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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