Valais in Autumn: The Good Life. The 5,000 square-kilometre canton Valais stands out in Switzerland for a plethora of reasons. It is located in the southwest of the nation, bordering France to the west and Italy to the south, and is one of only three of the nation’s 26 cantons that is bilingual, with French and German as its official languages. The scenery reflects an equal sense of diversity, with grand mountain ranges that receive plenty of rain and snow — including the iconic, pyramid-shaped peak, the Matterhorn — and dry valleys along the central Rhône that produce wine. What is common throughout the canton is the vast array of opportunities for those that enjoy the good life, indoors and out.
Indulge in a wine tasting adventure and fall in love with the Valais Region
On the banks of the River Rhône, Les Celliers de Sion celebrates wine through and through. The vineyard traces its roots to two competing wineries — Maison Varone and Maison Bonvin — that joined to form Les Cellier de Champsec in 1992, a wine producer’s cellar more than 1,000 square metres in size that strived to highlight the rich potential of Valais grape and wine production.
Bonvin 1858 is the most ancient wine maison in Valais, contributing greatly to the fame of Swiss wines (it won Swiss Winery of the Year in 2014). Founded in 1900, the family-owned Maison Varone was the first winery to fill its wines into bottles instead of only using open containers. This ensured the commercial development of Varone wines in gastronomy and also with private customers in Switzerland and abroad. As the synergies between the two grew, a wine-park business emerged, an environment for vinophiles to discover not only the region’s wine, but also the exceptional landscape here.
The company was renamed and opened in 2010 as Les Celliers de Sion. Today, visitors can try traditional Valais food, witness the harvest, enjoy wine tastings, walk through vineyards, and take an e-bike tour of the destination. The main building, an architecturally breathtaking structure made of stainless steel plates, produces sustainable energy via solar roofing and houses a museum that details the production process from the tank to the wine.
Expect to spend plenty of time in the glorious outdoors during a visit here. Download the app and follow one of a handful of routes around the south-facing, terraced vineyards, discovering delicious local produce and wonderful home-grown wines while touring on electric bikes. There are also a number of areas for sitting and enjoying some liquid refreshments dotted around the vineyards.
The Mazots du Clos du Château were former shelters and storehouses reserved for the winegrowers that now offer a private welcome area for people wishing to discover the wines of the domains of the Maison Bonvin at the place where they are grown, one that offers a breathtaking view of the Château de Tourbillon and the snow-covered peaks of the Val d’Hérens.
The Guérite Brûlefer is a charming little vineyard cottage situated alongside the Bisse de Clavau, and here the lures are the wines of the Domaine Bonvin and local Valais culinary products. On its shady terraces overlooking the Chateau de Tourbillon, visitors are immersed in the heart of the Sion vineyards.
Cube Varone received the Swiss Heritage Society Award in 2013; this ancient, shady winegrower’s cabin close to the Bisse de Clavau is modern but rooted in tradition, where grand crus and an innovative menu await.
A yearly highlight, taking place this year on Saturday September 10, 2022 is the great Tavolata. Held at 5 pm at the foot of the vineyard, on tables that stretch as far as the eye can see, this spectacular, unmissable event features a wine tasting and evening meal, taken as dusk transforms into night, a passage of the day filled with shifting colours and laden with mystique.
Hiking in the Swiss Alps, a perfect way to discover Valais’s mountains, forests and glaciers
Nature’s colours are on full display during a hike on the Aletsch Glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Central Europe’s largest glacier, where a wander during the cool autumn weather promises clear views from multiple vantage points, and the full splendour of the ever-changing hues of the tree foliage.
The ridge walk through varied landscapes takes walkers along stunning trails from Kühboden to the Aletsch Forest, and the vistas of the glacier and surrounding mountains are, simply put, magnificent. This route starts at the middle station of the Eggishorn cable car at Kühboden (Fiescheralp). A wide trail with great views leads to Bettmeralp, with the 4,000-metre peaks of the Mischabel massif and the Matterhorn constantly in view. The trail runs from the Bättmer Hitta mountain hut above the Bettmersee to the Moosfluh lookout point, and on to the Aletsch Forest down to Riederfurka and Riederalp with various places to eat and drink near the end. Spanning 12 kilometres in length, with an ascent of just under 500 metres, the walk should take less than four hours, a fine way to spend a morning before refuelling at lunch.
A classic route, the Aletsch Glacier Trail serves up endless views, an unforgettable experience on a European wonder of nature. This 12-kilometre route, again lasting a little under four hours, crosses the Grosses Gufer Glacier and continues down to Rote Chumma, with fresh glacier breezes providing a cooling effect. Carved into the rock, the wide mountain trail finally winds its way to Märjelensee lake, framed by picturesque cotton grass meadows.
Relax and discover the enchanting colours of Valais this Autumn
The joys of an Indian summer, that brief lull of time where the warmest season reaches into autumn, are a key attraction of the Région Dents du Midi, in the west of Valais. This part of the canton in autumn is an enchanting, gentle arena of shimmering colours, relaxation, and discovery, with rich culinary traditions, well-being experiences, and nature options.
The region encompasses six charming villages perched high in the Swiss Alps, not far from the southeastern end of Lake Geneva. Located in the Val d’Illiez, these villages are part of Les Portes du Soleil, the world’s largest international ski area, with 1,000 square kilometres of natural beauty accessible year-round. During autumn, visitors can wander 800 kilometres of hiking trails and 600 kilometres of mountain bike, with quaint alpine restaurants and sunny terraces at strategic intervals along the way.
Since the first snowfall doesn’t typically arrive until November, most summer activities are available until the end of October, with plenty of flora and fauna ripe for exploration and interaction. Visitors might encounter animal reproduction, bird migration, forest mushrooms that are served with typical seasonal dishes such as the Chasse (game meat) and Brisolée (roasted chestnuts), as well as seasonal blueberries.
Autumn is the most colourful time of the year, with the changing foliage highlighted by the sharp, clear light that appears before winter. Near the village of Champéry, the Barmaz Plateau is an ideal destination for family outings, walks in the woods or picking mushrooms, with small inns offering food and accommodation until early October, and alpine farms offering quality homemade cheese.
For more relaxation, baths in Champoussin, Champéry, Val d’Illiez, and Morgins let travellers soak and recharge in heated waters, letting them rejuvenate for adventures that lie ahead. Such excursions include tours to pick wild herbs and prepare your own lunch or pastries using them, watching goats being milked, discovering how alpine cheese is made, and the chance to hear a stag bellow as it prepares to rut.
Explore the inside of Grande Dixence, the tallest dam in Europe
To the east, south of the ski resort Thyon, the power of nature is harnessed to marvellous effect to generate sustainable power. The Grande Dixence dam, the endpoint of a 16-kilometre trail-run race from Thyon every August, is a concrete gravity dam at the head of the Val d’Hérémence. At 285 metres in height, it is the tallest gravity dam in the world, the tallest dam in Europe, and the fifth-tallest dam on Earth.
As part of the Cleuson-Dixence Complex, the dam fuels four power stations, generating enough clean power annually to meet the needs of 400,000 Swiss households. The dam holds the Lac des Dix as its reservoir which, with a surface area of four square kilometres, is the second largest lake in Valais, and the largest lake above 2,000 metres in the Alps. Construction on the dam began in 1950 and was completed in 1961, before officially commissioning in 1965. With 75 water catchment points, the water that powers the turbines comes from a vast area, all the way from the Mattertal valley in the Zermatt region to the Val d’Hérens.
Since most of its water comes from glaciers, autumn is the best time to visit, with the lake often at full capacity in late September after the summer melt-off. What’s more exciting than all the statistics, is that visitors can explore the inside of Grande Dixence — which is heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza, and whose concrete wall holds back 400 billion litres of water — on a guided tour, or walk the 700-metre crest linking the two slopes of the Dix Valley. Then, for the ultimate thrill, a 700-metre zip line launches into the void and skirts the concrete mammoth.
City tour, shopping, dining and cultural experiences at Brig
No trip to Valais would be complete with some time in Brig, a town whose fortune is intricately linked to the opening of commerce along the Simplon Pass by the local merchant prince Kaspar Jodok von Stockalper in the middle of the 17th century.
A starting point in the town is the stately Stockalper Castle, one of the most important Baroque palaces in the country; it offers guests guided tours that access many parts of the magnificent centuries-old mansion, with interiors that are as alluring and unique as Valais’ remarkable nature.
Elsewhere in Brig, Bahnhofstrasse teems with shopping, bars, and dining that ranges from traditional kitchens to Asian restaurants. Brig also boasts its own thermal baths and the lovely old town has stately houses, cosy inns and hotels, and an otherworldly ambience, one that weaves an enchanting spell that is sure to make your trip to Valais a true escape. ◼
© This article was first published online in Sept 2022 – World Travel Magazine.