Hiking the Alpine Walserweg trail
The village of Juf, however, feels much like it must have done to the early settlers. At 2,126 metres, it is said to be the highest year-round settlement in Europe. Six families live here above the tree line, the valley bare except for Alpine grasses and bilberry bushes. Nina Feldhofer is Austrian and one of Juf’s seasonal inhabitants. She spends her holidays from university working in Switzerland as a cowherd, dealing with the awkward combination of large animals and steep slopes. “Cows are always going up but never down!” she says, carrying her grandfather’s old binoculars, which she uses to seek out wilful strays. She points to some small white flowers – yarrow – good for healing cuts, and wild caraway used to flavour the local schnapps. I let Nina return to her wayward charges. The barn at the end of the village is the sunburnt colour wooden buildings quickly acquire in the local climate. To the untrained eye, a 50-year-old house looks much the same as a 500-year-old one. At the valley’s end, the grass fades to ash-grey slopes crowned with remnant snow.
In little over 20 miles, the stream that traces a few turns in Juf has joined others to carve out one of Europe’s greatest gorges. Since Roman times it has been known as Via Mala – the Evil Road. Twin bridges span a gap between cliff faces as tall as skyscrapers and less than a metre apart in places. From a rocky overhang, a toppled tree, still anchored by its roots, points down into oblivion. Via Mala is an extreme example of why the Walser preferred to travel over mountain passes rather than along river valleys.
Fifteen miles to the east, one of these old Walser walking trails links the villages of Monstein and Sertig in just over five hours – considered a short hop before the days of sealed roads. Thomas Gadmer from the local Walser society joins me for the walk. “Alpine peoples never went walking for the view,” he says. “The early Walser thought that climbing mountains for no reason provoked God’s anger, and many peaks didn’t have names until recent times.”
We begin in morning mist – the breath of the forest. Through this, the dimmed sun throws a magical aura over the path ahead, as if marking out the mountains as another realm. Three deer dart out from the trees. I feel a slight sense of trespass on reaching the Oberalp – the old summer settlement used when the cows are on the higher pastures. Today, it is utterly silent.
Leaving the larches behind, the path comes to open moorland, marked only by a few deserted byres, the low hum of grasshoppers and the distant cry of a marmot. Stopping for a drink at a fountain outside a cabin, I notice its absent owner has planted edelweiss – these curious white flowers are rarely seen growing wild. Then, a final climb to reach the Fanezfurgga. From the top of this pass, a barren U-shaped valley is revealed. We follow the trail down past marmots sunning themselves and scree slopes dotted with deep-blue gentians to one of the most perfect villages in the Alps. The houses of Sertig form neat clusters despite the breadth of the valley, leaving open fields between them. A waterfall and a triple crown of mountains provide the backdrop to the village – a mix of gentle and severe that is typically Alpine.