Published: 03/11/2017 11:04 - Updated: 03/11/2017 12:31

Swiss culture adventure - Champéry and Riederalp

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

Switzerland is such a land of contrasts, especially with its four languages. Each part fiercely speaks only its own language, to the exclusion of the other languages, apart from English, which they all seem to speak. It certainly makes it easier for us!

I went to the French speaking part, to the region they call Vallais – or Wallis if you happen to be in the German speaking part of this canton!  The KLM flights from Inverness (recently doubled to 2 per day, 3 in summer, and 4 per day from Aberdeen) connect very well at Schiphol, Amsterdam to the whole world. Arriving in Geneva airport, I checked my watch as the plane stopped and we got up from our seats. An unbelievable 16 minutes later I was at the railway station, which is attached to the airport of course – and that included collecting my suitcase from the carousel and going through immigration!  You cannot beat Swiss efficiency.

The swish Swiss train glided along the lakeside passing through Lausanne, Montreux, with wonderful views across to the French Alps on the other side, with stately steam powered paddle boats elegantly departing from the Chateau Chillon. In no time we were at Aigle. Here it is a cross platform connection to the apple green metre gauge train to Champéry.

The Chalet museum in the mountains at Esserty, Champery
The Chalet museum in the mountains at Esserty, Champery
This modern, comfortable and efficient little train zoomed through fields and small stations to Monthey. Here it reversed direction to curve away and climb on the rack into the mountains. We now swung round hairpin bends on a little ledge over the ever deepening valley, squeezing past typical Alpine houses with deep roofs, dark wooden walls, and flowers at every window. Then, with a flourish we swept into Champéry station. This is quite modern and is shared with the big gondola cable car station that you can take to the very summit of the ridge above the town that has France on the other side.

Looking behind you, there are the jagged summits of the “Dents du Midi” (teeth of the south) range of mountains. Each peak, or tooth, has a name, and on the side of the train’s cab is a pictogram of the peaks, with one highlighted – and this is the one that particular train is named after.

Champéry is a delightful small town, spread along its plateau. It was a short walk up to the Hotel Beau Séjour. This is another typically Swiss building, all wood, balconies, flowers and deep roofs. It is listed as a three star, but I can’t see why it has not more stars, everything is excellent. One very nice touch is a samovar boiler with tea and coffee available all day. It is difficult to obtain a good cup of tea once you cross the Channel, but here they do it very well indeed – and even provide a wee jug of milk – what more could you ask for?

The wee chapel at Esserty
The wee chapel at Esserty

The hotel has an excellent restaurant, good local produce, and instead of a mini bar in your room (these things often cause problems) there is an honesty bar, and an honesty wine bar, with bottles as expensive as £70 on offer! The hotel offers facilities for skiing and all the host of snow sports available and will organise anything for you. The rooms are all wood as well, very comfortable, impeccable, well maintained and quiet too.

Using this as our base we set off to explore the town and the area, up here where the air is pure and the views superb. First of all we explored some of the town, then went on to La Cantine sur Coux. This is another huge Swiss chalet wooden house, with tables outside too, so we sat out with the splendid mountain views all round us as we had the typical Swiss dish of Rösti – fried potatoes, cheese, onions, and a fried egg on top. You don’t need much more to eat after this substantial mountain meal! The local white wine was good too.

The next visit was to a bell maker. All over Switzerland you hear the cow (and goat) bells ringing all day and night, and they are also on display in hotels and railway offices, and popular for wedding presents – where do they all come from? The answer is Champéry! In a discrete workshop Jean – Denis Perrin has been making bells for 9 generations. In the Swiss mountains and small valleys and villages, it can be very difficult to make a living. It is a Swiss culture to have more than one job. Jean – Denis has had many jobs as well as bell making. Once sufficient orders have been received, he selects the mould. There are 50 moulds, all sizes from small up to 65 kilos. The wording to go on them is also made. The furnace is heated to 1200 degrees C, the bronze (80 % copper 20% tin) is melted and poured into the waiting moulds. Then, once cooled, the bell is sand blasted and polished. It is so interesting to see the young lady, who has been making the bells under his tuition for 2 years, hand preparing everything and producing such wonderful items. Craftsmanship skill and passion. Well worth a visit.

Roberta making cheese the traditionally at the Alp Museum Riederalp
Roberta making cheese the traditionally at the Alp Museum Riederalp

The next experience of the day was to cross to the other side of the valley to visit the Chalet Museum “Esserty”. This is a Vallais farmhouse from the 1700s that has been kept just as it was. It is fascinating to go inside and see, for example, a Singer sewing machine from Glasgow, a bed that has another bed that slides in below it, all the old fashioned tools and cups and so on from centuries ago. In those days, if you wanted to build something, you first had to make the tools that you would need. There are some ingenious wooden tools to see. People were so much more self sufficient in those days, closer to nature, and had to work hard all the year round. Standing outside with the setting sun lighting up the darkened timbers of the old house on its ledge on the mountain, I would not have been surprised to see Heidi and her Grandfather come out of the house.

Back on the main street of the town, we had a peaceful dinner on the terrace (across the road) of the Cantine des Rives.

The next morning it was off to Gaby’s Alpine Farm at Champoussin, further along the mountain. This will be a little difficult to get to unless you have a car or taxi. It is on a hillside, and we arrived when the cows had already been milked and returned to their lofty pasture, and the goats had just been milked. The milk is put into a huge copper cauldron and a wood fire lit under it. The two men worked hard and soon produced the cheese to be packed into wooden circular moulds, weighed down with weights to squeeze out the surplus liquid. These cheeses are stored in a “cave” and are turned every day, brushed and rubbed with salt solution, and when mature produce a great cheese. The remaining liquid is boiled again to produce a type of Crowdie. Once again, we see how the mountain people of Switzerland have to work hard every day to win a living. There is also a museum here, in the upper floor, and even a bed and breakfast.

Alphorns play at the Yodeller fest, Brig
Alphorns play at the Yodeller fest, Brig

The next stop was in the village of Troitorrents. La Cavagne is a top quality shop selling local produce of all sorts. Ten years ago the mountain farmers found that their milk was too expensive for the market (sounds familiar!!) They got together and formed a cooperative to market and sell their cheese and it developed. Now they sell local food of all types, wine, fruit, real apples (the ones that are odd shapes sometimes, and maybe have a blemish here or there), dried meats, sausages, and also cards and craft items (and also cow and goat bells produced in Champéry of course). They make a profit and are expanding. It is a great example of what farmers can do to survive in a global economy –they offer great tasting high quality at reasonable prices.

Also in Troistorrents is a narrow crack in the mountainside where the stream has been used for centuries to power no less than four mills in succession. The water operates horizontal wheels, which is unusual. There is a hemp weaving mill, a saw mill, a flour mill (which still grounds flour which you can buy) and a smiddy. It’s an ingenious use and reuse of waterpower. You can also visit the miller’s house, cramped into the side of the cliff next to his mill.

Returning to the town, dinner was at the Restaurant Le Nord, in the middle of the main street. Once again, superb food and drink.

The shrinking Aletsch glacier
The shrinking Aletsch glacier

The next morning, reluctantly, we left Champéry on the smart little train, changed to the mainline at Aigle to be zoomed along the broad Rhone valley to Brig. Here we went out of the large station to the slightly smaller one alongside to join the metre gauge train to Morel. There, we crossed the road to take a choice of cable cars up to Riederalp. This is another broad ledge high up the mountains. It is car free, but the hotel had sent an electric cart / taxi to take us to the Hotel Alpenrose.

The village has shops, sports shops, a chapel, and lots of hotels. It is geared to the winter sports scene, but equally special in summer of course! A quick lunch at a restaurant (where the next table was taken by a group of yodellers, here for the festival, who practised a song while taking their coffee!) and then we took the cable car up to the top of the station that looks out on the Aletsch Glacier. This is the biggest one in the Alps, but is fading fast. It is still awe inspiring. There is something that really stirs the emotions to see this long wide sea of ice. The view point (2,333 metres above sea level) is speckled with Alpine Roses, and many other small beautiful flowers.

Incredibly, because the glacier is melting and receding, the pressure on the mountains on either side is lessening, and they are beginning to crack and move in to the valley. Many areas are roped off, and 6 inch wide fissures can be seen zig-zagging across the mountainside. The Swiss are brilliant engineers. They have built the upper section of the cable car so that it can be moved! The pylons, and the whole upper station, are on beds of concrete, and can be slid across to compensate for the movement of the mountain. There are many safety features built in of course, and constant measurements. This is an incredible, but typically Swiss, engineering solution. See Aletsch Arena.

At the Yodeller fest, Brig
At the Yodeller fest, Brig

The next stop, back in Riederalp, was to go along to the Alp Museum. This is a 1606 built typical mountain house, black wood, hunched into the side of the mountain to protect against the snow and storms. Here we met Roberta. This lovely lady had made us tea – from leaves and buds that she had picked that morning around the house! Real mountain tea – and it was delicious, unfortunately not available for sale. When we had drunk it all, she simply made some more, pulling some leaves off a raspberry bush to add to it – can’t get fresher than that!

Then she made cheese. The cows had been milked, and a fire was lit under the huge copper cauldron. There is no chimney, so the room, blackened by centuries of fires, soon filled with smoke. Constantly stirring, we made cheese, put it into a mould and took it outside to weight it down with handy rocks to squeeze out the excess moisture. Then we made butter. The final part was just bliss. We sat at a wooden bench outside, surrounded by high mountains, in the fresh air, with local bread and the butter we had just made, and some glasses of local white wine cooled in the water trough. The best meal I had in Switzerland the whole time we were there! Roberta was really great, worked very hard, always cheerful, and a woman who can make tea like that – well – I think I’m in love.

The next day, we took the cable car and the train to Brig again. Here the bi-annual yodeller festival was taking place. Around 150,000 people came to the town. It was packed with forests of Alp Horns, flourishes of flag wavers, and traditionally dressed choirs of yodellers practising and singing everywhere. Their traditional dress is specific to their town, area or canton, all proudly worn. Exquisite lace hats, embroidered waistcoats, the whole festival was fantastic. We took a break for lunch in the restaurant Les Cheminots (the railwaymen – it is near the joint station) of the Hotel Ambassador (the only 4 star hotel in the town) and it was superb.  Then we went out to watch the big parade. Floats, bands, choirs, alp horns, flags, it went on for hours. All really great fun.

Tired but very happy, we took the train and the cable car back to our Hotel Alpenrose. Back up on the plateau it was such a contrast, the air was clear, the silence and great views, and a relaxing dinner at the hotel watching the sun setting and the ever changing colours of the mountain tops.

Bell making in Champery
Bell making in Champery

 

The next morning, it was check out time. The hotel provided a packed lunch, and it was down on the cable car for the last time, and the little train to Brig. Here, the ever efficient Swiss Railways whisked me through to Geneva airport. The airport was packed, and I was concerned that I might be delayed – but no, Swiss efficiency once again had me, and hundreds of others, through security and into the shopping area very quickly. The KLM flight was delayed by a baggage door fault, so at Amsterdam they put me up in a hotel with dinner and taxis, and I arrived home to Aberdeen and on to Keith in the cold and rain – what a let down after such a superb experience in Switzerland.

There are a great many activities in that part of Switzerland, and some of the web sites that are worth looking into are below. Yes, Switzerland can be expensive as our Pound has sunk, but there are many packages to help spread the cost. Switzerland is always worth a visit – something for everyone and everything works!

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