Summer in alpine Switzerland is an experience straight out of a storybook, writes Alice Ghent
UP, up, up. The PostBus squeezes around the tight bends on the road up to the village of Chandolin, at more than 2000m, one of the highest in Switzerland. In winter its tranquillity is torn by the robust noise of skiers. But come summer, this village and others like it in the Val D’Anniviers, high above Sierre, are transformed into Heidi country: all lush pastures, deep valleys, shimmering peaks. Summer is time to reclaim a sense of the divine through the perfect panorama, an effusion of flowers and an appreciation that the simplest things are best, provided there is a cafe around the corner.
In the distance, the Matterhorn sits marginally above the peaks in the range, its edges carved distinctively, as if with a Swiss penknife. In winter this landscape is frozen into a thousand shades of white. But during the warmer months, in a tradition started by the English at the end of the 19th century, visitors arrive to walk the many paths that criss-cross the steep flanks of the valley.
The weather is given to outbursts of bipolar extremes that make it impossible to go out without a jacket, just in case. Even on the most promising morning, great swaths of mist can wipe out the view.
At 1650m, Saint-Luc has the sunniest aspect of the valley villages; little paths connect them all, but adventurous walkers jump on the cable car to head to the tops where the peaks still have snow, even in June. From Saint-Luc we take the cable car to Tignousa, the beginning of the ski run, where we have coffee on the terrace of the almostdeserted cafe. Grazing below is a troupe of the local breed of d’Herens cows wearing heavy bells that echo across the valley. As cows, they are aristocrats, handsome black beasts that lick rapaciously at a proffered hand and tug at your trousers.
Chandolin, like most Swiss alpine hamlets with a skiable piste, has an old village and an array of new chalet-style apartments. For 600 francs ($585) a week we have rented an old chalet built when people were short and descended the valley only for salt and sugar. They were tough back then, built with thighs of steel. Impossible not to feel pathetic when a descent of a mere 1000m down a tiny winding path to Fang, a medieval village at the valley’s bottom, sends me tumbling twice.
The narrow pathway winds through pine forest, past typical wooden chalets built without nails hundreds of years ago and burned black by the fire of icy winters. Our feet thresh through thick, impossibly green grass. Bees hum around rich, red clover and butterflies flit through alpine flowers so delicate they fade minutes after we pick them.
Best not to think about the flowers’ fate given that global warming is happening twice as fast here as in other parts of Europe. This area alone has 25 species of orchid, some of which are only found here and, while increasingly rare, edelweiss grows on the chalkier slopes. Red, blue, yellow, pink: the flowers carry their own small world of intrigue and the tourist bureau has designed a special walk with 22 stopping points for those whose universe of discovery involves more looking down than up.
The region developed its tourist trade from the Brits’ love of fresh air. Swiss hoteliers built genteel establishments for these eccentrics who would bound about the mountains in pursuit of rude good health. The Hotel Bella Tola, constructed in 1859 on the edge of SaintLuc, is redolent of the Cote d’Azur, with its eggshell-blue shutters and tiny balconies. It evokes an age when only the truly rich took holidays abroad. At any moment I expect to see Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn, loudly saying ‘‘ Darling’’ to each other and ordering tea on the terrace with its commanding view of the Alps. It’s all so F. Scott Fitzgerald. The terraces are clearly full of les peoples , as the French call their celebrities. Who else could be so chic?
The bus arrives. It’s time to go back to the real world in Chandolin, where the views are the same and a night out at the only restaurant open in the summer season is a chance to sample raclette, which could be unpoetically described as melted cheese on hot potatoes with cocktail gherkins and onions on the side. But that diminishes the experience. The chef heats half of one of the delicious local Bagnes cheeses until they can deliver a crusty scraping to your plate. Each time you finish a scraping, another is promptly delivered and so on until you burst.
It’s time to roll back down the path to the chalet. In the half-light of the long dusk, a cat saunters by. Impossible to see a cat in Chandolin without thinking of the village’s most famous resident, Ella Maillart, who wrote a book, Ti-Puss , about her travels in India with her cat. Maillart, who died 10 years ago, was a celebrated adventurer, photographer and writer who in the 1930s made a perilous journey from Peking to Kashmir with Peter Fleming, brother of the more famous Ian. Both wrote books on their experience; Maillart’s was titled ForbiddenJourney in the English edition. It secured her fame but only a remote place such as Chandolin could ever fulfil her quest for serenity and spirituality.
Bovine aristocrat: The d’Herens cow is a native of the Swiss alps