Each year, tens of thousands of holidaymakers travel to the Alps. Few give much thought to the strategic role these mountains have played in history, as a great and sometimes insurmountable barrier between northern and southern Europe. O’Shea follows in the footsteps of adventurers and warriors – despite his acknowledged fear of heights – starting eastward from Lake Geneva to Trieste, taking a 500-mile arc in which he concentrates on the high passes rather than the mountain peaks on his journey through 2,000 years of history.
The narrative brings to life a diverse panoply of characters, real and imaginary, who have been linked to this snow-capped realm – Hannibal, Heidi, Sherlock Holmes, Edward Whymper, James Bond and Frankenstein’s monster, to name a few. O’Shea confesses that on starting out, he did not realise the Alps had a story to tell beyond their physical bounds. The cultural and linguistic diversity of the range persists today as in centuries past, thanks to the great walls of snow and rock rising between communities. ‘Fourteen million people live in the Alps,’ he writes, ‘and many of them cannot talk to one another, so great are the language barriers created by the mountains.’
Throughout his journey, O’Shea immerses himself in the communities he visits, engagingly recounting his adventures with watchmakers, road trippers, salt miners, cable-car operators, and yodellers. It is well worth making space in the rucksack for this on your next Alpine holiday.