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September 28th 2019

Hospental-upon-Reuss and Brig/Naters-upon-Rhone

This morning I had breakfast in Hotel Drei Könige&Post in Andermatt for the last time. I needed to make just a short journey to my next destination: in Brig, where I had enjoyed myself so much in September last year. I took the 10.38 hrs. train and passed by the village of Hospental, from where the road over the Gotthard Pass towards the south starts. The day before yesterday, Thursday September 26th, I had gone there by foot – only in the early afternoon, when the rain had stopped. The weather improved more and more as that afternoon went on.

It was an easy walk of about three kilometres through the green valley floor, mainly along the left bank of the Reuss: along the extending golf course and meadows where here and there still some young cattle and sheep were grazing. To my right hand the here still small river flowed, sometimes quiet, sometimes with some rapids. On the another bank were the cantonal road and the railway tracks. There were barns and stables, built with the greyish stone of this area. Some have a small attic window, more like a niche, in which a white Marian statue is placed, which can be seen from afar.

Hospental is a small village with beautiful, old houses that all are from 1699: then there has been a huge village fire. The white parish church Mary Assumption with the equally white church tower, that is visible also from Andermatt, has been built between 1706 and 1708 by the then famous Bartelomäus Schmid. It is standing in the middle of the old village centre. From there a path runs to a rock towering over the village, first over steps and thereafter with quite a steep climb over a forest path through a dark fir forest to the ruins of an old living/watch tower, the Langobardenturm from the 13th century. This tower belonged to the Seigniors of Hospental, an influential family in the Urseren valley. From the 15th century it hasn’t been used for living and dilapidated more and more. To the end of the 19th century it has been thoroughly restored and it is a listed monument now. The view form this height is impressive, although I noticed today that from the train the tower cannot quite be seen. The floors of the three storeys have disappeared now, so the sky is visible when looking up in the tower. Originally it was covered with a roof: the rainwater was collected in a reservoir.

To the east of the village is the Hotel St. Gotthard, that in 1722 has been built as a private house by Bartholomäus Schmid, who had built both the Mariä Himmelfahrt church in this village and the St. Peter und St. Paul church in Andermatt. By experts the house has been considered as one of the most representative baroque buildings in the Urseren valley. Since 1899 it is exploited as a hotel. On the outer wall of the hotel is mentioned that Generalissimus Suvorov has stayed in this house on September 1799 before the battle at the Schöllenen Gorge. In 1681 the still existing bridge (Dorfsbrücke, Village bridge) that spans with a large stone arche the Gotthardreuss – by then of major importance for the Säumer, the early tradesmen travelling over the Gotthard Pass to and from Italy. It seemed to be the only establishment that had opened, so I had a cup of coffee and a nice piece of cake in the restaurant with a coffered ceiling.

The sun even started to shine a little when I came outside again, so that I didn’t take the train back, but went by foot. The golf course was been trimmed with precision and the huge rowan bushes were loaded with large bunches of orange-red berries. When I arrived in Andermatt again, I followed the Unteralpreuss for a while just before it flows into the Reuss.

It was clear that the weather had considerably improved – the plans for the next day were already made: from Andermatt with the gondola uphill and from there by the em>Höhenweg to the mountain station of another gondola and then back by train to Andermatt. That was yesterday – and it had been a nice day!

Today the train of the Matterhorn-Gotthard-Bahn speeded up further into the direction of Realp after a short stop in Hospental. At first there still were some clouds around the mountain tops at both sides of the Urseren valley, but the blue sky was already visible. Here also still some cattle was in the meadows, mainly sheep.

I could have made a touristic train trip: with the Furka Dampfbahn, with a steam locomotive over a narrow gauge railway track with cogwheel support that goes from Realp over the Furka Pass to Oberwald. That will be for next time! Until 1981 this was actually the only connection between Brig and Andermatt and that only during the summer months. Because of the abundant snowfall and the big risks of avalanches there even was a steel bridge over the Steffenbach stream on the trajectory in the area of the Canton of Uri between Realp and Tiefenbach, which had to be folded by a special system each autumn and put back each spring, to prevent that it would be carried along by avalanches, like had been happening in 1916 to the first stone bridge, even before a single train had passed over it… The overhead lines were taken down and reinstalled in spring. On the high barrier formed by the Furka Pass (2.431m) is the border between the Canton of Uri and the Canton of Valais – and is the watershed between the North Sea (Rhine and Reuss) and the Mediterranean Sea (Rhône). Only with the opening of the Furka Base Tunnel in 1982 year-round rail traffic was made possible over narrow gauge railways from Zermatt via Brig to Disentis in the Canton of Grisons. In 1961 the narrow gauge railway line between Göschenen and Andermatt, opened in 1917 (then called the Schöllenen-Bahn) had been taken over by the Furka-Oberalp-Bahn (FO-Bahn). In 2003 the FO-Bahn and the Brig-Visp-Zermatt-Bahn merged into the present railway company Matterhorn-Gotthard-Bahn. At Realp the train disappeared into the 15,4 kilometres long tunnel and re-emerged at Oberwald: from the Urseren valley in Uri into the Goms valley in Valais. Here I passed through places where several stages of the Via Alpina run: Stage 93 of the Red Trail reaches Ulrichen from Riale in Italy, from Ulrichen Stage 94 goes via Bellwald to Fieschertal and Stage 95 from Fieschertal to Riederalp. Snuggly sitting in the train I found it at that moment a rather pleasant alternative for the (relatively long!) stages over the Höhenweg! Nevertheless in the days to come I will hike several parts of these stages. The landscape on both sides of the Rhône vary from densely wooded to green with vegetable gardens. At the railway station of Fürgangen-Bellwald Talstation valley station I saw the long pedestrian hanging bridge over the gorge though which the river flows and at Fiesch on the track of the cable car to the Eggishorn mountain, from where the view on the Aletsch glacier is magnificent. Every now and then I spotted in the far distance the white cap of the Weisshorn, about 50 kilometres downstream of the Rhône.

A few minutes past 12.30 hrs I arrived in Brig, where I checked in in the familiar Hotel Europe. Not long after I had unpacked I went out: the weather was fine and pleasantly warm. It was a feast of recognition: the mountains to the north of Brig, where last year I had attended the “Alpabzug“, the festive descent of the cows in Blatten and the nice hike back to Brig, and the view upstream the river Rhône which is here already quite wide. I decided to follow the river upstream on the side of Naters, along the right bank.

Here I could see more elements of railway history: not only the entrance of the Simplon tunnel on the left bank of the Rhône, with the front made of beautiful stones and the year 1921 above the right tunnel tube and the year which I wasn’t able to see clearly from the point where I was standing 1905 for the (initially only) left tunnel tube. The construction and the commissioning of the Simplon tunnel have clearly put Brig on the map as (international) railway junction. On my way, along the Erlebnispfad Bahn Natur Kunst (the Adventure trail Railway, Nature, Art) I would come across still more aspects in connection herewith and with which I will deal when I am going to hike around the Simplon. Another interesting feature is the following; on the short distance from Brig to Bitsch (8 minutes by train) there are seven bridges. The “Römerbrücke” over the mountain stream the Massa is very old, but has not been built by the Romans: it dates from 1351. Furthermore the bridge to the power plant of the Swiss Federal Railways SBB and the bridge of the cantonal road cross this mountain stream. Over the Rhône are the bridge of the ring road, the new railway bridge from 2007 for the MGB from Brig to Bitsch and the “Schwarze Brücke” (Black Bridge). Then there is also the bridge on the old track of the Furka-Oberalpbahn over the Massa: nowadays it is a cycle and footpath. At first the railway track ran from Brig via Naters to Bitsch: with the large intervention in the railway network in 2007 in and around Brig the choice has been made for a trajectory on the left bank and a new railway bridge over the Rhône. This track is somewhat 600 metres shorter. Of course it is a bit sad for Naters: the main SBB station is called just “Brig” and not “Brig-Naters” as Naters has tried to achieve on several occasions, and now they are deprived of an own station at the MGB line… The advantage however is that now a wide cycle an footpath has been created on the former track and that the surroundings have been done up nicely!

Over the cantonal road I returned from Bitsch to Naters again. From an architectural point of view most buildings weren’t very interesting: post-war blocks of houses or very neglected buildings with a lot of vacancy. When I chose near the St. Mauritius church from the 12th century a side road, I unexpectedly came in the old part of the village: there the old, dark, sun burned houses, built in the Walser style were standing! Some also were a bit dilapidated, but others had obviously got sometimes rather modern adaptations, that in most of the cases had turned out quite well. Garage boxes had been made in the space for storage underneath the poles with “Mäuseplatten“, the flat natural stones on which the houses are standing as a protection against mice and rats, or a modern entrance with steel stairs had been created.

Again and again I got nice vistas to other bending alleys with nice pavement. At one moment I arrived at a hardstone bench with the year 1685 engraved on the rim. On the wall was a sign with the indication: “Totenplatte” (flat surface for the dead). In those days it was usance to lay the deceased out in the house for a day of two, three and to put the coffin on this stone bench on the day before the funeral, in order to give as many people as possible the opportunity to say their goodbyes. Nowadays that doesn’t happen anymore, and the deceased is transferred to a funeral parlour.

After my tour through the old village the white church tower of the St. Mauritius church came in sight again – in the far distance the high mountain peaks of the Simplon area rose above the church. Near the church a building is standing, which looks like a chapel, including a turret, but which is in fact functioning as “Beinhaus“, Ossuary. There many skulls have been piled up under the steps to the building. A gilded crucifix with two saints on both sides was hanging behind the bars…

While I was looking at this somewhat lugubrious display I heard loud and cheerful music coming from the market square. It turned out to be the local carnival association, the meanwhile 50 year old “Dragon Killers” (Drachentöter), that was celebrating its autumnal meeting: the committee members wearing nice knights clothing with long, colourful cloaks and bicorns with feathers on their heads were walking back and forth between the pub and the square. After several speeches the theme of Carnival 2020 was announced under loud approval by the crowd: “The curse of Narvik”. Further two pages who had made it through their “apprentice year” were knighted after they had to dive in a “bath of dragon blood”. To this purpose a slide was installed from the parade float into a paddling pool. It was amusing to see one of them wearing swimming trunks, a snorkel and inflatable armbands and demonstratively going down on the slide which had been smeared with detergent plunge into the pool with a big round of applause! Luckily the temperature was nice… It was obvious that the atmosphere was great and that that would stay that way for a long time!

Later that afternoon I went into town again, from the railway station through the beautiful Bahnhofstrasse, leading into the old city centre. At the lampposts information panels had been attached about aspects of Brig throughout the centuries. On one of these panels the “Unwetterkatastrophe” (catastrophe following heavy weather) in 1993 was mentioned. On September 24th that year Brig had known the heaviest flooding in its history: because of exceptionally heavy rainfall in the mountains around the Simplon area to the south of Brig the mountain stream Saltina (deduced from the Latin word saltare, to jump) discharged not only enormous quantities of water into the Rhône, but also tree trunks, rocks and mud from glacial sediment. Especially the latter heaped up at the bridge over the Saltina in the city centre of Brig. Therefore the entire city was flooded – afterwards mud was stacked in the streets of Brig, up to a height of 3 metres. Damages reached about half a billion Swiss Francs and two people lost their lives… The redevelopment of the Bahnhofstrasse had been made possible by the Paul Schiller Stiftung Foundation from Zurich, funding “gemeinnützige Werke” (charitable works) – a copper plaque at the beginning of the now beautiful, wide avenue mentions this. I walked from the inner city a short distance to the Saltina, that now as a quiet, small stream flowed between the old walls, which were raised with concrete blocks. At the Salina bridge information panels were attached to the bridge railings: at one side in German and at the other side in French. Thereon a long, long list of flooding was indicated with as a tragic finale the disaster of 1993. In order to prevent such damages rigorous measures have been taken in and around the course of the Saltina. The most important point is the new Saltina bridge, opened in 1997 that has a sophisticated lift system. It has been recognised that the accumulation of material which had been carried along formed the biggest problem. Therefore a system has been developed, in which as soon as the oncoming water has reached a certain level the water can flow through an opening in the left quay wall into a large reservoir. Via steel cables and a well-calibrated system the bridge (weight 152 tons!) is lifted up by the weight of the water in the river bedding, enabling the water and the debris to flow on. The complete procedure takes 6 minutes. Therefore constructions have been made on the four corners of the bridge with steel cables and pulleys in order to lift the bridge on a level basis. The first time there was a serious risk of flooding again (in October 2000) the system proved to function extremely well: then the Saltina had to cope even with a third more water than in 1993, but only minor damage has been caused. Further downstream measures have been installed as well, like the steel doors in the (also raised) quay walls with which the pedestrian bridges can be closed.

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Brig: the steel doors at the pedestrian bridge over the Saltina stream for closure in case of high water

The best way to summarise this day is shown by the pictures below… In Naters I passed a patch of rough terrain, where the flowers of the Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) caused a yellow colour explosion. This plant is related to the sunflower and is not loved by everybody because of its rampant nature. The tubers are however very healthy, to be prepared like potatoes and quite tasty: they have a nut-like flavour. Further on in the village a dozen of Valaisan Blacknose sheep were lying in the shade of a large tree, just relaxing, apart perhaps of ruminating. Quite funny animals they are, with their – like the name already indicates – black noses and ears, black “knee patches” on the front legs and black “talons” on the hind legs, black socks and hoofs and also a black patch on the tail, just under the attachment to the body. The twisted horns are impressive as well. In the early evening I strolled through the inner city of Brig for a while and spotted a free table at the Restaurant Salzturm, in the late sunshine. There I had a glass (or two) of a Valaisan red wine called… “Nez noir“, named after the Blacknose sheep! The grapes for this wine grow in a vineyard above Sierre, where between mid-March and mid-April the Blacknose sheep are allowed to graze between the vines. As soon as these start to shoot, the sheep are transferred to a real meadow, from where they go later on to the higher alpine meadows. This wine tastes like “black currants and ripe strawberries with some additional hints of refined, smoky spices” – just very nice. I had the vegetarian version of the dish that according to the legend has been “invented” in Brig, the “Cordon bleu“, the well-known fillet of pork or veal, filled with cheese and (here in Brig smoked) bacon: thin slices of eggplant, filled with alpine cheese in a crisp coating. The bold fries with sauces went well with it.