Hiking in Valais – Half-way to Italy, half-way to France

Public bus in Valais near Simplon Pass

„To Milano“ is written on the yellow road sign, and a cardboard announcement at the fence of a chicken farm promises „Polli freschi” – fresh poultry. A stooped woman carrying a watering can shuffles along the narrow cobbled alley towards her tiny garden. Geographically we are still hiking in Valais, in Switzerland, but houses built of coarse stone blocks, crooked lanes and Italian names on the gravestones behind the church give Simplon Dorf the feel of Bella Italia.

On the Stockalper Trail in Valais

The rich merchant Stockalper

From the Swiss town of Brig we have just hiked over the Simplon Pass to the southern side of the Alps. Although this trading route has been in use since Roman times, it was dangerous and difficult until the 17th century. It was then that Kaspar Jodok Stockalper, a merchant from Brig, developed it and started a prospering trade in salt and silk over the Alps.

Stockalper also launched a postal service by horse and shortened the delivery time of a letter from Geneve to Milano to only 8 days in summer, or 10 in winter. Originally from an already wealthy family, Stockalper became indecently rich over the years. To show off this affluence he built a sumptuous palace with an arcaded courtyard and three square towers topped by gilded onion domes in his home town Brig. His family became influential in regional politics for generations. Not everybody liked Stockalper’s grandeur, however. Moreover, his pious motto (which he had written on the wall of his dining room) did not help:

„Sospes lucra carpat.“

(Kaspar Stockalper)

The meaning of this anagram of Casparus Stockalper is “God’s favourite should skim the profits.”

Real village vs fake village

Hiking in Arolla - path to the Cabane des Aiguilles Rouges
Hiking near Les Collons

After two weeks in the German speaking Upper Valais (Oberwallis) we headed for the French speaking Lower Valais (Unterwallis). Our initial motive was to visit a friend we had met in Uzbekistan last September. Nicole lives in Les Collons, a small village in the Val d’Hérence. “It is not a proper village” she explains, “Just a resort village: It doesn’t have a church.” And indeed, although Les Collons has three streets lined with chalets (named after their altitude Les Collons 1800, Les Collons 1850, and Les Collons 1900), it is strangely deserted in summer. “Only 50 people live here permanently,” Nicole tells us. From her balcony we have a breathtaking vista over the Bernese Alps to the left and to the snow-capped Matterhorn to the right. On the opposite site of the valley we see several “real villages” with church towers glued to the steep slope of the mountains.

Hiking in Valais, halfway to France

“Pop! Pop!” Through the thin tent tarp we hear the soft noise of corks being pulled out of wine bottles. French (and French-speaking) campers meet all our expectations. Sitting in their flower print camping chairs, they have lengthy four-course dinners accompanied by numerous glasses of the local wine. We begin to love the French-speaking part of Valais even more than the German-speaking one!

20070718 Bramois Weinberge

Of course they brought porcelaine dishes and proper wine glasses. After all, wine has been grown in Valais for centuries. Did you know that Valais is the sunniest region in Switzerland? Which is also the reason for it being such a top tourist destination! Poor farmers from these rugged valleys used to go abroad as mercenaries. For instance, the famous Swiss Guards in the Vatican are from Valais. Returning home, many of them brought home different kinds of grapevines to try on their local soil. Some of the vineyards are 1,000 metres above sea level, making them the highest ones in Europe. We especially liked the white flowery Fendant. Mostly, however, we stuck to the tasty Swiss tap water – we will soon enough be in regions again where potable water is rare. More Alps for now, but after the summer we will be off to Central America.

NB: We had no sponsoring for our hiking trip to Valais. We paid all expenses ourselves.

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