Wednesday Nov 30

The Alps is the great mountain range of Europe that stretches 750 miles from Austria through Switzerland and finishes in France. Along this jagged crescent shaped chain are 22 peaks higher than 4,000 meters. Among them is the iconic and instantly recognizable Matterhorn mountain and the chilling Eiger (responsible for more climbing deaths than any other in the chain). The highest is Mont Blanc at 4,810 meters (15,781 feet). The Alpine towns tucked into the valleys and plateaus have existed through the centuries by perfecting the skills that guarantee survival in the harsh mountain environment: carpentry and cheese making.

But of course, tourism now accounts for the lion's share of the Alpine economy with over 120 million visitors a year. Freddie and I made a visit over the Easter holidays with his sister and family. During those four days we managed to explore both the French and the Swiss sides.

We flew into Geneva, which is Switzerland's most famous city. Its position at the western tip of Lake Geneva creates a Swiss bubble that is totally surrounded by France. Not surprisingly they speak French here, unlike most of Switzerland that speaks Swiss-German. It is also the best spot to explore the Alpine villages in both countries.

We started out with a drive on the north side of the lake, staying in Swiss territory. There are some picturesque villages along the lakeside, but our destination was up in the mountainous lands high above. The car wound through idyllic pastures with docile brown cows sporting massive bells around their necks. Up and up into the lush green of the low lands of the Alps. There on a hill of its own is the medieval walled town of Gruyeres. We parked the car outside the massive city gates, as no cars are allowed within the village, and walked up the ancient cobbled road to the main street. To describe Gruyeres as beautiful would be an injustice. It is right out of a storybook with intricate Swiss chalet architecture, cheese shops and a magnificent castle all surrounded by the snow capped Alps. The Swiss are very proud of this gorgeous little town, and they are here in the hundreds,  cramming on to every available table for a taste of fondue.

There are a dozen fondue restaurants to choose from in Gruyeres, and all of them were busy that day. Cheese is savoured in Switzerland like wine is in France. It's the staple of their diet, and a national pastime. The fondue chef will have his own exact ratios of what cheeses to blend for his secret recipe, and he guards it with his life. The six of us gathered around a large bowl of the steaming goo, and happily jabbed chunks of bread into it until it was gone.  After lunch we walked up to the castle Chateau de Gruyeres to take in the magnificent view from this high point. There is an odd little museum in this town dedicated to H.R.Giger (the man who designed the creature and space ships in Ridley Scott's masterpiece Alien). Interestingly, the surrealist artist is from this surreal town. 

The next day we drove on the south side of the lake, and just outside the city limits of Geneva we crossed into France. The French countryside is pretty and pastoral like the Swiss side, but the mountains are even more dramatic. The road became increasingly steep and the weather turned colder and more treacherous. Our destination was the glamorous town of Chamonix where the well-healed come to ski and schmooze. This was the site of the very first Winter Olympics in 1924 and the ski runs here are world renowned. Even in mid April it was snowing when we arrived, so we had to bundle up for a walk through town. The streets are alive with quaint cafes and swanky restaurants inviting you in with roaring fires and sparkling wines. Rising beyond Chamonix is the huge, frightening peak of Mont Blanc, otherwise known as The White Lady. On this day she was dramatically veiled in snow clouds, daring us to come up for a visit.

Mont Blanc was first climbed in 1786 by a couple of French adventurers. Their success ushered in the modern age of mountain climbing. The first cable car was built in 1920 (but thankfully has been upgraded many times over the years). Today the peak gets 20,000 mountaineer tourists every year and on average 12 of those die in their pursuit. Mont Blanc is prone to avalanches and can drop to minus 45 degrees. We were all set to fork out 50 euros each to take the cable car up, but the CCTV camera at the summit showed nothing but white-out conditions. So instead we walked to the other side of town, and took another cable car up the smaller sister mountain called Le Brevent. This is the favourite of skiers, and it offers the best views of The White Lady across the valley. We played in the snow while dodging the skiers, and then made our way over to a beautiful cliffside chalet for lunch. With the blowing snow in the air, we all fancied hearty mountain food: ham, sausages, potatoes,  pastry, and of course, hot chocolate. 

On the drive back the weather cleared and we were treated to a cornucopia of spring colours on the mountain sides. The girls spied a waterfall off in the distance, so we went off road to try to get in close, and then hiked up next to the stream. We all were amazed at the feeling of the air, so clean and pure in this rugged setting. The cold spray of the plunging water revitalized us and made our spirits soar. We all agreed the key to living in an urban setting like London and Paris is to get out of town often. There is nothing like a good dose of nature to cure the stress of life in the city.