Switzerland: Hiking in the Land of Sky
Our guide, Dom Fumeaux, wasn’t about to leave something this important behind. As we gathered ourselves to leave Delia, a homestyle restaurant near a famous border crossing, Dom spooned up another thick helping of liquid chocolate.
He may have been loading calories to conquer the trail ahead that afternoon — a calf-cramping climb toward an unmarked crossing from Italy back into Switzerland at around 8,200 feet (2,500 m). Dom was eager to show us the stunning views here in the land where St. Bernard dogs still walk routes that winter packs deep with snow.
After a half hour, a few in our group turned back. Dom gathered the rest of us into a high-altitude huddle as ibex grazed a rock face to our north. It was time to regulate our pace and walk the way of the mountain guides: not too fast, not too slow, as we climbed toward the Lac des Fenetres (Window Lake).
The right pace, in short, to make our breathing one with the wonder of this Shangri-La of southwestern Switzerland.
I had pushed myself away from a busy newsroom in Massachusetts to take a walk. A long walk broken into pieces by conversations with new friends and plates of good food. I found that week-long trek to be all I hoped for, from one end of Switzerland to the other.
We traveled through the heart of the Alps, pausing in places where a traveler, in the right frame of mind, can quiet the thrum of daily life by walking out into the majesty of a land that still believes in footing it.
Lace Up Those Boots
I started my day in Orsieres, a village that serves as a perfect base camp for trips through the Pays du Saint-Bernard. Trains from Zurich got me here in two easy connections, the last one after a lunch and stroll through Martingy, a small commercial city with an oversized commitment to the arts.
Martingy lies at the west end of the Valais region, the heart of Swiss wine-making.A little prospecting turns up sculptures by Henry Moore, Joan Miro and Alexander Calder. A new museum devoted to the history of the Saint-Bernard dogs opened here last summer. And if after that you’re dying for more dog tales, check out the foundation that cares for them.
Let’s be clear: Hikers aren’t in it for the hype. Orsieres is the sort of town that lies between destinations, for those most interested in shopping. But it sits at the threshold of fabulous walking tours — and in winter, of a complex of snowshoeing trails that are quietly expanding and are now the largest marked snowshoe paths in the country. The network of marked trails is up to 85 kilometers — and growing.
To shake off the last of my jet-brain, I left a napping friend at the Hotel Terminus and started up the nearest alpine hillside. Though it was almost October, the in-town gardens were still lush with late-season produce. Paths run everywhere. Homeowners were tending to woodpiles as schoolchildren ambled home.
In summer, the female cows battle head-to-head to establish territories when first turned out into the higher-altitude alpenage.Armed with common sense and a map, day-hikers have many choices, as they tune up for more rigorous climbs. I passed the lower pasturage of the black, large-horned Herens cattle known equally for their large bells (a different size and tone for each) and their feistiness.
As the sun lowered, I scouted a route home and lay for a few minutes in a meadow to watch the ridges of Catogne (8,524 ft – 2,598 m) become skylighted above the village.
To get the blood pumping the next morning, I joined Claude-Alain and Gilles, two entrepreneurial daredevils who run the outfit No Limits Canyon, for a “rap jump” down the back side of the Toules dam, just a few kilometers from the Saint-Bernard crossing.
Once strapped into one of their special apron-like harnesses, I took a walk — make that airborne glide —down the equivalent of a 40-story building.
In Orsieres, if eating right is your chosen revenge, the best bet is Les Alpes, run by the family of chef Jean-Maurice Joris, and holder of a starred rating in the Michelin guide. For lodging, try the hotel at the restaurant, or the Hotel Terminus, with its easy location, as its name suggests, at the end of the rail line.
A valley away to the east, hikers can dig in on innumerable trails heading out from Verbier, the popular ski resort. As a winter playground, Verbier taps into fall lines of four distinct valleys, offering days or weeks of variety.
Verbier’s Launching Pad
In other seasons, those same valleys are honey-combed with trails that lead hikers high into the Val de Bagnes, another of the green fingers that push up into the high alpine country and its lode of hiking routes.
One of the most popular hikes starts from La Chaux, which lies well up the shoulder of the mountains south of Verbier at 7,415 feet (2,260 m) and is reached by a lift. From there, a roughly six-hour trek takes hikers into the Haut Val De Bagnes nature reserve and Termin Pass.
The trip ends in the village of Fionnay. From there, travelers take a bus down the valley to Le Chable and a lift back over into Verbier.
Being a sports destination, Verbier also offers some of the thrills that can tempt those who like to feel their muscles burn. In summer and fall, the view in Verbier usually includes paragliders drifting their way down in loops like lazy hawks. The one-stop source of information on such options is Verbier Sport.
Between hikes, we tested our balance by running a few low-altitude loops of our own around the “suspended trail,” a ropes course in the Medran Parc, located in a glade at the edge of town. The upper level of the course includes a few decent zip-line rides, but on the whole is best-suited for beginners.
For a different taste of life on the trail, we traveled east from Sion, through Sierre and on into the predominantly German-speaking section of Switzerland. We climbed aboard the Glacier Express in Brig and rode through spectacular alpine country into the Graubunden region, the source of the Rhine, Europe’s longest river.
And Then They Spoke German
The village of Disentis, which overlooks one relatively quiet reach of the Rhine, offers walking trips in every direction. Disentis and dozens of equally lovely neighboring towns sit amid a thousand peaks, in the folds of rugged country dotted with lakes and riven by valleys.
Not surprisingly, mountaineering is a centuries-old way of life here. Along with its natural beauty, Disentis has a spiritual center: a Benedictine monastery built in the 17th century. It remains vital today and is the home of some 50 monks.
On a guide’s advice, I struck out on a trail that took me past the monastery and along a section of the Rhine. One remarkable thing about hiking here is the way trails lace in and out of villages. The trail took me alongside pastures and up into the hamlet of Cavadiras, where I stopped for a cup of coffee at the Pign Padua guest house run by the Hess Wilson family.
A good map offered several routes back to Disentis. I strolled a relatively flat stretch through the tiny settlement of Disla, past the remains of what appeared to be a tank barrier from World War II.
The chef at the Hotel Alpsu warmed us that night with one of the region’s specialties: capuns, a Grissons dish made with meat and marigold leaves. Over wine, Sandra Beeli, one of our local guides, offered a crash course in the melodious local language, Romansh, still spoken by some 60,000 Swiss.
Later, we climbed the steep Via Alpsu street for a nightcap at Cucagna, a hotel jammed with youth Swiss men unwinding, in uniform, from a day’s military labors.
For a final taste of life about the tree-line, we journeyed through the region’s capital, Chur, and up a trunk rail line to the very classy resort of Arosa, home to the Sporthotel Valsana and a fittingly wide variety of spas and hotels. Arosa’s downtown sits in the shadow of the Weisshorn (8,704 ft – 2,653 m) and at the end of the Schanfigg valley. Off-season, Arosa has a somewhat forlorn feeling, which a few meters of snow stamps out.
To prove ourselves worthy, we hiked around the barren slopes (it was still fall) and rode downhill on a local bike that’s the cousin of the scooter. The bus driver one of us nearly hit is probably still shaking his head.
Getting Off Into the Alps
The adventure in Switzerland comes at every turn.
The Pays du Saint-Bernard tourist office, which Dom Fumeaux directs, is the best source of advice on extended trips into the mountains. Our trek through the Lac des Fenetres, at the top of the Val Ferret, was but a nibble at possible routes. Good trip-planning is vital.
Though walks can easily be plotted to wrap up at dusk near a warm hotel, the routes take hikers deep into back country, skirting peaks and crossing glaciers.
A six-day walk, called the Tour Du Saint-Bernard, runs up the valley from close to Orsieres through the famous crossing at Col Du Grand Saint-Bernard, visited by men of power from Hannibal through Charlemagne and Napolean. It continues along a day’s semi-circular run around Mt. Cheafiere in Italy, then back north through the Grand Col Ferret and La Fouly.
Along the way, hikers bag six valleys and pass through the Combe de l’A nature reserve, home to populations of chamois, stags and roe deer.
The most intriguing long walk, which I didn’t have time to test, is the eight-day trek from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland. Though it traverses the Alps, the route is middle-range in altitude.As walking goes, many have gone before.
The mountain pass served more than generals and their armies. The Via Francigena, as it is also known, was a main route of pilgrimages in medieval Christianity. It was named a European cultural pathway in 1994.
The journey dips into Italy after crossing the Mont Collon glacier before wrapping up with an approach to the south face of the Matterhorn (14,688 ft – 4,477 m).
Accommodations for all the longer trips are in hotels, mountain huts or camping — all by arrangement.
Days of Wine and Cheese
After a few days of walking, rap-jumping and other outdoor pleasures, we ran down into the Valais — for gastronomic adventures. In the handsome mini-metropolis of Sion, we picked grapes one morning under just the sort of blazing sun that makes the Rhone plain here (with its average of 280 days of sun each year) so suited to wine-making.
The grapes we picked were bound for the splendid Provins Valais operation, a 75-year-old cooperative. It buys grapes from more than 5,000 growers in a region that stretches from Lake Geneva east to Sierre, where the company has a major production facility.
On the day we visited, growers were pulling up alongside the nondescript building, their axles groaning with grapes.
The day before, we’d been able to put the pieces of the Swiss cheese puzzle together at the Laiterie Centrale d’Evolene, another agricultural cooperative. At this one, a cheesemaker named Michel Metrailler, in the village of Les Hauderes, accepts milk deliveries from alpine dairies.
After months of tender care and regular washing, he turns out perfect small wheels of raclette cheese.In a basement tasting room in the basement, we were treated to a lunch of air-dried beef and raclette, the gut-warming national lunch of melted cheese served with boiled potatoes and cornichons.
A trip to Les Hauderes, located up a narrow valley south from Sion, can be easily folded into hikes in the region, which lies on the north side of the Zermatt region. In Sion, we stayed at the Hotel Europa, a modern 65-room hotel within easy walking distance of Sion’s old town, home to more shops and cafes than seemed possible for its size
Pedal-Powered in Flims
One of the main lures over in Flims, Laax and Falera, in the Graubunden area, was the prospect of the culinary trail. Riders eat their way through a cycling trip. The communities sit on a plateau about 1,000 yards above the Rhine Gorge in a dramatic landscape shaped by a massive landslide 10,000 years ago.
The trip we elected to take brought us in a great loop through the dense forests around Flims. The route brings visitors past the Ruinaulta gorge known as Switzerland’s Grand Canyon.There is justice in working for one’s calories, but the proposition is softened here by the type of bicycles available.
We set out late one morning astride Flyer Electro bikes equipped with battery-powered motors. The devices deliver a mechanical assist whenever the rider adds power and roughly doubles their oomph.
For 39 Swiss francs, the “Woods and Water” culinary trail let us sup on barley soup or dried meats at our first stop, an outdoor restaurant called Panorama Salums. We then pedaled another hour or more, through lush forest, toward wonderful plates of pear and potato ravioli in Conn. We topped it off with warm crepes at a little restaurant in a field above Lake Cresta.
The trail is a summer and fall adventure only, running from June through mid-October.
Larry Parnass is the former managing editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is now a columnist for the Berkshire Eagle, in Pittsfield, MA.
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