Travels & Traditions: The Matterhorn Region, Switzerland - #314

BURT WOLF: This is the Valais, the most mountainous region in Switzerland, with a chain of 50 summits that top out over 13,000 feet.  These are some of the highest peaks in the Alps.  The melting snow at the top of these mountains sends millions of gallons of water into the valley below.  As the waters collect, they form the source of the Rhone river, which runs for 500 miles through Switzerland and France, and finally empties out into the Mediterranean sea.  But in spite of this extraordinary alpine geography, the name of the region, Valais, comes from the Latin word for valley, which in the end makes sense because between these mountaintops lies a valley that runs for 80 miles.

The lower Valais, which is in the western part of the district, speaks French.  In the upper Valais to the east, the people speak Swiss-German and call the area Wallis.  During the sixth century, Germanic tribes invaded the area and established small communities.  Then they slowly worked their way through the southern alpine valleys, establishing permanent Germanic settlements in what had been French-speaking areas. 

I started my trip through the Valais in the town of Saas Fee.  It's a car-free village that has been a mountain resort for over 100 years with people coming up to ski the surrounding slopes in the winter and the glacier in the summer.  Glaciers are an important subject in Saas Fee.  They form on the top of mountains where the air is so cold that the snow never melts.  Each new layer of snow sits on top of the older layers and packs them down until you have a single layer of compact snow and ice that can be hundreds of feet deep.  The continual arrival of new snow pushes the sheets of ice off the top of the mountain and into the valley below.  That's a glacier.

For centuries, Saas Fee has been famous for its glaciology.  But during the last century, it's also become famous for its gastronomy.  This is the Hotel Fletschhorn, which sits on top of a hill in a secluded forest just beyond Saas Fee.  It's owned and run by Irma and Jorg Dutsch.  Its restaurant is one of the finest in Europe. 

The cooking takes place under the direction of Irma who is considered to be one of the finest chefs in Switzerland.  Jorg is in charge of the wines and encourages his guests to drink the local wines of the Valais.  His 17,000-bottle cellar holds hundreds of examples of the excellent vintages that this region can produce. 

The menu Irma produced for me started with a seafood soup flavored with saffron.  Saffron is our most expensive spice and must be harvested by hand.  At least 250,000 flowers are needed to produce a single pound.  As part of its desire to remain independent, Switzerland grows its own saffron.  All the bread is home made and so is the butter. 

There were two main courses and everybody shared a little of each.  The first was hen, surrounded by hay and steamed in a casserole.  The second was a roast lamb shank with saffron mashed potatoes; an unusual way to present lamb, but very good.  A meal like that, a good night's sleep and I'm ready to take on the Matterhorn, or more accurately, the Matterhorn is ready to take on me.

This is a special moment.  You see, the Matterhorn is not only just any mountain.  It reaches a height of 14,692 feet.  The first attempt to scale it in the mid-1800s was a total failure and it ended up being the last of the great alpine peaks to be conquered. 

The town at the base of the Matterhorn is Zermatt, and this is Zermatt's old quarter.  During the 1600s, a group of families purchased their freedom from the landowners in the Rhone valley and came up here to start their own community, and it looks much as it did then.  This type of structure is called a matzot.  It's used to store and foods and grains during the winter, and it's held off the ground by stones that look like giant mushrooms.  The stone tower and cap were designed to make it impossible for small animals to get into the food.  Simple idea, but it works.

The newer part of town centers along the main street; everybody strolling up and back checking out the shops and each other.  Pubs and restaurants, a few spots that specialize in the traditional foods and drinks of the Valais, lots of shops with stuff, just in case you don't have enough stuff already.  Some of the stores specialize in alpine sporting equipment.  This shoe store has been in town for over a century.  I was here in 1975 and bought a pair of hiking boots that are still in good condition.

Just off the main street is the Alpine Museum, which documents the history of mountaineering in Zermatt.  Paintings, old photographs and some interesting letters. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: This one is from Winston Churchill.  He says that he was planning to go up the Matterhorn, but he changed his mind and went up Monte Rosa instead.  And even though Monte Rosa is a harder mountain to climb, the guides only charged half the price and that's why he changed his mind.  Now, I know people like that, but I wouldn't travel with them.

This one's from Teddy Roosevelt to his sister and it's dated 1881.  And he tells her that the only reason he climbed the Matterhorn was to show two English guys who were staying at his hotel that a Yank could climb as well as they could.  Same attitude he had when he was President.  Bully for him. 

BURT WOLF: And now it's time to begin my ascent.  The first part is fairly easy.  You take out a Swiss pass, which gives you either free passage on trains, buses and boats, or a discount on mountain excursions like this one.  The Gornergrat is the highest cogwheel train in Europe.  It will take you up to the Riffelberg at 8,469 feet.  Great views of the Matterhorn and the surrounding mountains. 

My guide for the climb was Martin Lehner.  He's a master climber who has made hundreds of ascents up the Matterhorn. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: This photograph will give you a good idea of Martin's plan.  The green route here, you don't want to know about it.  The red route, even worse.  His best shot is right up through the center.  Number 1 marks his base camp; number 2 is an emergency hut just below the summit.  I am going to be over here at Harry's Bar having some chocolate fondue.

MARTIN LEHNER ON CAMERA: No, no, Burt.  You asked me to learn you climbing.  Now we go climbing.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ah, yes.  That's what I was afraid of.

MARTIN LEHNER ON CAMERA: So, this is a harness.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That fits perfectly.

MARTIN LEHNER ON CAMERA: That I don't ... that I don't lose you.  Okay. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Where do the Pampers go?  It's great.  One size fits all.  Tell the children I always loved them.  It's because Martin doesn't want me to get lost.  I tend to wander away.

MARTIN LEHNER ON CAMERA: Tight enough, heh.  Okay, come on, Burt.  Let's go.  Hey, come on.  You are on my rope.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Sorry, sorry.  Bad sense of direction.

MARTIN LEHNER ON CAMERA: You are on my rope, heh.

BURT WOLF: The original climbs were made by religious groups who wanted to build altars closer to God or by military expeditions who wanted a good view of the surrounding terrain.  During the middle of the 1700s, scientists began climbing up Europe's mountains so they could study the glaciers.  Mountaineering as a sport got started about the same time. 

MARTIN LEHNER ON CAMERA: Don't use your arms too much, heh.  Come on.  Stand up, stand up.  Come on, Burt. 

BURT WOLF: Chocolate fondue now?  The St. Bernard Pass is the oldest and most famous of the great alpine crossings.  It's been in use for at least 2,800 years.  You can get to it on the St. Bernard Express, which teams up with a bus and a special train.  Today, a monastery stands on the spot where the ancient Romans had a temple honoring the god of thunder. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the Middle Ages, the pass was taken over by a gang of pagan thieves, and it became too dangerous for travelers.  But Bernard de Menton, a local bishop, decided to clear 'em out.  The story says that in 1030, he climbed up to the top of the pass, took off his cloak and threw it over the pagan temple and the power in his vestments destroyed the temple and made it easy for them to defeat the pagans. 

BURT WOLF: Travelers and pilgrims have been stopping at the hospice ever since Bernard built it.  The monks who live here act as guides and ski instructors.  They also offer inexpensive lodging for travelers.  Sort of an Aspen for ascetics.  The hospice has a church that dates to the late 1600s and is a good example of the kind of baroque architecture that was popular in northern Italy.  The frescoes on the arched ceiling are quite extraordinary.  And remember, all the materials for these works had to be hauled up to 8,000 feet above sea level.

For the last 250 years, passages through the St. Bernard have been made safer by the great St. Bernard guide dogs who’ve been credited with saving over 2,000 lives.  This film was made in the 1920s and tells the story of how the dogs were used.  A call would come into the monks who would call out the dogs and head into the storm.  They have a great sense of direction.  Their strength and broad build help them force a path through the snow, and the shape of their paws hold them steady on the ice.  The story that the dogs would go out with a barrel of brandy tied under their necks is pure fiction.  It was made up by a novelist named Meissner who put it into a story in 1816.  However, there are rumors that the dogs are interested in making a deal with SwissMiss.

The St. Bernards are still bred at the St. Bernard Pass, but they’re bred as pets.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: All right guys, I'm going into the pass, but if I'm not back by five o'clock, don’t worry. I might stop at Movenpick for ice cream.  But if you're nervous, you can call me on my cell phone, okay? I’ll see ya. Bye bye baby.

BURT WOLF: These days the dogs that are trained to find people who are lost in the mountains or buried under an avalanche are Belgian and German Shepards.  They have a sense of smell that is 30,000 times more sensitive than humans.  The dogs have a natural tendency to dig for the victims and then lie on top to keep them warm. Victims found within 15 minutes of an avalanche have a 90 percent chance of surviving. 

Switzerland's mountains are a pleasure for modern tourists, but for thousands of years they presented a difficult and frightening environment for residents and travelers.  People believe that powerful and evil spirits lived on these peaks, and when the spirits were moody, which was often the case, they'd come down into the villages and terrify everyone.  Dreadful and gruesome they were!  Demonic creatures cursed with one bad hair day after another! 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: One of the oldest methods we have for dealing with moody creatures from another world is to put on a mask.  The mask places the wearer in a space that's between the supernatural world and our world and gives him some control over whatever it is that's scaring him.  He also ends up being a communicator between the supernatural world and his community.  It's a good job, with some unusual benefits.

BURT WOLF: Each year, on the third of February, a select group of residents in the town of Wiler put on their masks, burlap sacks, furs and cowbells and set off to scare the hell out of everyone else.  In theory, they are warding off evil spirits and making the town safe for the arrival of spring.  The origins of the ritual go back to pagan times, and most of the young children in town think that the whole thing should go back and stay there.  In addition to wearing masks in order to ward off evil spirits, the residents of Wiler hang masks on their homes.  You know, when it comes to grim and evil-minded creatures or certain members of recent administrations, you just can't be too careful.

The most famous mask makers in town are members of the Rieder family.  Mamma Rieder takes pinewood that has been aged for two years and shapes the face.  All of the work uses traditional forms and it takes about 40 hours to make a mask and they only make about ten a year.  They're priced at between $150 and $300, and they’ve been part of the local culture for centuries.  But in recent years, tourists have begun to collect them.  Papa Rieder paints the masks with colors that are mixed by hand.  The hair comes from sheep and goats and the teeth from cows and goats.  Goats have a tough time in this town. 

At the back of the shop, there's a collection of old masks.  The oldest, which date back over 100 years, have a simpler design than the newer works.  Each member of the family has a different style.  Mamma Rieder makes the scariest faces and the Rieder boys have been influenced by animated cartoons.  Each mask is designed to ward off different dangers. 

This is the Chateau de Villa in the town of Sierre. It's been here since the early 1500s, and its name can be loosely translated as the Big House in Town.  Inside is a restaurant that specializes in the traditional foods of the region.  The first course is viande sechees--meats that have been cured, air dried and thinly sliced.  You grind a little pepper on top and eat the slices with your fingers.  There's a basket with two rye breads.  One is flavored with cumin seeds, the other with walnuts.

This is big cheese country.  Cheeses that are matured over several months and are processed, where they are scrubbed, turned and brushed with white wine and salt.  Today, the chef is using Simplon, Turtmann and St. Martin.  The main course is raclette.  A half wheel of cheese is placed in front of a heat source.  The heat can come from a fireplace or an electric raclette maker.  As the cheese melts, it's scraped off the wheel and onto a plate.  Not a big portion; a disc about three inches in diameter and about a quarter of an inch thick.  The chef works at the edge of the dining room and the raclette comes to your table as soon as the cheese melts.

There's a wooden bucket on the table filled with boiled fingerling potatoes.  You take out a potato, place it next to the cheese, cut off a small slice, cover it with the warm, soft cheese and pop it into your mouth.  Alongside the raclette is a bowl of gherkins and pickled onions.  The chef keeps an eye on each table.  As you finish off the first dish, he starts melting your second, using a different cheese. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You can order from 3 to 12 rounds of raclette, each with a different cheese.  For me, the three were perfect.  But if you pace yourself on the potatoes, you can probably go to five easily.  I think the 12 rounds are offered to intimidate out of towners and the occasional traveling cardiologist. 

BURT WOLF: Dessert is a sorbet made from pears and a local brandy called Poire Willem. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: From time to time, you will find a bottle of Poire Willem with a pear in the inside.  They do this by actually hanging the bottle on the pear bud and letting the pear grow inside.  But if you are interested in flavor, the bottle without the pear will always taste superior.  Like so many of the things in life, that's better to look at than to actually experience. 

BURT WOLF: Along with pears, the Valais is famous for growing grapes.  As a matter of fact, the Valais is the largest grape growing district in Switzerland.  But these are not just any grapes.  These grapes are used for making some of the best tasting `s in Europe.  There's a great diversity of soil types and microclimates, and the mountains on both sides of the valley protect the vineyards.  They grow Gamay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and about 40 other grape varieties, which they use to make wine.  The only problem is the quantities they make are so small that unless you're in the neighborhood, they can be difficult to get. 

The Chateau restaurant has 500 local wines on their menu, and right next door, they've set up a wine tasting room with the same 500 wines for sale.  Each week, they have a different selection available for tasting in both the restaurant and the tasting room, and all 500 are available for sale at the same price you would pay at the vineyard. 

Very often, where you find an ancient vineyard, you also find an ancient church.  The church needed the wine from the vineyard to conduct the sacraments and the vineyard needed someone to make the wine.  A very successful relationship.  The Valais is the largest wine producing area in Switzerland and also the birthplace of Swiss Christianity.  It never participated in the Reformation and is still very Catholic. 

In the center of Valais is the town of Sion, which is over 2,000 years old, and at the center of Sion, on a hill overlooking the town, is the bishopric of Sion, which was founded in the fourth century.  It's a fortified church with walls, battlement towers and internal walkways.  The bishop was not only the local head of the church, but also a sovereign prince with all the rights and privileges that came with being the royal boss over everything.  And those rights and privileges needed to be protected.

The church itself, Notre Dame de Valere was put up in the eleventh century. It's a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles.  And it was built without flying buttress support on the outside.  Yet, it's quite high.  So, the builder arched the internal columns to keep it from falling down.  Later, cables were installed for the same reason.  The artists who produced the carved choir stalls lived here with the canons for two years.  The canons who worked for the bishop were a constant source of irritation to the craftsmen, and the craftsmen retaliated by carving caricatures of the canons into the armrests of the stalls.  During the twelfth century, it was fashionable to divide the interior of a church between the area used by the canons and that used by the public.  A rood screen was used to make the separation. 

The most interesting element in the church is the organ.  It was installed during the fifteenth century and the painted panels that enclose it depict scenes from the Annunciation.  It's the oldest playable organ in the world, and every Saturday afternoon from July through the end of August, it is used for a public concert.  Maurice Wenger is the curator and the organist. 

The Valais is always celebrating its relationship to agriculture--nuts, fruits, vegetables, and especially cows.  Each spring, all the cows in the district are led up from the valley into the high mountain pastures, where they spend the summer munching away on the new grass.  They're led up by the lead cow, who wears a bell that is larger and louder than all the rest.  The leather strap identifies her owner and her place of honor in the herd.  How do you get to be the lead cow, the dairy queen?  It's not easy.  You must compete against all the other cows who want to be queen.  It's an ancient tradition in the Canton of Valais and the competitions take place every spring and fall. 

Cows that have been bred for their aggressiveness are brought together to challenge each other.  The veterans use the old “what me fight” trick.  They walk off to the side pretending not to be interested.  Then suddenly they turn and engage the adversary.  They battle until one turns away.  The objective is for one cow to cow the other.  But it's not just being the queen of mean that counts.  You're also judged on agility, form and endurance, and it helps if you want to go to college.  The entire community takes a passionate interest in the sport.  It's regularly televised and each cow has its own cheering section, and that's no bull. 

And that's TRAVELS & TRADITIONS from the Matterhorn region of Switzerland.  I hope you've enjoyed it and I hope you will join me next time.  I'm Burt Wolf.