International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
Walser identity is at once hard to define and deeply felt. Today it is less to do with the Walser dialect, which, like many dialects, is fading. Nor is it much to do with blood ties, after centuries of intermarriage. The 40,000-odd population of the traditional Walser settlements includes many non-Walser, especially in the town of Davos. Resourcefulness, individualism, a certain allergy to authority – all these are said to be Walser traits. But I think memory explains much of it. In the long-settled lands of Western Europe, there are few people who still tell the story of how their villages were built, and who preserve the pioneering spirit of their ancestors.
On the last day, I catch a bright blue village bus from the covered bridge in Lech to the lake at the end of the valley. A statue of an ibex perched atop a boulder marks the beginning of the route. Following the stones painted with whitered- white waymarks, the path runs beside the River Lech for eight miles before reaching its namesake village. In a dry summer it’s hard to tell where the river rises. A frog hops past, presumably in search of water, unseen by a group of jays. As I walk on, the riverbed slowly fills. The open valley turns to a forest of tall fir trees, many hung with moss. The path passes by a feeding station for deer, then comes to a large clearing around a farmhouse where dozens of walkers are stopping for lunch.
For Walserweg purists, the route ends just north of here in the valley of the Kleinwalsertal, a territorial oddity joined to Austria but only accessible by road from Germany, and an inconvenient place to finish my journey. For me, a more fitting end to the route is in the hamlet of Bürstegg, built on a gentle rise above the gorge that runs downstream from the village of Lech. It was inhabited year-round as late as 1900, but declined as Lech grew. Today it is the bare minimum of a village: one house, a tiny chapel and half a dozen barns.
I set off to reach it before sunset. Behind Bürstegg is the Biberkopf. This perfect, pyramid-shaped mountain marks the border with Germany and the final stop on the Walser’s long path. One day I hope to stand at the foot of another mountain – the incomparable Matterhorn, back in the Valais, where the Walser set off all those centuries ago. Perhaps I can find a scene just like this one. Dusk is falling, but there is still enough light for the walk home.
Rory Goulding is the editorial assistant at Lonely Planet Magazine.