From the attic window in the alpine chalet, a fine mist can be seen hovering over the valley in the pubescent dawn, the sun still to rise over the mountain peaks. Gradually, as the morning lengthens its shadows, the mist will dissipate, the valley light will shimmer in the promise of a clear day and the high mountains will be framed by a blue window.
This momentary vista is a mere glimpse of the absolute magic of the Rhône Valley, in high summer a sumptuous land full of growth, at summer’s end a mystical land like this morning. All the way from the expanse of the lake known as Léman where cormorants gaze into the water from the rocks at Château de Chillon to the magnificence of the Aletsch Glacier where chamois look askance at solitary hikers high above the longitudinal plain of the Rhône, Ursern and Upper Rhine, this Swiss valley canton offers something unique in the world.
It is the first week of October. The grapes have been harvested, the chestnuts have been collected and apples, apricots and pears have been dried and pulped and fermented and left whole for those who like their fruit fresh. Tweaks have been made to apple pie recipes. New wines have been selected. Rounds of mountain cheese have been declared ready. Legs of beef, cured with salt and spices, steamed and dried for up to six weeks in airy attics and delicately sliced, are also ready. Batches of rye bread have been baked. Finally the apples pies have been prepared … and baked. Everyone is ready!
The legs of local cattle breeds are cured with salt and spices, steamed and dried for up to six weeks in airy attics – curing and drying techniques first recorded in the 14th century in the Valley.
Hand-picking sweet chestnuts from the woods alongside the Rhône under the high peaks is an old tradition of the people. Traditionally the chestnuts were roasted over an open fire, taken inside and served with chunks of mature mountain cheese accompanied by fresh grapes, pieces of apple and pear, grape (must) juice or young wine to wash everything down. Nothing unusual there, just the typical country fare of the canton.
Except this is brisolée, the autumn harvest plate of the people who tend the land where the Rhône is joined by the Dranse at the acute turn eastwards into the valley below the Bernese Alps at Martigny. Here chestnuts abound between the river, the town of Martigny and the adjacent village of Fully, where the annual chestnut fair is more than a celebration, it is an event characterised by the traditional produce and artisanal products of the valley.
To fully appreciate this tradition the stranger must go native and go up.
There are several walks out of Martigny, all signposted in the familiar yellow well known to all hikers in Switzerland. We are starting at Martigny Croix where the railway line winds around the mountain into the adjacent Barnes valley. Beyond the old railway station building, there is a gravel path that rises gently past the rocky wide Dranse. With a sudden ascent the path turns sharply, climbing hard towards the hamlet of Les Ecoteaux.
At 905 metres Les Ecoteaux is the tapered end of a ridge that separates the valleys of the Rhône and the Bagnes. This is not apparent deep among the stands of mixed conifer and deciduous trees. The switchback climb is arduous. Experienced walkers go slow, like mountain goats finding their way cautiously over firm ground. Gradually the path levels out onto a pleasant meadow, rising gently again towards the sprawling hamlet of Chemin, a settlement 250 metres higher. Here we consult the map, because we are facing a set of choices. To descend back down, to the town of Martigny, where the L-shaped Rhône slides into Lake Geneva, or continue upwards towards the Col des Planches, at 1411 metres the first high peak along the ascending ridge.
At the splendid Col des Planches the path offers some respite, descending slightly more than 100 metres down to Le Placard, a panoramic viewpoint. Also a crossroads. Five paths test our resolve. Three go down, two go up! Always a good time to stop and contemplate. Eat. And make the correct choice. It is too far early for lunch, so we snack on sun-dried raisins, dried apricot halves, slivered almonds, crushed walnuts, whole hazelnuts, some wild berries, an energy bar of honeyed seeds and grains, apple juice and pear nectar. This raises our energy levels. Lunch is chunks of semi-hard cheese, wafers of air-dried beef, torn soft flatbread, a handful of spelt flakes and mineral water. That can wait. Although we are still hungry we need to continue – up or down that is the question?
A meal not too dissimilar was found to have been eaten by a hunter on a different mission 5,300 years ago. Ötzi, a 45-year old, was found mummified by the ice in the borderland alps of Austria and Italy. His survival has become a revelation, because it has taught us that we face the same issues he did and we are not that much different, despite the generational gap.
Anyone walking today in the high mountains without high-energy provisions might not meet the same fate that Ötzi suffered, but they would find themselves wondering why they did not respect the wild, and that would make them exactly like the ancient iceman.
The most interesting path for us to take is the one that rises toward the ridge at Les Blisiers under the 2472 metre high peak of Pierre Avoi, towering over Verbier in the Bagnes valley and Saxon in the Rhône valley. It is interesting because the path runs alongside an intact Roman built viaduct. The Roman workers would also have been familiar with a lunch made from berries, grains, roots and seeds. They might even have been fortunate enough to have had some kind of dried meat to savour, and perhaps a swig or two of wine from local grapes to allow it to linger. This makes us wonder how they got back down. We look at the map again. And there it is, a steep path that drops down into Saxon on the valley flour. Anyway, before the descent, that lunch!
We are tired and decide to visit a hostelry that serves barley soup. After a hard walk, this enigmatic winter soup is a reminder of how little the world has actually changed over millennia – air-dried meat, barley, flatbread, nuts, seeds. It is hearty and conducive to well-being, just what we need.
That hike was hard.