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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Butterflying here is not new. Enthusiasts have been
flocking to Valais’ meadows for decades. Vladimir Nabakov was one such papillon pilgrim.
As well as the famed author of Lolita, Nabakov, who lived in the town of Montreux in the neighbouring canton of Vaud from 1961 to 1977, was an accomplished lepidopterist and
wrote extensively about Valais’ butterflies. “The highest enjoyment of
timelessness is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This
is ecstasy, a
momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love: a sense of oneness with sun
and stone,” he wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory. On a Valais butterfly
excursion in 1975, Nabokov slipped on the rocky trail and had to be carried
down the mountain on a stretcher; the episode marked the beginning of his
health’s decline and he eventually died in 1977. His cremated remains are
buried in Montreux’s Cimetière de Clarens.
Today, however, 60% of Switzerland's 195 indigenous
butterfly species are considered near threatened or endangered, and 52 are on Switzerland’s IUCN Red
List of Threatened Species. But through the cooperation of local
farmers, vineyard owners and conservationists, Valais is becoming a sanctuary
for these highly endangered insects. And visitors are encouraged to
participate: Pro Natura and Butterfly Conservation
Switzerland have developed programmes to plant butterfly-friendly
flowers at public schools and parks.
On my next excursion, my
guide Dr Remo Wegner, a biologist from the Aletsch region in eastern Valais,
took me to the remote Vispertal valley, the only valley in Switzerland where
the Valaisian subspecies of the Provençal
fritillary, Melitaea deione, can be found. Like most modern butterfly
hikes, our excursion involved catch-and-release identifying: we temporarily encapsulated
the unharmed butterflies in specimen tubes, identified them and released them
10 or 15 minutes later. At the end of our four-hour hike, Remo pounced into a
dense roadside thicket to catch a scarce swallowtail, a butterfly noted for its
brilliant blue and gold tail whose design mimics the head of a distasteful insect
to ward off predators.
Valais may be known for its massive mountains and
glaciers. But those attractions can overshadow what may be the canton’s
alluring secret: its plethora of tiny creatures with colourful wings, elaborate
patterns and an enduring sense of fragility.
Those coming to Valais to butterfly can bunk in a
luxury mountain resort, like the Fletschorn, a cosy Relais & Chateaux
property in the car-free village of Saas-Fee. However, the valleys are more affordable, and
often convenient, bases for butterfly exploring. The Hotel Salina Maris, located near the base
of the Aletsch Glacier cable car, arranges extensive butterfly and bird hikes.
It also is home to Switzerland’s only saltwater bath, fed from naturally
thermal water and salt drawn from deep subterranean sources. As well as being
the ideal place to soak after a day’s hike, it attracts butterflies that come
to feed on the salt, making the wildflower-covered hillsides around the hotel
famous for their colourful species.