VALAIS (Wallis in German; Vallese in Italian) is Switzerland’s third-largest canton, a diverse swathe of country occupying the valley – hence the name – of the River Rhône, from its source in the glaciers of the central Alps all the way to its inflow into Lake Geneva.
Fully twenty per cent of the canton is covered by glaciers, and yet the region has the driest climate, with the lowest rainfall and the most sunshine, of the entire country.
The artificial irrigation system set in place by the valley dwellers in the Middle Ages – a vast network of channels, called bisses in French and Suonen in Swiss-German – still weaves patterns over the foothills of the high mountains, supplemented these days by half a dozen of the largest dams at the some of the highest altitudes in the world.
For the Swiss, the Valais somehow represents a piece of common heritage all but lost elsewhere in the country: in the most unlikely corners of Geneva or Zürich you can find restaurants done up as traditional Valaisian-style darkwood chalets, complete with window-boxes full of geraniums and farm tools as decoration on the walls, serving up the local speciality raclette under a name-board “Chalet Valaisanne” or “Walliser Stube”.
The dryness and sunshine of the valley are ideal for vine growing, and the canton’s 22 000 vineyard owners produce some of the finest wine in the country.
Cut off on all sides by mountains, the Valais has always been a world apart. In an attempt to conquer the Celtic peoples of the valley in the first century BC, a Roman army under Julius Caesar ventured across the Grand-St-Bernard Pass from Italy and then spread out through the valley. They got as far as modern-day Sierre, and left behind them a legacy of Latin. Even today Sierre is the easternmost French-speaking town in the canton, while beyond it the mother tongue is Swiss-German, derived from the language of the Aleman tribes who remained unconquered. Indeed, once the Romans retreated, few outsiders had much success in challenging the peoples of the valley.
Christianity arrived before the fourth century, with the travel of clerics and merchants over the Grand-St-Bernard Pass, but the Reformation never made it any further into the valley than Aigle, in neighbouring Canton Vaud, and Valais remains mainly Catholic to this day. Even the mighty Bernese army was stopped by the mountains and the wildness of the terrain.
In times of severe hardship during the Middle Ages and later, however, many Walsers voluntarily chose to leave their home villages and travel over the mountains to seek a better life elsewhere. Walser communities survive in places as far apart as Argentina and Liechtenstein, still nurturing their distinctive dialect and culture.
The Valais remained independent until 1815 when, following a brief period of French governorship, it joined the Swiss Confederation as a new canton.
It’s a mark of the social changes that have taken place in recent years that German speakers in the east of the canton are now starting to worry about the encroachment of French up the valley: with the economic power and prestige of the French-speaking lower valley, German speakers are increasingly finding employment in francophone areas, while francophone firms are expanding their bases of operation into German-speaking communities. Locals in Brig in particular shake their head at the amount of French now heard in the town, but there seems little they can do about it.
The Valais is still a wild and little-known place outside the trio of famous resorts bred by the mountains: Zermatt, Verbier and Crans-Montana. Few outsiders bother to penetrate the deep rural valleys on either side of the single road and rail line that run along the valley floor – though those who do make the effort find plenty of long-distance hiking and adventure sports of all kinds. The only town of any size is the cantonal capital Sion, with a low-key, easygoing atmosphere and a handful of sights. In the northernmost extremities of the region, an area of Vaud known as Haut-Léman occupies the east bank of the Rhône just before it flows into Lake Geneva, and shares the mountainous scenery of Valais Romand.