A tour through the Alps reveals history, geology, anthropology, and local customs.
As he frequently remarks, journalist and travel writer O’Shea (The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt Against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars, 2011, etc.) is afraid of heights. Nevertheless, he decided to brave breathtakingly steep inclines and hairpin turns to investigate the dramatic political and cultural history of the French, German, Austrian, and Italian Alps. Traveling west to east, O’Shea drove a “souped-up” Renault Mégane Sport, a “muscle car” distinctive enough to attract attention in Geneva, where he began his journey. The French Alps, he notes, gave birth to Romanticism: Rousseau (“Switzerland’s most famous son”) set his sensational novel about Abelard and Heloise along the shores of Lake Geneva, and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein there. Besides abundant literary references throughout his ebullient narrative, the author traces the mountains’ role in war and conquest: Hannibal, Napoleon, and Hitler all make appearances. In Garmisch-Partenkirchen, he visited a museum documenting the Nazi-dominated Winter Olympics of 1936. He also chronicles his visit to Heidiland, a cheesy theme park cashing in on the popularity of Joanna Spyri’s children’s book; discovers that the famed Saint Bernard rescue dogs did not carry kegs of brandy; relates famous mountaineers’ “heart-stopping tales of danger courted and overcome”; and offers chilling descriptions of the “arduous and sinuous” routes he traversed. After being shrouded by fog, he saw “a horrific vista of yawning emptiness”; sheer cliffs and looming mountains “stretch to the heavens, gray rock and white snow in a stirring melodrama of nature.” He stopped in quaint villages, where he ate local specialties, all recounted in detail. O’Shea occasionally punctuates his otherwise brisk narrative with jarring imagery: he sees the Matterhorn “sheathed in clouds, like a burlesque dancer teasing the tourists staring up at it”; and he insists on describing bikers in reference to national cuisine: “a bratwurst of German bikers,” “a soufflé” of French.
This spirited jaunt into the peaks of Europe may inspire readers to pack their bags.