Switzerland: My sweet Valais high
Short breaks in Europe
It's not often a Portaloo merits mention, but this was no ordinary latrine.
The July sun was at its zenith as I eyed up the plastic structure that sat somewhat incongruously on the Swiss slope. I'd just climbed the equivalent of 127 floors, and taken 13,088 steps, traversing 4.9 miles of the Binntal's Landschaftspark to picnic at the glorious Lake Massersee, which is fed by mountain streams that run to the mighty Rhone. I'd impressed myself, ascending to 2,300 metres in the thin air and summer heat, but the wine enjoyed lakeside had nature calling on speed dial, and the blue loo's appearance seemed like heaven-sent salvation. Despite my pressing need, I hesitated; past super-stinky encounters had left their scars. But needs must, so I flung open the door and, like Dorothy arriving in Oz, entered a place so fragrant, so beautiful, it seemed like a dream. That's Switzerland for you; even the loos are in another league.
Coming in to land at Geneva a few days previously, I'd been struck by the robin's-egg blue of the snaking rivers below; the crystal-clear waters of this landlocked nation are but one point of difference among many that mark Switzerland out as special. Drinking fountains of thirst-quenching mountain water dot this nation, from Zurich's cosmopolitan streets to the peaks of the gorgeous Goms district in the canton of Valais, my destination for the weekend. The region is a breeze to access with the famously efficient Swiss transport system; I had a Swiss Pass, which made matters even easier, as it allowed me to jump aboard the first train out of the airport, which sped through the Swiss Riviera's lacustrine landscape. I was heading to the village of Ernen, justifiably famous for its annual week-long festival of piano, jazz and Baroque music.
My lodgings for the duration were high above Ernen: hotel Chaserstatt - a wooden-chalet type structure with additional accommodation in a converted cable-car engine room - is set at 1,777 metres. Run by the ebullient German duo of Jan and Georg, the hotel is a mix of traditional and understated luxe - my quarters had an austere aesthetic, but fine finishes and designer lighting added sass, while the peerless view of the valley served as an ever-changing live-action nature movie. Dinner that night was a celebration of traditional Swiss fare, the main course being the hearty, unfortunately named cholera - a potato, veg and cheese pie; followed by apricot cheesecake and a chaser (or two!) of local liqueur Abricotine. The Valais is famous for its luscious apricots, although the aforementioned liqueur is, shall we say, a tad rough around the edges.
Next morning, the restorative mountain air lessened the effects of any Abricotine over-indulgence, and we set off to the Binntal (tal means 'valley'), located perpendicular to the hotel valley. Our guide was Richard Gere-lookalike Rene In-Albon, a renowned mineral expert, whose vigour and Ibex-like sure-footedness on the precipitous mountainside belied his 65 years. Rene began searching for crystals as a boy, while herding cattle in the valley. The area's geological history means that there are vast mineral deposits here, ranging from rare fluorite, to amethyst, to fool's gold, known locally as cat's gold. Rene's daughter, Daniela, who came along to translate, helped with the mountain ascent as we searched for Binntal's buried treasure. Rene located a promising cleft (we were now at 2,000-odd metres, and I was forced to climb on all fours, such was the sheerness of the gradient) and began to dig in the sandy crevasse. I watched as he selected, inspected and discarded material from the unearthed rubble. Suddenly, he smiled, nodded, and handed me an exquisite quartz that sparkled in the noonday sun like the treasure that it was. I thanked Rene and the mountain for their generosity and descended to a plateau to eat apricots among the alpine blooms, and admire the panorama of peaks, with the Albrun Pass, a smugglers' route of old, visible in the far-off distance.
The route home took in the mineral museum in nearby Fald, which showcases the diversity of the minerals and crystals found in the area.
Treasure hunting inevitably results in a raging appetite, and it was with delicious anticipation that we headed to recently opened ErnerGarten, in Ernen. It's fine dining from chef Klaus Leuenberger, but the atmosphere is neither stuffy nor formal; indeed, I was greeted with licks and wags by a diner's dog. I'm veggie, but there was plenty to delight my herbivorous palate, not least the smoked potato sausage with nettle-semolina dumplings and Swiss chard, and to finish, flambeed local apricots, soused in Abricotine. A powerful pudding, it was unanimously agreed. The local wine is fine indeed, but another hike was on the cards for the morning, so it was back up the mountain to bed. As we ascended, a wild deer appeared out of the descending gloom. He momentarily turned his antlered head our way, then vanished down the mountainside, leaving us wide-eyed with wonder.
The next day dawned bright, and we headed off with our guide, Andreas Weissen (a past president of Commission Internationale pour la Protection des Alpes) in the direction of Lake Massersee, the smallest of four mountain lakes in the region, and famed for its loveliness. As we walk - or rather huff and puff up the slope - Andreas points out flora along the path, among them the 'wild man' or sulphur anemone, and glockenblumen, aka bluebells. Andreas explains we are on the shadow side of the valley, home to the famous black fighting cows of the Valais (thankfully, we don't encounter any), while the far slopes, the sunny side, are the pastures of the fawn-coloured dairy cows, whose tinkling neck bells can be heard across the valley. As in other Alpine regions, the cows ascend the mountain in summer (our trail was a cow path) to graze on the sweet grass, flowers and herbs, and they don't descend until September. Known as the desalpe, this centuries-old tradition culminates in the crowning of Queen of the Valley - won by the cow that has produced the most milk - although all of the cows wear colourful flower crowns for their parade home.
On our decent, we pass (near the aforementioned legendary loo) the famous Lengenback Quarry dolomite mine, the rocks from which are interspersed with pyrite, creating a carpet of sparkles beneath our feet. This mine is part of a mineral trail, and as you go down the mountain, you can learn about the rocks of the region, which include the mysterious black-speckled green serpentine stone, which is said to awaken the kundalini; the swirling snake energy at the base of the spine that's associated with tantric sex and enlightenment.
I prefer my enlightenment from a wine bottle, and back at Chaserstatt I savour a sublime sundowner on the hotel's terrace-with-a-view, before devouring chef Janos Schweizer's fabulous fare - while the others dine on (female) cow steaks, a prized local delicacy, I enjoyed a specially prepared dish which Georg christened 'extreme vegetable'. Extremely delicious.
It was almost home time, but first we had a whistlestop tour of Ernen, which is picture-postcard in its loveliness, with many of the perfectly preserved 15th-century buildings decorated with colourful frescoes, including one of William Tell. But there's a dark side: the troika of white pillars on the hill outside the village, aka the Galgehubel, or gallows, the only one remaining in Switzerland featuring all three original pillars. Witch hunts peaked in this part of Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries; 10,000 witch trials were conducted in Switzerland alone, and Ernen had its share. The 'witch' was first tortured, then dragged to the Galgehubel, where she (it was generally a she) was burned at the stake; the burning was considered an act of kindness, to purge the convicted witch's soul and ensure her salvation.
Our last morning's walk was brief, but no less a delight for that. We met the genial Peter Mangold and his dog Bo (almost everyone has a dog in Switzerland) for a walk on the sunny side of the Binn valley along Twingi Gorge, an important pilgrim way. Peter pointed out rare flora and fauna, and educated us on the habits of the ibex, chamois and deer that live on the mountainside. Peter's family have lived in Twingi since the 15th century. A cross on our route marks the place his grandfather fell to his death while trying to bring post during winter. Peter relates how his grandmother, not having heard the tragic news, noticed icicles on the window frame beginning to melt, an impossibility in the sub-zero temperatures. She knew instantly that she was a widow, and her six children were fatherless.
Our walk ends at Twingi Stubji, a tiny restaurant and Peter's home, where we taste raclette, a divine, simple dish of melted cheese, potato, gherkins and pearl onions. The sun sparkles on the turquoise waters of the adjacent lagoon, which is braceleted by forest, snow-capped peaks and mossy meadows dotted with ancient log cabins. I am almost overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. In my bliss, the words of Johanna Spyri's Heidi come to mind: "It was so lovely, Heidi stood with tears pouring down her cheeks, and thanked God for letting her come home to it again. She could find no words to express her feelings, but lingered until the light began to fade and then ran on."
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