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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.
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