Today felt like a big day, my friends! I dropped 3,860 Swiss francs on a yearly unlimited pass for public transport and headed merrily off on the first day of the next three years. After a little wrangling with the administration, I finally settled into my new desk, a quiet little spot on the ground floor with a view onto a garden where cats seem to be constantly pacing past.
Adding to my general sense of excitement is the ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE 2.5 weeks in Japan that my grandparents just showed me. Japan really deserves its own post, but I’m not sure I’m ready to capture it yet (or ever). I couldn’t think of any better way to mark the end of three years of hard work, and am endlessly grateful to my grandparents for sharing with me this place that they love so much. And in what I’ve decided is the true mark of absolute post-holiday relaxation, I’m not feeling the slightest inkling of jetlag. Mind over matter is a lot easier when your mind has just been pampered by Zen gardens and peaceful temples for the last little while.
But back to today- in a way I feel like I am now embarking on phase 2 of my life in Switzerland. I’m living in a new town and working a new job in yet another new city, something not quite so different than when I first moved here three years ago. But now the challenges are different. Instead of moving to a big international city (by Swiss terms), I’m living in a quaint small town. Instead of struggling to speak basic German, I am aiming to graduate to Swiss German. Instead of struggling to find my own flat or roommates with minimal German, I am learning about how to cohabitate and live my life with a deeply Swiss person. Instead of signing up for random meetups or filling my endless friendless spare time with things like baking bread (disaster, don’t ask), I am trying to learn how to balance the circle of friends I have, a circle that is becoming increasingly widely flung as a natural consequence of academia.
I find all of these things exciting, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that also come with a tinge of anxiety. I am committing to Switzerland heavily in a way that my initial PhD jaunt didn’t involve. Also, a lot of things are just changing quickly in general. All good things! But I always do need to process change in my own way. Japan was a wonderful opportunity to catch my breath- I will always be in agreement with the European idea that holiday is essential for the soul.
You guys, I’m kind of feeling stupid happy lately. I know it’s really obnoxious to say so, but I am and sometimes it’s nice to acknowledge that and remember these times when the wheel of fortune feels at its pinnacle (I think a lot of that Shakespeare line: “Fortune is painted blind, with a muffler afore his eyes, to signify to you that Fortune is blind; and she is painted also with a wheel, to signify to you, which is the moral of it, that she is turning, and inconstant, and mutability, and variation. And her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls, and rolls, and rolls.”) And then sometimes I wonder- will I recognize the happiest times of my life while I’m living them? Or only after the fact, when I’m old and wrinkled and reflecting on my collection of memories? It also helps to think of life as a wheel when going through the hard times- no matter how hard they’ve been, there has always been an upswing. Eventually.
Anyway, I just got back from a really wonderful week in Croatia with some awesome humans. I laughed so hard I cried, spent some quality time with some of my best friends from way back in Barcelona days, rented our own boat to pilot around the Croatian islands (still shocked I was allowed to do this), tipsily bought 20$ worth of candy at CAPTAIN CANDY CROATIA, took a midnight boat to a clubbing island, drank a whole bunch of schnapps with some Norwegians, practically died of heat stroke during a Game of Thrones tour in beautiful Dubrovnik, was “always the first” leaping off the boat into the beautiful crystal clear waters of the Adriatic, swam deep into a cave so dark that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, took a bike tour of Zagreb, roadtripped to the Plitvice National Parks where I pretended to be a mermaid, ate a whole lot of seafood and olive oil, and identified the differences between traveling at age 21 and age 31 (many and myriad).
But beyond that, I’m just so relieved that I finally have my life at least somewhat sorted. I know I’ll be in Switzerland for the next three years, and I love my new coworkers and the research project I’ll be working on. I don’t have to leave this place I’ve learned to love, along with the friends that I am sure will be lifelong. And I can’t wait to get to know Africa a little better! It will be a whole new continent, and I think that actually working there will help me to get a real perspective on this whole new (to me) part of the world. I’ve already downloaded some Africa books to my kindle, but would appreciate any recommendations, non-fiction or otherwise (mainly Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso).
I’ve been working like a crazy person to finish my dissertation, and just got some great feedback during my holiday- seriously, the finish line to this whole PhD process is in sight. It’s like I looked up and suddenly the whole puzzle is assembled around me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a good chunk of work ahead of me, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Oh, and last but definitely not least, I met a really great guy. That goes a long way towards putting a smile on my face 🙂 Fingers crossed this latest streak of good luck lasts!
They say there are different seasons in a life, but I think there are also different lives in different seasons. For about as long as I can remember, the advent of happy weather and longer days always corresponds to a desire to do ALL the things with ALL the people, and this year has been no different. I’m curious if other people notice similar things at different times of year- plotting social contacts vs. season would be interesting.
ANYWAY, these past few weeks have been a real whirlwind- I genuinely can’t remember the last time I had no after work social event planned, and the weekends have had scarcely a down moment. As a closet introvert I can’t usually keep up such a pace for long, but I’m riding the sunshine high 🙂 Writing about it all would not fit into the twenty minutes of down time I have between classes, but a short Zusammenfassung (I’m always entertained by the length of the German word for short summary :P):
Easter in Italy: My Italian colleague and her boyfriend invited me along with a couple of other friends to their parent’s home in Torino, in the Piedmont area of Italy. Man, is visiting Italy with Italians a different experience than doing so as a tourist.
First, an aside: Italy is one of those countries that EVERY time I go I fall a little bit more in love, something I’ve no doubt mentioned before. Some countries you visit once, get a feel, and think vaguely that it would be nice to go back someday. Other places just sink into the bone, and drive you to wonder and read and come back over and over again. Italy falls squarely in the category. First of all, every region is so infinitely different than the rest that it’s like a different country! Liguria, the region on the coast where Cinque Terre is, is all hearty potato dishes and delightful seafood, completely different from the perfectly al dente Cacio e pepe pasta and wafer thin pizzas of Rome. And then there’s the tapas like food in Venice (maybe my least favorite food region so far), and the truffles and world class wines of Piedmont. Oh, and the Verona Amarone, woof. And that’s just the food & wine differences, which to be honest is a huge part of the draw for me. The range of history and art to see are incredible.
So, I jump at every return opportunity. Torino was an amazingly beautiful city, almost Parisian in its feel, with chateaus around every corner. Not that I actually SAW much of Turin. I jumped off the train, toured quickly around Batali’s Eataly and the downtown, dropped my bags, and LET THE SOCIALIZING BEGIN. We stayed at my friend’s parents’ house in the heart of the nightlife area of Turin, and it was a challenge to even walk down a block without stopping at least three times to greet a friend or acquaintance of our hosts. We started with an Aperol spritz at a little corner bar next to his house and the next thing I knew it was four in the morning and we were dancing wildly in a club by the Po River, after meeting what felt like half of the adult population of the city. The English levels were wildly variable, but luckily hand gestures are welcome and no language is needed for dancing on top of beer barrels 😉
After stopping for some delightful arancini and (some of us) doublefisting pizza, we arrived back at the apartment at around 6am. Wow, what a night, you say! It just gets better from there. These Italians, they know how to celebrate Easter.
The next morning we struggled out of bed around 10 and piled into the car for a mini roadtrip through wine country. We stopped and had a decadent lunch in a tiny town called Alba that is the wealthiest per capita in Italy (all those truffles and wines really add up, apparently). I got to sample some of the typical dishes of Piedmont, which include beef tartar, a beef carpaccio with a yummy sauce, a type of quiche that reminds me of Spanish tortilla, and delightful butter sage ravioli (I can’t remember any of the Italian names….eeek).
Then we drove on past a few more little towns and up to Barolo, which is the CUTEST little castle wine town I ever did see. After a few more glasses of wine, we headed back to dinner at her parents’ house (homemade pizzas) and a relatively quiet night because the next morning we were up at 7am for what ended up being the most epic day yet. However, I did manage to record one of my most embarrassing Euro encounters yet- the Italians give two kisses instead of the three typical in Switzerland (which I already knew), but that they also start on the OTHER SIDE, which ended disastrously for me with my friend’s dad. I’m sure you can imagine the collisions that are possible. I still cringe uncontrollably while remembering this moment :X
Back to the good stuff: we were up early for an all day BBQ at my friend’s grandparents’ place in the Italian Alps, along with around 30 of their closest friends and family. When we were driving up I idly wondered what we would do all day- there’s no cell service or entertainment up there. Well, who needs that when you’ve got unlimited wine and food + gregarious Italians. After a beautiful sunset over the mountains and 7 hours of nonstop eating and drinking with the partiest of party folk, we dragged ourselves back home to catch a few hours of sleep before our train back to Zurich back the next morning. I arrived back at the main station ten minutes before I was due to meet with my supervisor, sunburned and running on no sleep, an epic weekend under my belt. THANK YOU ITALIAN FRIENDS!
I don’t know what I was thinking, saying I would give a short summary of the last few weeks. Easter in Italy deserved its own post 🙂
I have a nemesis while traveling.That nemesis is contact lens solution.I’ve had many a scavenger hunt for contact lens solution while wandering mainland Europe, and my findings are puzzling.It is truly hard to hunt down those buggers!Pretty much the only place that always carries it is the pharmacy- which is no CVS.You’ve gotta go in and talk to the pharmacist, and hit the open hours, which are usually limited and DEFINITELY closed outside of conference working hours, which is when the situation usually becomes dire.
The worst is Sunday, when almost everything is closed- I spent one memorable Sunday morning wandering around Venice asking café owners for help (literally I will give you money for your contact lens solution, why does no one wear contacts) and finally located a nifty vending machine outside one of the closed pharmacies.Maybe my favorite experience was in Portugal, where after consuming a slightly too large glass of wine I remembered the usual lack of contact lens solution.This time I had no problem locating a pharmacy, but the staff were utterly mystified by my usual acting out of the process of putting in a contact to get around the language barrier and I could not stop giggling.
I also routinely forget that Swiss plugs, much like everything else about Switzerland, are not quite compatible with the rest of the EU, but that on the other hand is no problem- almost every hotel has a stock of converters handy.But contact lens solution?That is apparently a problem that stumps every concierge, much as I suspect that I am not the only person with this problem.Are you other vision challenged travelers just much better than me at this?In my defense, it’s really hard for me to find the travel sized ones even in Switzerland.Help me fellow Euros.
Huge digression aside, my latest contact lens solution pilgrimage was last week in Belgium, after realizing around 10pm as going to bed that I either needed to locate some under the counter contact lens solution pronto or spend the weekend blindly feeling my way around the conference.I approached the concierge with trepidation (earlier on handing over my passport he had commented acidly, “Oh, Trumpland,” as has become a normal experience in Europe in the last couple months), and he very kindly took me on an engaging tour of late night stores in Brussels after the usual look of mystification.
Luckily, our tour was successful (and educational!There are a lot of Middle Eastern owned late night stores in Brussels, just FYI).
The conference was also really successful.It was the first feedback I’d gotten from the research community outside my institute on the latest paper that I’ve submitted, and it was really outstanding, I thought.I even ran into the editor in chief of the journal that I submitted the paper to in the elevator, and he not only remembered me but complimented me on the work I’ve done.It’s hard to convey how satisfying that is to those outside the research community- a normal paper might take more than a year from conception to submission, and the peer review even longer, so long periods of time in a scientist’s life are spent laboring alone with only our ideas.In addition, this particular study was met with a lot of skepticism in this group when I initially presented the idea and enrollment statistics, so it was great to see how many people we won over with the final result.
And Belgium is beautiful and very interesting in terms of history!It seems like almost every other country in Europe has conquered Belgium at some point, which leads to an interesting mishmash of language and culture.At one point the Spanish kicked all the non-Catholics out of Belgium, which is when the Dutch all moved to the Netherlands en masse and still seems to lead to a lot of wink wink jokes about the differences between the 2 cultures. Unlike Switzerland, which is like a patchwork quilt of regions with different languages, Belgium is just one big swirl of everything everywhere.Brussels is not my favorite, although the Grand Place is one of the most impressive squares I’ve seen in Europe, but both Antwerp and Bruges are beautiful, manageable little canal cities on the water with gorgeous gothic architecture.How’s that for a 4 sentence summary of a country?Please do not inspect my history claims too closely :X
And with that I think I’ve tracked all of western Europe except for the microcountries! Woot woot travel.
This past weekend I returned from Rome, the eternal city. It fit with a theme of my past few trips- I actually haven’t visited a new country for a while, now that I think about it! But recently I’m loving plotting returns to places I’ve been before. Just don’t tell my travel-greedy 21 year old self, please.
Part of it is just the freedom to delve deep into whatever aspect of the city took your fancy the first time. The first time you go to a city, you have to hit up the big tourist destinations and check off the same itinerary as every other person with a Lonely Planet in tow. And of course! If you go to Rome and miss the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and St. Peter’s, you’re kinda a dummy.
BUT on the second visit, you don’t have to do any of those things. So what did I want to focus on during my second visit??? Hints below:
For whatever reason, I don’t really remember having great Italian food in Rome the first go-around, although I definitely did elsewhere in Italy. The tourist trap restaurants along the main drags abound in lukewarm microwave pizza. I just knew there were some delicious meals awaiting me, though, so this time I decided to do a little research beforehand. That research paid off in one of the most amazing food weekends of my life.
By FAR my best research find was this app by a local food blogger: Katie Parla’s Rome. So nifty. She created a curated list of her favorite authentic places for delicious food in Rome, and they’re all on a handy little map that you can use offline. Great for spontaneous food finding when trudging through the Vatican museums, simply perishing for a good slice.
Speaking of, that good slice that we found was probably the BEST SLICE of pizza I’ve had in my whole life, although “slab where you tell them how much you want” seems to be the more common way to go in Rome. It was so good that we went for one round, and then went back for more, prompting some amused eyebrow raising from the man behind the counter. Check out Pizzarium for heaven on a plate. They also have some pretty sweet boxed wine for 1 euro.
Also on the most incredible list: the cappuccino we had in another place she steered us to…the name now escapes me. I’ve had my share of cappuccinos in my life, but this one rocketed up to number 1 immediately, no joke. You typically pay for the drink first and then take the receipt up to the barista and drink your coffee standing up in these Italian morning joints. Max and I embarrassed ourselves by taking about 1,000 photos of the creamy delightfulness that was this cappuccino. They add a quick shot of dark chocolate to the bottom for extra richness.
But for me the big kahuna of meals was at the incredible Roscioli. I didn’t realize this until afterwards, but Rome is really a reservation town. We just happened to stumble in here at lunchtime and get a seat, but I highly recommend going out of your way to eat here. The carbonara, the home baked bread, the Cacio e Pepe, the ricotta starter, the biscotti to finish….yeah. I’ve been thinking of that meal a lot.
And that last photo brings me to another aspect of traveling that I love. Re-experiencing places you’ve been with awesome people. Especially awesome little brothers that haven’t traveled outside the US before. (“Wait, that’s a plug?? That’s what they look like here??”)
He sure is one cool kid, even if he does need a haircut.
We stared at the view of the endless blue Mediterranean over our plates of olives, tomatoes, and feta, the sun already beating a relentless march at our backs. I was on my second cup of coffee. Why couldn’t I plan a relaxing vacation for once, one where I sleep till noon and lie about on the beach with a book?
Twenty minutes after these ponderings we were all sleepily piled into the rental car and speeding around the curves that wound over the cliffs, watching the waves lap the coastline below.
“See that island? That belongs to Greece.” Said island was maybe 2 miles off shore, looking no different than the islands around it. It was apparently a relic of the pre-WWII era, populated with Greek retirees, younger generations long since fled elsewhere. So intriguing, an island lost outside time.
We arrived in the tiny, dusty fishing town of Üçağız about an hour after setting out from Kas. The sky was cloudless and the water in the harbor completely clear and and placid. The boats were lined side to side in an impossible jumble that seemed impossible in numbers to relate to the handful of buildings dotting the shoreline. Later we would be told that there were indeed more boats than houses in this unique village.
Suddenly a flurry of activity seemed to surround us. Our Turkish friend and guide had spent years coming back to this stretch of coastline, and it was clear that she was well beloved. There had been a tragedy the night before, I gathered, a death in the family, and a stream of heartfelt Turkish condolences and long hugs followed.
We were sheparded up to a terrace at the top of the hotel that was part of the family business. As always in Turkey, food, tea, and leisurely conversation followed as we watched the boats bob on gentle Mediterranean swells and admired the ancient Lycian ruins dotting the hillsides around the town. After I made the mistake of praising their garden, a dozen apples from their garden mysteriously appeared on the table, along with a beautiful fresh pomegranate that was so ripe it was splitting open.
As was the general theme of the trip, mysterious exchanges and negotiations in Turkish took place for a longish period of time, at the end of which we were ushered onto our very own chartered boat. What followed was the most incredible daylong tour of the Turquoise Coast, as the tourism agents have dubbed it.
It was just the four of us, the boat captain, and the endless blue water. And a few other boats that had the same idea, but all in all I felt alone on one of the most beautiful expanses of ocean I’d ever seen. We stopped in a few places to snorkel and admire sea caves.
At midday we put down anchor and were cooked up yet another sumptuous Turkish feast. The food in Turkey is incredible and wonderfully diverse! A typical meal starts with several mezzes, or smaller dishes, which usually involves some wonderful vegetables and delicious cheese, and then moves onto a main course that usually involved fresh fish in this part of the world.
The really incredible thing about this part of the world is that are seemingly endless ancient ruins- cities, even!- lying unmolested and free to visit, with the march of civilization continuing around them. It was hard to believe we could just sail or snorkel right up to them, without a museum guard kicking us out or an alarm setting off.
Our final stop of the day was at the most special of these, a tiny bay tucked away in a beautifully preserved little outpost, seemingly a trading post, but there were no touristy placards to guide the way. The day was on the wane, and I thought twice before jumping into the water in the gathering dusk, but the broken Roman arches were too beguiling and atmospheric. I couldn’t pass up a chance to wander ancient ruins at the sunset hour, wondering at old fire pits and imagining the long past lives of those who spent their days here.
I flopped ashore and poked around the remnants of ancient lives barefoot and in my bathing suit, alone with the whistle of the wind in the tiny inlet. I think the right word to use for the atmosphere is haunting.
Truthfully, when I spontaneously booked this trip to Turkey, I had no idea that sunken cities, such generous and giving people, delicious food, and incredible views galore would be awaiting, and I am so grateful to have been invited on this special adventure. This day was just one of many, but this post is quite long enough now, I believe.
And I am so glad that none of my vacations turn out to be relaxing.
(Below: a few bonus shots from other days of the trip)
I’m sure everything is sick of me nattering on for so long about this trip, but I accomplished a lot of the planning through hunting through the blogs of others, and feel obliged to give back a little. So this post will be a straight up if you wanna do it, here’s how. Smattered in are a random selection of photos from the trip, basically from only the first half of the trip. I’m thinking of doing a photo only post soon 🙂
Why should I do this hike?
The views are straight up consistently the best I’ve seen in a whole lot of hiking experience in both the USA and Switzerland, and it seems like there is a consensus that this is one of the most beautiful hikes in the world (Lonely Planet Top Ten Treks in the World). It has a little bit of everything: glaciers, mountain climbs, woodsy paths, (some) valley walks through quaint towns that haven’t changed in centuries, ladders straight up rock faces, ibix, cows, chamois, marmots, colorful locals, rock climbing, tons of items of geological interest. It is 13-14 days depending on whether you do the full Europaweg at the end (there are some options for shortening, but I would advise not missing too much, as I loved the experience of really walking all of it). It starts and ends in two of the most iconic mountaineering towns in the world, and I love love the atmosphere of both places. I have gotten into a lot of reading about famous mountaineers and climbs and got such a kick out of seeing Chamonix and revisiting Zermatt again, one of my favorite places in this whole world. I went to the museum there this time and got such a kick out of it!
It is also appealing in that it offers the intense “trekking” experience, but minimizes the amount of planning needed, since you go through a town (perhaps better defined as “a cluster of houses that also offers food for sale”) at least every few days. This means that you don’t need to take kilos and kilos of food on your back. You can also avoid taking tents and sleeping bags, significantly cutting down on weight on your back. We did not do this, but probably should have. Which brings us to…
Where do you sleep?
As an American, I automatically associate backpacking with tent camping, and that is how all of my previous backpacking trips have gone. However, the thing in Europe is hut hiking. Most nights we either ended up in a tiny mountain town or in an isolated mountain cabane. Some of these cabanes were incredible and a destination in themselves (Mont Fort, Moiry), some were literally a place to sleep (Prafleuri). Almost all of them involved a whole lot of people sleeping in one room. It gets warm. Bring ear plugs. Overall I really enjoyed the experience, and slept quite well, the odd snorer aside.
We camped several times in the towns and saved ourselves a fair amount of money doing so, in Zermatt especially. It is unclear whether wild camping is actually legal in Switzerland (like so many things, it “varies from canton to canton”), and I don’t think we had the appropriate cold weather gear to camp at altitude. Almost everything was very exposed and rocky higher up. Honestly we did a great deal less camping than expected and it would have been easier on our backs to leave the full tent and sleeping bag behind, and just bring a liner for the hut beds. However, I loved our camping nights, so there’s that.
An advantage of less wild camping is that most everywhere we stayed, including campsites, had a nice shower. The Swiss appear to take their showering very seriously, even though I consider it a requisite to be a little dirty during a trek.
Did you book these places ahead of time?
For the most part. I would recommend booking the isolated cabanes ahead, as they can fill up quickly, especially on weekends. I was told on the trail that they basically won’t turn you away in the evening at these isolated places, as that is simply dangerous, but then the option would be sleeping on the floor, which is not super appealing after a long day of hiking. I planned somewhat haphazardly other than that and there were a few nights we decided to just march into town and ask some locals and/or the tourist bureau where we should stay. Or, ahem, I had booked a hotel in the wrong country and we had to nose around to find a replacement. It worked like a charm, but I felt much more comfortable with it once we entered the Swiss German area where I could converse a bit more. We stayed in such a lovely woman’s home our second to last night there- much nicer than almost anywhere else we had stayed, and she was so kind (but only spoke German, I believe).
How expensive are these huts?
Well, this is Switzerland. Do not automatically think that because this is a trekking trip, it will be cheap. Our housing averaged between 30-45 francs a night per person, which is really quite reasonable, but adds up over 14 days. The huts offer something called “half board,” which means they feed you dinner and breakfast the next morning (you don’t get any choice on food, by the way- it’s whatever’s cookin in the kitchen that night). You usually have to book this ahead of time so they can transport enough food up the mountain, although one place we showed up without booking and they automatically had added us to the half board list because there was literally no place else to eat in “town.” Whoops. Half board usually adds another 40 francs. So if you do that every night, which most hikers did, it would be around 980 francs for the two weeks, plus the cost of food during your hiking day (probably 10-15 francs per person for a sandwich and apple from the hut). Note that this is a standard cost of eating in Switzerland. You will not get cheaper food at a restaurant, if it is available, and probably not even at the grocery store if you want to buy meat.
Did Roxana and I do this? Bahahaha. If you know us at all, you know we are cheap (and I am a poor PhD student), and we looked for ways to lessen the costs wherever possible. We loaded up on food at the grocery stores, and ate a constantly repeating cycle of baguette, cheese, cured meats, fruit, peanut butter, chocolate, digestive cookies, and nuts. Oh, and weird things like tuna in tubes. We splurged on half board I think three times, and treated ourselves to restaurant meals I think two times more on the trek (including one burger+fries that I still think about sometimes). Very roughly after some quick math, I think we spent 585CHF each on lodging and half board for the two weeks (maybe less, I rounded up), and maybe an additional couple hundred francs on meals, snacks, Rivella, and beer. Since I live in Switzerland and this is kind of the cost of living here, it didn’t feel so bad, but perhaps Roxana feels differently.
Of course, you can also stay in nicer places and spend way more than this. The sky is the limit. There is also the cost of the train ride to get there and back, and of course the flight if you are coming to Europe.
How difficult is the hike?
This is going to vary completely based on your individual fitness, and, perhaps more importantly, stubbornness and pain tolerance. I’m kind of a newb on treks, but have done the 4 day Inca trail trek, a 4 day backwoods backpacking trip in Colorado, and many many more tough day trips and overnight trips all over the Alps and the western US. Each individual day hike on the Haute Route was tough but doable as a reasonably fit person. The X factor for me was how my body would react over days and days of this in a row. For me at least, there were definitely a few days I went to bed completely exhausted and dubious about continuing the next day, but woke in the morning again ready to go. Roxana and I both got some pretty killer colds, which I think also made it more challenging than it needed to be. We encountered people unprepared for this who gave up, so this is definitely something to think over before signing up. Your experience will be SO.MUCH.BETTER if you take the time to do a little training, either by stair climbing or actual uphill hiking if you can. Just be mentally prepared for at least 6-8 hours of strenuous physical activity in a day (we had a couple days of up to 11 hour hikes…) and lots of blisters.
For what it’s worth, one of our trail friends has lived in Nepal among other places, and has done treks all over the world, including multi-month treks through high altitude. He said the Haute Route is about as tough as it gets. He recommended the Tour de Mount Blanc, another popular Alpine trek, as an easier intro to Alpine trekking. It’s also slightly shorter, so maybe more appealing to those with limited vacation time. The first four days or so went over the same path, so I can vouch it is pretty gorgeous as well (he still gives the Haute Route the edge for better views).
One of the things that makes an Alps trek easier, though, is that your pack is relatively light compared to most of the other trekking trips I’ve done. If your pack for this type of trip is more than 20-25 lbs, you are doing it wrong and will regret it dearly.
So what should I pack for a trip like this?
As little as possible. No, seriously. For 14 days I packed:
1 dri-fit t shirts and 1 dri-fit tank top
a pair of dri-fit running spandex and a pair of shorts
1 long sleeve dri-fit t shirt to throw on top on mountain passes
a heavy duty fleece
1 clean shirt and 1 pair of yoga pants to sleep in
7 pairs of underwear
2 pairs hiking socks (get good ones!)
a cap for shade (SO IMPORTANT)
travel size sport detergent (we washed stuff in sinks every few days)
I brought a kindle but Roxana said she wouldn’t bring again
sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner
Swiss army knife
So basically I had only 2 outfits and then a clean outfit to wear at night. This ended up working out really well. Roxana had more heavy duty rain gear but we really lucked out with weather- I don’t know whether it’s worth the weight or not because I’ve had the good fortune to never get caught out. Remember food will need to fit in there as well.
OK, you’ve convinced me. What should I do next?
You gotta get the guide book that everyone uses (link above in packing list). It’s not ideal. In fact, I have some words for you Kev, if you ever read this. Particularly about that final day walk into Zermatt. It’s like you just gave up! And what do you have against downhill skiing? However, one of our trail friends told us he gave our feedback to Kev and it will be included in the next edition of the book. So look out for Andrea and Rox in the acknowledgments 😀
Next, book your flights. It’s probably best to fly in and out of Geneva, although Zurich works too. The season really starts in mid July and goes until end of September, when enough snow has melted to make the passes crossable, but this can be unpredictable. Check conditions before you go.
Whew, what a handful of a post. I hope someone finds this useful. Below I’ve included a link to my handy dandy spreadsheet for help in booking huts and sussing out the toughest days (highlighted in red).