Travels & Traditions: Valais Winter - #403

BURT WOLF: The tectonic plates that hold our continents float on a sea of molten earth. About a hundred million years ago, the African plate began moving north and banged into the European plate. The collision took place along a 300-mile ridge. Billions of tons of rock were rammed together. The landscape was warped, folded and pushed skyward, and the mountains of the Swiss Alps were born. The most mountainous region in Switzerland is called the Valais, which is the Latin word for valley. It’s an L-shaped valley, and runs for 80 miles between mountain chains that have some of the highest peaks in Europe. World famous mountains like the Matterhorn are part of the Valais. 

BURT ON CAMERA: Since the middle of the 1850s, the blue sky, the mountains, the snow on the mountains and Swiss hospitality has attracted tourists to this area. Today it is a world epicenter for winter sports.

BURT WOLF: Each year, 24 of the world’s best snowboarders are invited to take on the North Face of the Bec des Rosses, a mountain that rises over ten thousand feet into the sky. The event is known as the Red Bull Xtreme, and it starts with the participants climbing to the top of the mountain with their boards on their backs. Snowboarding was invented in the United States, and each year the nation is well represented in the competition. Each rider picks his or her own path of descent. One after another they snowboard down the mountain, on slopes that angle down at 45 to 55 degrees, with 500-yard vertical drops.

The snowboarders are judged on the difficulty, originality and steepness of the path they have chosen. How they have navigated through the cliffs, their techniques and the control of the board. Any fall or loss of control incurs a penalty.

There are 5 experienced snowboarders who judge the event. They view the action through binoculars. There’s also a group of 20 spectators, who have been chosen to watch the event alongside the professional judges and make their own award. Prize money ranges from $4,000 to $10,000.

During the event the nearby town of Verbier holds a street fair. Verbier is located in the French speaking part of the Swiss Alps, at about 5,000 feet above sea level. The village faces the southwest, so it gets lots of sun. The slopes face the north, which helps preserve the snow. Verbier is in the heart of a four-valley ski area with over 250 miles of slopes and a hundred chair lifts. The highest summit in the area, Mont Fort, is almost 11 thousand feet. It offers a panoramic view of the Alps.

The first skiers arrived in 1925. By 1944, the population had exploded. Twenty-seven people were actually living here. ‘44 was also the year that Roger Pierroz, a baker from a nearby town took his wife Anita to Verbier for a holiday. She loved the place, and persuaded her husband to open a chalet and tearoom which she could manage. By 1961, the tearoom had been transformed into a hotel and a restaurant called the Rosalp. Today their son Roland is the owner and chef, and is considered to be one of the finest chefs in Europe. He starts by drawing the dish the way he wants it to look when it arrives at the table. That’s the point where the guests first see his food, and he wants the presentation to be well thought out.

ROLAND PIERROZ ON CAMERA: Foie Gras chaud aux asperges en vinaigrette verbette et tomates. Là une petite soupe de langoustines aux coquillages, petoncles et moules.

BURT ON CAMERA: Woody Allen once asked, why does man kill? And decided that man kills for food. And often there must be a beverage. 

BURT WOLF: In the case of the restaurant Rosalp, that beverage can be chosen from a 65,000-bottle wine cellar. It will take considerable dedication to get through these 65,000 bottles, but the people of Verbier are noted for their toughness and endurance. In fact, Verbier is associated with one of the world’s toughest tests of endurance. The race of the Glacier Patrol.

Every other year a thousand people show up to race from Zermatt to Verbier.    They race across the glaciers that separate the two villages. The competition actually began as part of a training program for Swiss mountain troops. Just before the start of the Second World War, two Swiss officers noticed that the Italian army had organized patrol races to upgrade the skill of their troops. The Swiss decided to do the same. The first race took place in 1943. The entire event is still under the control of the Swiss military, who inspect all the equipment used by the participants.

The military also set up safety stations along the route, and continually monitor conditions on the glaciers. These days the race is also open to an international group of non-military personnel. Each team consists of three participants, who are roped together for much of the race.

The total distance is 50 miles. The record time was set in 2000 by three members of the Swiss Border Patrol--seven hours, three minutes, 44 seconds. 

Across the valley from Verbier is the town of Crans-Montana. When I first came here in the late 60’s, there were two towns. Crans to the west and Montana to the east. During the 70’s they merged to become a single town. Now some say it was just a marriage of convenience, but I think it was true love. They both loved shopping. They both loved eating. And they both loved winter sports.

Today Crans-Montana has over a hundred miles of downhill slopes that are ideal for beginners and intermediate skiers. At an elevation of ten thousand feet, there is a three-mile long glacier that’s been set up for skiing. It’s dead flat and called the Plaine Morte, which is French for, uh, dead flat. There’s also an excellent area for cross-country skiing, with 31 miles of loops.

And if stand up skiing is not your thing, you can sit down. It’s called snow biking and it was originally developed in 1892 by an American who called the equipment an Ice Velocipede. The early models were basically a bicycle fitted with skis instead of wheels. Snow biking became a sport during the 1940s, when two engineers combined their inventions to create a Skibob. George Gfaller, a German, invented a single-track steerable sledge, and Engelbert Brenter, an Austrian, patented the “Sit Ski”. 

Right in the center of Montana is the curling rink. The sport goes back at least to the 1500s, when the Dutch and Germans played a similar game. On the surface it appears rather simple. Before the game begins, a pebbler sprinkles water on the ice, which freezes and produces a fine layer of pebbles for the stone to ride on.

Eddy Cottini was a member of the Swiss curling team, and was kind enough to teach me some of the finer points.

EDDY COTTINI ON CAMERA: First you go down. Second you push the stone in front, push your knee on the floor. Take back, and push very strong on your leg. 

BURT WOLF: It’s a round, flat, polished granite stone that weighs 42 to 44 pounds, with a handle coming out of the top. The circle around the circumference of the stone is not polished, which helps prevent chipping.

EDDY COTTINI ON CAMERA: Again, very strong, take out.

BURT WOLF: Each player sends a stone sliding down an alley of ice that’s 14 feet wide and 138 feet long. The target is a circle at the end of the alley. Teammates use brooms to sweep the ice in front of the stone, which helps control the distance that the stone will travel. 


BURT WOLF: The more you sweep, the farther the stone goes. Each player has four stones and the objective is to get your stone as close to the center of the circle as possible. Your opponent has the same objective, and tries to knock your stone away in the process.

EDDY COTTINI ON CAMERA: The stone is the closer from the middle and the stone who are taking the points. For example, here you have two stone like this, you have two black points. If you have one red, who come a bit more than this one, you have only one black, one point. Okay, this one cut the second point. BURT WOLF: There are four players on each team, and two teams. The game will usually take a little over two hours.

Being pulled behind your curling stone is one way to travel, but a much more traditional source of power during the winter are dogs. The native people in the Arctic have been using working dogs for over 4,000 years. Life at the top of the earth, especially in Alaska, northern Canada and Siberia depends on the daily use of working dogs. And the breeds originally domesticated, the Alaskan Malamute, and the Siberian Husky, are still relied on by dog sled drivers throughout the world. Pierre Antoine Heritier lives in Crans-Montana, and has been teaching people how to dogsled since 1992.

PIERRE ANTOINE HERITIER ON CAMERA: I started because I read Jack London. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What makes a good dog?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: How long can they run? 

PIERRE ANTOINE HERITIER ON CAMERA: Five hours, when the time is cool. My lead dogs are two females.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Because they’re smarter and the big guys are in the back because they’re stronger. How many miles do you get to the biscuit?

BURT WOLF: Dog sled racing is a sport which was invented in North America. During the Alaskan gold rush of the 1800s, miners used dogs to move their supplies. Racing the dogs became a major pastime. The first all-Alaskan dog sled sweepstakes race took place in 1908. Dog sled racing was also a demonstration event in both the 1932 and 1952 Winter Olympics. Today it has a sizable and enthusiastic following and a full calendar of international events. 

At the crest of one of the nearby hills is the Chateau de Brignon. It was built in 1260 by the Count of Savoy so he could set up a little kingdom for one of his pals. These days it’s a charming secluded restaurant, decorated in the style of the Victorian period. A favorite place for an elegant dinner after a day of skiing. It’s owned by Sandra Schnyder, who is Swiss, and responsible for the wines. And Abdallah Hamadouch, her husband, who is from Morocco and does the cooking.

Dinner started with bass, stuffed with ratatouille, and garnished with fried leeks. That was followed by lamb surrounded by mustard-coated potatoes, roasted garlic and morel mushrooms.


BURT WOLF: My dessert was designed by Aude, their three year old daughter, who I’m going to introduce to my three year old grandson. She loves to cook, and he loves to eat. This could be the start of something grand.



ABDALLAH HAMADOUCH ON CAMERA: Oui. Tu as pris et tu mets dedans. Ici. Voilà. 

BURT WOLF: While I was in the Valais, I stayed at the Excelsior MilaHotel. It was built in 1946 and recently restored and updated to meet the needs of international guests. The central lobby is where everybody hangs out in front of a wood-burning fireplace. There’s also an afternoon tea during which the chef makes crepes. 

The second floor has a sauna room and a Jacuzzi room. You get the key from the front desk and it becomes your private space.

The restaurant has a Swiss French menu. Today the chef prepared a round of salmon steak on a bed of vegetables, with a drizzle of caviar sauce on top. The garnish was purple potato chips and toasted salmon skin. The owner of the hotel is of Lebanese descent, and that shows up on the menu with a series of excellent Lebanese dishes--hummus, baba ganoush, tabouli, spinach and meat pies, spicy Moroccan sausages and lamb patties. The hotel rooms have a feature that is very convenient. Each room is connected to the next room by an internal door, so when you are traveling with children, you can connect everyone in a long train, or not, as you see fit.    And that is the view from my room. 

The Valais is famous for its hospitality and winter sports, but it’s also well known for its vineyards. The Valais produces more wine than any other area in Switzerland, and the quality is excellent. The medieval castle town of Saillon has been in the wine business for over a thousand years. They produce syrah, petite arvine, dôle and one of the finest examples of a blend called fendant. It’s considered to be an elegant wine; typical of Swiss wines in general, with a smoky bouquet, a fruity taste and light spritz that gives it a refreshing character. It’s exported as far as the end of the street, so if you’re in the neighborhood, give it a try. This is also the land of the legend of Farinet. Farinet was born in northern Italy in 1845, and soon realized that he was a gifted artist, able to work in extraordinary detail.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: His favorite subject was the Swiss twenty centimes coin, and he reproduced it as often as possible. And he would take his work down to the local casino and exchange it for other works of art, quite similar, perhaps less artistic, but definitely more valuable. All right, he was a counterfeiter. But he distributed much of his work amongst the poor, which made him a local Robin Hood. Eventually the authorities caught him, executed and buried him here, but he lives on as a folk hero. 

BURT WOLF: In 1980, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Farinet’s death, the local government created the world’s smallest vineyard, and gave it to the actor who played Farinet in a major movie. The vineyard only has three vines, and it takes up about three square yards of land, but it has become more famous than Farinet. Since the year 2000, it has been owned by the Dalai Lama, and each year world famous personalities come here to harvest the grapes on these three vines. Their names have been marked in the nearby vineyards.

The wines made from these vines are added to a thousand bottles of the best wines of the Valais, and sold at a charity auction.

The vineyard is covered with stones from the most important historic sites in the world. The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the Grand Canyon. In their quest for worldwide representation, no stone has been left unturned.

One of the great trains of Europe is the Glacier Express. It got started in the 1930’s and runs for over 150 miles through some of Switzerland’s most beautiful scenery.

Under the theory that there can never be too much window surface, the Glacier Express introduced the panoramic window frame that extends into the roof. They also have a guidebook that tells you what you’re looking at.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: If you’re coming from the United States, get yourself a Swiss pass, it will give you a free ride on buses, trains and boats, and if it’s not free, it will give you a substantial discount. Of course you have to get on the bus to have the full effect.

BURT WOLF: And speaking of great views, there is the Aletsch Glacier area, which has been included on the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List. You can enjoy the natural environment by hiking alongside the glacier, or taking a guided tour across the top. It’s over a thousand feet thick, and has the longest ice flow in Europe. They tell me that when a snowflake falls at the top of the glacier, it must wait 400 years to get to the front edge.

As you can tell from the story of Farinet, the world’s smallest vineyard, Switzerland has some unique traditions. Now in most cases I’ve been able to discover their source, but I am at a loss to explain the history of their brass bands.

It appears that almost every town in Switzerland has a brass band. It’s a hobby for the participants, but it’s taken very seriously. They practice once or twice a week, appear at municipal events, and give concerts.

The brass band at Crans-Montana was founded in 1933 and has 60 members. And clearly this is not a dying tradition. The average age of the members is 22.

Well, that’s winter in the Valais region of Switzerland. For TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I’m Burt Wolf.