It strikes me that perhaps Heidi’s fitness levels have been grossly overlooked as I stand huffing and puffing looking over the bucolic Swiss alpine scene before me.
Images from the classic children’s storybook may show Joanna Spyri’s eponymous heroine as a slip of a thing but there’s no denying the leg muscle needed to get to the top of the mountains and this idyllic alp in the glorious Swiss resort of Laax. I decide I have a new-found respect for the plucky lass.
In Swiss Geman, an ‘alp’ is not so much a mountain in the world-famous range but a seasonal mountain pasture where cattle spend the summer months before the snow comes. To put it simply, a big green field.
I was always well aware that Heidi’s life in such a location was enviable but a visit to Alp Flimmerstein really drove it home.
Switzerland holidays: Laax, in the Swiss Alps, is perfect for hiking, cow and scenery lovers
For starters, the cows? They’re the best damn looking cows you’ll ever set eyes upon, in my opinion. Nowhere have I seen cows look so healthy and happy. They’re like bovine teddies with tufts of soft hair between their ears, while the latter look so soft I want to reach out and stroke them. Their eyes are huge, their lashes long and their hide radiant. This is surely what all cows in England aspire to be when they grow up.
The stunning scenic backdrop to this pastoral tableau completes the idyll. Luscious green grass carpets the mountains while in the distance craggy peaks rise and fall below the blue of the sky. Some are even starting to be tinged with snow – a sure sign these cows will soon have to make their annual trek back down the mountains to their own farms, their summer holidays behind them.
However, getting up here to begin with is no mean feat. I venture forth (with a guide) on the Pinut via ferrata. Italian for iron path, a via ferrata is a mountain route equipped with steel cables, ladders, and other fixed anchors, such as wooden walkways and suspended bridges. This one, in particular, is the oldest surviving via ferrata in Switzerland.
An exhilarating cross between hiking and climbing, this route sees me clamber up ladders alongside a mountain-face, shuffle along rock edges and nervously tip-toe across bridges – all while an enormous drop stretches away beneath me. Needless to say, it’s not for those afraid of heights.
That said, it’s perfectly safe as you remain attached to the mountain throughout thanks to a harness and ropes. Children from the age of 12 can follow the route, despite signs advertising a “particularly dangerous climb” for “experienced climbers.” Don’t let this put you off, in reality, it’s a thrilling challenge which I thoroughly enjoyed. Maybe just don’t look down. Think of the cows and carry on.
In fact, the cow bells of the bovine belles prove to be a pleasing motif of my short trip to Laax, Switzerland. The charming tinkle of the chimes is like an enchanting chorus of cows saying hello. (I mean they’re too busy eating the lush grass and being smug to actually show much interest, the jammy beggars, but it’s a nice idea). Ogling the beasts also provides an excuse to pause for breath. Hiking in the Swiss Alps may be an incredible experience but there ain’t half a lot of steep climbs.
Another physical challenge is the trek up the Segnes Pass. This route takes in UNESCO World Heritage Site Tectonic Arena Sardona – where the continents of Africa and Europe once met to form the Alps.
The line demarcating the two is clearly visible and stretches far along the craggy peaks. According to UNESCO Sardona: “Along the line visible from afar, the Glarus Thrust, also known as the ‘magic line’, 250-300 million-year-old rocks were pushed onto much younger, in part ‘only’ 35-50 million-year-old rocks. This happened 10-20 million years ago far below the former surface of the earth.”
Here you can also spot – or indeed climb up to – intriguing geological feature Martinsloch, essentially a huge hole in the rock. According to the Laax tourist board: “The 22-metre-high, 19-metre-wide, triangular-shaped opening has become famous due to a unique event.
“Each year, on 12 and 13 March and again on 30 September and 1 October, just before sunrise, the sun bursts through the Martinsloch opening and lands directly on the church in the village of Elm, located just behind the mountain. The spectacle lasts just a few minutes, before the sun disappears behind the Tschingelhörner and then rises.”
To me, the entire landscape is reminiscent of something out of Lord of the Rings. The dark mountains can seem rather forbidding as night falls or when fog swirls around the peaks. The route up to the top of the mountain and the lodge where I am to spend the night is formed of scree and makes for a challenging ascent which some may well find rather nerve-wracking. Confident hikers have nothing to worry about, however.
Your leg muscles may be screaming for a rest after you get to the top of Segnes Pass where The Mountain Lodge perches but the views are spectacular. A glacier can be seen, not to mention the beautiful mountains themselves. Pine trees blanket the sides, while here and there huge swathes of lush green can be seen. The air may be thinner up here (it’s 2,267m above sea level) but it’s oh-so fresh and it’s the perfect viewpoint for the sunset. The lodge is also home to a huge and adorable St Bernard dog – the ideal reward for animal lovers after the arduous trek.
It’s certainly basic accommodation – think a bunk-bed style arrangement and sleeping bags – but the hut is clearly popular with hikers. The hearty comfort food served is excellent, too. A word of warning, however – the trip to the toilet is something of an experience. It’s an (admittedly very clean) portaloo which is perched on the edge of the mountain. I’m sure there is a very sensible reason for this but my goodness does it make for alarming experience in the night (I only find out afterwards I have been there on one of the windiest nights of the season). Wee at your peril.
Of course, a trip to Laax doesn’t just have to be about physical endurance. The lakes in the area are gorgeous and are the perfect antidote to a day of hiking.
Lake Cresta is a hidden gem in the middle of the Flims forest. Be sure to rent e-bikes and enjoy a cycle around the stunning spot. The route along the Rhine Gorge takes in particularly awe-inspiring views.
Lake Cauma is another highlight and indeed it can be packed with tourists and locals in high summer. Consequently early autumn can be the ideal time to visit – the weather is still perfect but the crowds have lessened. Lake Cauma’s water is a gorgeous blue and green – get a view of it from above – so enjoy a refreshing swim. There’s a lovely bar and plenty of space to stretch out and sunbathe, too.
For anyone keen to escape urban living – or even just a change from the UK – the enchanting Swiss destination of Laax has something for everyone. There are plenty of easy hikes to try out if the harder ones don’t take your fancy and there are many opportunities to relax and do nothing.
Now, I’m off to chat to the Big Man Upstairs to find out what I can do to get myself reincarnated as a Swiss dairy cow.
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