Buongiorno, bonjour and “g’day”! (don't you like how they're all the same thing? ~ who knew Australian vernacular was so cosmopolitan???).

Also, "a good day to you, sir/maam" for our American pals, "Ni Hao" to China, and "Здравствуй" to our Russian comrades, "etcetera etcetera and so forth"... (for Yul Brynner).

It’s your old pal Kit (Christof) Fennessy here. I've been writing this blog with your help for ten years, and there's over a hundred and fifty recipes, restaurant reviews of Australia and around the world, and general gourmet articles in these pages for you to fritter away your idle hours on.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Alps - A General Introduction

This article serves as a general introduction to Europe’s alps and provides some brief notes and comparisons of the alpen places we visited (see Jane's fantastic planning map above!).  It covers geography, a little history, languages, diet, economics and prices, climate, best times to travel, and cultural variations.

i.e. It may serve as a general primer if you’re considering a holiday there.

Let’s go…

So, let’s start at the beginning.  What are the Alps?

 The Alps

The Alps (French Alpes; German Alpen; Italian Alpi; Romansh Alps; Slovene Alpe) is a mountain chain system, the largest in Europe.  It was formed by the crustal plate of Africa pushing northwards, and scrunching up the plate on which Europe sits, forcing sedimentary rock from the bottom of the ocean up into the impressive peaks which we see today; climbing up to four kilometres into the thin air.  You can still see the layers of hardened sand from the ocean floors of the ancient past, about 140 million years ago (they tell me).

The Alps include such memorable literary and motion picture peaks as Mont Blanc, the Eiger, the Münch, and the Jungfrau, the bigger mountains in the middle made of slate and darker rock, while there are southern and northern parts which are made more of limestone and dolomite (hence the Dolomites in Italy).

The Alps extend across eight countries and we were there to visit Winter Olympic sites by way of a theme; we flew into Germany (München), then made our way to Austria (Innsbruck), then into Italy (Cortina, then Torino on the other side of the country), into France (Grenoble, and Annecy),  Switzerland (Mürren) and finally back into France (Chamonix).

Most of the places we visited used to be little principalities. For example Cortina was once run by the Venetian empire, some German and Austrian parts considered Bavaria, the Italian dolomites part of the Tirol region, while Liechtenstein and Switzerland… well, they were just impenetrable to armies, so seem to have almost always have been principalities in their own right and have somehow negotiated becoming tax havens to the world.

The Savoy family seem to have had a major impact around parts of France, Switzerland and Turin in the 15-1700’s, giving one of my companions the notion that the term “Savoire Faire” must have been coined from “doing it like a Savoy” (it’s not, incidentally; savoire faire means literally “to know how to do”, and means having the ability to act appropriately in social situations ~ thank you dictionary).


In terms of language, the area is quite fluid.  Driving into Italy from Austria, people are still saying “Hallo” and “Grüß Gott” (“God’s Grace”, a greeting I understand that Berlin Germans think makes you sound like you’re from the country), and then slip seamlessly into Italian… the lucky bastards.  They’ll claim there are distinct language sub-sets in each region, no doubt, but if you ask me (and you did), the regional expressions are a kind of soft mish mash of German, Italian and French, especially as workers go to get jobs in neighbouring countries and the like.

Switzerland has distinct German and French parts, and even Italian bits (I’m told), and these areas were jarringly obvious as we zipped about on their extremely efficient train system; i.e. the train line from Munich to Bern being very German with beer drinking and “Ja’s” abounding, while around lake Geneve it becomes really French and – dare I say it – a little more stylish.

"Sprekken ze English?"
As a final note on languages, we tried our hand at speaking all the local lingos, to various degrees of success, and found that many people – especially in the service industries, hoteliers and waiters, etc. – would all speak excellent English.

A great trick for me in engaging people was to start in their language, and clarify right off the front foot that I was Australian, my speaking their language was only so so, and did they speak English? (a handful of phrases to learn in three languages).  This had the benefit of asking them to speak English politely, establishing that you weren’t actually from England or the UK (important to some, like the French), and letting them off the hook if they couldn’t speak English… at which point you could communicate through mime and your primary school Italian, highschool French, and/or WWII movie and Inspektor Rex German!!

In terms of proficiency and attitude, the Germans and Austrians were almost universally fluent, or their poor English was better than many others.  The Italians were generally non-English speaking, but would be so pleased you were trying to speak their language, they’d jolly you along in Italian with mime and laughs, making the whole experience extremely enjoyable.  The French would probably just hand you the English menu after you said “bonjour”; though my French did improve markedly during the trip, there’s the general vibe that no matter how good you become, you will always be “other” and not one of them.  And the Swiss?  Well, they’re so cosmopolitan they wouldn’t even blink, because they’d only just been talking to a delegate at the bank from Burundi, and they’d been speaking four different languages all day.

Of course, this is all gross generalization, and as they say in the classics “generalisations are always wrong”.


As observed in the Swiss language comments above, everything is much closer to everything else compared to here en Australie.

I was surprised to see that when we were in Grenoble that we were only an hour and a half from Lyon (previously reviewed here); I’d been lead to believe Lyon was the olive oil/cream equator in France – i.e. head north of Lyon and they use cream in their cooking, head south and it’s olive oil.  Now I’m not so sure… Grenoble is southish of Lyon, but then Grenoble was quite cosmopolitan with the food and might have been more “olive oily”, but if so it would be the exception in the Alps.

Alpen food is very cold climate in focus.  Steaks, schnitzels, pork knuckle, cured meats, sauccisons, cream, butter, and cheese (fondue anyone?), with frites, and soups, and warm vegetables, and sauerkraut.  And bread.  My goodness, the bread!  Pretzels as big as your head.  Sourdoughs, ryes, fantastic! French baguettes for only 1€05 (that’s about $1.60 AU); the best bread you ever ate.  Croissant and a coffee as a breakfast duo, the croissants perfect folds of butter?  2€50 at the right place: compare that to inferior croissants but better coffee in Fitzroy for $9 AU.  2€ for the best pain au chocolate I ever ate at a market (see economics and pricing below).

The Swiss are rightfully proud of their milk, made with yellow cows that eat herbaceous plants instead of boring old grass, which gives the milk a real depth and yellow fat content… no doubt the reason for their cheese and milk chocolate being so good.  The French treat salad as a first course, which can make subsequent meat dishes trying, and know virtually nothing about snacking (in my opinion).  And the Germans and Austrians are all about beer, barbecued meats and sausages, pretzels and lederhosen.

Economics and Prices:

As we moved across the mountains, Italy was the cheapest country we visited (and for me the most enjoyable) by a mile, followed by France, then Germany/Austria and finally Switzerland.  In fact, as we approached Switzerland the prices went up, generally speaking, making “Swiss fringe France” quite expensive.

Having said that, Switzerland (despite their 40 Euro road tax for us to drive fifteen minutes to the airport and drop off the car) had prices like Melbourne.  Melbourne must be the most expensive place to eat and drink out in in the world.  Don’t ask me why.  Possibly Australia’s exorbitant taxes on booze (and fags – European ciggies are about 7€ a pack), food having to be shipped long distances, and/or our wages.  It could also be that it’s swings and roundabouts, because what you gain on cheap food and drink in Europe, you lose on transport with expensive road taxes, tolls, petrol, parking, trains and city taxes.

When I commented to someone about Italy being the most affordable place we visited, I was informed it all had to do with the economic crash;

“You know how it went – first Greece, then Spain and Portugal, then Italy”.

I once heard Australia’s Alan Kohler (the ABC economist) quip: “the beer drinking countries are doing alright, the wine drinking countries not so well.  And if you want to know why, try going out for lunch and drinking a bottle of beer, and then the next day have a bottle of wine with lunch, and then see which one you feel more fiscally responsible after…”

I only steal from the best, clearly.

Climate, Activities and Timing Your Tour:

The Alps are famous for their snow, having hosted numerous winter Olympics, and being mountains with snow and glaciers on the top of them even during the height of summer.  Each place we visited was primed for adventure sports, and in warmer months accommodate spectacular hiking, mountain climbing, bike riding and some newer sports I’d never heard of including “canyoning”; which involves putting on a wet suit and jumping into a river of snow melt, and then repelling down cliff faces or just jumping off waterfalls into the pools below (no thanks).

The most glamorous skiing area we visited would have to be the valleys around Cortina, which is renowned as being “icy and pricey”.  Chamonix was very glamorous as well, while Mürren is home to the James Bond lookout from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  But every single town had its charms (Grenoble particularly), and there were dozens of small ski towns we drove through in the hills, so if you like skiing, you are set.

None of the party I traveled with ski.  Including me.

We were there during the shoulder season, before the summer holidays, and had consistently fine weather; 30 degree days, with glaciers overhead, and the occasional cool evening. In fact, despite it being spring, the only really cold and wet day we had was when we went to Annecy; the summer get away for the surrounding region with its lake and paddle boats.

Generally speaking, our trip was also great timing as there weren’t many other tourists.  If you’re planning a trip to Europe you could do far worse than travel around the Alps in late spring since it appears that Rome, Paris and Barcelona have all been taken over by crowds on busses bearing selfie sticks, while there the mountain flowers are starting to bloom and everybody is taking a break between tourist peak period times up in the mountains.

So there you have it; an opening salvo snapshot of tourism in the Alps.  So watch this space over the coming days and weeks, and I’ll bring you what dirt I can on the above places.  Next episode?  ‘Munchin’ in München’.

Auf wiedersehen (for now!)