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Wanderwegging in Switzerland

Wanderwegging signs

by Micheal McCarthy

Modern technology is having an impact on the ancient and honourable tradition known as wandering. Perhaps you might recognize that term better as “walking,” which is a word that applies to a wide variety of descriptions from taking the dog to do its business or simply a way to amble around the block for some exercise. In the old days, going for a wander was not something you did aimlessly. It was serious business. The Swiss, always punctual and precise to a point, have taken the art of wandering to an entirely new level. Wanderwegging is a new sport that we need to emulate here in Canada.

It all starts with the invention of the smart phone. Notice I did not say “cellphone.” You need a smart phone, one with all the bells and whistles. If you have a cellphone, the best you can do when you get lost sf call for help, with a smart phone you can plan your trip ahead to the last little detail, which comes in handy when you want a crisp glass of chardonnay at lunch in the middle of a valley whose name you don’t even know.

I was introduced to wanderwegging when I visited with friends in Zurich. The amazing thing about Switzerland is that you can get on a train anywhere in the country and go anywhere else, and back, in one day. With my friends we took the train from Zurich in the north to theMatterhorn on the border with Italy, and back, all in one day. You don’t need a car to travel anywhere, but one day we decided to go to Germany for a quick peek and do a wanderweg on the way back. I’d never even heard the term before.

Evidently the word wanderweg is German for footpath. Switzerland is wanderweggers paradise; there are thousands of kilometres of footpaths and hiking trails of various degrees of difficulty allover the country. Each path is carefully marked, given a number and a sign post with directions to the next nearest path or destination. The impeccable Swiss even the estimated time to hike from one destination to the next, carefully allowing for changes in elevation and difficulty. Every path is now also available with GPS coordinates for download. The Swiss are truly perfectionists.

Woe is me that I can’t remember the name of the little village where we started our walk. I was in the back seat taking photos; what can I say?  I think it was called Hallau, very close to the German border. We didn’t actually start in the village. There was a wine festival ongoing, in a vineyard just south of the village, with an oom-pa-pa band and wine for sale along with snacks, all under the shelter of big tents in case of rain. Wouldn’t you know it, the heavens opened and it poured like crazy, while under the tents wine was being poured into glasses. We sat and waited for the rain to stop and enjoyed the wine and the view.

Switzerland is a highly civilized country and the hills and valleys are immaculate. I think if you dropped a candy wrapper on the ground you would get arrested. The view of the vineyards and valleys were spectacular. I was told you could use your phone to make a reservation for dinner at an Inn in the village, or even find a bed and breakfast.  The restaurants in the village were named and their phone numbers included. The map on the sign post showed extreme detail of the footpath in question, with lines for elevation and dots for trails. You could download maps of every trail in the entire country to your phone, or simply take a photo of the map on the signpost.  It was literally impossible to get lost.

I enjoyed several walks and hikes while touring the country and was amazed to find people much older than myself passing me, uphill, on steep slopes. The Swiss keep on walking right into their80s and 90s. Apparently 2.7 million people between the ages of 15 and 74 who live in Switzerland identify themselves as active hikers. It equals 44 percent of the population between those ages. About 8 percent of Swiss consider hikingt heir main sport. 60 hours

The numbers? There are 66,200 kilometres (41,135 miles) of marked trails in the country. There are 9,200 bed spaces available among the Swiss Alpine Club’s 152 huts in the Alps. About 60 hours is the average number a year that each Swiss spends hiking on trails. This equals hikes lasting an average of three hours spread over an average of 20 days a year. Only about 2 to 4 percent of all hikes last more than a day. This means that the Swiss are out walking nearly every day. There are 300,000 foreign tourists a year who state that they come to Switzerland just to hike.  About 60 percent enjoy the vast network of restaurants and inns along the hiking routes. The average tourist spends $882 (US) while taking hikes in Switzerland, excluding expenses for hiking gear. Total tourism income is estimated at $2.6 billion. Clearly wanderwegging is very big business.

It strikes me that here in British Columbia we might want to learn a lesson from the precise and punctual Swiss and build more hiking trails or at least erect a few signs of our own on the ones we have. The only detail missing is one I found on a “bike park” in rural Taiwan, where every kilometre was a sign stating how many calories you had burned off since the last sign. With Fitbits, smart phones and GPS all the rage, we should employ these tools to get more people wanderwegging. When you see people in their eighties passing you, uphill on a steep slope, you know what the reward really can be.

MichaelMcCarthy is a professional travel writer whose articles have appeared in numerous newspapers. More of his articles can be found at www.transformative-travel.ca.

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