Swiss villages Muhlebach and Ernen are a breath of fresh mountain air

The Swiss know a thing or two about moving up, down, through and around mountains, and I have to trust that their expertise includes modern bridge construction. But for 280m, a single layer of wooden planks on this painfully simple-looking, swinging, swaying contraption is all that keeps me from a 92m plunge down to the River Rhone. Every creak and groan underfoot adds weight to my regret for every solid kilogram gained from gorging on cheese fondue and fried potatoes for a week.

The newly opened Goms Bridge is the quickest way to reach Muhlebach, a village nestled in the Alps in the Swiss canton of Valais. Disembark the train at Furgangen-Bellwald and walk across the hanging bridge; what lies on the other side makes this queasy high-wire act worth it.

There are countless mountain villages in Switzerland and many boast the same selling points as this one. Think alpine scenery, fresh air, old-world charm and locals speaking their own version of Swiss-German, a dialect that sounds as if the German language has been hijacked by drunken elves. Zermatt, the celebrated ski town, is also in the Valais, and many visitors flock there, but Muhlebach is pure magic.

On the flanks of a fecund river valley, set within an amphitheatre of glorious peaks, Muhlebach, with its hardy mountain living and pastoral loveliness, is just what the doctor (or, these days, wellness guru) ordered. Timber chalets and barns dot the verdant slopes. In summer, the air smells of warm grass and earth, the scent carried by a cool breeze sweeping down from snow-capped summits. Clean, refreshing mountain water runs from fountains throughout the village, like taps drilled right into the essence of nature; it is the best water you will ever taste. And there’s the precious sound of nothing — a mountain silence made tuneful by the jangle of cow bells. The cows have soft fuzzy ears, a terrific mop of curls atop their heads and expressions of indifference. They are an exemplar of what Muhlebach does for your health. Across the valley is the Eggishorn-Bettmerhorn range, immense and meaningful, reminding me of my insignificance in this world, a feeling both fearful and liberating.

Some visitors come to take advantage of the hiking trails through old pine forests on the upper slopes, but the simplest pleasure is a solo wander. Muhlebach has Switzerland’s oldest village centre constructed in wood, where nine houses date from the late Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries), the earliest from 1381, and several from the 16th to 18th centuries. Each traditional dwelling has a square stable at the bottom and more storage or living quarters stoutly perched on top, the entire structure built without nails. Remarkably, they are still lived in and used, guarded by stupidly happy garden gnomes. Terrifying wooden tribal masks, an ancient tradition of Valais, all shaggy hair and faces contorted into grotesque expressions, serve to ward off enemies and spirits.

If you believe in spirits, or have an over-active imagination, take care while walking to the neighbouring village of Ernen. A stroll along the beguiling trail of spruce and maples is deeply calming until suddenly you come upon the gallows, three pillars in a clearing atop a hill. The strategic position was obviously chosen to afford all citizens a good view of the execution of witches and thieves. It’s at once a strangely peaceful and haunting spot. The fact that the last hanging was in 1764 doesn’t stop me from wishing I had my own voodoo mask and hurrying on.

With a huge population of 530, Ernen is the larger town. It offers the same quiet pleasure and inspiriting beauty; few tourists ever come and the town is humble and authentic to the core, retaining some of the character of its past life as a stop on the mule trade route, during the era when all roads led to Rome. The main square is charming, even on discovering the stone building in the middle was a prison. The bars on the windows provide a clue, the bolts in the wall that were used to string up and torture prisoners are another sign. Today the building is the town hall and archive, a testament to the practical and sanguine nature of the Swiss.

Situated on a rise, Ernen’s snow-white 16th-century church is a beacon, gleaming still when mist and a drizzling rain settle over the valley. It’s home to a summer-long classical music festival, a smart way to entice visitors. There are many towns like it struggling to remain relevant as younger generations move to the cities and urban dwellers buy holiday cottages that sit empty most of the year. There are no flashy apres-ski lounges here, no vibrant nightlife nor shopping for luxury goods. At a tiny mountain village in Switzerland, be astonished by pleasures that are simple, to delight in nature that is raw, architecture that is old, and to feel alone and whole again.

By Cindy Fan, The Australian, October, 1, 2016
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