Men in the mountains


Alptrekking offers hikers a large circuit around the Valais Alps.  You are invited to play leap-frog over the frontiers of three countries, but without ever changing region, as Valais, Savoy and Aosta Valley have a landscape, a heritage and a past in common.

As far as human memory recalls, the Alps have been a single territory.  The most ancient prehistoric traces reveal a community of techniques and life styles.  The anthropomorphic stelae of Petit-Chasseur (Valais) strangely resemble those of Saint-Martin-de Corléans (Aosta).  As far as archaeologists are concerned, there is no doubt that these two human groups had regular contacts.  Isolated objects, discovered at high altitude, bear witness to a use of the passes often free of snow.  Much later, the Romans confirmed the importance of these passages;  they carved through the Alps following great communication routes and made the Great Saint Bernard particularly popular with traders and soldiers. 

During the Middle Ages, people crossed the same passes, at that time under the protection of the Church.  Hospices were built, like the Saint Bernard, and, all along the route, relay posts and stopping-places were set up, as well as toll-houses and foreign exchange offices.  Merchants and the pilgrims took the Via Francigena which linked Canterbury to Rome. 

Since the 13th century a large parts of Valais and Aosta Valley belonged to the counts of Savoy who sought to be protectors of the Western Alps, from Mont Cenis to the Little Saint Bernard, from Aosta Valley to Saint-Maurice.
From that time a society with apparently unchanging rhythms and rites existed for several centuries. The conditions of life were similar on both sides of the Valais Alps.  The responses supplied by the populations of La Fouly matched those of Macugnaga or Les Houches.

Agriculture was the main source of income.  Everywhere, men sought grass for their livestock:  month after month they moved in stages up the valley.  Everywhere, they endeavoured to store the water rushing down from the glaciers, to slow it down, to divert it towards meadows needing watering:  the irrigation canals which enchant walkers today bear witness to this.  Everywhere, they sought to better their ordinary life and embellish their meals and feast days: they planted vines on the sunniest slopes. To combat the tyranny of the slopes, stone by stone, they created terraces in order to assure their cereals a favourable exposure.  They arranged their gardens around a spring.  They set up their villages sheltered from avalanches, on the poorest and least fertile of terrains. To gather in their harvests, go from one place to another, to meet and cross the passes, they built bridges and paths and, when the passage was too sheer, they installed ladders.  Excursionists today still take advantage of this vast network chequering the landscape. Their houses, burnt by the sun, look alike.  They were conceived to resist bad weather.  They gave shelter to man and beast, their food and forage.  Built with local raw materials, they combined aesthetics, functionality and ecology.  The chalet of yesteryear has become the symbol of mountains for citizens who dream of holidays and fresh air.  Their customs and even their languages echo from one valley to the other, from Aosta to Evolène, from Cervinia to Argentière.  The patois speakers of today meet up across the frontiers in order to make their language come alive, before it is forgotten.  The transhumance, grape harvests, craft fairs attract colourful international crowds. There is indeed only one breed of fighting cow, but it has found an enthusiastic welcome in Aosta Valley as well as Savoy.

The 19th century marked the beginning of great upheavals.  Frontiers were defined, the Alps became Italian, Swiss or French.  The commercial trade network found itself changed.  The rise of industry quickly followed.  Linked to the exploitation of water resources and the railway which removed the valley enclaves and brought them nearer to large urban centres, ways of life and thinking were revolutionised.  The development of the “industry of foreigners” achieved this transformation of mountain economy.  Small farmers, the valley’s inhabitants, became factory workers, miners, masons, guides, hotel keepers.  Sometimes they left part of their soul.  In a few generations, agriculture lost pride of place and made way for the service industry and building.  Under the thrust of these different factors, the landscape also changed.  Valleys were flooded under the water of dams, motorways streaked the hillsides, villages grew to become mountain towns, patches of forests made way for ski tracks… When all was said and done, men followed the management of the territory begun centuries before in order to respond to new needs.

Parallel with this mutation, there was a growing interest in alpine culture.  Different cultural centres were created, like the Brel in Aosta, the dauphinois Museum in Grenoble or the Médiathèque-Valais in Martigny.  In Geneva, the Ethnographic Museum gathered the famous Amoudruz collection whose objects endeavour to conserve traces of the life of the past.  These institutions aim to gather together and highlight the alpine heritage.  They contribute to the recognition of an authentic culture and a certain pride in belonging to this past world.  The craftsmen, grouped together under the banner of Arts and Crafts, have grasped the message:  far from folklore, they rely on ancestral techniques, not to imitate or make seem old, but to innovate and create objects for man of today.  All over the Alps, this movement is rapidly expanding.  Its vitality is seen in creative events and get-togethers, the Saint Orso Fair being a good example.
In a more global way, long-lasting development and gentle tourism endeavour to respect the framework of life of the populations and to preserve the equilibrium of nature.  And how better than at the rhythm of paces?  Walking makes you rediscover the landscape, adapt yourself to it.  When stopping to catch breath, hikers try to decipher the traces written by the centuries.  Here, they go back to the dawn of time;  there, they see a village on the moraine, collapsed dry stone walls, ancient terraces which have become meadows;  a mule track winds in front of them…  They start off again, having gained from their discovery and more respectful of the inhabitants of this fragile area.  This initiatory experience must be experienced with a rucksack on your back, for, as Nicolas Bouvier writes “Walking is also process of knowledge and illumination… Sometimes at the and of long walks, not quite at the end, but with the end in sight, since you know what is waiting for you, there is a sort of invasion of the world in your slender body, fantastic, impossible to explain in words”.

Anne Michellod, Jean-Henry Papilloud
Médiathèque Valais - Martigny