an amazing 9,000 years of Anatolian history.
    • The Turks came to Anatolia from Central Asia after 1000 AD (and are not culturally related to Arabs or Persians).
    • The sweeping story of Anatolia includes the Hittites, Romans, Saint Paul the Apostle, Süleyman the Magnificent.
  • Turkey was the the cradle of Christianity and now hosts popular Christian tours, such as to the birthplaces of Saint Paul the Apostle and Saint Nicholas (“Santa Claus” himself).
  • Turkey’s geography varies from the warm and beautiful Turquoise Coast, to icy Mount Ararat 16,854 feet (5137 meters).
  • Turkey’s people are the friendliest we have ever met:Meeting a friendly Turkish family in Amasya, Central Turkey.
    • Turks actively practice the Muslim value of hospitality towards visitors, and serve you tea in little tulip-shaped glasses at every opportunity.
    • When travelling on our own away from the big cosmopolitan cities, local folks often showered us with curious attention, making us feel like rock stars in the spotlight. On six different occasions, locals had us take a group photo to mail to them later.
    • The people of Turkey hunger for connection with the world. Most Turks yearn to join the European Union (EU) to trade a remarkable variety of food and industry.
    • Advice for women:
      • Dress conservatively.
      • When entering a mosque, etiquette requires everyone to take off shoes and women to put on a head scarf (bring your own scarf for convenience).
      • As a married couple traveling together, we had no problems with unwanted attention, aside from feeling like rock stars pursued by curious fans.
      • In smaller towns and rural areas, Carol felt uncomfortable culture shock by noticing mostly men and very few women on the streets. A common Muslim tradition in rural Turkey is for women to stay at home or only go out in groups, conservately dressed, usually with a head scarf. This sex role difference is most pronounced in Turkey away from the cosmopolitan cities. We were relieved to experience an exception in the Kaçkar Mountains, where men and women mixed in a more relaxed fashion and we line-danced with the local Hemşin and Laz people.
      • Solo female travelers need to be extra confident in the face of assertive male attention in Turkey, and may enjoy the trip better by traveling with a companion of either sex (or with a group). American movies and TV shows shown worldwide have unfortunately portrayed American and Western World women as having loose morals, which can encourage amorous men.
Mountain weather forecasts for Turkey (Anatolia)

As mountain weather differs from nearby cities, check forecasts for specific peaks or ranges:


Built in 1973, the First Bosporus Bridge connects Europe with Asia and is one of the longest bridges in the world. İstanbul is the world’s only city which spans two continents. 3% of the Republic of Turkey is in Turkish Thrace, in Europe on the Balkan Peninsula, and 97% of Turkey is Anatolia (Asia Minor or Anadolu).

The Bosporus Strait (in Greek Βόσπορος; or “Istanbul Strait” in Turkish: İstanbul Boğazı) separates Europe from Asia and has determined the history of İstanbul and its empires. As the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation, the Bosporus connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara (which is connected by the Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea, and thereby to the Mediterranean Sea).

History of İstanbul

Culturally speaking, 2700-year old İstanbul (Istanbul) peaked twice: once as the capital of the East Roman Empire, and again as capital of the Ottoman Empire, when it became the biggest and most splendid city in Europe by the 1700s and 1800s. Today, İstanbul’s population is 12 million and growing rapidly. The next largest cities in Turkey are Ankara, the capital (with 3 million people) and İzmir (2.5 million). In 1985, UNESCO listed the “Historic Areas of İstanbul” as a World Heritage Area.

1000 BC to 657 BC

İstanbul started as a fishing village on the Bosphorus Strait.

657 BC to 330:  Byzantium

İstanbul was first called Byzantium, a Greek city-state which was later subject to Rome and renamed Augusta Antonina.

330 to 1453 CE

Emperor Constantine renamed the city to Constantinople, which served as capital of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern or Later Roman Empire). Constantine the Great encouraged Christianity for the Empire and became baptized near his death. In the 400s, Emperor Thoeodosius II built the city’s walls, the strongest in Europe, so strong that they blocked the Islamic Arab army assaults of 669-718. Constantinople peaked in the 1100s.

1453 to 1922 CE

Islamic conquest: With the help of the world’s largest cannon battering the city’s huge walls, Mehmet the Conqueror captured Constantinople, which then became known as İstanbul, capital of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which achieved its greatest dominance in the 1500s.

1922 to present

İstanbul lost some of its luster when the capital of the new Turkish Republic was moved to Ankara, an inland location safer from invasion. But by the mid 1980s, İstanbul regained its international renown as “Capital of the East.”
Ethnic harmony and conflict

Sultanahmet (or Blue) Mosque built 1609-1616 in Istanbul, Turkey. In the İstanbul suburb of Ortaköy, a Jewish synagogue, Islamic mosque, and Christian church have been peaceful neighbors for centuries. After Ottoman Turks conquered the city of Byzantium in 1453 and renamed it İstanbul, the Ottomans’ millet system of distinct religious communities allowed Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Kurds to continue to live in relative harmony for centuries, as they had in Byzantine times. In the 1400s and 1500s, many Jews who fled from the Spanish Inquisition took shelter in Ottoman İstanbul, which welcomed their advanced knowledge of science and economics. In modern times, many of these Jews were attracted to Israel, leaving only 24,000 in Turkey as of 1999. As the Ottoman Empire weakened and ethnic nationalism rose at the turn of the 20th century, Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds yearned to assert their own control over claimed homelands, and they separately fought bitter but unsuccessful battles against the staunch Turks.

Hagia Sofia (Aya Sofya Museum)

Emperor Justinian built the Hagia Sofia from 532 to 537 AD in Constantinople on the site of a former Hagia Sofia on the acropolis of the former Byzantium. The Greek name Hagia Sofia is Sancta Sophia in Latin, which means “Divine Wisdom.” The 102-foot diameter dome perches an amazing 180 feet above the floor (rivalling the scale of the 144-foot high and wide concrete dome of Rome’s Pantheon, built earlier from 118-125 AD). An earthquake collapsed the dome after only 22 years, and it was rebuilt several times by later Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans. 30 million gold mosaic tiles covered the dome’s interior in Byzantine times. Hagia Sofia reigned as the greatest church in Christendom for nearly 1000 years, until the Islamic conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, after which minarets towers were added. A church with a larger dome, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was not built until 1506. Hagia Sofia served as a mosque from 1453 to 1935, after which Atatürk, the father of the modern Republic of Turkey, declared it a museum. İstanbul’s Hagia Sofia still stands as one of the architectural marvels of the world.

Impressive sights
  • Visit impressive Sultanahmet Mosque (or Blue Mosque), built 1609-1616.
  • Architect Sinan built Süleymaniye Imperial Mosque on Golden Horn harbor in İstanbul from 1550-1557. Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife are buried here. In the West, he is known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the Islamic world, he is known as the Lawgiver (in Turkish “Kanuni”; making his formal Turkish name of Kanuni Sultan Süleyman), because he completely reconstructed the Ottoman legal system.
  • Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı in Turkish) is on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait. Dolmabahce served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1853 to 1922 (except for a twenty-year period 1889-1909 when the Yıldız Palace was used). In style, the palace is baroque, rococo and very French. Dolmabahçe means “filled garden”, referring to the palace being built from 1843-1856 on land reclaimed from the sea.

Turquoise Coast or Turkish Riviera: Ancient Lycia

Visitors walk beneath Corinthian order columns at the Great Theatre of Ephesus, in the Republic of Turkey. Ephesus or Efes

A nearby goddess sanctuary helped the town of Ephesus (or Efes in Turkish) become a prosperous port and cultural center by 600 BC. At various times, Ephesus was controlled by Lydia (King Croesus), Persians, Hellenists (Ancient Greeks from Athens), and Alexander the Great (334 BC). Eventually Ephesus became capital (population 250,000) of the Roman Province of Asia Minor (ancient Greek Anatolia, or modern Turkish Anadolu). As its port silted and restricted commerce, Ephesus declined from greatness and the city center moved to nearby Selçuk.

The Great Theatre of Ephesus, the largest outdoor theatre in the ancient world, was begun during Hellenistic times (probably during the reign of Lysimachos in the third century BC), and was altered and enlarged from 41-117 AD, by Roman emperors Claudius, Nero, and Trajan. The Greek builders dug out a space from Mount Pion (present-day Panayir Dagi) to fit the 30-meter (100-foot) high theater, which accommodated 25,000 people, or 10 percent of the population of Roman Ephesus at its peak. The theater exhibited the fights of wild beasts and of men with beasts.

Biblical note: Paul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) stayed 27 months as a missionary in Ephesus. A few years after 51 AD, he delivered a Christian sermon condemning pagan worship in the theater in Ephesus, where local silversmiths feared loss of income from the sale of silver statues (idols) of the goddess Artemis. The resulting mob almost killed Paul (Acts 19:21–41, in the New Testament) and his companions. After that, Paul avoided Ephesus. Paul died about 64-67 AD in Rome during Nero’s Persecution. However, centuries later, the tide turned in favor of Christianity. During the fourth century, Ephesians probably converted to Christianity, as all temples were declared closed by Theodosius I in 391 AD.

Over several centuries, the Cayster River filled the harbor of Ephesus with silt, creating a malaria-infested swamp, pushing the sea 4 kilometers away and cutting off the city’s commerce and wealth. By the 6th century, Emperor Justinian decided to build the Saint John Basilica 3 kilometers away, which effectively moved the city center to Selçuk.

Selçuk: the Temple of Artemis

Just a column in a swamp remains from the Temple of Artemis (Greek: Artemision; Latin: Artemisium; aka the Sanctuary of the “Lady of Ephesus”), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, originally described by Antipater of Sidon about 140 BC. The large Temple of Artemis (measuring 300 by 150 feet) was finished about 560 BC, after 120 years of construction, started by the notoriously rich Croesus of Lydia on the ruins of a smaller temple designed by Chersiphron. A fame seeker named Herostratus burnt down the Temple in 356 BC. The Ephesians eventually rebuilt a larger structure measuring 425 by 225 feet, four times larger in area than the existing Parthenon of Athens (228 x 101 feet, completed 431 BC). In 262, the Temple of Artemis was razed again, this time by Goths. Ephesians rebuilt again. The third Artemision ended with Christian destruction in 401 by John Chrysostom and a mob. The stones were reused in other buildings — some of the columns in Hagia Sophia originally belonged to the Temple of Artemis.

In Selçuk is the Basilica of St. John (St. Jean Aniti), constructed by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It stands over the believed burial site of St. John, the apostle, evangelist (author of the Fourth Gospel) and prophet (author of Revelation). Atop the hill is Selçuk Castle, a Byzantine construction from the 6th century. A nearby domed building is the Isabey Mosque, or Jesus Mosque, built in 1375 at the direction of the Emir of Aydin and using columns and stones recycled from the ruins of Ephesus and the Artemision.

Santa Claus is from Anatolia, not the North Pole.

Castle of Uchisar, Cappadocia, Turkey, carved in volcanic tuff in 15th and 16th centuries by Byzantine army. Saint Nicholas was born in Patara on the Aegean Sea coast of Anatolia. As a Byzantine Christian bishop, Nicholas of Myra anonymously dropped gifts of coins down the chimneys of village girls who lacked dowries, thereby allowing them to marry and probably avoid a life of prostitution. After his death he was declared Saint Nicholas, patron saint of virgins, sailors, children, pawnbrokers, Holy Russia, and others. Saint Nicholas’ town of Myra is now called Demre in Turkey.

The fame of Saint Nicholas grew in different cultures, such as in the Dutch figure of “Sancte Claus”, and in the German legend of Christkindl (the Christ child) who was helped by the elf Belsnickle, imitated by adults in furs who brought gifts. These traditions evolved into Kris Kringle, as defined by Reverend Clement Moore in the famous 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” which starts: ” ‘Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring not even a mouse… .”

In the Civil War era of the USA, Thomas Nast further solidified the image of Kris Kringle in Harper’s Magazine illustrations of a familiar white-bearded, gleaming-eyed man. Today in Turkey, Saint Nicholas is known as “Noel Baba”, or Father Christmas.

Built before his death in 343 AD, the original Saint Nicholas Church held his remains and was restored as a Byzantine basilica in 1043, and was restored again in 1862 by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, and again by Turkish archaeologists. An ancient Greek marble sarcophagus had been reused to bury the Saint; but his bones were stolen in 1087 by merchants from Bari, Italy, where today his remains rest in Basilica of San Nicola. The present day Church of Saint Nicholas is located in modern Demre (ancient Myra), Turkey.

Olimpos (or Olympos)

We anchored our gulets at Phaselis, offshore of Mt. Olympos (2375 meters or 7792 feet elevation, Turkish name Tahtalı Dağı). The area around Phaselis and Olympos Valley was one of the most beautiful on our coastal cruise of southwest Turkey.

A gulet is a two-masted wooden sailing vessel traditionally from the Turkish Riviera (or the Turquoise Coast), and today commonly serves as a tourist charter. This motor sailboat design, varying in size from 14 to 35 metres, is also found throughout the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Most gulets are powered by diesel, and many are not properly rigged for sailing.

Near Phaselis is the ancient city of Olympos (or Olimpos), one of the six leading cities of the Lycian federation (168-178 BCE), located in Olympos Valley, 80 km southwest of Antalya city near the town of Kemer. This coastal peak is the tallest of the several different mountains named Olympos (or Olimpos) in Turkey, but not as tall as the more famous Mount Olympus, the tallest peak in Greece (9,568 feet, or 2918 meters), known to the ancient Greeks as the home of god Zeus. (The highest peak in Turkey is Mount Ararat, an extinct volcano on the eastern border, with a height of 16,854 feet or 5,137 meters, also called Buyuk Agri, meaning “Great Pain” in Turkish.)

Visit the ancient natural gas fires of the Chimaera, a remarkable wonder of the natural world. The Chimaera will spontaneously reignite even after you smother the flames! In ancient times these natural fires burned more vigorously, so bright as to be visible by sailors along the nearby coast. In Greek mythology, the Chimaera was the monstrous son of Typhon, and grandson of Gaia.

Ancient Lycia

Lycian tombs (or necropoli) from about 400 BCE can be seen by boat on the Dalyan Çayı River, above the ancient harbor city of Caunos, on the Turquoise Coast, near the town of Koycegiz, in the Republic of Turkey. Dalyan means “fishing weir” in Turkish. The Dalyan Delta, with a long, golden sandy beach at its mouth, is a nature conservation area and a refuge for sea turtles (Caretta caretta) and blue crabs.

Visit the Greek theatre at the ancient Roman city of Caunos, founded in the 800s BC, becoming a Carian city in 400 BC.

Gemile Island

Visit a 6th century Byzantine monastery on Gemile Island.


See a Byzantine castle at Kaleköy, or ancient Simena. Kaleköy can only be reached by sea. Its Byzantine castle was built in the Middle Ages to fight the pirates which nested in nearby Kekova Island. Kaleköy (literally “Castle’s village” in Turkish, called Simena in ancient Lycian) is a popular yachting destination in the Kaş district in the Antalya Province, located between Kaş and Kale on the Mediterranean coast. The village lies amidst a Lycian necropolis, which is partially sunken underwater.


The Taxiarhis Greek Orthodox Christian Church, which dates from the Ottoman era, was abandoned in 1923 in Kayaköy. Kayaköy (Greek: Levissi) is a ghost town near Ölüdeniz, 8 kilometers south of Fethiye in southwestern Turkey, abandoned by Greek Christians in 1923, and today visited by tourists. In the 1700s, Kayaköy was built on the site of the ancient city of Carmylessus (or Karmylassos). In 1900, its population was about 2000, mostly Greek Christians. After the Greco-Turkish War, Kayaköy was mostly abandoned after a population exchange agreement was signed by the Turkish and Greek governments in 1923. Kayaköy may be the inspiration behind “Eskişehir”, the imaginary village chosen by Louis de Bernières as the setting of his 2004 novel “Birds Without Wings”.


Arykanda (Arycanda) is an ancient Lycian city built on five large terraces ascending a mountain slope, near the small village of Aykiriçay, on the Elmalı-Finike road in Antalya province in south western Turkey. While the oldest confirmed artifacts date from the 6th/5th century BC, the settlement of Arykanda may go back as far as the second millennium BC. Arykanda survived through Byzantine times, until the 6th century when the village moved to a new site, called “Arif Settlement” by archeologists, south of the modern road. The Greek style amphitheater at Arycanda was built in Anatolia during the 1st century BC. Twenty rows of seats were divided into seven sections, and holes supported protective awnings at the edge of every row.

Perga or Perge

Walk through a Roman gate to Hellenistic gates, and see Ionic order columns made by Romans at ancient Perge, Turkey. Perga, now commonly spelled “Perge” and pronounced “per-geh”, was the capital of the then Pamphylia region, which is in modern day Antalya province on the southwestern Mediterranean coast of Turkey. An acropolis here dates back to the Bronze Age. In the twelfth century BC, Greek tribes migrated from northern Anatola to settle what would become four great cities: Perga, Sillyon, Aspendos and Side. Perga was founded about 1000 BC at a defensive location 20 kilometers inland from the pirate-infested Aegean Sea. In 546 BC, the Achaemenid Persians gained control, followed by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. Then came the diadoch empire of the Seleucids, under whom Perga’s famous mathematician Apollonius lived and worked (about 262 BC to 190 BC). Apollonius was a pupil of Archimedes and wrote eight books describing conic sections (the circle, ellipse, parabola and hyperbola). Beginning in 188 BC, the Romans ruled and created most of the buildings that survive as ruins today. St. Paul the Apostle briefly “preached the word” here, as mentioned in the Bible (Acts 14:24). Perga lasted until Seljuk times before being abandoned. Perge is in the modern Turkish village of Murtana on the Suridjik sou, a tributary of the Cestrus river, formerly in the Ottoman vilayet of Koniah.

Central Anatolia: Cappadocia

The Persian name “Cappadocia” does not exist on official road maps, but describes one of Turkey’s major tourist destinations, the 100-mile-wide square east of Kayseri, in Central Anatolia. As much as 10 million years ago, three volcanoes covered this area in ash, which hardened into a soft rock called tuff. This volcanic tuff has eroded into fantastic shapes which the Turks call “fairy chimneys.” Cappadocia once included most of central Anatolia (between Ankara and Malatya, between the Black sea and the Taurus Mountains, and centered at Kayseri), and was the center of the Hittite Empire and later a Roman province mentioned in the Bible. For thousands of years, people have carved caves and entire underground cities into the tuff formations. Early Christians thrived here, hid from 7th-century Arab armies, and made unique rock churches carved from tuff, with frescoes added in the 1000s to 1100s. In 1985, UNESCO listed Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia as a World Heritage Area.

Nemrut Dağı (Mount Nimrod)

A six-foot tall head of Zeus commemorates the lofty aspirations of pre-Roman King Antiochus (64-38 BC) at Mount Nimrod (Nemrut Dagi), near Malatya, Turkey.

Pre-Roman, megalomaniac King Antiochus (64-38 BC) cut two ledges on top of 7237-foot high Mount Nemrut in central Anatolia and filled them with impressive statues of gods and himself. Between the ledges, his workers piled crushed rocks into a cone-shaped tumulus 160 feet high and 500 across, burying the tomb of Antiochus and his father Mithridates Callinicus. The small Commagene Kingdom’s greatest days only lasted for the 26-year rule of Antiochus, who was deposed by the Romans. For many years, modern scholars tried in vain to probe the mysterious tumulus, and one scientist died trying to dynamite a tunnel; but finally in 2003, Turkish archaeologist Mahmud Arslan discovered the burial chamber hidden for more than 2000 years. Earthquakes toppled the 6-foot-high stone heads long ago, but the Turkish government may make restorations. UNESCO listed Nemrut Dağı National Park as a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Anatolia: Historical claims to fame

Greek Anatolia (meaning “The East”) is what the Romans called Asia Minor, and the Turks now call Anadolu.  The Asian peninsula of Anatolia encompasses twice the land area of California, and has hosted the following astounding drama of human history (listed sequentially in time):

  • the world’s first city, Çatal Höyük, 7000 BC (Palaeolithic times, the Old Stone Age).
  • the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, possible homeland of the Indo-European languageand people.
  • the Hittite Empire (mentioned in the Bible), which rivalled ancient Egypt.
  • İzmir (ancient Smyrna): Home of Homer (born around 700 BC), founder of western literature.
  • Troy: In Homer’s Iliad, Troy was called Ilium, where Paris killed Achilles by a shot in the heel in the Trojan War, about 1250 BC, giving us the expression “Achille’s Heel.” Homer described a Trojan Horse filled with soldiers to crack Troy’s defenses, but the earthquake of 1250 probably did the damage. The Trojan Horse may actually have been built as a “thank you” to Poseidonthe Earth-Shaker.
  • two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World:
    • The Mausoleum was the striking tomb of ruler Mausolus of Halicarnassus (or modern Bodrum) who died in 353 BC, giving us the modern term, “mausoleum.” The original Mausoleum was lost to earthquakes and crusaders.
    • Temple of Artemis (Anatolian mother goddess) was four times bigger than the Parthenon in Greece, but all that remains today is a stone column in a marsh.
  • important Roman sites and some of the most famous Greek (Hellenistic) ruins: Ephesus, Troy, Pergamum, Miletus, Halicarnassus, and others.
  • Turkish baths, which evolved from Greek and Roman baths.
  • Diogenes, who founded the Cynics (412?-323 BC).
  • the first cultivation of cherry trees.
  • the inventions of parchment (at Bergamon) and the envelope.
  • where Julius Caesar spoke the famous Latin phrase “veni, vidi, vici” or “I came, I saw, I conquered”  in 47 BC near Zile & Amasya, after a battle against King Pharnaces II (who was trying to reestablish the Pontic Kingdom of his ancestors by attacking the Roman provinces of Galatia, Armenia, and Cappadocia).
  • Anatolia is the cradle of Christianity:
    • Urfa (or Şanlıurfa): Possible birthplace of Patriarch Abraham, who first heard God in Harran and ultimately fathered three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
    • Tarses: Birthplace of the foremost champion of Christianity, Saint Paul the Apostle, who used Roman roads to spread Christianity in Anatolia from the years 45-58 CE.
    • Ephesus: where Saint Paul the Apostle preached Christianity for 27 months, and later Saint John took care of Mary, Mother of Jesus, for the last 5 years of her life.
    • Antioch (now Antakya, or Hatay): where the term “Christian” was invented, St. Peter preached, and Christian thought thrived from 100 CE until the Arab conquestin the year 642.
    • The 7 Churches of the Revelation (of Asia), early centers of Christianity: Ephesus (now Efes), Smyrna (İzmir), Pergamum (Bergama), Sardis (Sart), Philadelphia (Alaşehir), and 2 others.
    • Mount Ararat (Arı Dağı): 16,800-foot volcano, highest point in Turkey. Biblical landing place of Noah’s Ark.
    • Patara: Birthplace of Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus), who was Christian Archbishop of Myra(modern Demre).
    • Constantinople (now İstanbul), where
      • Constantine the Greatdeclared equal rights for all religions, then elevated Christianity and accepted baptism on his deathbed. Within 20 years, Christianity went from persecuted faith to state religion.
      • Emperor Justinian built Hagia Sofia, the greatest church in Christendom for nearly 1000 years and one of the architectural marvels of all time.
  • Seljuk Turkish Empire: In the year 1097, Seljuk Turks beat the Byzantine Empire at Manzikert (near Erzurum), founding the Kingdom of Rum. Turkish tribes then settled Anatolia. The Pope called for the First Crusadeto drive out the Muslims, but too late. Famous Seljuks include:
    • Omar Kyayyam, poet.
    • Aladdin Keykubad, ruler.
    • Whirling Dervishes founder Celaleddin Rumi, or Mevlana, the mystic “Shakespeare of Islam,” a Turk writing in Persian and teaching universal love.
  • the first known coffeehouses (in 1554 İstanbul).
  • the world’s first successful human glider flight, by Hazerfan Ahmet Celebi, launched from İstanbul’s Galata Tower.

Atatürk, “Father of the Turks”

Mustafa Kamal almost single-handedly turned the backward Ottoman Empire into the secular modern Turkish Republic. In thanks, he was proclaimed Atatürk, “Father of the Turks.” Almost every town in Turkey mounts a statue to this national hero. He was born Mustafa, and later nicknamed Kemal (“excellence”) by his math teacher. He earned hero status in his brilliant defense of Gallipoli (in 1915-1916), saving Constantinople from the British.

  • Ever since Greek independence in 1831, Greece wanted to reestablish the Byzantine Empire’s boundaries, so they invaded the Ottoman city of İzmir in 1919 with British encouragement. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed in defeat, General Mustafa Kamal organized a democratic revolutionary government in Ankara (formerly Angora), and with very limited resources, brilliantly held off invading French, Italian, and Greek armies.
  • Detractors:Many Hellenic (Greek), Armenian, and other Christian people revile Atatürk, holding him responsible for war crimes, human rights abuses, and the removal of more than a million Christian people from their ancestral homes in Anatolia. However, responsibility for the huge exchange of Christian and Muslim populations between Turkey and Greece is also shared by the Allies and Greece, who also signed the Second Treaty of Versailles in 1922.
    • Sadly, human history repeats an endless round of ethnic conflict (essentially fratricide), where one era’s victims become the next era’s oppressors. For example, in a little-remembered holocaust from 1821 to 1913, more than half a million Muslims were murdered or driven from their homes in the Balkan peninsula and Greece by various Christian groups including Greeks, Bosnian Serbs, Bulgarians, and Russian Cossacks.
    • Ironically, a classical hero of Christian and Greek people is Alexander the Great, a Macedonian responsible for pillaging vast areas, and spreading Greek culture along the way. The winners rewrite history. Coincidentally, Mustafa Kamal was also born in Macedonia (in the city of Salonika, which later became Thessaloniki, Greece).
    • References: 1) The Washington Post.  2) The Associated Press.
  • After the complex task of virtually single-handedly establishing the secular Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kamal Atatürk lived another 15 years. During this time, as a benevolent dictator, he directed sweeping humanistic reforms on a foundation of Turkish nationalism, including the following:
  1. adopted a constitution with western-style legal codes, granting women the right to vote and serve parliament (1934).
  2. abolished polygamy, and required marriage to be a civil ceremony (non-religious).
  3. abolished the fez hat (symbol of the Ottomans), replacing it with the kasket, a brimmed cap that prevents bowing to the ground, which Atatürk thought demeaning.
  4. influenced the next leader of Turkey to be neutral in World War II.
  5. overhauled the Turkish language (which had evolved in the 11th century from the Seljuk Turks who wrote with Arabic script):
  • Non-Turkish words (Arab, Persian, etc.) were removed and replaced by Turkish words (originating in central Asia).
  • City names were converted to Turkish (Angora toAnkara,Smyrnato İzmir,Constantinopleto İstanbul officially)
  • Turks were required to adopt a surname (family name). Up until then, Muslims had only one given name; family names were optional. Parliament proclaimed Mustafa Kamal’s family name to be Atatürk, which means “Father of the Turks.”
  • The Arabic alphabet was replaced with a Latin-based alphabet. Several Turkish letters are not found in English, such as: ç ğ ı İ ö ş and ü. (To correctly view the Turkish letters ğ, ı, and İ in your Internet browser, choose View…Character Set or Encoding…Turkish.)Fortunately, Turkish letters are pronounced the same in every word, making words easier to recite aloud from reading (unlike the many inconsistencies of English, where a letter such as “c” can be pronounced “s” or “k” and vowel pronunciations vary with many exceptions).

Turkish grammar is so logical that it forms the basis of Esperanto, an artificial international language. However, word order, verb usage, vowel harmony, and multiple suffixes make Turkish challenging for English speakers. For example, Turkish generally uses the following word order:

  • for example: “John this evening at his home to me a book gave he.” = “John bu akşam evinde bana bir kitap verdi”

Silhouettes of four photographers at sunrise on Mount Nemrut, in the Republic of Turkey.

The Kurds

Turkey has about 60 million people, mostly Sunni Muslim Turks. Kurds are the biggest minority in Turkey, numbering 10 million (including 6 million in Eastern Turkey).  Like Turks, Kurds in Turkey are virtually all Muslims. However, Kurds maintain their own Kurdish language, culture, and traditions. In search of better wages, 2.3 million people from Turkey live and work in Germany, including one-half million Kurds. On the streets of Erzurum, the biggest city in Eastern Turkey, I met Kurds and Turks who mixed freely as friends, which I take as a positive sign for Turkey’s aspirations towards a pluralistic society more acceptable in the eyes of the European Union and the world.

Kurds, who speak an Indo-European language (Kurdish), are closely related to the Persians, and migrated to Southeast Turkey from northern Europe centuries before Christ. Kurds and Ottoman era Turks coexisted in relative peace for hundreds of years. But since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, in an era of ethnic nationalism, many Kurds in disparate tribes hoped to create a new nation of “Greater Kurdistan,” which would consolidate the Kurdish territories across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. (Note that many of the atrocities that Armenians blame on “Turks” in this era were actually done by Kurds, who historically feuded with Armenians over the same territory around Mount Ararat.)

In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was founded on a policy of ethnic Turk nationalism, which wrongly classified Kurds as “mountain Turks,” who were supposedly “equal citizens” except that the Kurdish language and culture were outlawed.

During the 1980s, a small number of Kurds, mostly from down-trodden under classes, joined the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) out of hunger, desperation, and nothing to lose. PKK was based in neighboring Syria, Iraq, and Iran and secretly supported by the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization). PKK guerrillas killed thousands of people in Southeast Turkey. The Turkish army responded severely, and 30,000 people from both sides (but mostly Kurds) were killed in the 15-year guerrilla war. In 1988, Iraq killed 5,000 of its native Kurds with poison gas, pushed survivors towards Turkey and brought their plight to the attention of Europe and the USA, who pressured Turkey to become more lenient towards their Kurds.

As of 1999, Turkey officially legalized Kurdish language conversations, songs, and a radio station, but attitudes are still slow to change. Kurdish feudal lords currently have de facto control over Southeast Turkey: 80% of land is owned by 5% of the population, and 50% of the Kurds own no land. The majority of Kurds live in harmony with Turks, but tensions will remain for generations to come as Turkey slowly evolves into a more integrated multicultural nation.

Turkey’s huge Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP) helps bring prosperity to Kurds and reduce discontent. GAP projects, such as Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates River, inject money into Kurdish territory and employ 1.8 million people. GAP comprises 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power plants, and irrigation facilities on the Firat (Euphrates) and Dicle (Tigris) rivers, to be finished by 2005. However, neighboring Syria and Iraq are not happy about GAP because it reduces their water flow.

Recommended books about Turkey

Search for latest “Turkey travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

  • Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 28, 2009
  • Birds Without Wings (2005) by Louis de Bernières. A humanistic historical fiction novel of the political and personal costs of love and war amongst Christians and Muslims of Turkish, Greek and Armenian descent, during the rise of Atatürk. The ghost town of Kayaköy which we visited on the Turquoise Coast may be the inspiration behind “Eskişehir”, the imaginary village in this novel.
  • Ironfire: An Epic Novel of Love and War (2005) by David Ball: Knights of Malta versus the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.

GREECE: Athens, Santorini, Crete, Zagori, Pindus Mountains, Meteora

After five weeks in Greece (called Ellada or Ελλάδα in Greek), we most enjoyed wandering romantic Santorini Island and trekking the rugged northern mountains of Zagori. We hiked a total of 170 miles (280 km) with day packs and stayed overnight in pleasant pensions and north Pindus mountain refuges. Robinson Expeditions conveniently moved our luggage each day to the next pension. Carol and I joined a group of friends touring Greece (via Amsterdam, Netherlands) from April 26 to May 30, 2001. Before visiting Greece, read about crucial Greek history, culture, and language in books recommended at the bottom of this article. Good preparation will help your mind cut through the clutter of modern Western trappings and services which surround most tourist destinations.

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Highlights of five weeks in Greece

  • In May, Zagori and northern Greece offer great hiking amid crocus and wildflower fields.
  • Despite crowds emerging from cruise ships, Santorini island (Thira or Thera) romances you with whitewashed villages perched high above the Aegean Sea on the rim of an active volcano settled since Minoan times, dating from early Art History.
  • In Athens, the Acropolis and Parthenon inspire awe as classic symbols of early Democracy.
  • The cliff-top monasteries of Meteora are visually stunning and culturally important. Avoid overwhelming hordes of tourists by visiting in the off season, late fall through early spring.
  • Crete fascinated us with ancient Minoan history and lovely aromatic wild herb gardens thriving on the sunny southwest coast. But buses dropped hundreds of tourists to hike down “remote” Samaria Gorge, trampling on my wilderness preconceptions. Instead, try quieter hiking in spectacular Vikos Gorge in Zagori (further below), or more exotic variety found on the Turquoise Coast of Turkey.

By the way, in comparison to Greece, neighboring Turkey offers taller mountains, more exotic charm, and friendlier people (who crave Western contact more than Greeks, who suffer more tourist crowds). Turkey preserves many important Christian historical sites and ancient Greek ruins. Of course your enjoyment of each country is subjective — a couple of friends in our group loved Greece (and each other) so much that they got engaged in Samaria Gorge on Crete!

Greek food

Greek food has evolved in the Mediterranean region for 4000 years. In 320 BC, Ancient Greek poet Archestratos wrote the first cookbook in history. Today, Greek and Turkish cuisines are closely related due to proximity and Ottoman Turk occupation (1453-1829). Next to Thai food, Greek is my favorite world cuisine. We found food in Greece to be uniformly delicious, albeit sometimes overly soaked with olive oil. After four weeks of eating Greek restaurant food, local diet grew repetitious (as in Turkey). We yearned to replace the boring white-bread breakfasts with our favorite whole grain breads, oatmeal, and fruit available back at home. I’m thankful for the amazing variety of international foods available in Seattle groceries and restaurants. The worldwide diaspora of Greek people brought Greek food to Seattle that tastes as good as in the homeland!


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In Athens, the amazing Acropolis and Parthenon still inspire awe as classic symbols of early Democracy. Avoid crowds by arriving early morning.

The Olympic Games

The first Olympic Games were declared in 776 BC (for male athletes only) and ran every four years at Olympia on Peloponnese Peninsula until 394 CE, when Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned them as pagan. The Games were not revived until 1896. The return of Olympic Games to Greece in 2004 was a proud and triumphant moment for the people of Athens and Greeks worldwide. About 10 million people live in Greece, and about an equal number of Greeks live in other countries worldwide, scattered by a tumultuous history.

Santorini island

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Geologic and human history of Santorini

Humans first arrived around 3000 BC on this volcano known in ancient times as Thira. The island was a volcanic cone with a circular shoreline until 1646 BC, when one of earth’s most violent explosions blasted ash all over the Mediterranean, sunk the center of the island, launched tidal waves, and may have ruined the Minoan civilization 70 miles away on Crete. Remarkably, volcanic ash dumped onto the volcano’s flanks actually preserved the village of Akrotiri and its 3600-year-old frescoes from the Minoan era. These are some of the earliest known examples of art in history, which you can now view in museums. In 286 BC, the volcano split off Thirasia (“Little Thira”) Island (to the West, left on map). The volcano began rebuilding, and in 197 BC the small center islet of Palia Kameni appeared. In 1707 CE, lava started forming Nea Kameni, the larger center island which erupted as recently as 1956 and caused a huge earthquake (7.8 on the Richter scale) which destroyed most of the houses in the towns of Fira and Oia. Fira and Oia have since been rebuilt as multi-level mazes of fascinating whitewashed architecture, attracting tourists from around the world.

The sirocco (or scirocco) winds from the south can turn the sky over Santorini reddish in color with dust swept from Africa. In summer, the winds shift and become the meltemi, which come from the north-east. On May 5, 2001, we experienced unusually strong 50 miles-per-hour winds from the west, the strongest wind that our hotel owner had ever seen in 10 years living in Oia, Santorini.

Santorini travel tips

Santorini is justifiably celebrated for its romance and beauty. Reserve ahead like we did, or else pay a premium to find a place more spontaneously. As elsewhere in the world, the cheapest lodging with best value usually fills before more expensive rooms.

We pre-booked and enjoyed several nights at the inexpensive Ecoxenia Studio Apartments, one of the best values on the island, located on the sunset (West) side, very quiet in the countryside, about a 15 minute walk (or short taxi ride) from Oia village, the most photogenic village on Santorini.

Ferries: We flew from Athens to Santorini, to Crete, then back, which is quicker than navigating the ferry system for the long distance from the mainland. Fly the longest legs, then take local ferries to closer islands. Compare prices and consider how much time you spend in open water with little to see.

I recommend Booking.com to find lodging, with all fees clearly disclosed on the reservation page. TripAdvisor.com offers helpful user ratings and feedback.


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Before visiting, be sure to read the latest art history of Crete and the ruins of Knossos. Seeing the ruins and reading local documentation probably won’t impress you unless you’ve studied in advance.

Crete is the home of Europe’s first advanced civilization, the Minoan, which was contemporary with nearby advanced Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. The hundreds of interlocking rooms in the six-stories-high Minoan Knossos palace complex on Crete probably originated the myths of the Labyrinth and Minotaur (half man, half bull). Water pipes running 18 kilometers from mountains to the Knossos supplied the world’s first known flush toilets and sewers by around 1500 BC, when the Minoans reached their peak. Three-story town-homes and the first known paved roads in Europe also indicate a wealthy, organized society. Archeaological evidence suggests that Minoan and earlier societies on Crete may have been peaceful:

  • Towns on Crete had no fortifications for 1000 years.
  • Few weapons have been found.
  • Minoan art depicts nature (not violence), little social stratification, and prominent females and female deities
  • About 1500 BC, the palaces on Crete may have been destroyed my Mycenaean invasions from the mainland. Minoan society had been weakened around that time by the huge volcanic eruption of Thira (now known as Santorini island). Deforestation may also have affected human carrying capacity.

The purplish-red spathe (specialized leaf or bract) and foul-smelling stench of the dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris, also called dragonwort, dragon lily, or voodoo lily) attracts flies to the base of its erect, flower-bearing spadix in Samaria Gorge on the island of Crete, in Greece, Europe. The purple spadix can reach over a meter long. With an odor of dung or rotting meat, the Dragon Arum entices flies deep inside into the bulbous chamber of its spathe where the flowers are actually located. The insects can sometimes get trapped overnight but are later freed, covered in pollen to find other flowers for pollination.

For a book that brings alive the ancient era of the Minoans and the eruption of Thira, I recommend reading Voice of the Goddess, a historical fiction and romance book by Judith Hand (Copyright 2001). I read the book after visiting Crete, and would also have found it valuable reading before going. In this well-researched book based upon archaeological evidence plus creative imagination, Judith calls the Minoans, “Keftians,” because the Egyptians of 1500 BC called Crete, “Keftiu”. In the early 1900’s, archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans spent 35 years uncovering the Knossos, and he coined the term “Minoan” in reference to Minos, a king of Crete mentioned by Homer. However, King Minos may have been Mycenaean, an invader from mainland Greece, which would make “Minoan” a misnomer for the female-worshipping ancient people who built and maintained the Knossos from 1900 to 1450 BC.

Olive history

Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean. 50,000-year-old olive leaves have been found fossilized in lava on Santorini island. Oil-producing olive varieties have been cultivated over 6000 years, starting with a sparse, thorny tree and ending with today’s compact, thornless, and oil-rich varieties. The Minoans were some of the first people to get rich from olives.

Unfortunately, the tap roots of olive trees cannot hold the soil like the surface roots of native forests, and planting of vast olive groves on mountainous terrain caused an environmental disaster — the topsoil washed away, resulting in the dry and rocky landscape you see throughout much of Greece today. Crete was formerly 90% forest, but is now 17% forest. Humans have stripped the trees to clear space for olive plantations, to build ships and towns, and to burn for cooking. Big naval battles in wooden ships over thousands of years helped spur demand that decimated forests.

Flowers and aromatic herbs of Crete

My favorite plant on Crete was the Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris, also called Black Arum, Voodoo Lily, Snake Lily, Stink Lily, Black Dragon, Black Lily, Dragonwort, or Drakondia, a member of the Araceae family) which grows a dark purple flower spike up to a meter high above green leaves mottled with white spots and eye-catching stalk striped with white and green (see photos). In May, the Dragon Arum was blooming in the Samaria Gorge and growing green seed pods (which later turn red) on the bluffs around Loutro. This striking plant is native to the Aegean Islands and the Balkans.

Many other spectacular flowers grow on Crete, such as the Star of Bethlehem Lilly, seen at Omalos. As we walked coastal cliffs near Loutro, wonderfully rich aromas of thyme and other herbs wafted strongly all around the most fragrant hike ever.

Hiking in Zagori and north Pindus mountains

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A highlight of our trip to Greece was trekking through Zagori in the north Pindus (or Pindos) mountains, near Ioannina in northern Greece (near the border with Albania). Zagori contains 45 villages collectively known as Zagoria (Zagorochoria or Zagorohoria). In May 2001, we were exhilarated by hiking through large expanses of purple crocus and a variety of other wildflowers in peak bloom on the Tymfi Massif. A metallic green beetle contrasted brightly with a magenta thistle.

We enjoyed hiking the spectacular Vikos Gorge, the world’s deepest canyon in proportion to its width. (We only encountered two other hiking parties in the Vikos Gorge, but hundreds in overcrowded Samaria Gorge on the island of Crete.) Limestone rock towers rise impressively thousands of feet above the traditional slate houses of Vikos and Micro Papingo. Visit Kalogeriko triple-arch stone bridge, 300 years old, near Kipi.

Tourism is fairly new and visitors few enough here that the towns feel special and less-commercial than the more well-known destinations in Greece. Mountain inaccessibility helped preserve local culture over the centuries.  The Greek Orthodox Church orders society here, and crime is rare. Few locals speak English, so learn the Greek alphabet and basic phrases. Public buses and tours easily reach the area from the local capital of Ioannina.

Northern Greece seasons & climate

Best to visit in May-June and September-October. In our May trip, beautiful flowers bloomed in the mountains, and temperatures were not overly hot. May-June are temperate, with sporadic thunderstorms. July-August are scorching hot. September is temperate. Lodging will be tighter August 5-20, the most popular-high season for Zagori due to the many Greek visitors. October is damp. Snow covers Zagori mountains from November to April.

Our excellent guide Mike Vasileiou kept us on the right trail, and our luggage was conveniently shuttled between hotels by Robinson Expeditions, Ioannina, Greece (on days 3-4 we carried our own sleeping bags). If you are sufficiently experienced to hike rough trails on your own, be sure to use good maps and detailed trail descriptions, since many trails are not well marked. Ask a local expert or tourist office for advice:

Where is the world’s deepest gorge, canyon, or valley? What makes Vikos Gorge unique?

Answers depend upon definitions. According to the Guinness Book of Records 2005:

  • “The World’s Deepest Canyon” = Vikos Gorgein northern Greece is the world’s deepest canyon in proportion to its width, and at one point measures 2950 feet (900 meters) deep and 3600 feet (1100 meters) wide from rim to rim. Its depth is an impressive 82% of its width at that cross-section (depth/width ratio=0.82). “Gorges in many countries have higher depth/width ratio, but none are as deep.” My research agrees with Guinness and adds some footnotes:
    • A different area in Vikos Gorge is 5,927 feet (1,780 meters) deep, measured from the top of Papigo tower above Vikos village to the small chapel of “Panagia” at the springs, but that spot is wider and has a less impressive (lower) depth/width ratio than the location quoted above in Guinness Book of Records 2005.
    • Many gorges are deeper than Vikos Gorge but are significantly wider, giving them a smaller depth/width ratio, such as the following canyons: Colca Canyon, Peru (10,500 feet deep); Kings Canyon, California, USA (8,200 feet deep); Hell’s Canyon, dividing Oregon and Idaho, USA (7,900 feet deep from Devil Mountain down to the Snake River).
  • “The World’s Deepest Valley” = Yarlung Zangbo Valley, in Tibet, with an average depth of 16,400 feet (5000 meters) from rim to river, and 17,657 feet at its deepest point. Here, the Yarlung Zangbo river at 8000 feet elevation (2440 meters) separates the peaks of Namche Barwa (25,436 feet elevation) and Jola Peri (23,891 feet), which are 13 miles apart (depth/width ratio = 0.26).
    • Although not mentioned in Guinness Book of Records 2005, note that the wider Kali Ghandaki Gorge in midwest Nepal is 21,000 feet deep and 18-miles wide, located between Annapurna (26,503 feet) and Dhaulagiri (26,811 feet). (depth/width = 0.22)
  • “The World’s Largest Land Gorge” = Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, Arizona, USA, is 277 miles long with an average width of 10 miles and depth of 1 mile.

Two week itinerary for Zagori, Meteora, and Mount Olympus

The following demanding 10-day hiking trip (booked with Robinson Expeditions) includes transportation starting at Ioannina and ending at Meteora, plus we added a 5-day extension to see Meteora and climb Mount Olympus.

  1. Day 1. On May 15, 2001, we flew from Athens to Ioannina, in the Epiros region. Bus to Vitsa and stay in a new hotel in this attractive town of slate rock homes. Look into Vikos Gorge at Moni Agias Paraskevis, a slate monastery at Monodhendhri village.
  2. Day 2: Hike Vikos Gorge 6-7 hours from Vitsa or Monodhendhri to Vikos. Watch trail markers carefully, especially in the first descent through boulders. Don’t get lost.
  3. Day 3. Hike 3 hours from Vikos to Micro (or Mikro) Papingo (descend 250m/800 feet, ascend 370m/1200 feet) through beautiful fields of flowers (red poppies, white & yellow elyssum, and purple, white, & yellow stars).
  4. Day 4. From Micro Papingo village, ascend a demanding 3 hours and 1000 meters to overnight lodging at Astraka Refuge, located on windy Astraka Col. We left most of our gear at Astraka Refuge while we day hiked 3 hours round trip to scenic Dragon Lake (Dhrakolimni) of Gamila, which was tiring by the end of the long day. At Dragon Lake, many blue crocus flowers popped through snow patches on May 18, 2001. Cliffs of Mount Astraka loomed impressively above. Hope for a day with no wind to get pretty photo reflections of peaks in Dragon Lake. After our trip, the popular Astraka Refuge was upgraded to 43 bunks by EOS, the Greek Alpine Club. (The former Astraka Refuge was crowded, with poor meals and sounds of wind, barking dog, and people snoring keeping us awake in the rustic downstairs dormitory room.) Near this hike through the limestone landscape is the Provatina Cave, 2nd longest straight drop sinkholes in the world (405 meters), after a Yucatan cenote hole.
  5. Day 5: Night 1 of 2 in Tsepelovo: We hiked 6 hours from Astraka Refuge to Tsepelovo, through the largest fields of crocus flowers that I have ever seen. The impressive variety of wildflowers included grape hyacinth (muscari), wild narcissus, purple phlox, yellow daisy, wild garlic, powder blue forget-me-nots, violets, creeping thyme, and more. We admired broad views of pancake-shaped rocks, limestone holes and high plateaus. The hike was very long and tiring, but well worthwhile. The trail may not be marked very well, so get a good trail description, map and/or guide. In Tsepelovo we stayed at the pleasant Gouris Hotel in private double rooms, where we caught up on sleep. Gouris Hotel was the first pension in Zagorahoria, starting in the 1960s. Tsepelovo (1100 meters altitude / 3500 feet) is the second biggest tourist center in Zagori, after the Papingo villages. Optional day hike from Astraka Refuge: Loop walk to the summits of Mount Gamila (2480m) and Mount Astraka (2436m), 7 hours round trip. We haven’t done this, but I bet it’s rewarding. Easier exit: A more common exit from Astraka Refuge to the road (probably easier) is through forest to Aoos River, Stomiou Monastery, and the town of Konitsa.
  6. Day 6: Night 2 of 2 in Tsepelovo: We were driven several kilometers to our last overlook of Vikos Gorge, near Vradheto, which can also be reached by trail from Tsepelovo to complete the trek circumnavigating Mount Astrakas. We drove onwards to see the impressive triple-arched stone Kalogeriko Bridge alongside the highway near Kipi.
  7. Day 7. Our most difficult day, 10 hours hiking: We ascended 854 meters/2800 feet over Tsouka Rossa Pass, descended 1037 meters/3400 feet, and were picked up in a four-wheel-drive vehicle which drove us to Vrissohori. Descending Tsouka Rossa Pass required a two-rope rappel down a steep 30 degree snow slope, which is the scariest thing Carol has ever done. Watch out for ice! We walked steep slopes on a lightly-used slippery trail for the rest of the descent. The trail is often not marked, so get a good trail description, map and/or guide. Rope and ice ax may be required. Hiking through one of the remotest parts of Europe, our efforts were rewarded by seeing 4 wild goats (chamois) and an eagle. Apparently 100 bears still live in these remote north Pindus mountains, though we didn’t see any. We enjoyed spectacular views from the friendly Ioannis Tsoimanis Pension in Vrissohori.
  8. Day 8. From Vrissohori, we walked 3.5 hours on roads, crossed the Aoos River on a partially-constructed highway bridge, and drove 4WD car to our private tent camp at 2000 meters/6600 feet elevation on Mount Smolikas. On a hot humid day (24 C or 75 degrees F), we saw a tortoise, a rare orchid, and bright green metallic beetles on purple thistles beneath a spectacular backdrop of the north Pindus mountains and Mount Gamila (2497 m).
  9. Day 9. Our longest day, 10.5 hours hiking: We climbed 870m/2850 feet to the summit of Mount Smolikas (second highest mountain in Greece, 2637m/8650 feet elevation) and traversed down to Samarina. We enjoyed spectacular views of the sharp-toothed north Pindus mountains and Mount Gamila (2497 m) to the south. On the descent, we admired more blue crocus, plus some isolated white barked pine trees with trunks 1-meter in diameter, natives to the Pindus and Bosnia. Local geology includes shiny dark green serpentine rock (former ocean crust subducted then lifted into the mountains) and an alpine moonscape of red rock near the summit plateau. In the snow bowl far below, we saw Albanian refugees sneaking into Greece, probably for gainful employment (such as for construction work). We descended to Samarina, a ski resort and home of the Vlach people, an ethnic group of shepherds. The descent was harrowing and tiring on loose rocky scree, crossing several dangerous snow chutes, with the security of ropes brought along. We have now left Epiros and Zagori, and crossed into the Macedonia region of Greece.
  10. Day 10. From Samarina, we drove to Meteora for a 24-hour visit. Alternatively, you could return to Ioannina by bus, where you could fly somewhere else.
Optional 5+day extension to Meteora and Mount Olympus
  1. Day 11. See Meteora for at least one day. Then drive to Litohoro to prepare to climb Mount Olympus.
  2. Day 12. Begin 3-day ascent of Mount Olympus: Drive 1 hour from Litohoro to Prionia. Hike 3 hours to Olympus “Refuge A” on a steady trail graded for horses.
  3. Day 13. Mount Olympus summit attempt: One route is easier than the other. However, we only made it to 2800 meters/9200 feet elevation, before fresh slippery snow blocked us. The trip was adventurous and worthwhile, despite bad weather.
  4. Day 14: Descend from Olympus “Refuge A” back to trailhead and return to Litohoro. Visit the ancient Roman ruins of Dion, sacred city of Macedonians and Alexander the Great.
  5. Day 15: Drive to the big city of Thessaloniki, where you can fly to Athens, Amsterdam, or other points in Europe. An “open jaw” flight back to Amsterdam from Thessaloniki would have saved us time and money compared with our return via Athens.

Mount Olympus was declared Greece’s first national park in 1937 and consists of eight peaks including the “Throne of Zeus” at 2909 metres and Mytikas which has the highest summit at 2919 metres. The park is located 100 kilometres south west of Thessaloniki. Hiking season is June through October. The huts will be most crowded in July and August, when advance reservations are most necessary. May through mid-June usually have the best weather for climbing. Visit the EOS (Greek Alpine Club) office in Lithoro for details of trails, mountain refuge reservations and advice about weather conditions.

The world according to Mike

Our mountain guide Mike Vasileiou was born in Ioannina from a mother who was a Vlach, a shepherd ethnic group, traditionally semi-nomadic, grazing flocks in summer mountains and returning to valleys in autumn. Working with Robinson Expeditions, of Ioannina, Greece, Mike likes to shepherd hikers like us to the high mountains of Greece and Italy. When our group would pester him for details of the next day’s hiking plan, Mike would knowingly say, “After dinner, all will be revealed!”  We soon learned that if the next day was going to be long and hard, Mike would enthusiastically say, “We are going to have another glorious day!” Then, at every dinner his sincere toast would always be, “Here’s to the next day!” After we had safely traversed the rigorous Tsouka Rossa Pass and Mount Smolikas (second highest mountain in Greece), he assured us that “Mount Smolikas is the cake, and Olympus is the cherry.” We had successfully hiked our hardest.

Traversing Mount Smolikas is an adventurous scramble in one of the wildest remaining parts of Europe, whereas Mount Olympus is a more accessible and easier ascent done by thousands of rock scramblers every year. Mike warns that these mountains can seriously challenge anyone when the weather gets bad. He has personally saved the lives of several hikers on Mount Olympus and other peaks.


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Meteora means “suspended in the air.” The words meteorite and meteorology come from the same Greek root. The conglomerate rock at Meteora has eroded into fantastic peaks upon which medieval monks built remote monasteries, some still active. The isolated monasteries of Meteora helped keep alive Greek Orthodox religious traditions and Hellenic culture during the turbulent Middle Ages and Ottoman Turk occupation of Greece (1453-1829). In 1988, UNESCO declared Meteora to be a World Heritage Site.

Travel Tips for Meteora
  • Read all you can before going — don’t rely on a tour guide to give you the depth of perspective necessary to understand the history and the symbols and styles used in the Greek Orthodox Church.
  • Stay anywhere in Kastraki, which is a small town with fascinating architecture, cobbled streets, and closer walking distance to the rock towers & monasteries than the larger town of Kalambaka.
  • To avoid the big crowds, visit monasteries when doors first open in the morning.
  • Sunset may give the best light since the the cliffs face to the southwest. For photography, explore all the different different angles and possibilities over a day or two. Be ready for the perfect shot as lighting keeps changing. Don’t miss low-angle sunlight and colors at sunrise and sunset. If your time is limited, rent a car to zip around to the different photo angles as the light changes quickly at sunset. Otherwise, if you have time, walking is the best way to absorb the ambiance of this incredible area.
  • A few hours drive from Meteora is a classic trek on culturally important Mount Olympus. The challenging and scenic ascent of Mount Olympus includes a clean, comfortable, overnight dormitory-style hut that serves meals. (See itinerary above.)

Modern Greek history

The Greek War of Independence of 1821-1829 reclaimed Ottoman Turk holdings in the Peloponnese, Sterea Ellada, and the Cyclades and Sporades Islands, but intervention by Britain, France, and Russia would set up foreign kings to control Greece on and off for generations. With the decline of the Ottomans in the mid-1800s, the “Megali Idea (Great Idea)” of a new Greek Empire became popular for reclaiming former Byzantine Greek lands. The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 expanded Greece to include southern Macedonia, part of Thrace, more of Epiros, the North-East Aegean Islands, and union with Crete. After siding with the Allies in World War I, Greece invaded Turkey as far as Ankara. However, the young General Mustafa Kemal (later called Ataturk) drove the Greeks out of Anatolia, finally evaporating any Greek desire for the “Great Idea”. In a huge exchange causing great hardships on everyone involved, 1.5 million Christians left Turkey and 400,000 Muslims left Greece.

Greece also suffered terribly under Nazi occupation in World War II, with many civilians dying of starvation and half the Jewish population sent to death camps. Greece’s turbulent history culminated in a 1946-1949 Civil War between monarchists and democrats, where more Greeks were killed than in World War II. Despair motivated nearly a million Greeks to seek better life in Australia (Melbourne), Canada, the USA (New York and Chicago), and other countries. After a coup by Colonels 1967-74 and later socialist rule, Greece shifted politically to the right by 2001.

Greek standard of living rose rapidly and low interest rates expanded car ownership. Greece proudly hosted the lightly attended 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, which was seen on worldwide television by an unprecedented 3.9 billion viewers.

In 2010-12, a severe national debt crisis required Greece to agree to Eurozone and IMF loan rescue packages including harsh, unpopular austerity measures to control deficit spending.

Recommended books about Greece from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Greece travel” books at Amazon.com.

Before visiting Greece (called Ellada or Ελλάδα in Greek), read up on crucial Greek history, culture, and language. By studying Greek language tapes for 10 weeks before the trip, I felt closer to the culture by being able to read and speak Greek numbers, signs, and place names. Good preparation will help your mind cut through the commercialized modern clutter which surround popular tourist destinations.

Historical fiction:

  • The historical fiction and romance Voice of the Goddess (by Judith Hand, 2001) enlivens Crete’s Minoan era based upon archaeological evidence and the author’s imagination (or “Keftian” era, since the Egyptians of 1500 BC called Crete “Keftiu”). She also wrote The Amazon and the Warrior, a novel of Troy.
  • Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (2007) by Tom Holland. In the fifth century BC, the global superpower of Persia was determined to bring truth and order to two terrorist states, Athens and Sparta. The small city-states of Greece take on the Great King of Persia in a heart-stopping story where they save not only themselves but Western civilization.

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