Switzerland’s Canton of Valais – a World Apart
By Caroline M. Jackson
Bordering France and Italy, the once remote southwest
canton of Valais is easily accessible by train from Geneva, yet is often
overlooked by summer visitors. Sion, the canton’s capital, is the oldest
town in Switzerland and dates from Roman times. Its name was derived from
the Latin Sedunum meaning seat of castles. It comes by its name honestly as
the wide valley floor is crowned by two 13th Century medieval sentinels -
Chateau de Valere and Chateau de Tourbillon which sit broodingly atop steep
To familiarize ourselves with this rich historic city,
we took a guided walking tour from the tourist office in Place de la Planta.
As we strolled down the cobblestone streets into the heart of the Old Town,
our route took us through a labyrinth of antique shops, museums, churches
and the cathedral renowned for its wooden triptych. In the 16th Century
church of St. Theodule’s, our guide produced a key and beckoned us to
follow her down a set of stairs which led into a dark basement. After
activating the light timers, we found ourselves transported back in time to
450 AD. Before us lay ancient tombs and Roman baths complete with a
fridgidarium and aqueducts inclined to the Sion canal. Discovered during
archaeological digs in 1966, the baths were either used by the public or
some important person in Sion.
On returning to street level we tarried in the Town
Hall with its ornately carved wooden door and 1505 home of Georges Supersaxo.
On the last stretch of our tour, each turn opened up stunning panoramas -
sometimes a snowy alpine scene, a peek-a-boo view of one of the fortresses,
or a glimpse of the tree-lined meandering Rhone River.
With the intense midday sun beating down on us, it was
time for a shady walk in the vineyards which cloak the surrounding
First planted by the Romans, vines have been growing
here since the third century AD and it is said that if all the terrace walls
were put together end-to-end, they would be longer than the Great Wall of
China. Even though nearly a quarter of the canton is covered by glaciers,
the region has the driest climate, the lowest rainfall and the most sunshine
in Switzerland. The warm and sometimes hot, foehn wind also keeps the grapes
from rotting. It is a well-kept secret that the Swiss produce excellent
wines yet few people know about it because this precious commodity rarely
crosses its borders. Annual production is around 200 million bottles and
only one percent is exported. The dry hillsides are irrigated by a vast
network of narrow canals which are supplied by melt water from the
snowfields and glaciers. Walking alongside these gently gurgling channels
called bisses, and stopping to sample one of the local wines is a great way
to while away the afternoon. The locals are exceptionally friendly and
everyone greets each other with a smile and a bonjour. If you pass the same
person twice on the terraces, the greeting is re-bonjour. Wine connoisseurs
can also taste more wines from the Valais’ vineyards by visiting Le Verre a
Pied, a centre in Sion where the region’s cellarers welcome visitors.
For an exciting bird’s-eye perspective of the Valais,
we took a one-hour flight with Alpine Tours which is based in Sion airport.
When boarding, our pilot, Albert de Torrente was gracious after I
accidentally placed my foot on the pristine white wing which was clearly
marked ne pas marcher.
Undeterred by the strong wind which blew along the
valley floor, the propeller of our four-seater plane whirled, the plane
vibrated and we were soon aloft. Below us the elongated gliders looked like
skinny birds, the terraced vineyards fell away from each side of the valley
and the sentinels of Valere and Tourbillon looked like miniature
sandcastles. As we headed towards the Alps, valleys opened up below us with
chalets dotting summer pastures. Massive glistening snowfields came into
sight and soon the distinctive sphinx-like shape of the Matterhorn hove into
view, hiding modestly behind a billowy petticoat of clouds.
Rivers appeared as slender ribbons of turquoise and
soon we were flying along the Val d’Heremence, site of the Grande Dixence
Dam, the biggest and one of the highest-altitude dams in the world.
Having experienced the heights of the region, by
contrast we decided to visit Europe’s largest underground lake. Located just
west of Sion, the subterranean lake of Saint-Leonard is accessed down a
rock-hewn staircase which leads into the 300 meter-long grotto. In this
chilly atmosphere, a multi-lingual guide transports visitors by row boat to
a beach at the end of the lake. Fed by nearby glaciers, the cold water
doesn’t support any life except for some hand-fed rainbow trout which darted
around under our boat. The acoustics are apparently excellent and the grotto
is host to the occasional Alpenhorn concert.
The next day, having been intrigued by the scenery we
had seen during our airborne adventure, we took a drive south towards the
Alps along the Val d’Herens. The winding road cut through steeply wooded
hillsides past the Pyramides d’Euseigne, an outcropping of pointed crags
each crowned with a delicately balanced dark boulder – a bizarre leftover
from glacial moraines.
Our final destination was the quaint village of Evolene,
which five years ago, was the scene of one of Switzerland’s worst
avalanches. Today this delightful mountain village is the perfect place for
those who enjoy a retreat in an alpine setting. The village has preserved
many of its traditional wooden houses and barns perched on giant straddle
stones. The north side of each house is constructed of stone to offset the
cold while the south side is built of wood. Enticed by the enchanting
setting and the friendliness of the locals, we decided to follow the
European tradition of having a long lunch. Le Vieux Mazot with its outdoor
tables just off the main street was the perfect place to watch the world go
We chose raclette the Valais’ national dish. The owner,
in national costume, melted the local cheese before a fire then scraped it
off onto a warm plate.
It was then served with jacket potatoes, pickled
gherkins and silverskin onions. This dish is said to have been invented by
Alpine herdsmen in need of a good, simple hot meal when they were up in the
Having flown over the Matterhorn, we now wanted to see
it up close. A train east to Visp enabled us to connect with the Glacier
Express bound for the ski resort of Zermatt. Although the town is car free,
electric taxis from various hotels meet arriving passengers at the station.
We had pre-booked a room at the Hotel Mischabel so we trundled our small
cases along the Bahnhofstrasse when much to our surprise, we came across a
flock of mountain goats being shepherded along the main road. The perfect
photo opportunity came and went as we scrambled for our cameras and tried to
move our luggage onto the raised sidewalk. Our hotel turned out to be an old
fashioned wooden chalet and our internal grumblings about having to carry
our cases up to the top floor were quickly dispelled after we walked onto
our balcony. The unimpeded view of the mighty sphinx-like Matterhorn was
spectacular. That night I lay in bed and watched the mountain being backlit
by the moon then at dawn, I watched the mists dissipate from its pink-tinted
Early the next morning we walked alongside the
fast-flowing glacial Vispa River to the train station where we caught the
cog-wheel railway to the Gornergrat (3089m).The ascent afforded us a view
of Zermatt, then we chugged through forests of pine and larch emerging to
admire a breathtaking circular panorama over 29 four-thousand meter peaks.
On the return journey, we dismounted at Riffelberg
Station where we hiked along myriad mountain tracks zigzagging before the
backdrop of the Matterhorn and Mount Rosa. En route to the cooling waters of
a turquoise alpine lake, we passed a flock of sheep huddling against a snow
bank. This time we had our cameras ready.
However, we knew that no photograph could ever capture
the beauty of the Valais which is indeed a world apart.
Where to stay:
Sion: Hotel du Rhone
Zermatt: Hotel Mischabel e
Images by Hamish M. Jackson