The Valais (German: Wallis) is exactly that: a long, narrow, L-shaped valley in the Swiss Alps. The main cities in this region are along the river Rhone which cuts through the bottom of the valley, between its source at the Rhone glacier in the east and its temporary destination of Lake Geneva in the west. The main tourist destinations lie in the lesser populated side valleys to the north or the south or on plateaus above the main valley.
Valais offers an amazing diversity of landscapes. Within a few kilometres there are the highest glaciers and mountains of the Alps and almost subtropical places where even almond and pomegranate trees grow.
Some of the best spring skiing in the world is available in the Valais, at prices which although high beat the equivalent offerings in Colorado.
|Lower Valais |
French speaking, western part of Valais
|Central Valais |
French speaking, mostly contains the region around the capital Sion.
|Upper Valais |
Swiss-German speaking, eastern part of Valais.
- The St. Bernard Pass — an important route to Italy. This is where the St. Bernard breed originates and also where the legendary live-saving dog Barry is from.
- 1 Lötschental
- 2 Matterhorn — Probably Switzerland's most famous mountain.
- 3 Portes du Soleil
- 4 Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch — a protected area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site shared between the Valais and the Bernese Highlands
The Valais has historically been quite an isolated place. Nowadays the Valais is very easily accessible through to an extensive road network including roads over all the major passes as well as rail links to the rest of Switzerland and the surrounding countries through rail tunnels. In the past however, its location in the middle of the Alps made it very hard to access and travelling to some of the deeper valleys involved either a big detour all the way down to Lake Geneva or traversing one of the many mountain passes. Some villages have only gotten access by road in the middle of last century and the region (especially the villages located at higher altitude) were underdeveloped and mostly agricultural until a few decades ago. While those days are long gone now, this isolation still shows in the mentality and language of the people.
Nevertheless, tourism has a long tradition in the Valais. The wealthy British started travelling to the mountains from 1850 onwards which lead to the development of some of the mountain resorts, such as Zermatt. Many of the peaks in the region, including the famous Matterhorn, were first climbed by British alpinists accompanied by their local guides. Some of the mountain railways, such as those leading to Crans Montana and Zermatt as well as the big railway tunnels through the Lötschberg and the Simplon come from this early age of tourism. The bigger mass tourism only came up in the second half of the 20th century with the development of ski lifts and access roads. Today the Valais has more than 120 winter and summer destinations.
While shops in the mountain resorts have extended opening hours for shops, this is only possible thanks to special rules for touristic areas. Shops in most other towns tend to close one to two hours over lunch and close at 18.30 every day except Saturday, when they close at 16:00 and Sunday when they are closed the whole day. From this arises the rather amusing situation where opening hours in some remote small mountain towns are much longer than those in the urban centres like Sion or Brig.
|Climate chart (explanation)|
|Climate chart (explanation)|
The Valais is blessed with overall very nice weather. Some of the sunniest and also driest places in Switzerland lie here. While the western part of the Valais tends to be rainier, the eastern part is generally sunny and dry. Summers can get fairly hot in the Rhone valley with temperatures of up to 35 degrees Celsius, and prolonged periods without rain lead to forest fires every few years. Winter is probably the most popular season, as this is when hordes of tourists flock in from Germany, France, the Netherlands and other parts of Switzerland for skiing. While Christmas, Sports holidays (February) and Easter are quite busy, there is usually a quieter season during January when ski resorts are almost empty. Due to the relatively dry weather, it doesn't snow that often, but given the high altitude of most ski resorts, the snow conditions are usually still quite good. Spring and autumn make an interesting alternative for travellers who want to avoid the busy season. Relatively mild temperatures and a landscape in beautiful autumn colours make September and October a good time for a visit. In fact, it is said that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke was so mesmerised by the beauty of the Valais in autumn, that he not only wrote several poems about it but also chose to be buried in Raron near Visp.
Because of widespread Catholic tradition, public holidays in the Valais are quite different from those in other parts of Switzerland. Most notably Good Friday, Easter Monday and Whit Monday are not public holidays unlike in the rest of Switzerland. For the latter two however, most government services and many shops will still be closed. The same applies to the week from Christmas Eve (24 December) to 2 January. In the towns down in the valley, shops are closed on Sundays and holidays with the exception of convenience stores at railway stations and bakeries. However, there are special rules on opening hours in tourist resorts and so you might still find shops open in some of the bigger mountain resorts on Sundays and public holidays during the high season.
These are the public holidays in addition to those observed in the whole of Switzerland:
- St Joseph's Day (19 March)
- Corpus Christi (60 days after Easter)
- Assumption (15 August)
- All Saints Day (1 November)
- Immaculate Conception (8 December)
The language divide between French and German speaking Switzerland runs through the Valais. German is spoken in the upper (eastern) part of the Rhone valley down to Salgesch. French is spoken in the lower (western) part from Sierre down to Lake Geneva. English is widely spoken and understood in towns and touristy areas, but by no means universal.
The dialect spoken in the German speaking part of the Valais is classified as Highest Alemannic and is vastly different from standard German. It is different also from the other variants of Swiss German to the point where it can be hard for even Swiss people to understand the locals. The language is highly localised and it is generally possible to identify someone's home village or valley by their dialect. The most rustic (and interesting) variations are usually found in the side valleys such as Lötschental, the Goms, the Mattertal or the Saastal. Most locals will prefer to speak to outsiders in High German, which is universally understood and spoken (albeit with a heavy accent).
People in the lower part of Valais speak standard French with sometimes a heavy local accent. There is however a dialect still spoken in some areas in the central areas of the Valais. Called Arpitan or simply Patois, this language seems to be slowly disappearing and as a traveller you are unlikely to ever encounter it. Virtually all its speakers also speak French and will usually use French when talking to outsiders.
The nearest international airport is either Geneva for the western part of Valais or Zurich for the eastern part. Direct trains depart from both airports for Brig. It is also possible to fly into Milano Malpensa Airport instead. The journey is not much longer; however, there are fewer connections available and there are no direct trains from the airport. There is a small airport in Sion, but it is served by very few seasonal routes.
The train from Geneva airport runs twice an hour along the main Rhone valley through most of the canton, stopping at stations including Saint-Maurice (1:40hr, not all trains stop), Martigny (1:51hr), Sion (2:05hr), Leuk (2:21 hr, not all trains stop), Visp (2:32 hr) and finally Brig (2:41hr). The train from Zurich Airport runs hourly and stops at Visp (2:22hr) and Brig (2:33hr) passing through the 34-km-long Lötschberg base tunnel. For a more scenic journey, the route through the old Lötschberg tunnel still runs. It requires a change of train in Bern, Thun or Spiez and takes around an hour longer to reach Brig. It offers a nice view on the Rhone valley as it slowly descends the side of the mountain. This train is popular among hikers, as it has a supplementary stop at Goppenstein, giving access to the Lötschental, as well as a couple stops on demand along the way to Brig passing through a popular hiking area.
The Valais is quite a big region; the drive from Gletsch at the Eastern edge, to Saint-Gingolph at the shore of Lake Geneva is more than 170 kilometres. For longer distances, take one of the Swiss railways (SBB-CFF) long-distance trains which go through the main valley. The slower regional trains down in the valley, as well as the trains around Martigny, are run by RegionAlps and there is a couple of other private train companies, such as the train to Zermatt, which tend to be more expensive. Yellow postal buses span out from the train stations and go to most of the towns without train stations and side valleys. The main interchange station for the region is Visp, where trains from the north (Basel, Berne, Zurich) meet trains from the west (Geneva, Lausanne, Sion) and Italy (Milan).
While the trains and buses are operated by different companies, all timetables and tickets can be found on the website of the Swiss railways.
The Valais is best known for its mountains, so great panoramas are everywhere:
- The stunning views at the UNESCO Natural Heritage Area of Jungfrau-Aletsch from Riederalp-Bettmeralp, especially the Aletsch glacier, the largest in the Alps.
- Take the cable car/metro up to either Klein Matterhorn (3.833 m) or Mittelallalin (3.445m) to experience the high altitude with a view of a big part of the Alps and the possibility to walk inside a glacier cave.
- Visit the Pissevache cascade (literally cow piss) and the Gorges du Trient[dead link] in Vernayaz near Martigny.
There are also less known but not any less interesting cultural and historical sights:
- Visit the Giannadda fondation in Martigny. Next to its famous art gallery, there are also exhibits on the long history of Martigny as a city in the Roman empire. Go and walk through the ruins of this city afterwards.
- Visit the basilica of Valère on top of a hill with the oldest organ in Europe in the capital Sion. On the opposite hill, the ruins of the Castle of Tourbillon, offers a very nice view on the city and the valley.
Sports and activities
The Valais is known as a mountain destination both in Winter and Summer. Some of the activities you can do are:
- Easily accessible in the summer, the Great St. Bernard Hospice is a monastery situated on top of the St Bernard Pass. It is possible to eat with the monks and even stay the night. The monastery is open in the winter, but only accessible by helicopter or skis.
- Skiing or Snowboarding are the two more obvious winter sports and there are plenty of ski resorts in this area. There are however many more options, such as snowshoeing, cross country skiing, ice-skating or ice climbing. If you have the budget for it, Heli-skiing is available in the winter, and you don't have to be an advanced skier to experience back-country terrain via helicopter.
Events and cultural activities
- Attend one of the cow fights which take place during the summer all along the Valais. This is not as violent as it sounds as the cows merely lock horns until one of them gives up and usually don't get injured.
- If you happen to be in Valais during Carnival, don't miss the carnivals of Sion and Monthey.
- In May or June the feast of Corpus Christi takes place. This is a Catholic festival which is celebrated with processions through the town and outdoor church service. In most places a local bands in old fashioned uniforms and people dressed up in traditional clothes will participate. While watching it in a smaller village will give you a more personal insight into the local culture, there is a easily accessible celebration taking place in the town of Sion.
While you can get the more common Swiss dishes such as Fondue and Rösti, there are also some regional dishes specific to the Valais which you should try:
- Raclette — Is a specific type of cheese dish. Half a cheese is held under a heating element until the top melts. The molten part is then scraped off. It is then served either with potatoes or a piece of bread and accompanied with gherkins and pearl onions. A special kind of cheese is used for this (called Raclette cheese) which is available at all Swiss supermarkets, even outside of the Valais.
- Croûte au fromage / Käseschnitte — A slice of bread dipped into Fendant wine, then baked with a lot of cheese on top. Often the cheese used for this is Raclette cheese and the dish is usually also garnished with gherkins and pearl onions. Common variations come with ham or an egg on top.
- Cholera — A covered pie made of potatoes, leek, apples and cheese. The origin of the rather curious name is not entirely known: some say that it was a staple during a cholera epidemic in the 19th century, but it might just as well be derived from the word "chola" for coal in the local German dialect depicting how it was cooked in the past.
- Assiette valaisanne / Walliserteller — A cold platter usually including local sour dough rye bread, dried meat, raw preserved ham, local cheeses and local sausages. Similarly Brisolée is cold cuts served with hot chestnuts and dried fruits. A very simple alternative consisting of rye bread, butter and cheese shavings is usually served for the traditional Apéro, which is a meal consisting of wine and some finger food served before food, for events or celebrations or whenever else an opportunity arises.
- Apricots — The region is known for its apricots. During the season (around July), local apricots are sold in both supermarkets and along major roads. Make sure that you are buying those labelled with 'Wallis' or 'Valais', as vendors will try to sell cheaper imported apricots. Other local fruits can be found when in season, such as pears and of course grapes.
The Valais is a wine growing region and in the main Rhone valley the hillsides are largely covered in terraced vineyards. It comes at no surprise then that the Valaisans are known in Switzerland as hard-drinking people.
Wines come in a lot of varieties. Common white ones grown are: Fendant (Chasselas), Petite Arvine and Johanissberg (Sylvaner), but a multitude of others are grown. Red wines include Pinot Noir, Cornalin and Syrah. There are also some blends made, such as Dole, which consists of 85% Pinot Noir and Gamay mixed with other red grapes. Whatever your taste in wine is, most restaurants offer a selection and also sell wine by the glass. Some wineries offer tastings and some towns hold a wine trail once a year, a one day event consisting of a hike with a lot of pit stops for wine tasting. Tickets for those sell out very fast, so if you are interested, you have to book your tickets well in advance.
If wine is not your thing, liquors are made from apricots (called Apricotine) and from William pears (Williamine) grown in the region. There is one brewery in Sion which produces the Blonde 25 and Valaisanne brands of beer, which are quite popular in the region.
Just like the rest of Switzerland, the Valais is mostly a very safe place. As this is a mountain area, there are however some additional risks:
- Avalanches are a real danger in winter and spring. Marked slopes in ski resorts are usually safe. When skiing outside of those or when going on alpine tours, the official avalanche bulletin[dead link] should be consulted. (This is usually also available at the local tourist office and cable car.) If you don't have any experience in off-slope skiing or mountaineering, you should hire a mountain guide. Note that if you have to be saved after putting yourself in a dangerous situation, you will have to foot the bill for the helicopter rescue yourself. This is billed by the flight minute and easily amounts to several thousand francs.
- You might encounter warning signs, not to enter the bed of a river. They are usually placed along rivers below hydroelectric power plants and should be taken seriously. The rivers usually have very little flowing water (due to most of it being held back by the dam), but can swell to fill much of the space between their banks within a very short time when water is released. Water release can happen independently of time of the day or weather conditions. This leads to accidents every now and then, which usually end fatally due to the very strong current.
- Domodossola in the Italien Piedmont, a half-hour train ride from Brig. This used to be a popular and cheap shopping destination for the Swiss, but prices have gone up significantly since the arrival of the Euro. From here you can take a train through the picturesque Centovalli valley to Locarno. While this route passes through Italy, it is run by the Swiss railways and included in the Swiss travel passes.
- Take a train from Visp to Berne via the Bernese Highlands.
- Leave the Valais toward the west, and go on to Lausanne, Montreux or Geneva on the shores of Lake Geneva.