Switzerland and Northern Italy
June / July 2012
In the summer of 2012, Circum Kathy Sinclair Pearson, her husband Gavin Pearson and their son James visited Switzerland. Besides the ever-popular Lake Geneva area, they explored the less popular region, the canton of The Valais.
As we left the Geneva area and headed north and east around Lake Geneva, we passed through the breathtaking views vineyards of the Lausanne region which start up the hillsides and go right down to Lake Geneva. The picturesque views of the rows of grapes growing on steep inclines mixed in the mountains and the lake as a back drop make images in your mind that are hard to soon forget.
Continuing around the north side of the lake we passed Vevey, the home of Nestle Corporation and onto the lakefront city of Montreaux, the home of the famous Jazz Festivals. One of the most famous castles in Switzerland, the Chateau of Chillon, is just past Montreaux and is right on Lake Geneva.
Continuing on past the lake, we saw France straight ahead through St. Barnard Pass or to the east, the canton of Valais. Taking a left in Martigny we picked up the Rhone River which creates a natural path through the region. This is the only major road that runs through this region and it follows the river through Sion with the Chateau of Tourbillon erected in the 13th century sitting like a fortress on top of a mountain peak surrounded by hillside vineyards, Sierre, Zermatt, Saas Fee and Brig.
Brig is at the junction of the Simplon road to Italy and the roads to the Rhone Glacier and the Furka Pass. From Brig you can take the Simplon Pass into Italy or continue along the Rhone River to visit small towns that have lifts up to view the glaciers and to the alpine pass of Furka. The Brig railway station stands on the frontier at the north end of the Simplon Tunnel which is the longest rail tunnel in the world, over 12 miles long. When you come out of the tunnel, you are in Italy.
The Valais is the home of the Matterhorn, the famous ski resorts of Verbier, Zermatt and Saas Fee and numerous glaciers. Each of the towns is either along the Rhone River or is nestled high up in the mountains. These towns can be reached by driving, taking the Post Bus which drives daily from town to town or by taking a train through the veins that run between the peaks of the Alps. This region is less developed, still heavily dependent of agriculture with dairy farming, cattle breeding and wine production as the most important industries. And of course it is mountain climbers and skier’s heaven.
We stayed in the “lift village” (which means there is a lift or cable car to reach it) of Rosswald which clings to the side of the mountain just off the Simplon Pass heading into Northern Italy. During the winter it is a ski resort and all roads are cut off to it because of the treacherous one lane twisting road that precariously climbs the mountain. This road is not for the faint of heart. There were over one hundred twists and turns of the wheel and approximately twenty nail biting minutes to reach the town of Rosswald, but it was well worth it. The views were unbelievably stunning and on some days we woke up above the clouds. Rosswald has a restaurant, a pub, a church, a children’s playground and pond as well as a village full of quaint Swiss chalets dotting and clinging to the side of the mountain. Our chalet was only accessible by foot, either by a steep climb up from the cable car or a steep walk down. It was approximately 300 yards down from the car with a jump over a stream on the way, definitely an incentive to pack lighter next time.
We used Rosswald as our base to explore the region over the next seven days. We spent one day in Geneva enjoying the town surrounded by famous lakeside houses of luminaries that have flocked to this cosmopolitan town. The lake has the famous water spray called the Jet d’Eau visible which can be seen for tens of miles. The lake is filled with boaters, and surrounded by bikers and walkers taking in the Parisian like buildings, museums and famous street lined shops filled with the heavy glitz brand boutiques like Rolex, Chanel, Hermes, Vuitton, Bally, Victorinox and numerous jewelry and watch shops. It’s a shopper’s dream. It is also a great town to get on a boat to cruise the lake.
The second day we drove through the Simplon Pass into Italy and within two hours were enjoying the lake district of Northern Italy. We took a day trip to Orta which is an historic picturesque town on a lake and the island town of San Guilio. After strolling through the ancient town filled with orange tiled roofs enjoying our Italian ice cream we headed to the town of Stressa on Lake Magiorre. We took a boat to the island town of Isola, the home of an Italian Royal Palace with terraced gardens right to the edge of the water. The palace and gardens were spectacular. After a picnic in the seaside park and children’s playground in Stressa, we headed back to Switzerland through the pass.
The third day we drove to Saas-Fee which took us back along the Rhone River and up the switchback valley road toward the Matterhorn. This town is car free. Saas-Fee is a well known mountaineering center and is at the heart of a circle of mountains which tower to more than 13,000 feet. It is the home of the Fee Glacier. The town has the largest collection of ancient wood structures that stand on piles of flat stones (mazots) to keep them elevated off the ground and above the many feet of snow that falls every year. The alpine village is a ski resort filled with chalet style hotels and restaurants and has cable cars that take you on the several hour trip up to and down from Gornergrat to view the Matterhorn.
The fourth day we drove to Zermatt which is only reachable by train so you must abandon your car in Tasch and take the train the rest of the way up the mountain. The resort town of Zermatt is bigger than but similar to Saas-Fee. Zermatt’s skiable terrain has 73 lifts and a mountain railway that is capable of moving well above 50,000 skiers per hour up to nearly 200 miles of marked trails and even into Italy. We took the cable car up to 12,750 feet to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise to view the Matterhorn. Zermatt is very charming and filled with hotels, restaurants and shops. Well worth the visit.
The fifth day we spent exploring Brig, the home of the self proclaimed King of Simplon, Kasper Jodok van Stockalper (1609-1691). Through his enterprise he amassed a great fortune from the trade route over the Alps during the salt monopoly. He was courted by emperors and kings, but his wealth and success made him many enemies and he was eventually run out of town and he fled to Italy. He left behind Stockalperschloss, one of the largest private residences in Switzerland and it can be seen from afar with its three towers with bulbous domes standing right where the Simplon Pass begins. We toured the home and the town with its many pedestrian only streets full of shops and restaurants.
On day six we headed east along the Rhone River to the lift village of Bettmeralp. After two cable car rides up the side of the mountain. We spent the day hiking around and viewing the Grosser Aletschgletscher (Glacier). We were shocked to see a family with a small child perched on the edge of the rocky cliffs overlooking the glacier having a picnic. There were no hand rails here. Quite different than the U. S. safety standards! Here we were literally on the top of the world with 360 degree views of the Alps.
On day seven we headed back along the Rhone River even farther east to the Furka Pass. This road on the pass is famous for its twists and turns as it climbs up over the Alps. Our destination was Gletsch where we hiked down a narrow rocky path to the cave carved out of the inside of the glacier. Although it was tough to choose, this would have to be our favorite day trip. Walking through tunnels carved out of the glacier was an experience we will never forget. We stopped in Munster for dinner on the way back to Rosswald.
Even though we had been there before, one week in Switzerland was not nearly enough. It was not even enough to explore the entire canton of Valais. We will definitely be going back the next chance we get.
Circum Kathy Sinclair Pearson