Stretching from the southeastern-most shore of Lake Geneva to its borders with Ticino, Italy, Uri, and Bern. Perhaps most famous for the icy Alpine resort of Zermatt, Valais is a canton that captures a blend of those Swiss mountain resorts and northern Italy’s flourishing wine-producing vineyards. This mix is complicated further by the dual-language of the canton; the west of Valais speaks French, and the east speaks German.Terraced vineyards cloak the slopes of southern Valais, uniquely watered by glacier run-off, channelled through ‘bisses,’ which are historic irrigation channels. The various and diverse ‘terroirs’ have led to the cultivation of a great number of grape types. Older varieties, such as Amigne, Petite Arvine, and Cornalin, are still carefully grown alongside more robust varieties, such as Chasselas, Gamay, and Pinot.Valais is also popular amongst cycling, mountain-biking, and hiking enthusiasts. Over 8000km of marked hiking paths line the mountainsides, and well-maintained and well-marked cycling paths are combined with high-altitudes to establish a network that is unrivalled in Switzerland. Cycle from mountain to mountain, passing thrashing rivers, trickling streams, tranquil lakes, and thick forests to gather, in just a few hours, a vast perspective on Swiss natural beauty.
During your stay in Valais, you will see lush meadows, rivers, and 4000m high mountain peaks topped with all-year ski slopes. Between these peaks, creaking, radiant-white glaciers mould to the gradients of the slopes and filter into the craggy valleys.The most famous mountain in Valais, and possibly the whole of Switzerland, is undoubtedly the Matterhorn. Its distinctive silhouette can be appreciated from miles around, but perhaps best from Zermatt. Take the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise cable car from Zermatt up to 3883m, making it the highest cable car in Europe, to the Panoramic Platform to look out across the other neighbouring 4000m high mountains and glaciers. Before returning to ground level, admire the mesmerising ice sculptures hidden within the Glacier Palace, a series of stunningly carved ice tunnels. Zermatt is an Alpine village known for its winter sports, being as it is one of the most popular skiing destinations in Switzerland. In the summer, when some of the snow has melted, Zermatt is a peaceful community of chic bars and cafes and quaint and characterful chalets. It comes highly recommended to those who enjoy hiking, walking, or simply the sight of those dramatic Alpine panoramas outside your hotel window. Those looking to experience the undisrupted beauty of the landscape but without the strenuous exercise of the hiking routes may wish to take advantage of the excellent local railways and connections. The Gornergratbahn, for example, is Europe’s highest cogwheel railway, and its characteristic red carriages take visitors up to stunning Gornergrat. From Zermatt you can also board the Glacier Express to St Moritz in Grisons, which is a continually popular and iconic route. In the north of the Canton of Valais is the Aletsch Glacier, the longest in the European Alps and with the greatest volume. Reaching from the Bernese Oberland to the Rhone River, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a vast expanse of twisted, mottled ice which navigates sharp spikes of rock and thick clusters of pine forest. Between Bettmeralp and Riederalp, to the southeast of the Aletsch Glacier, is the Aletschji-Grunsee Suspension Bridge. Over 124m of thrilling high-altitude metal bridge hovers above the Massa Gorge, affording the brave and adventurous among us phenomenal, unparalleled views of the glacier.Northwest of Zermatt, towards Martigny, is Verbier, a luxurious ski resort known for attracting very elite clients. If you have the chance, it is worth spending a night here so as to take the first Medran cable car up to the summit of Mont Fort at 3329m to see the sun rise over the mountaintops. At Saas Fee, the Mittelallin funicular railway climbs underground to 3500m, where a revolving restaurant looks out across the Allalin Glacier and others that sit at 4000m.Sion, in the northern half of Valais, is home to chateaux and palaces galore. Chateau de Tourbillon has a magnificent hilltop position looking down over the Rhone Valley. After a fire in the 18th century, mainly the brooding exterior walls remain, though the site offers a breath-taking, intriguing place for a walk. Opposite the Chateau de Tourbillon, on an equally majestic hill, is the Chateau de Valere. Originally started in the 11th century, the castle was built around an ancient basilica. Today, the castle church holds carved stalls, an apse with beautiful frescoes, and the oldest playable organ in the world, which dates from 1440. While visiting, take a tour around the castle museum, and, in the summer, enjoy one of the concerts held here. Another small castle in Sion houses the Musee d’Art, exhibiting works by artists such as Oskar Kokoschka, Caspar Wolf, and Ernest Bieler. For even more prestigious art collections, visit the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, which houses works by the likes of Van Gogh and Picasso, and the Fondation Pierre Arnaud, which is a strikingly modern building with a mirrored exterior and a dramatic mountainous location in Crans Montana.Festivals and culture in ValaisPopular destinations and cultural cities lend themselves to high profile celebrations and festivals, which crop up around Valais at various points in the year. In Sierre, the Marche des Cepages in early September sees residents and visitors walk through the vineyards around the town, while drinking the produce and socialising with the winegrowers themselves. From the middle of August to the middle of September, the Festival de Sion sees international classical artists perform at many local stages, violinists compete, and many smaller free-entry stages pop up. Two weeks at the end of July see Verbier truly live up to its sophisticated reputation with a classical music festival. During the summer months at the Chateau de Valere in Sion, in the evening the castle walls are lit up with colour as part of the fascinating sound-and-light show. Something more unique is the Foire au Lard in Martigny, otherwise known as the Bacon Fair. Held in December, this festival has been around since 1801. In Riederalp, an unusual but very traditional festival takes place, the Chuefladefascht. Local residents throughout history would smash up cow pats and spread it as fertiliser across their fields; now, the game is to strike as many with your weapon of choice as possible and pluck out tombola prizes written down on paper and hidden inside.Gastronomy in ValaisValais the largest wine-making region in Switzerland, with plenty of wineries and vineyards open for tastings and tours. Other speciality ingredients include the huge range of savoury spices that grow here, including saffron. These local spices ensure that every dish in Valais’ many gourmet restaurants will be seasoned and spiced to perfection. As with much of Switzerland, a very popular dish is the raclette, made using the best Alpine cheeses. For a heartier, homelier meal, seek out a dish that utilises the rich flavour of the local chestnuts, or choose to begin your meal with some fresh rye bread.Travel arrangementsDue to the excellent rail service available in Switzerland, we always recommend navigating your tour, while in the country, by rail. Trains are known for being punctual and comfortable, and offer an excellent way of viewing the sublime scenery as you pass. Many of the most picturesque villages and towns in Switzerland are also traffic-free, or have complex, winding roads as their only access-point by car; yet, you will find they almost unfailingly have a rail station. Many iconic rail journeys allow travel from the UK direct through France into Switzerland, which we have always found adds a new dimension to your trip; however, flights from the UK into Geneva or Zurich are also regular, providing a quicker alternative for those who would like to spend their entire trip in Switzerland. From Valais, you are well-placed to continue your holiday into any of the neighbouring cantons, including Bern and the Bernese Oberland, Uri, Ticino, or the area around Lake Geneva in Vaud.
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