The canton of Valais, with its capital at Sion, is a countryside presenting remarkable and picturesque contrasts. Here the highest Alps are situated and here in the Rhone valley is Switzerland's richest fruit growing district. The sun shines most of the year in the Valais and the irrigation of the soil presents the hard working, strictly Catholic population with many problems. This canton is rich in history, in art treasures and in folklore, as well as in the opportunities it offers for mountaineering in summer and skiing in winter.
Emerging from the Lötschberg tunnel which connects Berne with Brig and passes under 6,000 feet of rock and snow, we enter the canton of Valais with the valley of the Rhone river spreading out a thousand yards below us. The Rhone itself, like a metallic snake, winds through a sandy plain lined with rows of poplars and bordered by vineyards, forests and rocky cliffs on which are perched ruined towers and castles. The colors of this countryside are gray, olive green, yellow and red. Here are none of the vivid greens of the rest of Switzerland, but rather the same dusty, luminous landscape as in certain parts of Spain.
To the north and south, the broad, regular slopes are covered first with chestnut trees, then with meadows. Higher still is the bare, red earth with its bluish grey shadows, and, behind the first line of rocky peaks, a few snow capped summits rise against the unusually light blue sky. On every level there are villages, and above the timberline, blackened chalets cluster about white Catholic churches. Some of these simple mountain chapels attain an artistic charm of a high order, as, for example, in the baroque chapel Zur Hohen Stiege, near SaasFee.
These villages, with their pastures running often to the very foot of the glaciers, are located at what seem to be almost inaccessible heights. No inch of ground is lost in the Valais and the surefooted cattle wander in uplands which to the traveller seem unbelievably steep and remote. Many of these mountain settlements can be reached only on mule″back over narrow trails and lie at many hours distance from the nearest center. Some of them were built by men who took refuge on the heights from the persecutions of the decaying Romanh Empire. In such communities the ideas of liberty on the one hand and of neighborly cooperation on the other have been ever present. The wooden farmsteads, particularly in the Upper Valais, are distinguished by their blockhouse″like appearance on wooden piles, and the granaries by the circular stone slabs supporting them.
For centuries the Valaisans have lived an independent life in this separate and individualistic land of theirs. In the Middle Ages, they founded their own republic, and although they were bound to the old Swiss Confederation by traditional ties of friendship, they did not become a member until 1815. The other Swiss sometimes call them, rather contemptuously, backward and reproach them for being conservatism incarnate. It is true that the Valaisans are the most conservative and traditional minded people imaginable. And when Pope Gregory XIII, who might reasonably have expected obedience from the strictly Catholic Valaisans, introduced his new calendar, his flock on the upper Rhone refused to accept, for over 100 years, the new fad from Rome.
As in Corsica, bloody feuds were common in the Valais up until the late Middle Ages. Many laws from the days of the foundation of the Republic have been handed down to the present generation and the quarrels about their interpretation still go on. Sometimes lawsuits ower water rights have been drawn out over two centuries.
However, although the Valaisans are conservative, their politics somewhat turbulent and although to other Confederates they may sometimes seem backward, in many things the Valaisans are ahead of the other Swiss. A thousand years before Karl Marx, the Valaisans organized their society on the lines of a naturally developed collectivism and their small corporations for mutual aid came into being long before the Swiss Confederation. Such partnerships, corporations and farmers guilds passed on the leaven for baking and allotted to each household the precious water for irrigation. Nowadays these cooperatives have made possible the use of modern machinery, such as the hydraulic wine press, which greatly decreases the labor of the vintage, yet is beyond the means of the individual wine grower.
In the alluvial plain of the Rhone, which has been put under cultivation only fairly recently, apricots, asparagus, strawberries, peaches, pears and apples are grown. On the slopes surrounding this plain there are vineyards where by grafting American vines on the local species, wine production has been increased from eight to thirty million litres annually within two decades. But unfortunately this rich, fruit growing plain is only the smallest part of the Valais, which is composed of one fifth glaciers and two fifths irrigated mountain country.
Two languages are spoken in the Valais -French and German -- and the Swiss German dialect of the Valaisans is one of the most difficult to understand among the Swiss dialects even for other Swiss. There is also, thanks to the difficulty of life in this canton, a strong tradition of emigration and today there are more citizens of' Ernen in Santa Fé in the Argentine than there are in Ernen itself.
Sion, the capital of the canton, has the beautiful church of NotreDame de Valre dating back to the 12th cent, tury as well as the ruins of the castle of Tourbillon perched on two neigh, boring hills and visible from a great distance. These two hills rising abrup″ tly out of the surrounding plain, crowned with their lovely buildings and ruins, give an atmosphere of originality to Sion which an exploration of the town confirms. Sion has had an interesting and colorful history, dating from the time of the conquest of this countryside by the legions of Julius Caesar. In the town itself the sights which are particularly recommended are the Romanesque tower of the late Gothic Cathedral; the Supersax House with carved wooden ceilings by Jacob de Malacridis ( 1505) and the early baroque Council Hall with rich portico wings and the earliest Christian inscription in Switzerland, dating from the year 377 A. D. Below Sion a visit should be made to the Romanesque church of St. Pierre de Clages with its quaint octagonal spire and to the ruins of Castle Saillon. During the 16th century Sion, at that period the home of Matthew Schin, ner, experienced its pe″ riod of greatest glory.