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The Alps

by Yndiana Montes-Fogelquist

The Alps are the highest and most extensive mountain range in Europe, but did you know that still in the first part of the eighteenth century the perception of the mountains in the Old Continent was not really a positive one? And more than that the mountains were not appreciated, nor were they objects of public admiration?

It is also difficult to grasp that the peaks of Monaco, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria and Slovenia, were not applauded as the ones of Italy because tourists had to go through the Alps on their way South. Travelers of those times consider the Italian Peninsula as the Mecca of tourism. The Dolomites in Italy, which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, did not have the same cultural meaning for Europeans. They were looking for the Italian architecture, the art-based wonders, and of course the food.

It was not until the second part of the century that the Alpine landscape became more interesting and fashionable. Jon Mathieu is the author of The Third Dimension, a Comparative History of Mountains in the Modern Era (2011), a text assigned to graduate students of Dr. Katherine Ledford’s class Global Appalachia of Appalachian State University. In Chapter 4, Cultural Diversity and Modernity, he informs: “Estimating based on the numbers of published travel reports, one can assume that between 1750 and 1790 these visits increased more than eight-fold. The mountains of Switzerland, previously no matter of public admiration, in a short period received a great deal of attention” (121). Of course, natural scientists started studying the Alps much before, but it was in 1761 when “in his epistolary novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, Jean Jacques Rousseau made the new feel from nature and mountains a central theme…” (Mathieu 2011).

This book had a great impact on the readers of the time. The Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and the rest of The Alpine region, as well as their plants, such as edelweiss which grow in rocky areas, became much more valued and revered.

Napoleon crossed the mountain passes with 40,000 soldiers and then in the 19th century there were a vast array of naturalists, writers, and artists from all over Europe and later, the world. Then, the golden age of alpinism saw the light and people started wondering about mountaineers. They have retained a strong identity; the culture of farming, cheesemaking, and woodworking still are key in many Alpine villages.

Tourism is now the dominant industry. The Winter Olympic Games have been hosted in the Swiss, French, Italian, Austrian and German Alps. More than 120 million annual visitors congest parts of the Alps, and snow has receded from some of their more emblematic peaks. These impacts raise questions like, how to manage this growth? How are they dealing with Climate Change? The Alps’s picturesque landscapes and well-planned outdoor activities attract about 120 million people to the region for skiing, snowboarding, hiking and cycling.

In this video, Jon Mathieu, who is also a professor of history at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland and the founding director of the Institute of Alpine History at the University of Ticino, shares some interesting thoughts about the topic.

Mathieu's research project while being a Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich was "A Short History of the Alps from Prehistory to the Present”.

Link to video:


Mathieu, Jon. 2011. The Third Dimension, a Comparative History of Mountains in the Modern Era. White Horse Press.

photo credit: Katherine Ledford

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