Find out how to discover real treasure in the southern valleys of Switzerland and how a day’s trekking can hearten the soul and strain one’s legs.
Ernen is an uncompromisingly beautiful village sitting in the Binn Valley in the Canton of Valais at the southern border of Switzerland and Italy. Mountains are all around as the July sun beats down on the small farms and lush green pasture.
My home for the next few days was accessible by Land Rover up 1800m above sea level of windy road and whilst solid in parts requires careful driving in others. It’s quite remote and extremely picturesque. Perched on the mountainside with a view down the valley is ‘Chäserstatt’ my hotel. Remote, simple and beautifully appointed, think oak floors, stylish wet rooms and I had my own balcony with brilliant views.
The restaurant is in another building in fact the accommodation block was once the engine room for a now defunct cable car (hence the windy road). This all adds to a sense of another world. It’s very quiet here, there are no TV’s in the rooms, a perfect place to hide and write that novel.
The village (way down below) has a population of just over 500, spread over 35 acres. See what I mean about quiet. But despite the position it is relatively easy to get to. I flew to Zürich and caught a couple of trains and then the final leg by car. The Swiss train pass made all this very easy, just jump onto any train you like whenever you like.
There is much to do here, mountain biking, trekking, hiking, and of course in the winter skiing and all its ensuing attractions. This is also the biggest wine-producing region of Switzerland with 50 grape varieties grown in the highest vineyard in Europe. There are 11 Michelin stars dotted around the valley for all the gastro hunters.
This was a trip where I would be testing myself (to the limit at some points) and getting out of my comfort zone. As well as all the above in the area it is also of outstanding geological interest specifically crystal. Those strange phenomena of ions, atoms and molecules in a highly ordered microscopic lattice work forming crystals that push out in all directions like fingers escaping from the Earth.
With the help of an expert guide and a long metal jemmy I found quartz (which is very common) and also crystals – the ultimate prize. Excavating sections of rock and digging through the revealed soil below my guide seemed to have x-ray vision and could see through the dirt and find some sizable examples. I should add that we were perched on a 45-degree slope at this point this sort of pursuit is not for the faint hearted or to be undertaken without expert help. I now have a chunky crystal on my mantle piece at home the size of a small orange as a memento.
As well as my hotel, there are other options for finding a good meal. Ernen Garten has only recently opened and was offering nose to tail cooking, local produce that I would describe as modern rustic tasty food. I needed sustenance, as the next day was to be the most challenging. I was already exhausted from the crystal climbing.
My quarry was to reach Lake Mässersee, one of the smaller lakes in the Maniboden Park. This is wild country where a city boy like me found it a hard climb through the rough terrain. For the Swiss this is a nursery slope, nothing hard at all. But I was determined to do it. I had good walking boots and a bottle of water which I replenished regularly using the water taps situated along the way. In fact even though it wasn’t that warm I still drank over four litres!
Picnicking half way up is a good idea. The tourist board in the village can provide you with a super cloth-bag full of local cheeses, sausage and of course chocolate, the unofficial currency of Switzerland. The scenery is amazing with every ridge I conquered I was rewarded with yet another stunning vista. The air is clean and sweet but also thin and by lunch I had reached 1,885m above sea level, enough to make me short of breath.
The reward was a long sit down the remainder of my lunch, a paddle in the lake if you like and the knowledge the rest of the day is down hill. It was still hard going making my way down but with a guide and the right encouragement of my group we all made it. Happy in a sense of achievement, happy it was over (the walk lasted seven hours) and our legs and bodies in general were happy that no more pain was coming their way at least that day.
As I climbed into bed that night exhausted and shattered but feeling good I dared look at the activity app on my phone. I had barely finished reading when I just fell asleep shattered, the numbers were as follows; I had climbed 127 floors, walked 25,225 steps and covered 8.8 miles. It was one of the best nights sleep I have ever had. Thank you, Switzerland.
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Neil Hennessy-Vass is a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer and one of our regular writers.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass