But it’s almost as if the Swiss want to keep it secret
Let’s deal with Zermatt’s reputation first. Travel writers give car-free Zermatt a bad rap. I’ve been going there for more than 50 years and always enjoy it and learn something new almost every time*. And I gaze in wonder each visit at the iconic Swiss view of the Matterhorn.
Nevertheless, William Reifschnyder of the Sierra Club hit the nail on the head even in the 1970s when he described it as “a kind of mountain metropolis”.
In a small valley west of the Mattertal, which leads to Zermatt, you will find Turtmanntal, almost the exact opposite.
Kev Reynolds, in the most extensive guide I have found in English, wrote in the Cicerone Guide Walking in the Valais that Turtmanntal offers “more than a suggestion of the atmosphere that would have been familiar to the pioneers of Alpinism a century and more ago”.
What that means is a Heidi-like landscape of chalets, pastures, hills, cows, mountains, and to top it all at the end of the valley a glacier within a couple of hours’ walk.
Cameras don’t seem able to capture the charm of the narrow road that snakes 8km along the Turtmänna river between rocks and precipitous forested slopes taking you to the open valley.
Or to capture the patchwork of flowers embroidering the meadows.
At the end of June in 2023 it was still spring. The rich embroidery of flowers on view included red campions, small white orchids, marsh orchids, martagon lilies, frog orchids, profuse alpenrose bushes, star saxifrage, pasque flowers, globe flowers, and strongly scented black vanilla orchids, among our family favourites. I won’t mention the multi-coloured lupins that had escaped from someone’s garden. Oops, I just did.
You can travel through Turtmanntal if you take the Haute Route trek between Chamonix to Zermatt, giving you a view of some of the most beautiful peaks in the Alps.
It’s also on your route if you do the shorter Matterhorn Tour, i.e. Zermatt-Grächen-Zinal-Torrent.
But both walks involve doing it the hard way.
The easy route is by car, bike, or unusual public transport appropriate for the Upper Valais:
Starting down in the valley you can take a self-service cable car from the once-prosperous trading town of Turtmann to the tiny village of Oberems (phone from the cable car station when you want to leave).
A minibus can then take you to Gruben-Meiden, the largest collection of chalets and houses in Turtmanntal (it’s not quite a contained village despite its 18th-century chapel) or to the end of the valley under the glacier that constitutes its most famous attraction.
Not just a pipsqueak commune
Oberems has a general store near the Emshorn hotel-restaurant, which itself is next to the cable-car terminal. One travel writer described it as a “pipsqueak village”. He seems to have missed its glorious views across the valley to the Bietschorn.
Since 1959 you have been able to make your way by road up to Oberems from Turtmann in addition to the cable car (launched in 1952).
Keeping up with the times, the Emshorn hotel-restaurant offers rentable e-bikes for an enjoyable way to make your way along the Turtmanntal.
Ems, by the way, is Celtic for stream, which gives you an idea of how long people have been using these upper regions.
As for Turtmann, no-one’s sure where that came from. The earliest recorded name is Torthemane. It could have meant “long street”, a reference to its history as a lucrative trading post on the road to and from Eastern Switzerland. The town has a plethora of rich 16-17-century patrician houses that have been part of an official tour since 2004.
Turtmann was Dortmann
However, legend has it that when a plague or war led everyone to flee the town in some century past, one man remained and hid. When the citizens returned, they were astonished when he reappeared and they exclaimed: “Dort ist ein Mann”/”There is a man”. The town became known as Dortmann, and an artist in the 21st century painted the slogan from the legend on the decommissioned military aircraft runway in the town. It’s now one of Turtmann’s proudest identifiers. But is also known for its bakery, organic wine store and butcher’s.
Three of the best hikes in Upper Valais
The Rother Guide de randonnées Haut Valais, by Michael Waeber and Hans Steinbichler, has three Turtmanntal trails in its list of 50 best hikes in Upper Valais (p180-183). it warns of a couple of difficult spots on its Blüomatt hike.
But the Turtmanntal’s relatively easy paths made the valley a key part of the medieval Augstbord pass trail on the Switzerland-Italy trade route.
William Reifschnyder in his Sierra Club guide entitles the region “The Top of Switzerland”. The Blue Guide describes the Barrhorn at 3610m as “one of Europe’s highest hiking peaks” because it does not require specialist equipment (321).
Don’t think, though, that this would be an easy walk. myswitzerland.com recommends taking two days for the tour, with the first day spent at the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) mountain hut to ensure you get a good rest. “Even in summer the temperature can quickly drop below freezing at this altitude,” it warns.
Wolf, bear and frog trails
The Turtmann region offers a wolf trail, eagle trail (from nearby Ergisch), bear trail (between Unterems and Oberems) and even a frog trail (4 hours from Turtmann but not through the valley). The Bärenpfad trail, described as an “easy trek”, leads from the Edelweiss cafe in Unterems, the village below Oberems. A bear was killed in Turtmanntal after terrorizing the inhabitants and their animals but that was 150 years ago and the history is rather vague. However, there is a bear’s paw in the communal house of Oberems for the curious.
Turtmanntal’s international history
Gruben’s importance goes deep into history, particularly through its connection to the Augstbordpass.
Reifschnyder writes: “The history of Switzerland is to a considerable extent the history of finding routes across the Alps for military ventures and the stimulus of trade. Augstbordpass was one of those routes, used since the Middle Ages as a concourse between the fertile valley of the Rhone with Italy to the south” (286-7).
He adds: “Considering the wildness and ruggedness of the Augsbord region, one can only marvel at the perseverance of the medieval traders.”
It was also about the minerals
Minerals accounted for the Augstbord’s earlier popularity. “In early years the region was also noted for its therapeutic springs,” Reifschnyder notes. “A hundred years ago these cold mineral springs were much visited for their healing powers. Today the location is not even indicated on the map” (287).
Swiss sources report the site is between Embd and St Niklaus. It was known as the golden spring (“Goldbrunnji” in the local dialect) because it turned stones yellow. The water was said to heal fever, dropsy, eye sickness, and chest congestion. “No one knows whether the spring disappeared in an earthquake or whether belief in its healing powers has been lost.”
Gold and platinum mining
Above the valley, on the hike from Blüomatt to Chalte Berg (Cold Mountain) there are remains of a mine that even in the Second World War was worked for nickel and cobalt. Panning the Turtmänna turned up the rare platinum mineral called sperrylite as well as gold.
The minerals are believed to account for the wide variety of plants and flowers found in the valley.
To appreciate Turtmanntal you don’t need to do any of this mountain hiking. Easy paths through the forest and pastures provide all the views you may need.
Halfway along the valley, a pond and barbecue with benches and tables, as well as a portacabin WC, offer a place for picnics. Past Gruben another riverside area has room for parking and sometimes a bridge for crossing the Turtmänna shallows.
Further towards the end of the valley, Turtmanntal’s agricultural centre will sell you milk, cheese and quark.
The Emshorn restaurant in Oberems makes a specialty of traditional recipes, if you count hamburgers from the local Eringer cattle, “cholera” — cheese, potato and leek pasties (from the time when cholera forced lockdown families to depend on what they had in their cellars) — and family recipes using roesti (Swiss hashbrown potatoes).
In Gruben, the Schwarzhorn hotel, dating back to the 1860s when the first tourists were recorded, offers dormitory accommodation as well as a few single rooms. Its outdoor patio is popular with visitors.
But most of all, in common with the Swiss who spend summers in the Turtmanntal chalets, you are likely to appreciate its peaceful rhythms that have vanished from much of modern life 1,000m below.
Committed to renewable energy
Not that spending summers in Turtmanntal means cutting yourself off from the imperatives of our current economic and environmental challenges.
The five communes of the Turtmann region have signed themselves up since 2016 to become together what is known as an “Energie-Stadt” (Energy Town). As a result, 50% of the public buildings and schools are heated by renewable energy, particularly wood and heat pumps in the Upper Valais. This compares to 12% of buildings in the whole of Switzerland. The communes now rely completely on hydropower for electricity and also produce energy by burning household wastes at the Upper Valais treatment plant.
P.S. The Swiss don’t make Turtmanntal a complete secret. Local authorities have a page of links to articles about the valley, though mainly in German.
* Latest: Matterhorn climbing guides have their own office on the main street.
Coveteur. Modern Matterhorn: Zermatt goes high design and cuisine: The Swiss town has much more to offer than the world-famous mountain, with sleek hotels and sustainability-focused restaurants galore. 4 January 2024 (LINK)
What the Valais Tourist Office says about Turtmanntal: “one of the most unspoilt landscapes in Switzerland” (LINK)