“Dear valued guest…”
The weather being as beautiful as it was, the hiking trail called again. I started out from Ernen in the early morning on the “Upper Suspension Bridge” trail, an easy eleven kilometer hike that meant I could be back in Ernen by lunchtime. Breakfast underway was at the B&B Kummer in Mühlebach, a venue with a special perk: the family’s daughter, Patrizia, was the gold medalist in snowboarding at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. Seeing the dozens of trophies from her wins in European and international competitions was impressive, yet made me think she might have been saddened when the Mühlebach ski lift − close behind her house − shut down its operations a few years ago; that was where she’d learned to ski. Granted, the Chäserstatt hotel that reclaimed the top of the ski lift is a great new attraction (see this blog for 28 July), but I’d guess a degree of nostalgia for the venues of one’s youth never entirely abates, especially to a champion.
It was Frau Kummer, Patrizia’s mother, who pointed me towards Steinhaus, the hamlet farther northeast on the same side of the valley. Hiking there, the distant views were invariably scenic, but the walk was a little too noisy for my taste, being just up from − and parallel to − the main road. I did make the acquaintance of some lovely calves on the pasture below the path, and walked on from there across the river Rhone to Niederwald, whose population of only 45 makes it the smallest community in the whole of canton Valais. Its most famous son was the great César Ritz, the youngest of thirteen children in a farmer’s family, who went on to become an illustrious hotelier. Today, a fountain and the surmounting full-length sculptural portrait proudly commemorate him in the town that was his birthplace.
My morning’s destination, though, was another of the pocket-sized baroque structures sprinkled through this very Catholic landscape: the St. Anna chapel beneath Bellwald. The trail up to it from Niederwald seemed long, in no small part because at first − on the other side of the river − I was simply backtracking, again, close to the road. But higher up, I found the peace I was looking for. The path turned from the fields into deep woods, whose gnarled brush had been cleared away, and trees that had fallen across the way had been cleanly sawed through to make a neat passage. Huge boulders and parched pines also lined the way before the small and whitewashed landmark that was the chapel came into view.
Like many of the small chapels in the Valais, St. Anna’s had some 8-10 pews that might seat twenty parishioners, an small altarpiece behind a wrought-iron grate, and a host of booklets and offers for the avid reader. The chapel also featured several chunky candles whose price tag carried a humbling message: “Dear valued guest, if you’re unable to pay for this candle, just leave it here; a stolen one won’t bring good luck.” Sensible, that logic.
From the chapel, I started down to Fürgangen, the riverside village that hosts a new suspension bridge, a model that’s gaining more and more popularity in the Swiss alpine regions. I moved carefully across its clean, wobbly slats, my hand on the side rail, ever mindful of the 92-meter drop and rushing waters of the river beneath me. It was entirely safe, of course, but at some 280 m long, and with an anchoring force of 570 tons, the bridge jiggles up and down like a kind of well-tempered, quiet trampoline. Open all year, it is wheelchair-, pushed bicycle-, and baby carriage-friendly, but it takes a moment to find your footing. The greatest reward for passing over it? That might be a home-baked sweet at “Amy’s Schafstube,” another inviting café that’s located right near the end of the bridge on the Mühlebach side. To treat yourself’s well worth the indulgence, and you can tell Amy I sent you.
Sunday, 31 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet