Holiday destinations are a regular talking point in my office, so saying I was off ‘to seek my fortune in Switzerland’ was a definite conversation starter.
I was heading to Swiss canton of Valais to visit the Binntal (Binn Valley) Landscape Park in the northern Lepontine Alps also known as the ‘valley of hidden treasures’. This is a stunning, remote place, ideal for nature lovers, sun seekers (300 sunny days a year) … and for those hunting precious mountain stones! Our mission was to hike from Fäld to Maniboden, picnic at Lake Mässersee then back down to Lengenbachgrube mineral mine and Imfeld.
The night before saw us preparing for our trek with a hearty dinner at Restaurant ErnerGarten in Ernen.Population 530, Ernen is the most populated village in the park and and, like its smaller neighbours, is incredibly well preserved. But it’s also moving gently forward and has a growing reputation for classical music concerts and new hot spots like our welcoming restaurant.
Minerals and more
Binntal has long been famed for its wealth of diverse minerals and as we set off on our hike, we were all on the lookout for treasure. The Park is also home to rare, striking flora and fauna and to date 184 endangered animal and plant species have been discovered, along with birds, butterflies and grasshoppers. And while we didn’t find any rare minerals that day, we definitely struck lucky with richness of dancing summer colour all around.
Overall there’s 8,000km of tracks in this region, taking you over babbling streams, past Alpine huts, over dry-stone walls, through hay meadows, fields and pastures up to stunning mountain lakes and peaks. As many are old cattle routes, or historic mountain passes it’s hard to hike here without feeling the calming influence of history around you.
By the time we were back at the hotel Chäserstatt, we’d clocked up 24,000 steps (17km) and it was so worth it. We tucked eagerly into a well-deserved, relaxing meal of seasonal meat and fine Swiss wine, prepared by chef Janos Schweizer and looked by our charming, friendly hosts, Georg Zacher and Jan Wyczisk.
To say the hotel is ‘out of the way’ doesn’t do it credit. The hotel and its restaurant sit at 1,777m overlooking the Rhone Valley, with great panoramic views of the famous Finsteraarhorn, Fiescherhorn and Eggishorn, and – further down the valley – the Aletsch glacier.
Twingi Gorge and tastes from the Valais
The next day’s walk to Binn was an easier, but no less stunning, amble through the wild Twingi Gorge and Ze Binne hamlet. Before the tunnel between Ausserbinn and Binn was built in 1965 this old footpath was the only route into the remote valley.
At our last lunch we went native, dining on raclette and fine Valais wine thanks to our host and guide Peter Mangold, whose family has lived at the edge of the gorge for generations.
Valais is Switzerland’s top wine region, producing 50 different grape varieties, including the native Petite Arvine, Amigne, Cornalin and Humagne Rouge. The Heida wine village of Visperterminen also has the highest vineyards in Europe, located at an altitude of 1,378 m above the Visp Valley.
I’d skied in Switzerland many a season, but had never seen the country without its winter coat, and it was so good to break the ice.
Sum up Binntal? It’s a diamond of a place to visit, and – with a bit of luck – you’ll come home with a colourful stone, or maybe even a crystal.
More about Valais
While our group opted for hiking, biking is also really popular, with 3,500 km of trails and routes suitable for mountain biking, road cycling and e-biking. Other active summer activities include fixed-rope routes, adventure parks paraglding and golf…or simply relax in the thermal baths.
Valais also boasts Europe’s largest navigable underground lake – Lake St-Léonard, which can be explored by boat, as well as the world’s highest gravity dam – the Grande Dixence – a popular starting point for mountain hikes.
And for those who simply can’t forget the ‘white stuff; there is also summer skiing at Saas-Fee and Zermatt.
Briony flew courtesy of SWISS who operate up to 180 weekly flights to Switzerland from UK airports and Dublin. www.swiss.com or call 0845 6010956
Swiss Travel System
The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and destination. Prices – £112 in second class, £184 in first class.
The Swiss Travel Pass is the all-in-one ticket to travel by train, bus and boat on an all-inclusive basis from 3-15 days – prices from £170 in second class.Each ticket offers free admission to more than 500 museums nationwide and half-price on the most scenic Swiss mountain railways.
Call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30, or www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.