I had not come to Valais, a rugged, ancient landscape that stretches along Switzerland’s Rhône River Valley, for its ski slopes or Matterhorn views, vertical vineyards or thermal baths. Instead, I was standing in the middle of a sunny mountain meadow with an insect net and a pocketful of glass tubes. Depending where I was in this bilingual canton, I was chasing either schmetterlinge or papillon. In other words: I was here for the butterflies.
Thanks partly to its arid, sunny climate, Valais (or “Wallis”, in German) is one of Europe’s largest butterfly habitats. It also is an area where a single mountain might be home to several different habitats – a rare find in the butterfly world. Two regions particularly popular with lepidopterists include the Simplon Pass, home to the elusive Rätzer’s ringlet; and the narrow Vispertal Valley, the only place in Switzerland where you can find the orange and brown Provençal fritillary.
- The wildflower-covered mountainsides of Canton Valais are the perfect playground for butterflies. (Nendaz/JP Guillermin)
Some of the most varied butterfly areas in the Valais, however, run along the spine of Switzerland’s röstigraben, the virtual line that separates the country’s German and French speaking regions. (Rösti is a fried potato dish loved by Swiss Germans – and scoffed at by Swiss French). This ancient cultural and linguistic equator cuts through the Naturpark Pfyn-Finges, a thickly wooded, foreboding steppe habitat that doubles as a natural border, attracting several types of butterfly, not to mention large lizards, African bird species such as the vibrant bee-eater and other creatures not typically associated with Alpine fauna. And if identifying butterflies among such diversity wasn’t difficult enough, the linguistic divide adds a challenge: both German and French species names are used here, which confuses even professionals. Luckily, as in the case of many natural history field studies, the Latin names are used for clarity.
The vineyard town of Salgesch, one of the last German-speaking villages before the French side begins, was an especially picturesque place to start my butterfly excursion. Dirt trails wound through the steep terraced vineyards planted with golden chasselas and Johannisberg grapes. I spotted five different species, including the himmelblauer bläuling, or what the French call azuré de la bugrane, a tiny delicate creature with ice-blue wings and a fanning pattern of orange ringlets along its hindwing.
- An Apollo butterfly, with its distinctive red spots, rests on a yarrow flower. (Anne Sorbes/Getty)
Learning to identify butterflies requires some understanding of the flowering plants they frequent: when you look for a particular species, you often head for the plant with which it is associated. A pink spray of larkspur across the road held a gossamer Apollo butterfly with signature red-eye wing marks. I also encountered a variety of moths with intricate patterns so nuanced that even experts struggle to categorise them. There are 195 species of butterflies in Switzerland – and tens of thousands of moth species, many of them diurnal.
- Canton Valais attracts a plethora of tiny creatures. (Amanda Ruggeri)
After a day of butterflying, I headed for dinner. At Restaurant Soleil (Schafgasse 2, Salgesch; 027-455-1427), I sampled a local rosé called Dôle Blanche and dipped schnapps-soaked local apricots into a fondue made with pungent Vacherin cheese. Salgesch’s new Wine Sensorium is an excellent place to learn more about the unique local varietals – such as the heida and chasselas whites, known for their mineral, almost gunpowder-like flavours. Salgesch is also home to Naturpark Pfyn-Finges Visitor’s Centre, whose spacious interactive museum invites guests to learn more about the park’s flora and fauna. It hosts regular meet-ups, lectures and hikes dedicated to insects, birds and wildflowers, and can arrange lepidopterist guides to accompany butterfly-seekers.
- Canton Valais' Rhône River Valley is dotted with charming towns. (Grauy/Getty)