It really is true. The Swiss are as particular about time as you were warned they were. But being sticklers for punctuality doesn’t stop them from having fun. It just makes sure they start on time. Trains leave when they’re supposed to, making a connection is a certainty, and you don’t have to budget three extra hours of travel time for unforeseen delays. The public transport system is so good that quite a few Swiss don’t even bother buying cars. It’s the sort of thing one could get used to.
But if there is a Swiss people likely to be late, it is those of Valais, the sunny region in the south-west, where one half speaks French and the other German. They are a warm, friendly people who love to linger for a good conversation, and the common language they all speak is a passion for wine. Vineyards sprawl down steep hillsides that are terrace-farmed much like our own hills in the north. And much like our very own hills, holdings have been broken down and passed on to daughters and sons, until they are more like personal gardens than vineyards.
No wonder then, that wine is both language and religion here, especially the fresh and bubbly Fendant. During a afternoon wine tasting at Château de Chamosan, sommelier Mike Favre is exaggerating only a little when he says that without the Fendant, Valaisians “can’t buy a car, can’t get married” because they wouldn’t know how to celebrate.
The best way to understand this is to sign up for a hike through the vineyards. There are hikes and trails of all shapes and sizes, from lazy afternoon walks to week long trips. The narrow trails make for pleasant walking past 50 varieties of neatly labelled vines. There’s the sound of water running in the 19th century bisses (watering canals) running alongside, the water pleasantly chilly when you plunge your hands in. Little white butterflies criss cross your path, and each turn holds the promise of another grand vista – the right of green vineyards tumbling down the hillside as far as you can see.
The walking serves another purpose. It makes you feel a little less guilty when you sit down to a steak for lunch and a raclette for dinner. The Valaisians love their meat, but they love their cheese more. Hence, the raclette — five courses of melted cheese, eaten with gherkins, pickled white onions and small boiled potatoes washed down by many glasses of cold Fendant – a leisurely meal meant for grand occasions, not just any ordinary celebration.
During the harvest season, entire families come home to work together on the vineyards for a month, even the ones who’re doctors in Zurich and bankers in Geneva. It’s a time for homecoming and reunions. During the day they toil in the steep, hilly fields, bending and cutting and collecting grapes. By night, they gather around old wooden tables and eat the raclette, sharing stories and songs, drinking wine as they nurse the aches and pains of the day.
Switzerland has generally been the destination for well-heeled Indian honeymooners, but this small country that has starred in many a Yash Raj blockbuster, has much to offer to the newer kind of Indian traveller, who is active, adventurous and more willing to engage. While in Valais, you can punctuate the hiking through wine country with trips to the Rhone Glacier, a spectacular expanse of white ice, explore picturesque little villages, visit the St Bernard dogs, and relive local legends like the story of Farinet, the Robin Hood of the Alps, who forged coins and gave them away to the poor.
Along the way, you’ll find that you can take yourself out of the vineyards, but you can’t take the wine out of Valais. So, in the heart of the long, icy grotto into the Rhone Glacier (2,300 metres above sea level), you’ll find yourself sipping a furiously sweet, cold wine. And if you take the plunge and walk barefeet up the path to Farinet’s vineyard (the smallest in the world at 1.6 sq m, and gifted to the Dalai Lama) you’ll earn the right to pull up a cask of wine from the well, made from the grapes of the three vines that grow on that small plot of land and have a little sip.
At the end of the day however, you’ll realise that the hiking and sightseeing is merely a pretext, so that you don’t feel too guilty as you enjoy a truly Valaisian time – living life fully, eating and drinking well as you have passionate conversations. So when you pack this time, take along a pair of hiking boots and your appetite, and leave guilt behind.
Things you’ll find useful
Valais is the third-largest canton. It’s main city is Sion. The Valais wine route has a 66-km long hiking version, a 85-km long cyclists’ route and a drive as well. Details on http://www.valais.ch
For a raclette, go to Chateau de Villa in Sierre. www.chateaudevilla.ch Don’t miss their cellar which stocks 640 local wines. Be warned, walking into this impressive castle-like structure smells like walking into a wall of melted cheese.
There are a huge variety of hiking trails available, from one day walks to a six-day trip. To plan, visit www.MySwitzerland.com/hiking or get the free iPhone app.
Entry fee for the Rhone Glacier grotto is SFR 7 for adults and SFR 3 for kids upto 12 years.
To visit Provins, the largest wine-making co-op in Valais, go to www.espace-provins.ch
Get the Swiss Travel Pass, it makes travel much, much cheaper. You have to buy it before you go from www.swisstravelsystem.com
To hike with the St Bernard dogs, go to http://www.fondation-barry.com
* A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times on 10.10.10 The trip was organised by Swiss Tourism.