St-Luc coat of arms

“a Swiss Valley like no other”

One TripAdvisor affixionado says: “The Val d’Anniviers is a Swiss Valley like no other” and St-Luc, 20 km from Sierre, is its most famous stopping-place.

St-Luc

Anniviers, our TripAdvisor writes, “starts with a breathtaking road, with a great view over the Rhone Valley and the city of Sierre. On the way to the end of the Valley you are able to enjoy unbelievable views inside canyons and some of the highest mountains of the Alps.”

map of the road to St-Luc
The road to St-Luc

Anniviers, our TripAdvisor writes, “starts with a breathtaking road, with a great view over the Rhone Valley and the city of Sierre. On the way to the end of the Valley you are able to enjoy unbelievable views inside canyons and some of the highest mountains of the Alps.”

Observatory at top, Hotel Weisshorn at right, Planetarium in village at left. From OFXB

Back to the Bronze Age

Perched at 1655m with expansive views of the Matterhorn and four other 4000m peaks, while boasting many sunlit days in the cold seasons, St-Luc has produced relics indicating habitation there in the Bronze and Iron Age up to 3,000 years ago.

The region itself, now known as Anniviers/Eifischtal* from the merger of six of the mountain villages in 2009, was occupied by Gaulish tribes conquered by Romans during the first century AD, wikipedia notes. Under Rome the valley was incorporated into the province of Helvetia and became known as Annivesium. But it did not get its first wagon road till 1854 to transport nickel and cobalt mined from high in the mountains.

A copper mine above Zinal was discovered at 1920m in 1832. But mining activity there, started at the end of the century, was stopped in 1903 when the copper content of the ore was thought to low to be commercially attractive. Tunnelling 500m into the mountain, La Lée Copper Mine is the only mine in Switzerland, among some 20 once-flourishing and now abandoned Valais excavations, open to the public.

Guided tours, lasting 45 minutes and available till the end of October, are in English and French but you have to be ready to hike 1.5 hours from Zinal to La Lée and then back down. And bring your own torch.

Chandolin, photo Christian Sanzey/wikipedia

Famed by artists

Similarly, Chandolin, despite 19th-century and early 20th-century fame with artists, wasn’t linked by road to its ski-trail partner and neighbour St-Luc until 1960. The region’s total population is less than 3,000, about 20% of them foreign nationals. Its 243km2 make it the third largest municipality by area in Switzerland.

Since 2014 the tourist offices of the region have offered a 3-hour-plus trip covering 14 of the historical sites, starting in Sierre and reaching up to Chandolin.

Yes, you can see the Matterhorn from St-Luc, as the funicular company suggests with a photo of its biker

The Anniviers website has full documentation in English and French about the villages, their activities, and their history.

But it is more likely to look like this. Hotel Weisshorn in the centre.

‘Descendants of the Huns’

One astonishing theory about the Avilliards, as wikipedia reports, is that the region’s inhabitants are claimed, and sometimes claim, to be descendants of Attila’s Huns from during or after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, i.e. around 451 AD. “An extinct and unrecorded language formerly spoken in the area is reported to have had similarities to Hungarian,” says the webpage.

One result of its geographic and cultural distinction from lower Valais: Val d’Anniviers generally became Christian much later than its neighbours, as recorded in 1781, and a Hungarian historian wrote of Anniviards’ phyical and cultural similarity, as well as calling themselves Huns.

‘Pure fantasy’

However, the Club Alpin Suisse (CAS), in an article by Max Liniger-Goumaz, describes the story as a “myth”, “charming romanticism” and “pure fantasy”.

His French article observes that 2,000 years after the Bronze Age, Anniviers was “only a dreadful desert, partly covered with woods.” He adds that when the Huns or Saracens overran parts of Europe at the end of the first millenium AC, even giving the current name to the Allalinhorn mountain above Saas-Fee, a few might have settled in Valais areas that were uninhabited because of the terrain.

‘Saracens’

Physically, though, the Anniviards probably resemble those of the Rhone Valley’s inhabitants, he insists. And Saracen was a common term labelling ruins from the late Roman time in France. It was also used across the region to mean Germans and gypsies. And there is a Bisse des Sarassins above Ayer in Anniviers. Its name has no historical explanation, but in any case it dates only from the 14th century at the earliest.

Nevertheless, several Swiss authors perpetuated the Hungarian myth, though none of the official Valais websites today promote the theory.

But there’s even a Hungarian CD with Lásló Kovács offering Sándor Balassa’s Valley of the Huns/Val d’Anniviers (Op. 69) from 1999.

Zinal, at the end of another fork of the Val d’Anniviers, offers cable-car meals

Funerary cheese

One indication of the “paganism” that characterized Val d’Anniviers is the tradition of a “funerary cheese wheel” that, though forbidden by both Protestant and Roman Catholic priests — and thought by earlier visitors to come from a Hun ancestry — continues into the present.

As Altas Obscura journalist Molly McDonough reported in “The Valley of the Cheese of the Dead” in 2019, in Anniviers you set aside a wheel of cheese at your wedding to be served at your funeral. She found a man in Grimentz whose grandmother’s cheese wheels were discovered when she died in 1944 but were preserved in the family basement.

The family added more to build a collection recording the tradition, with the latest from 1992.

‘The deceased has left enough’

A key to the tradition, says McDonough, was that in the dry cold mountain air of Anniviers, the cheeses would age slowly if the cheesemakers “cooked” the curds to firm them and pressed them to expel as much whey as possible. “Aging can continue for years.”

Geneva anthropologist Yvonne Preiswerk, whose Le repas de la mort/The meal of death (1983) is the key work on the tradition, records that funeral guests were told “Come to the meal, because the deceased has left enough.”

The cheese was washed down with the local wine, le vin des glaciers, reported to taste like retsina or tokai but kept in special casks and usually only served when the bishop came to visit the village.

Grimentz: ‘ the climbers village’ known for its traditional houses, wooden roof tiles and geraniums

Picnic of the dead

Grimentz traditions, McDonagh records, included the family adding to the casket a “picnic of the dead”, with wine, bread, cheese and sturdy boots (since ghosts were rumoured to wander the glaciers after dark).

“The bells of the deceased’s cows were removed, so that the animals, too, could mourn,” McDonagh wrote.

Today such traditions have waned as families no longer rely on subsistence economics and have stopped overseeing funerals at home. Jean-Jacques Zufferey, the cheesekeeper she photographed holding a 149-year-old wheel of cheese, wants to give his collection away to some institution with climate control in its building but bemoaned: “There’s no museum of cheese in the Valais.”

Traditions are recent: ‘all year on the move’

St-Luc is a testament to how recent many of the area’s traditions are. For most of its recorded history, the village of 300 year-round inhabitants and 6,000 tourist beds, lived from seasonal nomadism like most of Anniviers. The Anniviards were said to be “all year on the paths and roads”.

When the lower Valais adopted wine-making on a large scale through the church, the locals would descend 22km to the valley in autumn to work the vineyards until spring, making whole districts of Sierre their own, with distinctive small houses for temporary accommodation.

The eastern area from St-Luc had belonged to the commune of Leuk, which exploited the (mayen) mid-level pastures above Chandolin (1934m). It was known then as “Eschandulyns”, maybe derived from the Latin “escandulina” (shingles) in reference to the larch planks used for covering roofs in Anniviers.

Creation of Illgraben

Then in the 14th century, erosion caused the collapse of the Illgraben rock that towered over the road down to the Leuk valley. It created an alluvial bowl of 10km2 that still dumps gravel into the Rhone basin at Leuk several times a year.

Illgraben today.

With the Swiss-German-speaking Leuk nobles unable to exploit the mayen, French-speakers from the western side took the pastures over, and the village became Chandolin, which joined Luc in 1806, split in 1884, and joined it again in 2009 when the five villages became Switzerland’s third largest commune with the name of a former controlling family of the regions, Anniviers.

Edmond Biille’s Chandolin, 1903, in the Musée d’art du Valais, Sion Ella Maillart has a museum here devoted to her remarkable exploratory life in some of the world’s wildest places.

Famous visitors and inhabitants

A favourite destination for illustrious visitors, Chandolin’s visitors and inhabitants have included explorer/writer Ella Maillart, wildlife photographer René-Pierre Bille, the painter Edmond Bille, the writer Corinna Bille, the German politician Konrad Adenauer, the airship designer Ferdinand von Zeppelin and the long-time neglected Swiss artist Édouard Ravel, brother of the composer Maurice Ravel.

In the 19th century, the treks up and down the paths began to be made by mule, when British-inspired mountaineering encouraged the post office to send up mail during the summer months.

The Hotel Weisshorn, 2333m above current sea level

Now Chandolin is one of the highest villages in Europe to be inhabited all year round, and has 82 residents. It has a hotel, the 30-room Weisshorn, located at 2,337m above sea level, built in 1882 for English Alpinists. It is still only accessible on foot, ski or mountain bike after 1.5 hours climbing from St-Luc. Its summer season began on 10 June in 2023 and lasts till 8 October. In winter your luggage is transported by snow-caterpillar.

But its fame is resolutely international. Casterman comics published “The Wolf’s Lair” by French artist Jacques Martins in 1984 set in the region. Devoted to the adventures of a reporter called Lefranc, it offers “a story of terrorist attacks in the magnificent setting of the Anniviers road, the village of Saint-Luc and the Hôtel Weisshorn”.

Bella Tola and Spa.

‘The splendour of the Belle Epoque’

The neighbouring village, 4.5km away, only became St-Luc at the suggestion of the main developer, when a hotel opened at the end of the 19th century. Previously it was Luc, Lus or Lucx (1408). This may have come from the Latin for light, in keeping with its sunlit situation in the morning and evening, or from the Celtic “luc” (wood, grove).

myswitzerland says it “still reflects all the past splendour of the Belle Époque” with its hotels and solid-stone houses built in the late 19th century after fire destroyed all but 15 habitations. The Grand Hotel Bella-Tola & St-Luc, was voted Historical Hotel of the Year in 2001.

A respected Swiss newspaper declared in January 2023: “In contrast to the bling-bling of Crans-Montana, [Val d’Anniviers] still preserves its authenticity while displaying its dynamism towards the outside world.”

A star and sun observatory

FXBO

St-Luc’s most recent tradition has given it the sobriquet of “the star resort”: the François-Xavier Bagnoud Observatory, named for a brilliant Genevan aviator who died at 24 in a helicopter crash during the the Paris-Dakar road race.

A 15-minute walk from the St-Luc/Tignousa funicular, the observatory offers a 60cm telescope and a programme of activities for children and photographers as well as scientists.

Two keen local astronomers managed to gather 200 people at the funicular in 1986 for the first skywatching event in Anniviers, and in 1989 inaugurated a Planet Walk giving hikers a proportionally accurate indication of the separation of our planets from each other. They played a large part in getting support and funds for the sun and stargazing facility.

The Observatory opened in 1995 and a new funicular opened that year. Since 2022 the Observatory can be remotely accessed from anywhere on Earth.

In St-Luc itself a 15-seat Planetarium in the village with a domed roof for projecting images of the heavens offers informative and educational sessions for visitors.

La Grand Bisse de St-Luc

Swiss first

Two other recent events look to the future as much as to the region’s past.

After 50 years of neglect, a managed water course, known as a bisse in French or Suonen in German, was reopened in 2020, the first in Switzerland to be rehabilitated for agriculture. The other 200 examples of this Valais specialty have been preserved and revived for tourists, Swiss as well as foreigners.

The Grande Bisse de St-Luc fell into disuse in the 1970s when the local farmers became tourism specialists. First recorded in 1593, the Grand Bisse runs through some 8km of forests, meadows and mayens. You can walk it in about 2.5 hours, with a possible hiking extension along the Bisse Roux (and you can return to St-Luc by coach).

Renovation took three years. It will provide water for more than 60ha. The project manager insists that the rehabilitation is designed to anticipate water shortages expected because of climate change and to provide fodder for cattle often lacking in Anniviers, as well as water for wild animals and insects.

Grimentz: photo Wikipedia/ Christian David

Solar park gets 96% support

The second major development was the approval on 12 June 2023 by 96% of the local citizens for a 12ha “solar park” near the Grimentz cable car terminal at Grands Plans 2450m high on the Alpine pastures of Marais (French for wetlands).

On 10 September the voters of Valais rejected such “parks” by 53.94% of a 35.72% turnout of its citizens. But the proponents say the Grimentz park will meet the federal rules of being distant from protected areas and having enough sun to produce 45% power in winter, when Switzerland has to import electricity. Cattle will still be able to use the pasture, and only a small part will be visible from the nearest village, Ayer. The 25,000 solar panels will produce enough energy for 3,500 households and 40% of the profits will go Anniviers, an estimated 120,000 francs a year.

It is the sixth such project in the canton, with some 20-25 elsewhere under study in Switzerland). One planned above the Swiss Heritage Village of Grengiols in the Swiss-German part of Valais — designed to produce enough electricity for 200,000 households — lit the touchpaper of opposition from green organizations concerned about wildlife and business-aligned political parties that prefer solar panels to be restricted to rooftops. The promoters argue that solar panels in the mountains produce four times more energy than in the valley.

It is not clear what happens now.

Grimentz vehicle electric chargers powered by solar panels

Grimentz already has 4 solar-powered charging points for electric cars, created as part of the TV programme Mission Possible, by installing solar tiles on the roof of the garbage collection facility to power small charging stations around the shed. It maintains a website indicating its performance: equivalent to planting 136 trees as of 14 September 2023.

Mountain jazz

I’m afraid you’ve missed the celebration of another new tradition in St-Luc: Jazz Under the Stars. First launched in 2012, the 11th edition brought to the village two of the most adventurous Swiss jazz musicians.

Nik Baertsch’s Mobile

Pianist Nik Bärtsch and his “ritual groove music” came with bass clarinettist/saxophonist Sha and percussionist Nicolas Stocker on 8 September and played non-stop for nearly 1.5 hours, then came back for an encore.

The next night, drum wizard Pierre Favre, now 86, brought three other percussionists to play with him as “DrumSights”. That morning the Space Age Sunset group had offered “a mixture of rock and psychedelic jazz” in the restaurant at the end of the funicular.

On Sunday mornnig, at the hard-to-reach Hotel Weisshorn, the equally experimental Sara Oswald gave a cello/voice/synthesizer solo concert presenting her latest album Bivouac.

And there were several other concerts, most sold out two weeks before.

We made it to the 21:30 Bärtsch, whose music I’d known for several years (see Jazz from a funky Swiss philosopher on this site).

Living up to its name

Forsaking the temptations of the packed terrace of the Bella-Tolla, we went to the nearby Panoramik to eat beforehand. We were surprised to see it offering something like 40 Belgian beers as well as specialty Valaisan brews.

Couldn’t stop myself asking after our 4-star Hamburger (local beef is terrific — see St-Luc’s coat of arms): What were all these Belgian beers doing in a Swiss mountain resort? “Because we are Belgian,” I was told. And being Belgian, the French fries of course were delicious.

* A P.S.: What does Anniviers mean?

The answer seems lost in time. Wikiwand recounts: the sociologist Bernard Crettaz said its origin could be the seasonal migration: “Anni viae“, meaning “year on the paths”, “paths of the year” or “work of the year”. Other possible interpretations are “Ad nives” (“towards the snows”) or “Anni visio” (“visit annually”), in reference to the fact that the bishop came only once a year.

In the local variety of Arpitan (Provençal French), Anniviers is called “Anivyè“. The German form “Eifischtal“, is still used in some public documents but it has nothing to do with fish.

Zermatt’s music festival

Links not in text

Photos from tourist office websites or wikipedia

myswitzerland’s list of events

Berlin’s Sharoun Ensemble 40th anniversary, Zermatt

Niouc’s Village Festival with free axe-throwing lessons

Related

Le News. Switzerland’s cow parades and their history: they go back to 3000 BC… 9 September 2023 (LINK)

Le Nouvelliste. …but Valais cow fights are less than 120 years old and “our traditions are recent constructions”. 22 September 2023. (LINK, French, paywalled)

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