01 May 2010

Welcome to Walser Country

Though it has less to do with this:

And (maybe) more to do with this:

Walser country evokes similar images, cigarettes or not, of a rugged and romantic place inhabited by equally rugged and hearty people.

The Walser are German and German dialect-speaking people who have lived in the upper reaches of the Central Alps for over 1,000 years. Migrating down from the Bernese Oberland and first settling into the headwater valleys of the Rhône, Switzerland's Wallis (or Valais) is now named after them. In the 12th and 13th centuries the Walser Migrations took them up and over some of the highest passes in Europe.

The migrations took them every way but far west and by the end of the 13th century the Walser inhabited a large area of high alpine valleys on both sides of the crest of the Alps. They kicked the Romans out of the Zwischenbergen region of Switzerland. They barged into both the French and Italian wings of the House of Savoy. They instituted their language in what was then the Italian speaking region of Tecino, which has now reverted back to Ticino, the only Italian speaking canton in Switzerland. They resettled the Bernese Oberland at the foot of the Brienzer Rothorn. And they pushed above the Wallis/Valais, farther and farther north and east until finally settling into what is now known as Liechtenstein. From there the Austrian states of Vorarlberg and Tyrol seem only natural compliments.

The Walser perfected a life borne from short summers, long winters, and the need for trade and travel. Separated by deep valleys and steep mountains, the Walser developed an extensive series of trails in and out of their settlements that circumnavigate the Central Alps. Now known as Der Grosse Walserweg (Grande Sentiero Walser, in Italian) these trail systems still constitute some of the best access points to the 4,000 meter peaks in the area. And in the Central Alps anything that surrounds 4,000 meter peaks usually offers the opportunity for good skiing.

But not without a little patience.

The opportunity to head back to Walser Country was a welcome relief. The Aosta and its tributary valleys are quickly becoming home away from home. In my mind, apart from the real Marlboro Country, the Italian Walser Country offers a chunk of beautiful you are unlikely to outdo.

The first day offered plenty of new snow but very little visibility to see anything but the wall of clouds producing the snow.

Trees provided for some topographic relief so there I played until the sun decided to show.

And eventually the sun showed and it was then that patience was not only a virtue but a reward. Those who waited in the trees and slush of lower elevations were rewarded at the end of the day with rocks and fluff at higher and lighter altitudes.

Then Easter brought bunnies and chocolates and happy children and sun back to the deep valleys of the Walser.

And it brought meals and grappa and cheese.

The happy children remained and the skiing improved.

Gesù couldn't have picked a better spot to resurrect.

Then a day in the sun was followed by another day of clouds, but not without its own share of rewards. I plowed lines into the clouds with the hope of grace but instead, at the high point, I was given a stern look and a dismissal.

I wandered in white circles for a time, all the while following fabled Walserwegs to unknown passes and drops into billowy sky. Again, Walser-like perseverance paid off. The sky lifted above me and the ground dropped beneath me. Once more I understood where I came from and where I was to go. And the end result was 1,400 meters below.

And this is the cycle in Walser Country: you go up, you go down; the sun comes out, the sun goes away; you eat meals, children are happy. It's a routine and it's regulated by patterns in weather and others in similar loops.

If you're lucky, those that know Walser Country best will ask you to join them on a classic Walserweg on and around the glaciers of the high country. I was lucky and up we went.

There are dangers, of course, in the high country, and you're warned from the start.

But the Walser are a resilient breed and so you strike for higher ground. And higher still.

Cycles spin and the sun starts to fade and it's time, once and forever again, to loop the loop back down, out of history and toward a limitless state of the present. But first not without a little slip and slide, scrape and scratch, and a neck crane or two. Sometimes even a Walserweg comes to the end of a line.

If I had a choice I might say I'd like to get it over with in a place as beautiful and inspired as the Gressoney Valley. I don't have that luxury, though. Instead, I suppose I'll return there as often as possible as a reminder of what it means to live.

Photo credits:
Smoking Cowboy
Smoking Skier

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh travelling skier, our English is so poor compared to your way to talk about our valley! We don't know what to say to show how we're happy and proud about your good "souvenir" from Walser Valley. Let's just say: you caught the reason why people coming from far away decided to settle here, a long time ago and still nowadays. You and your family will always be welcomed friends!