From the gorge to the gallows: a casual ramble

Anyone who returns to Ernen year after year invariably notices that in the town’s infrastructure is forever being improved, that the area’s cultural and historical highlights are increasingly being given their due. Efforts to enrich the visitor’s experience are many, in no small part because of the support of the Landschaftspark Binntal, the umbrella organization whose commitment to sustainable tourism has been cited as exemplary by visitors and experts alike.  

Recently, the Landschaftspark published five new pamphlets – each one free of charge – that are devoted to the unique monuments and cultural legacy of this beautiful part of the Valais. Keen on a gentle ramble, I chose yesterday to head out to the neighboring town of Mühlebach, which features the oldest wood-framed structures in Switzerland.

Looking to get some 2-3 hours of easy exercise under my belt, and equipped with my water bottle, three dried figs, and half a bar of chocolate, I started out from Ernen’s historic central square in the direction of Mühlebach, passing the «Vogt» convenience store on my right. In short order, I veered slightly right to follow the unpaved road that ran up to higher ground, and soon, could see the three massive columns of the ominous gallows that mark the opposite hill. The yellow hiking sign promised a 20-minute walk to Mühlebach, a casual stroll. A jolly couple of ladies coming down kindly agreed to stand for a photo: I’m notorious for asking people to pose, but a human figure does always give the picture a sense a scale. 

The ridge walk ends with a commemorative cross and a blessing as one enters the woods. Some 20 paces later, the path splits, but I headed towards the sound of rushing water below. Along one rather steep stretch – there was only one – the rope handrail was reassuring. Once down, the path led over a bridge to the historic Backhaus (bakery), whose bread ovens I’d once seen operational at an annual celebration of the historic structure.

Just behind the Backhaus, a hiking sign pointed me straight ahead to the Mühlebach chapel. I took the chance instead, though, to wander up through the village and its ancient houses, several of which had been built before Columbus discovered America. The weather-worn wooden shingles of one resembled bird feathers; the stone stairs of the impressive Bircher House (1644) had succumbed to overgrowth and weeds. But as witness to survival, such dwellings were as humbling as they were inspired: Imagine the stories that each one could tell!

While bikers filled their bottles at the low stone fountain a few meters on, I turned to my left, then went around the back of the Bircher house. From there, a flower-surrounded path and a funny little garden gnome (children, try to find that!) led up to the Chapel of the Holy Family (1673-1676). Visible from many vantage points, the chapel nobly guards the valley. Its interior is decorated with an elaborate, if rural, Baroque altarpiece; its exterior affords stellar views. Further, the founder of the Festival Musikdorf Ernen, György Sebök, is interred with his wife on the grounds, just slightly below and to the left of the chapel’s front door.

Backtracking some first, I started down the hill towards the famous Hängebrücke, («Goms Bridge») the 57-ton suspension bridge (2015) that towers 92 meters over the powerful waters of the River Rhone. While not for the faint of heart or those with shaky boots, the bridge wobbles to its delight when people cross. Yet in the few minutes it takes to get over and return to the starting point, bikers dismount, children quiet down, hikers pose for photos… it has merits in more ways than one, and the vista is nothing short of breath-taking. Either one of two fine cafés «Café Amy’s Schafstube» or the «Café and B&B Hängebrücke,» both a short walk of the bridge entrance on the Mühlebach side, make a welcome break.

Back on the main road towards Ernen, though, I crossed the little bridge, then turned right into more open fields some 80m on. For a minute or two, I stood beneath the tribute to the area’s one-time wood-channeled irrigation system, «Ze Chännle,» a model since made obsolete in the Valais by its modern water-supply systems. But rather than head straight back to Ernen from there, I hiked up onto the higher valley flank to visit «Der Galgen,» the gallows.

The woods walk to reach them was somewhat haunting: first, an ancient stall, pushing to burst at its seams, threatened to fall over the path. Beyond that, a muddle of fallen trees and a wild knot of brush were as twisted and spotty as an old witch’s hands. Yet the gallows themselves – last used for capital punishment sometime before 1764 – are but a reminder of grim history today. As I approached, a young family of picnickers gave me a nice reception when I came upon them, who seemed to underscore that «that was then, but this is now.» That, in a sense, is just what the Landschaftspark agenda is all about: treasure the past, but live the present.

Ernen, Tuesday, 24 July 2018, by Sarah Batschelet

The stroll I describe, with photo stops and the occasional exchange with fellow travelers, took some 2.5 hours at a leisurely pace. It could easily be done with those at any age who have a sense of adventure, a good pair of legs, and a good degree of curiosity.

The Landschaftpark Binntal’s superb culture trail booklets are readily available at the local tourist offices and the valley’s various overnight accommodations. While in German, the dates of photographed landmarks, times required to hike, and simple site maps are fairly straightforward to visitors of other languages. You can download the trail booklets here.