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September 29th 2019

Beautiful hike over green mountain slopes and through an impressive valley

This morning the weather was fine again, but somewhat cooler than yesterday and with much more wind! My plan for the days to come was to go hiking on the Via Alpina once more. Last year on September 16th I had started to hike the second part of Stage 96 of the Red Trail in Belalp above Blatten and had ended in Mund. This year I would like to try to hike Stage 95 (Fieschertal to Riederalp) and the first part of Stage 96 (Riederalp to Belalp): then I would have hiked four long stages in a row. Stage 95 to Stage 98 from Fiesch to Leukerbad actually form a coherent area within the Rhône Valley and the Canton of Valais. After a nice breakfast with many varieties of Müesli and homemade jams I went to the railway station to take the 09.48 hrs train to Fiesch. The train was crowded, surely because of the combination of Sunday and fine weather. At 10.22 hrs. the train arrived in Fiesch: there large crowds gathered on the platform to go from there into the direction of the cable car to Fiescheralp, and probably from there also to the Eggishorn mountain to have this undoubtedly wonderful panorama over the Aletsch glacier. That had been my initial plan, but all of a sudden those crowds put me off… Therefore I made another plan: I could travel by Postal car from Fiesch to Binn, a village in a rugged and not so well-known side valley of the Rhône valley. There was also a starting point of another Stage of the Via Alpina, but of the Blue Trail! That Postal car would arrive much later, so from the platform I took some pictures of the cable car that just went up and walked to the old part of Fiesch, over the bridge over the Wyswasser stream, flowing from the Fieschertal valley towards the Rhône, to the Gnadenberg (Mount of Grace), with the large St. John the Baptist church and the chapel of the convent. In the 13th century a borough had been built on this natural elevation, but there has always been a chapel. Later on a church has been built in baroque style – in 1883 this church has been replaced by the present church in neo-roman style. The story goes that the tools to build the original church, in the 14th century, appeared to have been carried as by an invisible hand to the top of the hill in order to build a church there to God’s will. From 1343 to 1489 a convent of the Augustines order had been on the western slope. The convent was called Mons gratiae, the Mount of Grace. The chapel belonging to the convent (the “Klösterli“) is still existing and is used as a reception hall. Faith always played an important role in this area: in the 17th century the inhabitants of Fiesch and the neighbouring Fieschertal lived in fear of the Aletsch glacier, because when a piece of the glacier broke off and fell into one of the mountain lakes, that caused flooding in the villages. Therefore they have made a vow that they would lead a viruous life and that they would pray that the glacier wouldn’t continue to grow. The Pope had been informed about this. Nowadays the glacier is 3,5 kilometres shorter than in those days… Since 2010 the inhabitants are allowed to include in their prayers the global warming, climate change and the melting of the glaciers – with permission by the Pope!

When the Postal car arrived at the railway station, I got onboard as one of the few passengers: this bus would not go further than Ernen, halfway the mountain slope. Half an hour later another Postal car would stop in Ernen and continue to Binn. The waiting was very pleasant: there was much to see in this old village with its rich history. The place had been mentioned for the first time in official documents in 1214; the later name Aernen was given in 1510. Because of its favourable location on the way to several then important mountain passes, the village played a major role in transportation and storage of goods. The thus gathered wealth certainly shows on the village square: here big and old houses have been built. In front of a big house with much darkened wood and bight decorated stucco (a former restaurant) is a statue of a famous cardinal, who was born in a hamlet of Ernen, in Mühlebach Kardinaal Matthäus Schiner (1465-1522), later the Bishop of Sion. He was a brilliant mind, befriended with Erasmus and Zwingli, but who rejected reformations like propagated by Luther; he also was a driven clerical politician. Another large house on the square built by a wealthy merchant is the “Tellenhaus“, dating from 1576. It has living quarters on the first floor and storage space on the ground floor. On the white stuccoed wall of the ground floor frescos of four scenes from the legend of Wilhelm Tell are shown: the shot at the apple, Gessler’s hat on a stick, the Rütlischwur (the oath by which “Switzerland” has been founded) and Gessler’s death. They date from 1578 and are the oldest frescoes about Wilhelm Tell. Furthermore I saw that on top of the decorated wall two deer heads with antlers had been attached, but on a special “board”: in the shape of a deer body. It looked as if both deer were quietly lying on the ground and looking at the people with their heads up high!

Another building was completely made of stone and plastered in white: it was the “Zendenrathaus” from 1750–1762. Ernen had been during the 17th and 18th centuries the capital of the “Zenden” Goms, a kind of large municipality, one of the then seven in Valais. In 1953 the building has entirely been renovated and put on the list of protected monuments. In the same year the Geneva-born artist and art restorer Paul-Henri Boissonnas (1894–1966) had created a mural painting on the west wall of the Zendenrathaus with a standard-bearer showing the flag with the coats of arms of Ernen – two fields of red resp. white with a Greek cross in white resp. red – with a cross in the background. In 2016 this painting (with two others) has been restored and conserved. At a given moment all people on the village square looked around in surprise: we all heard a cuckoo call – huh… in September? It turned out to be a cuckoo clock on the upper floor of the old city hall: the round “oeuil-de-boeuf” window had opened and the cuckoo let us know that is was noon! Quite a joke!

To the north of the square I noticed a beautiful garden with flowering hollyhocks, sun flowers and garden cosmos, but also with big stalks of leek and chard. The garden belonged to a typical Walser house, that was in sharp contrast to the Zendenrathaus. The bold beams and the flat stones, the “Mäuseplatten” were quite visible.

From the village square I went for a while through narrow alleys to the outlying area to enjoy the views over the valley and the mountains on the other side. Such a peace to be standing there in the sunshine and to be completely idle for a moment!

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Ernen: panoramic view on the village square “Hengert” with the old houses, the lime tree, the Zendenrathaus and the mountains to the north of Fiesch

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Ernen: panoramic view over the Rhône Valley with Fiesch, the Eggishorn (left) and the Gross Wannenhorn (right)

The Postal car arrived a few minutes past noon – with the same bus driver, so I didn’t need to show my ticket again! After an initially easy ride we arrived at the bus stop Steinmatten: there we had to go through an almost 2 kilometres long tunnel to reach Binn. This tunnel has been built in 1963–1964, because the old road along the outer side of the mountain could often be inaccessible, especially during winter and Binn would be unreachable for a long time. The tunnel is really too narrow for nowadays standards: passing is precision work for the traffic coming from both sides… Halfway the tunnel it turned out to be a narrow escape! Applause for the driver and not long afterwards I was standing in a picturesque village with white chapels and dark-brown houses and chalets. The (more) modern houses had also been built in the same style. On the many signs with indications to the hiking trails I also saw a sign of the Via Alpina, which made me feel all right and safe.

The entire Binntal valley is included int the Landschaftspark Binntal. The municipalites in this region, Binn, Ernnen and Grengiols (in the Rhône Valley) have started in 2002 the project Landschaftspark Binntal. In September 2011, after the municipalities of Bister, Blitzingen and Niederwald (all from south to north in the Rhône valley) had joined in, the Landschaftspark Binntal definitively received the label “Regionaler Naturpark von nationaler Bedeutung“, the first in the Canton of Valais. In such a regional park of which the judicial status is embedded in the Swiss confederal legislation concerning the protection of nature and “Heimat” a positive outcome is sought in the balance between nature conservation and economic development, in which the local population plays an important role and has got an active say. The entire Landschaftspark Binntal covers an area of over 18.000 hectares, of which more than a third is on the territory of the municipality of Binn (with the entire valley).

I set off for my first stop on Stage 4 of the Red Trail of the Via Alpina, from Binn to Rosswald: the hamlet of Heiligkreuz and the chapel and the Gasthaus with the same name. This hike led over the church hill of the parish church of St. Michael towards the south into the valley of the Lengbach stream. Because I had decided in Fiesch to change my initial plans and to go to Binn, I followed the track indicated on the signs: the maps of this area were still in my hotel room… Nevertheless it was a marvellous journey with wonderful panorama’s because I was going from the St. Michael church over the Höhenweg on the south-facing slope of the valley. At first I could see the deeply indented, steep and barren slopes of the Breithorn mountain (2.599m) at the entrance of the valley, eroded by the small river the Binna, also flowing through Binn and into the Rhône at Grengiols, downstream of Fiesch. Below I also spotted the small reservoir near the hamlet of Ze Binne. The bright grey rocks of the Breithorn were vaguely mirroring in the greenish-blue water. Towards the south I looked into the Lengbach valley, closed by the mountain peaks of the Helsenhorn (3.272m) and the Hillehorn (3.181m). The sun was warm like in summer, but there was already a bright orange pumpkin at the doorstep of one of the houses! In the borders of the meadows that had been trimmed or grazed short still some flowers were standing – happily in bloom: a large patch of bright blue (Campanula) and pastel-pink Autumn crocuses (Colchicum autumnale).

The trail has also been indicated as “Bibelweg” (Bible trail) because of the small wayside shrines with texts from the Gospel of Mark about the last days of Jesus Christ, fixed on wooden crosses. The trail slowly climbed and therefore I had the opportunity to see increasingly nicer panoramic views: to the southeast across the meadows and the dark forests, where at the beginning of the valley the sharp peaks of the Helsenhorn and the Hillehorn rise up high, as into the direction of the Rhône Valley and the mountain tops covered with snow and glaciers above Fiesch, where actually I would have been hiking. However I didn’t have the slightest regrets about this “change of plans“…!

After the sun-drenched meadows the trail disappeared into a dark forest with big, old conifers. The undergrowth in this shadowy environment was interesting: there was a large group of bright white rounded mushrooms covered with many small “spikes” (the rest of the skin that at first envelops the mushroom): they were Common Puffballs (Lycoperdon perlatum). They hadn’t ripened yet. One of them had already been gnawed at – when young they appear edible for humans as well: they smell like radish and have a soft flavour. This had probably been the activity of a snail, considering the hole at the side of the head. That the surroundings were humid, was shown by the many small water streams running from the slope downwards that had eroded the footpath. On the rocks grew large patches of scaled lichen. A huge spruce had been badly damaged in its younger years – had it been a scraping tree for a red deer or a roe deer? A large scar was running at the bottom of the tree in which were already drilled holes by a woodpecker or a wood nuthatch, but this tree will surely still live for a long time!

Then the trail steeply descended. A group of hikers came from the opposite side – they asked me, panting, whether the remaining track was as steep as this. I could reassure them! About 14.00 hrs I arrived in Heiligkreuz. The houses in the hamlet, at 1.450 metres, date from the period 1611 to 1786. The chapel that has been built after 1775, was and still is a famous place of pilgrimage. Every year on September 14th a “Kapellenfest” is organised to celebrate that once the large cross to the south of the chapel has been raised. The interior of the chapel is very rich and colourful. The chapel is very well-maintained – the small turret with a nicely forged cross proudly pierces into the blue sky.

On a small mound on the slope above the Heiligkreuz chapel is the Gasthaus Heiligkreuz: there was where I was heading to. In 1999 the original inn from 1667 has been the victim of a devastating fire, ruining the building just to the cellar. From 2002 to 2015 a family from Grengiols has rebuilt the house – according to their wish it opened in 2016 again as an inn: during the summer months (mid-May to mid-October) it has got its old function back. I had hoped to meet Gabriela W. there, one of the three people who are running the Gasthaus – I am in contact with her on Facebook). By coincidence she had this weekend off… Nevertheless it was delightful to sit on the terrace with other hikers and to enjoy the peace and the view on the surrounding mountain landscape. On the table where I sat down, snuggly under a parasol that every now and then was rather shaking by the strong wind, the menu was held down by a paper-weight – a chunk of quarts with inclusions – to prevent it from drifting away. I chose the stew with beef à la Saflisch, the mountain pass on the way to Rosswald. Very good! It was funny to read that for children a “Räuberteller” (a thief’s plate) was available for zero Francs: children get an empty plate and can “stibitzen” (to pilfer in English) from the grown-ups.

About 15.00 hrs I left for the journey back over the Pilgerweg (Pilgrim’s way) and the Twingi Gorge to the bus stop Steinmatten, near the tunnel to Binn. In the 1970s a reservoir has been made high above Heiligkreuz near the Chummibort at over 2.000 metres to produce electricity for the Canton of Neuenburg/Neuchâtel in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Thereby an impressive waterfall has disappeared. In order to transport the employees to the reservoir a cable car has been built from the foot of the mountains in the valley near the chapel, and from Binn/Ze Binne a paved road to the valley station with the turbine housing. For centuries a pilgrim’s way from the valley to the Chapel of Heiligkreuz had existed, which had become completely overgrown. Hikers and pilgrims had to cover almost the entire trajectory from Ze Binne to the chapel on paved roads, which wasn’t very pleasant in many ways. Therefore in 2017 an Interessengemeinschaft (an association) has been founded, the IG Lengtalweg/Pilgerweg. With financial support from the Landschaftspark Binntal, the Canton of Valais and sponsors volunteers and public workers from the Forestry Department have cleared the old pilgrim’s way over a length of nearly 1½ kilometres. While I was walking there it was obvious that hard work had indeed been done: the new path was nicely restored. It had only been open since a few months (on June 4th 2019) and it had been consecrated by the priest. On my way I passed by an old kiln. A large panel gave information about mining in former times (1570–1770): then magnetite, iron ore with a high content of iron (70%) had been mined in this region around the Simplon Pass and in the Binntal valley. In 2008 researchers had already discovered the remains of a kiln; in 2015 the area around this kiln has been researched in depth. It turned out that the kiln had irregularly been filled with iron ore from a mine near the Helsenhorn and charcoal. It isn’t clear whether this had been a kiln to prepare for the melting (a “Röstofen“, a stack kiln) or a real kiln. This type of kilns haven’t often been found in Switzerland and the funnel shape used here is rare. A wrought-iron grid that has been placed in front of the cellar in the Gasthaus Heiligkreuz (and hasn’t been destroyed by the fire!) is the only object made of iron, mined in the valley and that has survived. On the panel also a map of the area where iron has been mined is shown. It is quite impressive that after so many years the kiln is still recognisable as such…, and I realised as well that also a long time ago a lot of energy has been put to work here! Along the pilgrim’s way the trees already showed beautiful autumnal colours. In most of the streams just clear water was flowing, but one of them really had a rusty-brown layer on the pebbles – it was obvious that here still is iron in the rocks!

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Between Heiligkreuz and Ze Binne: map of the iron mining near the Simplon and in the Binn valley on the information panel at the kiln

Around four o’clock the small reservoir near Ze Binne came in sight, that was bathing in quite another light than this morning around noon. While I bought a bottle of water at the cosy restaurant on the reservoir bank, the Alpsaga Twingi Stübji, I spotted a beautiful, round white cloud floating in the furthermore blue sky – that was a special sight! Looking back I could see how the mountain slopes on the right hand bank of the Lengtalbach stream were reflected in the tranquil water of the reservoir. Again a peaceful moment…

Downstream of the dam in the reservoir where in the meantime the water from the Lengtalbach stream and the river Binna had been merged, was the beginning of the Twingi Gorge, a deeply eroded, rugged gorge, that in former times had been very difficult to pass. Nevertheless tradesmen had been traveling from the Rhône Valley near Grengiols to Binn and from there over the Albrun Pass to Italy. Apparently a road had already existed in the 14th century. In the 1930s the existing, but very dangerous road has been transformed into a semi-paved road. In 1938 the first Postal car drove from Ernen to Binn. After the construction of the tunnel in 1963-1964 the old road was no longer maintained. It deteriorated. Only in 2010 the Landschaftspark Binntal took the initiative to restore this from cultural-historical point of view important structure. Now the walls protecting the road at the abyss and the drainage of the stream that runs underneath the road (“tombino’s“) have been repaired. Now it is a special experience to hike or cycle here.

This year the art manifestation Twingi Landart had been organised, already for the 13th time: international and Swiss artists had taken their inspiration from the surroundings. Not every item did appeal to me. What I really liked was the work of art “Aurum“, a circle of gold leaf applied by Joëlle Allet (Leukerbad) on the mountain wall. From afar it looked like a lightening spot, a sun – coming closer I saw that the gold leaf had been absorbed by the small cracks and lines of the rock wall, whereby in the circle itself a kind of mountain landscape was shown. In the course of time the gold will fade away and disappear, but that is the meaning in nature …– and also the artist’s intention. On the trajectory of the road along the Twingi Gorge are some narrow tunnels. At one of these passages a Dutch artist, Bart Ensing, had made a piece of art with the title “Connection“: he had attached a large number of sky blue strips (fencing wire for agricultural use) to the metal railing along the gorge and let them pass over the rock in which the tunnel had been made in order to connect both tunnel ends. Because of the colour (and the metal threads in the strips) there was quite a contrast between the geometrical form of the piece of art and the rugged nature around it. Even from a distance it stood out!

At 17.00 hrs. I was back at the entrance of the tunnel to Binn and waited for the Postal car to take me back. There was not only a terrible draught through the tunnel, but each time a car drove into the tunnel it sounded as if an aeroplane was taking off… Fortunately the Postal car arrived on time. It was crowded in the bus, but in a pleasant way: all passengers were elated hikers, who had obviously had an equally wonderful day as I! The views on the way back were beautiful with the low sun on the landscape – especially on Ernen with the Fieschertal valley at the opposite side. I could clearly see a huge waterfall. In Fiesch I took the train to Brig, where I arrived around half six. What an extraordinary day it has been, again in an area that was new to me, but where I have certainly not been for the last time!