By Bob Bestor

The health benefits of walking are now well documented. These days doctors seem to recommend it almost as often as they do aspirin. A brisk daily saunter of 45 minutes to an hour keeps one updated on neighborhood doings - hmm, the Thompson's grass needs cutting...looks like the Smith's are putting in a pool, wonder where they got the dough? - and keeps the legs and the cardiovascular apparatus in good "running" order.

Unfortunately, many North Americans live in places where walking is boring or dangerous - sometimes both. For them, and for that matter anyone who enjoys a good walk, a trip to Germany, Austria or Switzerland presents a glorious opportunity for long, interesting (and safe!) walks of infinite variety in both city and country.

It's hard to beat a day in Europe that includes a four to five-hour exploration on foot of a city like Munich, Berlin, Vienna or Zürich. We always include a little window shopping, some church investigating, maybe a cemetery browse and a couple of beverage stops at sidewalk cafés or indoors if the weather is cold or wet.

The first thing we do upon arrival in any city, big or small, day or night, is take a walk.

One 93-degree-F. Berlin day in 1982 we must have covered a dozen miles in a zig-zaggy, sometimes retracing our steps, route that included Checkpoint Charlie, the Philharmonia, the Victory Column, the Reichstag, the Tiergarten, the Memorial Church, the entire length of the Ku'damm and as much of the wall as was possible at the time.

Another "forced march" was in Hamburg, in 1988, on an even hotter afternoon. That day, thinking we would stroll the lakeshore for awhile and then catch a boat at one of the ferry docks along the way, we ended up walking all the way around both lakes, the Binnenalster and the Aussenalster. The non-air-conditioned ferries were full of sweaty passengers and we decided it was cooler on the shore. The walk is no more than six miles but the heat made it seem twice the distance. Need I tell you how good the beer at the end of that sojourn tasted?

But Europe's greatest walks are in its gorgeous countryside, particularly the magnificent Alps. Even non-hill climbers can meander the flatter trails found at altitude by using chair lifts and cable cars that are everywhere in the Alpine countries.

Routes are well-marked and local tourist offices are stocked with brochures and maps which describe and delineate thousands of miles of country lanes, forest paths and mountain trails.

For those who enjoy walking with a small group and/or the guidance of experienced hikers familiar with the most rewarding trails, there are a number of U.S.-based companies who specialize in walking vacations.

One such, Mountain Tours of Southport, Connecticut, is operated by former Gillette marketing executive, Bill Russell, who has been leading walking and hiking tours in Switzerland for 20 years. Mr. Russell refers to the routes he and his six other American guides select for their clientèle of mostly middle-aged Americans as "modest hiking over intermediate trails with no technical climbing."

"We walk in a beautiful environment, anyone in good health can do it," he says. "Our hikes are for those who want to see a beautiful place but don't need to prove they're athletes."

The company's most popular tour is its "Three Culture Hike" which starts in the French-speaking Valais, then moves to the German Bernese Oberland and ends up in the Engadine, in southeastern Switzerland, where Romansch is still spoken.

"We spend three days hiking in each of these areas learning how each of the three different cultures has learned to cope in its own special way to the difficult demands of Alpine living, " says Mr. Russell.

A typical day begins with breakfast at 8 a.m. and the hike at 9 a.m. There is a 10-minute break every hour and a one-hour lunch stop. Walkers are responsible for their own lunch which Russell suggests they purchase after breakfast at a deli or grocery store.

"If the hotel puts up the lunch it's expensive and always the same: a sandwich, some fruit and a piece of cake," he says. "There is infinitely more variety at a local deli."

The group arrives back at the hotel between 3 and 4 p.m.

But it's not all huffing and puffing. Russell's groups - typically from half a dozen to 15 hikers - take time to smell the roses.

"Many of our walks are village to village and when we come to an interesting one, we allow time for exploration," he says.

"For example, on one of our hikes we always stop at the famous hospice founded by the monks at the summit of the Great St. Bernard Pass on the Swiss-Italian border. That day we'll also have lunch at a wonderfully charming small Italian restaurant and then resume our hike after lunch."

Russell and his guides also plan "outs" in every route; places where the tired hiker or one with a sore knee or ankle can board a bus or train back to the hotel.

Mountain Tours vacations average about $1,000 per week per person and include first-class (four-star) hotels, daily breakfast and dinner, a railpass and a guide every step of the way. If the group is larger than 12 there are two guides. Some of the hotels used include the Rosatsch in Pontresina, the Silberhorn in Wengen, the Mirabeau in Zermatt and, now that Russell has expanded his tours to Austria, the Strass in Mayrhofen.

Mountain Tour's formula seems to work; this year nearly 50% of Russell's trekkers were repeat customers.

Another firm which offers guided walking vacations in Switzerland and Austria, and which has acquired a reputation for value and dependability, is Wanderweg Holidays of Cherry Hill, NJ. The owner is Phil Scheidt.

Contact: Mountain Tours 800-669-4453; Wanderweg Holidays 800-270-7257.

August 1996