Around Sion
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Evolene in the Herens Valley (©_OTV)
The hills south of Sion are pierced by two long valleys, which are worth a detour if you fancy getting out into the hinterlands of the Valais. To the southwest a minor road winds into the Val d’Hérémence, culminating in the giant Barrage de la Grande Dixence, the largest and one of the highest-altitude dams in the world.

Of more interest, though, is the valley branching southeast from Sion. This is the Val d’Hérens, a world apart even from the main valley, dotted with mountain farms and high-altitude hamlets, and giving fascinating glimpses of traditional rural life. Even people from Sion can barely understand the thick valley patois, which rings with odd guttural sounds and strikes city folk as being a little like Arabic. Unsubstantiated supposition brings out the idea that the generally dark-skinned, dark-eyed people of the Val d’Hérens may somehow be descended from the conquering Saracen armies who invaded the valley in the eighth century. Having planted that idea, Sédunois will then tell you about the people of Isérables, a town west of Sion, who have had the nickname of Les Bedjuis for as long as anyone can remember – and “bedjuis” is remarkably close to “bedouin”, Arabic for “people of the desert”. The Allalinhorn peak near Saas-Fee is another clue, apparently stemming somehow from the Arabic word for God (Allah).

One of the sights of the valley can be found near the village of Euseigne, where the road passes beneath the Pyramides d’Euseigne, an extremely bizarre geological outcrop of glacial moraines. Whereas erosion flattened the area all around, these stone jags were protected from smoothing by hard rock caps. Today, they’re hard to believe – a wall of unnaturally pointed stalagmites in the open wooded valley, each crag crowned by a dark boulder balanced on a needle point. A stall at the base lets you stop to gawp, and then buy a souvenir postcard.

Some 15km south of Euseigne is the village of Evolène, the scene of one of the worst avalanches in Switzerland in living memory, which killed ten people in February 1999. The quaint little village is now bypassed by the main road, and has preserved along its main street traditional wooden houses and an air of rural tranquillity. The locals have cheerfully capitalized on this by wearing traditional dress – plausibly enough, only partly in a self-conscious bid for tourist appeal. A handful of cafés and simple inns cater to hikers and day-trippers.


South of the tiny hamlet of Les Haudères beyond Evolène, you begin to penetrate the wild countryside. One road branches east over the crest to Ferpècle, while another climbs west up and over into the tranquil hidden Val d’Arolla, terminating some 12km south after a series of nerve-racking tunnels at the hamlet of AROLLA (1998m). This tiny, outdoorsy place is one of the stops on the walkers’ Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt, and offers a wealth of half- and full-day hikes all around, including a testing one up to the Col de Riedmatten (2919m), three hours away. There’s a handful of blue and red ski-pistes served by lifts rising from the village; passes are Fr.27/day, Fr.145/week. Four or five hotels offer quality retreats, including the Grand Hôtel Kurhaus (027/283 11 61, fax 283 11 63; b; July, Aug & Dec–April only), a huge old place with renovated light-pine rooms, some ensuite. Half-a-dozen places offers dorms, and the tourist office (027/283 10 83, www.arolla.com) has information on these and chalets for rent. Hotels tend to cut their rates to half-price in January, meaning Fr.300 can buy you a week of Arolla comfort amidst the deep snow.

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