We arrived at the high pasture to find my daughter, not quite four, building a fire with a Swiss farmer. She had screamed when she met him an hour earlier but now they seemed the best of friends, sitting together on the grass. “Tiens, petite,” he said, handing her slivers of kindling, shaved from a log with his knife. Thrilled, she put them on to the fire, placing each piece more confidently than the last.
There was the dull peal of far-off cowbells, the occasional marmotte’s whistle, and in the distance the white-capped peaks of the Weisshorn, Dent Blanche and Zinal Rothorn. When the fire was burning well, the farmer, Marius Pannatier, fished in his rucksack and pulled out a semi-circle of raclette cheese at least two foot across and a hunk of juniper-scented bresaola made from his own cows (“This was Rubelle, my favourite” he said, making a tear sign on his cheek.) Later the raclette would be melted on the fire, served golden brown and bubbling with hunks of bread and a jar of gherkins but, while we waited, Marius proffered a bottle of Petite Arvine — a surprisingly refined wine to be drinking from paper cups at 11am on a sunny hillside, 2,000m above sea level.
We had come here in search of a fantasy: that potent alpine idyll of fresh air, sunshine, wooden chalets and wild flower meadows, of a place, hidden away in the remote, high valleys, where a simpler, healthier, pastoral life has continued unchanged. A place where the cows have bells and names.
It is an enduring dream. In Heidi, that totem of Swissness published by Johanna Spyri in 1881, the magical qualities of the Alps (alongside an almost exclusively milk and cheese diet) are enough to cure a bed-bound invalid. Meanwhile, a stay in the claustrophobic, rule-bound city reduces Heidi to a shadow of her former self, so pale she is mistaken for a ghost. “To re-read Heidi is to find a fascinating century, the nineteenth, which is already thinking of the misdeeds of industrial society, already looking for new paradises,” writes Jean-Michel Wissmer in Heidi: An Investigation into a Swiss Myth that Conquered the World (Éditions Métropolis, 2012).
Heidi has gone on to sell more copies than any other work of fiction written in German. It has been translated into at least 50 languages and been the basis for more than 20 films and television series. And the fantasy isn’t just for tourists. The British might scoff at foreigners queueing for tea at the Ritz or the changing of the guard, but the Swiss themselves hold Heidi dear. In summer, many will take time out from their jobs in Zurich, Geneva and Basel to return to the mountains and help scythe the hay or repair the fences. Often they stay in a remote chalet or mountain hut, handed down through extended families or owned by a family friend.
Now, though, such special places are available to all, bookable online at the click of a mouse. The Swiss tourist board has set up what is unofficially billed as an “Airbnb for mountain huts”, with almost 300 in its current portfolio, spread across the country. There are chalets d’alpages, mayens, mazots, raccards, granges and greniers, a baffling nomenclature that denotes slight differences in their original use. Suffice to say that all are built in wood or stone, most count their age in centuries not decades and, even if you never plan to visit, just scrolling through them is a breath of fresh air for those shut up in big city offices. Some are close to villages, others in forest glades; many are alone on the hillside, accessible via rough tracks or only on foot. A few, like Casi Hütte in Bosco Gurin, are so high you must take a chair lift and then walk before you reach the front door.
To complete the fantasy, another new online tool, “My Swiss Experience”, lets you book a range of traditional rural activities. You can join a class to learn cheese making, the secrets of baking Valaisian rye bread or playing the alphorn. In the village of Meritzo, you can spend the day with Germaine Cousin, a 92-year-old grandmother who will pass on her knowledge of medicinal remedies made from alpine plants. Or, like us, you can spend the day up in the mountains above the Val d’Hérens with Marius and his prized cattle.
The Rhône runs east to west through the heart of the Valais canton, the little flat land around its banks crowded with orchards of apples, pears and apricots, as well as all the region’s main towns and even, at Sion, a small airport. A series of valleys branch off to the south, getting wilder and less populated as they climb, until they end in the eternal snows and glaciers that separate Switzerland from Italy. The Val d’Hérens is the least developed of all. As the crow flies, it is less than 15 miles from Zermatt to the east, Verbier to the west, yet it has none of their glitz: no casinos, no five-star hotels, neither jewellery shops nor horse-drawn carriage rides. There are a few small (and ageing) ski lifts, but no ski resorts, and in the centre of the main villages, Evolène and Les Haudères, there are still working farms and cattle barns, on land that elsewhere in the Alps would have long ago been turned into luxury timeshares.
Why would you want to open a tourism business in the Val d’Hérens, there’s no tourist infrastructure there at all... that’s exactly whyOlivier Cheseaux
We were staying above Les Haudères, on the edge of a hamlet called La Forclaz, at the Mayen à Madeleine. (A mayen, we learnt, is a farm building up on the hillside, to which workers moved in May when taking livestock to graze on the high pastures). It was late summer and as we drove up to La Forclaz we passed farmers bringing in the hay, raking by hand rather than with machinery. We paused at the hamlet’s single, tiny, shop where a hand-written sign offered chard, fennel and beetroot from the villagers’ gardens.
Our hut wasn’t easy to spot — its sun-blackened larch exterior hard to distinguish from the other ancient agricultural buildings, all of them propped up on little mushroom-shaped granite stilts designed to keep out the mice. I managed to prang the hire car while doing a 25-point turn on a narrow track when we realised we’d overshot, but even that didn’t dent our delight when we finally found the right hut, and pulled open the rough wooden door.
Though the outside looks unchanged, inside everything was slick, modern and minimal, the use of space efficient enough to have a Tardis effect. The ground floor, where the animals would once have lived, was now an open plan living and dining area, with floor and walls in polished and textured concrete, concealed lighting, funky sofas and a careful edit of coffee-table books. Upstairs, via a spiral staircase, were two floors entirely clad in pale unvarnished pine and textured OSB boards — a hipster update on the traditional chalet interior. Outside was a hot tub, again all in wood and powered by logs you must chop yourself, using an axe left beside the door. Smoke puffs from its chimney as you soak and stare across at the twin peaks of the Dents de Veisivi.
It is the work of Olivier Cheseaux, an architect from the other side of the Rhône valley with a passion for alpine heritage and long hair that makes him look a little like Paul Oakenfold in his pomp. Cheseaux fell in love with the Val d’Hérens while paragliding here, then began buying up mountain huts that were due for demolition, to be turned into firewood, or in one case a garden shed in Geneva. He ended up with six, which he dismantled and rebuilt piece by piece here on the edge of La Forclaz, reimagining the interiors and launching them in 2016 under the collective name Anako Lodge. “Raising funds was hard, two banks rejected me,” he told me. “They said ‘why would you want to open a tourism business in the Val d’Hérens, there’s no tourist infrastructure there at all’. I said, that’s exactly why.”
Across the Alps, most restored chalets have had new windows punched into them and balconies added, but Cheseaux resisted that temptation. Instead there are concealed terraces hidden inside the structures, behind the racks where hay was dried or barn doors that can be swung open when in use. Elsewhere, light pours in through small gaps in the timbers, which frame vignettes of the huge views beyond.
In the far east of Switzerland there is a Heidiland theme park, with a petting zoo, concealed speakers playing the Heidi theme and a shop selling products adorned with anime-style Heidis to visitors from Japan and Korea. The Val d’Hérens, by contrast, is very real. On our first full day, a Sunday, we walked up to see the snout of the Ferpècle glacier, passing a family out strolling, presumably after church, in full national dress: father in lederhosen, flowers in the children’s hair. The huge cowbells that decorate the bar-cum-general store in Les Haudères are not there for tourists, but because they are trophies from the cow-fights that are the valley’s most important sport.
We learnt more about it on our day with Marius, the highlight of our trip. The Hérens cows are small but muscular and when taken up to the high pastures they begin to fight until a “queen” is established, who then leads the herd as they roam the hillsides. The victors change hands for high sums and take part in organised contests against others from neighbouring villages and valleys. How long had Marius’s family been breeding them and farming here, I asked? He shrugged: “Toujours... ”
As we ate the smoky melted cheese and moved on to a rich, red Dôle du Valais, he told us about the patois spoken by the locals — “I didn’t learn French till I was six, when I went to school” — and the realities of farming here. Individual farmers have their land and cows but in summer the animals are brought together to graze as a herd, 120-strong, across land that is used collectively. It’s an age-old system, but in some ways this too is a theme park. Marius estimated 30 per cent of the farms’ income is from milk, 10 per cent from meat, the remainder from state subsidies, so high is the value the Swiss put on conserving these alpine landscapes and customs. “Without the state, we’d be dead.”
After lunch we met the cows — docile and wide-eyed, intelligent looking, happy to be stroked. Marius’s own animals nuzzled him and he whispered in their ears. With Rubelle gone, Sami was the queen, and she stood slightly apart, imperious. My daughter and her one-year-old brother played in the stream, then as the sun began to dip behind the peaks, sending shafts of light over the high ridge, it was time to walk back down. The next day we would drive out of the valley and depart the fantasy. Still, at least when she’s back among the pavements and playgrounds of south London, my daughter might have some idea why her name is Heidi.
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For alpine hut bookings and rural experiences see alp.holidaybooking.ch and myswitzerland.com. Tom Robbins was a guest of Switzerland Tourism and the Valais tourist board, Anako Lodge, easyJet and Auto Europe. Mayen à Madeleine sleeps six and costs from Sfr1200 (£905) per week for two, Sfr1760 for six. The “Raclette with the queens” trip costs Sfr75 per adult. EasyJet has direct flights to Geneva from 72 European airports. Auto Europe offers a week’s car hire from Geneva from about £155.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.