Mention the word “hiking” in this column and chances are we'll instantly lose at least 80 per cent of our readers. Probably already have!
For the dreaded “H” word carries with it so much baggage. So many negative connotations. Of knobby-kneed, sporty types, brimming with good health. Bright red cheeks and unkempt beards, sweat seeping from every pore. Thick woolen socks tucked into muddy leather boots. Rain-soiled parkas and bulging rucksacks.
Trekking is another no-no. Another instant turn-off. With its own built-in set of perceived horrors - high-tech walking poles and complex compasses, survey maps and sleep sacks, nuts and raisins. Hard-grinding, heart-pumping exercise.
“Rambling” is a little more benign. Laid-back. Country Living covers of meadows and moorland, lakes and streams. Bucolic scenes of half-timbered pubs and tea rooms and village greens. Grazing cattle and Wellington boots. Manicured paths, waxed jackets, horses, and the odd black lab. But sadly, whichever way you parse it, rambling also requires a modicum of physical effort.
Today, even an offhand reference to the basic act of walking can bring fear and rising blood pressure to the hearts of many Americans, according to Bill Bryson, of Walk in the Woods fame, who claims that the average American walks a staggering total of 20 whole minutes a week. From the car to the store. From the car to the restaurant. From the car to the movies. From the car to the office.
Well, starting today, we'd like to try to change some of that, to take the fear out of exercise and get you all walking. Stirring those stumps. Moving your booties. Because in a few short months - by the spring, in fact - you could, if we're not mistaken, be out there with all those other hikers and trekkers, ramblers and roamers, wanderers and walkers. With a spring in your stride, a blush in your cheeks, a knapsack on your back, a reconstituted and happy wanderer.
We know it can be done, because we've been there.
Our initial foray into the delights of country walking really began in England's Lake District a dozen years ago, when we picked up a leaflet from the Bowness-on-Windermere Tourist Office outlining several area walking possibilities. No special equipment necessary, it said. Just a little bit of mental and physical oomph ... and a desire to see the countryside.
Sounded simple. And it was.
Take a bus to Point A. Follow a set of explicit written instructions. Like go half a mile, turn left at the Crown and Anchor, take the first right turn into Farmer Giles' field. That sort of thing.
We puffed a little. Walked a little. A few slow, invigorating, but exquisitely beautiful country miles. Ate our sandwiches on a bluff overlooking Lake Windermere. Had a self-congratulatory pint ... or two ... in a pub at the end. And enjoyed ourselves so much that we swore to do it all again.
Since then, we've walked, hiked, trekked, or rambled wherever we happen to land. In France, Germany, or Italy. In Australia, the Outer Hebrides, Glacier Bay, or the Slovenian lakes. Nothing desperately long or particularly exhausting. Just slow, pleasing country walks, much-needed antidotes to the hustle and bustle, grime and grit of city life.
Of all the places we've ever walked, however, none can quite compare to the variety and quality of hiking experiences available in Switzerland. Wunderbar. Merveilleux. Favoloso.
Reason One is the matchless Swiss public transport system. Trains and post buses, ferries and cog rails, ski lifts and gondolas, all seamlessly meshing to take you to the start of any of a thousand trails that strike your fancy.
One of those we did recently out of the Hotel Terminus in Samedan is a prime example. And appropriate for both novice and expert alike.
Advertised by the local tourist office as “a must for every guest to our region,” it began with a short walk along the River Inn (the same river that flows through Innsbruck, incidentally), a steep cable railway ride to the top of Punt Muragl - 8,048 feet into the clouds - and discounted with our Swiss Rail Pass. And then “a walk around a mountain.”
That understated walk around the mountain turned out to be one of the finest we've ever done.
Starting on the terrace of a very well-situated hotel with fantastic views over the lakes and mountains of the Upper Engadine Valley, we set off on the relatively flat and well-groomed track that followed along the mountain ridge, walking for the first hour alongside young families with baby strollers, older people with walking canes, and others dressed more appropriately for a day of city shopping.
Our own walk took four hours or so to complete, ending with a chairlift trip back down the mountainside to the village of Pontresina. Whenever there was a fork in the road we chose the easier option, so we were never aerobically taxed. And although there were occasionally tricky spots to negotiate, there was little to distract us from absorbing the beauty of the scenes as they unfolded around every turn.
Perhaps it was the intoxicating mountain air. The stunning vistas over St. Moritz and Pontresina and Samedan. The extraordinary palette of greens and blues and azures. The sweet smell of the pines. The enthusiasm of all whom we encountered on the route. The sheer thrill of walking where the eagles fly.
Whatever the reasons, we concluded the walk emotionally drained but utterly content ... and determined to keep up this kind of walking as long as we have breath in our bodies.
Readers may write to travel advisers Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at P.O. Box 272, Bowling Green, OH 43402. If a reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.