We have been silent for far too long. But we don’t want our Letter from Europe to just wither and die. For two decades – yes, it really is that long – we have used our Letter from Europe to relay despatches prompted by our travels.
Latterly, we have had mountain huts on our minds. Put it down to a recent trip to the Swiss and French Alps. There were of course primitive shelters high in the Alps dating back to the Middle Ages. Many of these would have been used by shepherds. But the notion of purposefully building a hut in the hills as a recreational retreat – as opposed to an occupational necessity – is a more recent idea, one which is associated with Romanticism.
The idea of mountains in European consciousness changed dramatically in the 18th century. Scenes which at the start of that century still invoked terror were within a hundred years reconfigured as awesome landscapes, now celebrated for their great beauty. The rehabilitation of the Alps in the western imagination started with Abraham Ruchat’s Les délices de la Suisse, which was published in 1714. Ruchat was a Protestant theologian. He remarked on the virtue and neatness of Swiss towns but, though troubled by the eternal snows in the mountains, didn’t entirely dismiss them. The inhabitants of remote communities in mountain valleys, once widely stigmatized as uncultured primitives, were recast by Ruchat as independent thinkers, so paving the way for a reassessment of the Alps in general and Switzerland in particular.
Rousseau’s Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse, published in 1761 and translated into English that same year, was to prove immensely influential in giving an even more positive account of the Alps. For Rousseau, the grandeur of the landscape was one thing, but he was also especially struck by the moral virtue of the inhabitants in the Valais region.
By the time of John Ruskin, who grew up in the bright glow of Romanticism, mountains had firmly shifted into the sunshine, with the Alps in particular now being regarded as inspirational, even a cherished source of spiritual enlightenment — though for Ruskin such enlightenment could naturally only ever reach its full expression in Protestant areas of the Alps.
Landscapes which were once disparaged were now the subjects of rhapsody. This change took place over a relatively short period. The trajectory of this rethinking of landscape aesthetics is beautifully mapped by Marjorie Hope Nicolson in her 1959 book Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory.
We were in the Chamonix Valley recently and were struck by a report there about what we think may well be the very first mountain hut used for recreational purposes. It was built close to the Mer de Glace, a glacier near Chamonix, in the late 18th century.
It was an Englishman called Charles Blair who built that simple hut amid the stony scree with a fine view over the glacier in the 1780s. Blair referred to it as his ‘château’. Within a few years, a more elaborate building had been constructed on the spot. That latter structure was called the Temple de la Nature. Its dramatic setting invited a quasi-religious celebration of the sublime. Both Blair’s hut and the later structure were frequently the subject of paintings.
With its elegant classical accents, the Temple de la Nature demonstrated that the aesthetic energy of Romanticism really had reshaped our collective appreciation of the Alps. We see this simple temple by a glacier as a forerunner of the modern bothy where climbers and hikers are still able to find that quiet communion with nature which fuels the mountain spirit.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)
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