Switzerland: Alpine splendour on the cheap

By Simon Winter

Simon Winter finds you don't have to spend a fortune to take in the majesty of Switzerland's mountains.

Switzerland's 23-kilometre-long Aletsch Glacier is a hiker's dream. Photo / Simon Winter
Switzerland's 23-kilometre-long Aletsch Glacier is a hiker's dream. Photo / Simon Winter

In my recent blog about walking Spain's pilgrim trail I talked about budget camping - and it remains the best cheap way to see Europe.

However our journey across the continent has now taken us through Switzerland, where a Big Mac combo costs up to $NZ50, and four steaks for a family of four's dinner nearly $100.

The home of Swiss cheese, the Swiss Army Knife and chocolate is equally famous among foreigners for its exorbitant prices. It's Europe's most expensive country.

Yet for us, in the heart of summer, four nights in the stunning Swiss alpine village of Brig cost just €72 ($110) - and gave us access to some of the world's most spectacular sights.

We also saved a lot of money by forgoing expensive restaurant dinners in favour of meals we whipped up ourselves on a cooker bought from an outdoor camping store before we left New Zealand.

For us, there was nothing quite like the ambient sound of rivers, the wind and idle nearby chatter as we sat with a cheap Swiss 500ml beer and the aroma of our freshly-cooked food as the sun went down over the snowy alps.

Boiling water and homemade coffee in the morning (instead of buying it from the camp restaurant) also saved us €8 each day. And though that mightn't sound much, it was enough to cover two 30-minute train rides through five alpine villages to one of several cable cars ready to whisk us over 1000 metres up into the Swiss Alps.

Here we are in another world: one of glaciers, snowy peaks and swinging bridges over greats chasms. And up above loom the great 4000m-plus peaks of Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch.

More than 350 well-marked walks criss-cross this small section of the alps but there's no doubting its main attraction - Aletsch Glacier. A giant sprawling sea of ice formed over 4000m above sea level, just below the soaring peak of Jungfrau, it weaves its way nearly 2000m down the alps, out into the Massa Gorge and the Rhone River.

The best part of all for the intrepid traveller? The glacier is bookended by two Unesco World Heritage walks... and the hikes are free - as are all the alpine treks in this area.

Stretching out over 23 kilometres, mainland Europe's longest glacier is a rare phenomenon. Hikers can walk alongside and over this mass of moving ice on a myriad of different tracks. You can take all day or just a few hours.

It's also easy to access. Take the cable car from the small village of Fiesch to the top (2869m), and stay just for the breathtaking glacier and 360 degree panoramic snowy Swiss Alps view. Alternatively, you can take the three- four-hour Unesco glacier walk down the mountain to the nearby Bettmeralp cable car.

Once there, copious other trails are yours to tackle, either along the glacier or down the alps to the nearby mountain lakes where - in summer - locals and tourists bath for hours beside glacial lakes, in warm sunny weather over 2000m up.

Of course there are all sorts of luxuries to enjoy high up in the mountains. Golf courses, chalets, hotels and cabins, restaurants, food tours and open-air cinema and concerts litter the ground above and below 2000m.

But those on a budget need little more than a packed lunch and to stump-up for the cable car - €9 each way, (the Eggishorn cable car costs a little more).

Just 90 minutes from Milan and a cheap Ryan Air flight from Europe, this part of the world should be on every backpacker's bucket list. And with astonishing Zermatt and the mythical Matterhorn peak a further 45 minutes down the train-line, it's an opportunity no Kiwi traveller should miss.

Further details: See myswitzerland.com.

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