Julie Daunt | 24 March 2021 | Photos: Unsplash & Culture Trip
Spanning eight countries, including Switzerland, France, Italy and Germany, the Alps are Europe’s highest mountain range. The towns nestled between the peaks and the lakes of the region are all distinctive, from Montreux with its musical heritage to Aosta with its Roman roots. Here’s our pick of the best.
Interlaken is located in the Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps. The town became a popular destination for artists during the 19th century and is captured in the landscape works of Franz Niklaus König and other Swiss artists. Today, it is frequently visited by backpackers and travellers who come for outdoor pursuits such as skydiving and paragliding. The town also boasts a number of Victorian hotels, such as the Hotel Royal St George, a former monastery, and Hotel Victoria-Jungfrau, which are both listed as Swiss heritage sites of national significance.
Lucerne is largely German-speaking and is located on the shore of Lake Lucerne, in central Switzerland. It has views of Mount Pilatus and Rigi, so it is no surprise that it has long been a popular destination among the Swiss Alps towns. The city straddles the Reuss river and thus boasts a number of historic and modern bridges. One landmark bridge is the Chapel Bridge, which was first built in the 14th century from wood and is said to be one of the oldest covered bridges in Europe. For art lovers, the bridge is internally decorated with 17th-century paintings depicting events from the city’s history. Lucerne also hosts a number of annual art and music festivals.
With Lake Geneva on its doorstep and a famed jazz festival, Montreux is steeped in musical history. The town hosts a number of other music festivals, such as its September Musical, which was founded in 1946. Freddie Mercury recorded his last vocals at the Queen studio in Montreux in 1991 — there is a statue of Mercury in the town — and Shania Twain used to live here. Deep Purple recorded their famous album Machine Head, which features the track Smoke on the Water in Montreux. It is said that this track details the burning down of the town’s casino by a Frank Zappa fan.
English explorer Edward Whymper brought this town to international attention when he conquered the Matterhorn, Switzerland’s highest peak, in the mid-19th century. Zermatt provides incomparable views of the Alps, and the river Matter Vispa trickling through it only adds to the charm of this small town. There are a number of cable cars and chair lifts for skiers, and for those who have a head for heights, the Gornergrat Bahn — the highest open-air railway in Europe — runs to the summit of the Gornergrat. Almost all the cars in the town are electric, making Zermatt very eco-friendly. Other culturally significant attractions include the rock carvings and prehistoric grinding stone at Hubelwäng.
The Italian town of Aosta, in the Aosta Valley, lies near the Italian entrance to the Mont Blanc Tunnel. The town has Roman roots and was once of ancient military importance due to its location. Evidence of its conflicted history is still visible in the walls of the Roman-era Augusta Prætoria Salassorum, which are preserved in almost perfect condition. A Roman theatre, an arch dedicated to Augustus, and an ancient cathedral further reveal the town’s unique culture and development. This a must-visit town for any history buff.
Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
Nestled on the Boite River, in the heart of the southern Alps, is the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo. Travellers come from all corners of the earth for this town’s ski amenities, boutique accommodation and scenery. In the 19th century, Cortina d’Ampezzo was a centre for crafts and produced many handmade wood, glass and copper items, leading to a growth in tourism. Important cultural institutions include the town’s Modern Art Museum, the Palaeontology Museum and the Ethnographic Museum. A famous historical landmark in the town is its basilica, constructed between 1769 and 1775. The town’s location has also provided the perfect backdrop for a number of films, such as The Pink Panther (1963) and For Your Eyes Only (1981). Cortina d’Ampezzo also has a thriving music scene, with the annual Dino Ciani Festival and Academy attracting international music lovers.
St Moritz, Switzerland
Found in the Engadin valley in Switzerland, St Moritz is another notable sporting town. And if you’re wondering where the Swiss Alps are at their most striking, this place is definitely up there, with unbeatable views of Europe’s majestic mountain range. The Winter Olympics have been held twice in St Moritz, first in 1928 and again in 1948. The town has since held many more sporting events, such as sailing and windsurfing competitions. The town also boasts one of the world’s oldest natural bob runs, which spans 1,722m (5,649ft) and is made from just snow and water. St Moritz is regarded as one of the most exclusive ski resorts in the world and has attracted jet-setters worldwide. It has also been featured in films, such as the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).
Chambéry is positioned in the valley between the Bauges and the Chartreuse Mountains on the Leysse River, in the Rhône-Alpes region in southeastern France. It is one of the best French Alps towns for rail travel, connecting France and Italy. Chambéry is the capital of the Savoy region, and the Château de Chambéry is evidence of this rich past; the first counts of Savoy settled here in 1285. Another important landmark is the striking Fontaine des Éléphants, built in 1838 to honour Benoît de Boigne’s work in India, where he created an army to resist the British Empire and amassed enormous landholdings. The four life-size elephants converge at the base of a column in the shape of the Savoyan cross and are topped by a statue of de Boigne.
In the Haute-Savoie part of the Rhône-Alpes region of France, on the northern side of Lake Annecy, lies the town of Annecy. Annecy started as the capital of the county of Geneva before it was integrated into the House of Savoy. It was also a key location during the counter-reformation. Nowadays, the town hosts the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, which was established in 1960. The Rencontres Internationales d’Annecy Cinéma and Architecture has also been held here since 1999. The surrounding wooded mountains include La Tournette, Le Parmelan and Le Mont Veyrier and provide the town’s wonderful scenery. As a result, Annecy is one of the world’s favourite locations for paragliding, and a number of competitions have been held there. Landmarks in the town include the castle Palais de l’Isle, which is now a history museum, and the Château d’Annecy.
Bressanone, or Brixen, is the third-largest city and the oldest town in the region of South Tyrol in Italy. Located north of Bolzano, the town has a wealth of historical and cultural sites, such as its 10th-century cathedral. Rodenegg Castle is also located nearby, boasting a number of exquisite frescoes. The town is situated at the confluence of the Eisack and Rienz rivers and is home to a major skiing resort known as the Plose. There is also a Pharmacy Museum, which has been run by the Peer family since 1787. With its gorgeous Christmas markets, orchards and vineyards, this Alpine town has a lot to fall in love with.
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