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The marigolds never stood a chance. Twice a day in summer, 120 goats pass through the Swiss Alpine village of Hinterrhein on their way to and from pasture, and they behave with a very un-Swiss lack of respect for others’ front gardens. Johann Egger has been up since 5.30am tending to his herd – the source of the wonderfully pungent cheese maturing in his cellar. “We have to prepare for seven months of winter in just three months of summer,” he says. Outside, he points to a mark on the wall showing the highest recorded snowfall. In 1888, the snow came so high, people had to use their attic windows as front doors. After a day feeding on the high pastures, the goats return to their stalls, pails full with the day’s milk cooling in a fountain outside.

This scene is 700 years in the making. Around 1286, this village of thick-walled farmhouses was founded by settlers from the west. In the valleys of what is now the Swiss canton of Valais, small groups of farmers left their villages and set off east across the mountain passes in search of new lands. Today, the descendants of these pioneers call themselves the Walser (pronounced ‘Vall-zer’), after the name of their old homeland. They live in a scattering of villages in Switzerland, Austria and northern Italy, and some still speak the Walser German dialect. In a parody of smallness, even the tiny principality of Liechtenstein has its very own Walser enclave.

It’s still a mystery why the first Walser migrated in the 13th century. Romantically minded historians say they were a freespirited people, eager to shake off feudal rule, but they could simply have been producing too many babies for the upper Valais to support. Western Europe’s time of great migrations had almost ended, so the Walser sought out the remote tracts in the higher valleys, which were uninhabited or used only by passing herdsmen. The settlers worked hard, clearing the forests along the valley floors, and making their living from livestock in a region where few crops grow well, but Alpine meadows are pasture for goats and cattle which produce unrivalled milk and cheese.

Hinterrhein, with its population of 75, is one of the smaller villages they founded. It doesn’t normally get many visitors, but now Johann Egger is opening up his kitchen to small groups of walkers. As a tribute to the first Walser settlers, Alpine walkers in the 1980s set up the Walserweg (‘Walser way’) – a series of hiking trails linking the old settlements, and stretching from the Valais to the Austrian-German border, where the Walser migration ended. The full route takes around 30 days, depending on which variant you follow. Like the people it celebrates, the Walserweg seems reluctant to be pinned down and regulated. I have been coming to these mountains since childhood, but have only seen one small part of this Alpine archipelago. Now I am keen to find out how much of the Walserweg I can travel in a week.

Seven miles down the valley from Hinterrhein, Splügen is an untypically grand Walser village, grown rich from its position on the old trade routes south across the Alps to Milan and Venice. Most traditional Walser houses are of the sturdy farmhouse type, built out of wood, stone or plaster in styles particular to each valley. But in Splügen the houses at the top of the village have Italian airs and graces, with wrought-iron window-guards and front doors that would suit a palazzo. Splügen was not the only Walser settlement to gain unexpected wealth from its location. With the 20th-century boom in winter sports, the unloved blankets of snow that stifled the Walser each winter suddenly became white gold, and villages such as Davos, Klosters and Lech grew into famous ski resorts.

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