THRILLING HEIDI

Sum­mer in alpine Switzer­land is an ex­pe­ri­ence straight out of a sto­ry­book, writes Alice Ghent

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

www.myswitzer­land.com

Pic­ture: Alice Ghent

Bovine aris­to­crat: The d’Herens cow is a na­tive of the Swiss alps

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