The route in detail:
- A map of the Alps
Rising steeply from the Mediterranean, the Maritime Alps are mountains of contrast. Bathed in warm air from the South, vegetation is sub-tropical in places, yet the mountains are as wild as anywhere, with scree slopes, barren peaks and corries. Wolves and wild boar still frequent these mountains, and there is a National park and three nature reserves in which a wide variety of wild and rare flowers can be found. North of Sospel, just 60km from the coast, the Vallee des Merveilles contains 30,000 rock engravings from the Bronze Age.
The trail starts in Monaco, and climbs to the lovely Italianate town of Sospel, where it forks East for a tour of the Ligurian Alps. It passes through three of the four parks and reserves before starting the journey North through Italy, close to the frontier wall.
On its return through France, it descends the long valley of the Tinee from close to the Col de la Bonette, one of Europe's highest roads at 2802m. It travels the length of the Mercantour National park before the final stretch back to Monaco and the Mediterranean.
Dauphine Alps/Hautes Alpes
Northbound, the route continues close to the border, passing Monte Viso (3841m), straying briefly into France, then keeps away from the ski resorts and stays high through wild country as far as Monte Rocciamelone (3538m).
On the French side, the Dauphine Alps stretch as far as the Vercors, that remarkable cliff-walled plateau within sight of the River Rhone. Between there and the Italian border are other ranges such as the Chartreuse and Belledonne. One could happily spend several months wandering these alone.
By this time though, after 2,200 miles walked, I will need a more direct route, so I've chosen to tour the Oisans, or Ecrins (french for jewel box). This includes the Southernmost 4000m peak in the Alps, the Barre des Ecrins. The route then crosses the river Durance to trek around the isolated and wild Queyras National park, before heading south through the Ubaye valley. These are well-known to me, as my home is in Embrun, and I'm hoping that walking homewards will keep me going!
Graian Alps/Vanoise/Val d'Aosta
The Eastern Graian Alps contain the Gran Paradiso, the highest mountain entirely in Italy (4061m). This is surrounded by the 700 km2 Gran Paradiso National Park, which contains dozens of 3000m peaks, and is home to Ibex and large herds of chamois. The Northern route should give great views of Mont Blanc and other high mountains to the North of the Val d'Aosta as it passes through the Eastern side of the Park. After crossing the Dora Baltea, it stays close to the Pennine Alps.
Coming South, the Via Alpina uses one of several possible routes through the Western Graians, and arguably the most scenic. Having crossed the Col du Grand St Bernard from Switzerland into Italy, it climbs through Val Grisenche, to return to France. It then continues South on part of the Tour de la Vanoise that gives a good walkers route avoiding the ski resorts of Les Arcs/Three Valleys. Highlights include passing close to the Grande Casse (3855m), and the Dent Parrachee (3697m).
Lepontine Alps/Italian lakes
After edging round South of Monte Rosa (4554m), the trail crosses the regional parks of Val Sesia, passes briefly into Switzerland and enters the Lepontine Alps. South of the watershed, the main valleys drop steeply South, bringing Spring early (hopefully!) and bathing the area in the soft, liquid light of Lombardy.
Some parts of Ticino seem almost untouched by the twentieth century: slumbering stone villages almost a part of the granite rocks, and undergrowth quietly effacing the hand of man in the higher Glens. The trail passes through beautiful Val Bavona and Val Lavizzara to Prato Sornica, then over the top to the unspoilt Val Verzasca, and Eastwards. From Biasca, one of the bigger climbs takes one 1800m up to the Forcarella di Lago. Finally, the trail crosses back into Italy and crosses the valley at the head of Lake Como, passing several mountain lakes.
Bernina and Otztal Alps/Engadine and Stelvio
The trail continues Eastwards through the Bernina Alps, border-hopping six times between Switzerland and Italy. Beginning at Inerferrera it rises to Juf, Europe's highest permanently inhabited village (2126m), and crosses the Septimer Pass. Like many key passes, Roman legions passed this way before.
From Maloja, close to the source of the River Inn, the route continues South of Piz Bernina (4049m), then into verdant Val Poschiavo, an outpost of Switzerland thrust deep into Italy. It continues North East through the Livigno and Stelvio parks and crosses the Stelvio pass(2758m), famous for epic cycling confrontations in the Giro d'Italia.
Continuing North to Scuol, in the Silvretta Alps, it follows the lower Engadine into Austria to traverse the lower ranges of the Otztal Alps before crossing into Italy by the highest point of the route: the Niederjoch pass (3017m), close to where the hunter Otzi died some 5000 years ago.
Perhaps the most curious mountain range in the Alps, the Dolomites are a remarkable collection of peaks, towers, upthrust slabs and sharp pinnacles. Fate has cast them in Northern Italy, where dramatic morning and evening light makes them blaze with colour. Their sharp edges cast shadows which appear and disappear as the sun wheels across the sky, seemingly making the mountains change shape.
The Via Alpina traces a route through Merano and the fine city of Bolzano with its gothic architecture. It passes through the Rosengarten, the legendary realm of Laurin, the dwarf king, and winds past the Marmolada and Monte Cristallo to reach the Austrian border and the three spires of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo.
Eastern Austrian Alps/Karawanken
The route follows the spine of the Karawanken range, which is the frontier ridge between Italy and Austria, for some 70 miles eastwards, often for long spells above 2000m. The Karnische Hohenweg or Peace Trail was created in the 1970s from a network of paths built in World War One, used by Austrian mountain troops for supply purposes.
In good weather, the mountains of the Hohe Tauern can be seen a long way to the North: in particular the GrossGlockner (3798m) and the Grossvenediger (3666m). The elevation drops gradually as one continues Eastwards to the DreiLanderEck: the point where Austria, Italy and Slovenia meet.
Eastern Julian and Steiner Alps/Slovenia
These compact and intricate mountains in the North West of Slovenia have their own special charm. Composed of limestone, they are different entirely in character from the Dolomites. Not that high (Triglav, the biggest is 2785m), they rise from low valleys, and there is no preamble: great limestone walls spring suddenly from fields, so these are no soft option.
After regaining the frontier ridge near Jesenice, the trail passes through the Steiner Alps stopping for a look at the small glacier under Skuta, which is the most Eastern glacier in the Southern Alps. There are a few strenuous stages before the elevation drops, and the trail becomes more wooded with occasional fine views from clearings and ridges, trailing away to Eibiswald, the easternmost point of the Via Alpina.
Koralpe, Hirschegger and Gleinalpe/Austria
From Eibiswald, the Easternmost point of the Via Alpina at just 361m, the trail climbs back into the Koralpe range, through a mixed landscape of woodland, meadows and fields for a fine ridge walk and a climb of the Grosser Speikkogel, with panoramic views West to the Saualpe and back towards the Slovenian border.
It crosses the flower meadows of the Weinebene plateau and remains high through the Hirschegger. After Gaberl, the trail leaves the Via Alpina on the Eastern section of the Zentralalpiner Weitwanderweg, one of ten long distance 'uberregionalen' trails in Austria.
Fischbacher and Wiener Hausberge/Austria
The trail continues North East along the crest of the Gleinalpe, climbing the Speikkogel, from which fine views may be had over the plains of Eastern Styria. After crossing the valley of the Mur, which drains much of this part of the Alps, it climbs into the Fischbacher Alpen, keeping broadly to the watershed, and enters the Wiener Hausberge (mountains local to Vienna).
It turns North on local trails to the Raxalpe, then Northeast to the Schneeberg massif to reach the Hochschneeberg and Kaiserstein, which are the Easternmost 2000m summits in the Alps. From here, there is a panorama Eastwards over the Wienerwald, with the plains of Hungary beyond. This is the furthest point from Monaco on my trek.
Returning westwards now, the trail takes the Nordalpiner Weitwanderweg back through the Raxalpe and the SchneeAlpe, crossing the Veitsch plateau, then dropping to the Seeberg saddle, before crossing through the Hochschwab range to reach Eisenerz.
Gesausegebirge and Totesgebirge/Austria
From Eisenerz, the trail climbs into the Gesausegebirge and crosses the National park there.
It rejoins the Via Alpina South of Admont, and continues North to Spital. From there it passes close to the summit of the Warscheneck under the Priel and Sensengebirge ranges, and then climbs into the Tote Gebirge ('dead mountains' named for the porous limestone, meaning there is no water), then past the Grosser Priel to cross a Kaarst plateau pocked with sinkholes and depressions before descending into dense woods to leave Styria for Upper Austria.
Dachstein/Austria and Bavarian Alps
In the Dachstein range of the Northern Limestone Alps, this section begins with fine views over the Tote Gebirge and Dachstein mountains. Through the Tennengebirge, the trail crosses vast Alpine pastures with views as far South as the Niedere Tauern, and passes close under the Hochkonig mountain before a steep climb onto another Kaarstic plateau and eventual descent into Berchtesgaden in Germany.
The Bavarian sections are notable for high meadowland and fine panoramas North over Southern Germany. Through the Kaisergebirge, it passes close to the Chiemsee, Tegernsee, and a number of smaller alpine lakes. The trail here rarely climbs beyond 2000m, but has plenty of steep sections.
This section continues with more beautiful meadowland and woodland.
Bavaria is laced with rivers and lakes, fed with snowmelt, and the trail passes between two of them, the Walchensee and Kochelsee on its way to Garmisch Partenkirchen; scene of the 1936 Olympics.
Garmisch now regularly hosts Ski world cup races. Hopefully the Kandahar run will be snow-free when I pass! Then there is the Castle Linderhof - former residence of King Ludwig II, as well as the great fairy-tale castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, near the lake of Forggensee.
The Allgau/Germany & Liechtenstein
A short stretch along the border secured with cables leads to the ruins of castle Falkenstein and glorious views. This high section gives fine views of the Allgau Alps before dropping to Oberstdorf, the junction of the Via Alpina red, yellow and purple routes.
The trail continues through the Allgauer wandering near the Widderstein and Hochkunzel Spitz. It joins the Walserweg, on its way to Feldkirch with its medieval townscape. Another short secured stretch offers fabulous views over Liechtenstein, the Rhine and the Swiss Ratikon Alps.
Now on the Via Alpina green trail, we pass Vaduz castle in Liechtenstein, home for the prince's family, and enter Switzerland.
Bernese and Central Swiss Alps
The Via Alpina takes the Swiss Oberland passes route South West. This is a tough but well-known walk that threads its way across Switzerland, crossing 16 passes.
Each pass has a different character, from broad grassy saddles to narrow hidden clefts, with memorable views of snow-capped peaks every day: the Todi, the Titlis; the Wetterhorn, Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau; the Kandersteg peaks; Wildstrubel and Wildhorn. The valleys and glimpses of lakes provide a fine contrast.
Above Meiringen, the trail passes the Reichenbach falls, scene of the struggle between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.
Mont Blanc Alps/Haute Savoie
The Swiss Oberland passes route comes down from the Bernese Alps through Gsteig, and past the bulk of Les Diablerets (3210m), then drops more than a mile to the River Rhone above Martigny, before climbing back up to the pass below the Dents du Midi (3257m), after which the route works its way across the French border to the lovely little town of Samoens. The trail works its way round to overlook the entire Mont Blanc massif from the North, where there is an unequalled panorama of hundreds of summits and dozens of glaciers.
Back in Switzerland, its heads South, with 4000m peaks on both sides and crossing the Grand St Bernard, a col that has been a route of pilgrims since the 11th century, and from there down into the Val d'Aosta.
Move your mouse over the white squares for a closer view and a description.
This shows the whole of the route, starting at Monaco on the Mediterranean, keeping to the South and East of the Alps until close to Vienna, then looping back to the North and West of the Alps.