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‘The Alps’ review: Stephen O’Shea tours the famed European mountain range

"The Alps" by Stephen O'Shea is a travelogue that mixes history and wry authorial observations. Credit: Norton

THE ALPS: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond, by Stephen O’Shea. W.W. Norton & Co., 318 pp., $26.95.

The hills are alive with the sound of music. Also traffic, noise, kitsch and lots of tourists. In “The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond,” author Stephen O’Shea takes in the rugged beauty and sublime views of Europe’s famous mountain range; he also puts up with the downsides of modern travel. Out of this he spins a droll travelogue that mixes history and wry authorial observations.

Leaving Geneva in a Renault Megane — a car packing so much horsepower he is later scolded for being a menace to safety — O’Shea makes his way south to France’s awe-inspiring Mont Blanc and environs. He detours into Italy then back up to Switzerland and southern Germany as he pushes eastward to Slovenia and his endpoint in the magical Italian city of Trieste. It’s an itinerary to make any traveler envious.

Along the way, he ascends crazily steep roads with hairpin turns galore and takes in breathtaking views and postcard-perfect villages, all the while contending with biker gangs and sundry cycling groups. O’Shea indulges in self-deprecating humor — reminding us frequently that he is afraid of heights — but he is an amiable guide to the riches of this vast mountain range — culinary, linguistic, literary, cultural and geologic.

The Alps have long played a role in literature and film. The Romantic poets revered the mountains and created a kind of secular religion out of the heights. Here Mary Shelley (who set part of “Frankenstein” in the Alps), Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron found inspiration. Nietzsche summered near St. Moritz. And where would James Bond be without the obligatory Alpine chase scene?

Warriors — Hannibal in ancient times, and later Napoleon — crossed through passes en route to conquest and glory. Today, the Alps are home to some 14 million people. They are not unspoiled; luxury development and ski resorts have left their traces. Tramways soar over glaciers, and modern roads allow access to once forbidding heights.

The Swiss Alps, of course, are where winter sports and alpine tourism were born. In 1864, St. Moritz hotelier Johannes Badrutt invited four well-to-do English tourists to visit in winter. “The Alps would never be the same,” O’Shea writes. The modern pursuit of mountaineering also emerged here. Victorian-era Englishman Edward Whymper was the first to summit the forbidding 14,000-foot Matterhorn in 1865. It was a deadly business: the rest of his party died when a rope snapped. The remaining strand lies in a shrine to Whymper in the ski town of Zermatt, “a relic as worthy of worship as a saint’s fibula,” O’Shea writes.

There is no escaping the kitschy side of the Alps. In far eastern Switzerland, O’Shea visits “the goat-cheesy hamlet of Heidiland,” which takes its name from the famed children’s book “Heidi.” In the Bavarian Alps of Germany, he takes in the fantastical Schloss Neuschwanstein, built by King Ludwig II. A real-life fairy-tale castle completed shortly before the king’s death in 1886, this “pastiche of Romanesque, medieval and Byzantine causes what can only be called architectural indigestion.”

O’Shea doesn’t shy away from the darker chapters of his Alpine story. In the First World War, Italy fought a series of gruesome, pointless high-altitude battles against Austria. And at the Bavarian resort town of Bad Wiessee, Hitler took out his rivals on the infamous Night of the Long Knives. Before heading to the Eagles Nest, Hitler’s fearsome mountain redoubt, O’Shea ponders how the exalted ideas of the Romantics took a sinister turn in Nazism. The history of the Alps is one of both dreams and nightmare visions.

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