Alpine isolation preserves the Walsers' way of life

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TR1SWITZ03 Cows grazing in meadow in village of Tenna PHOTO: Annie Palovcik

FELSBERG, Switzerland - "I'm no longer a typical Walser," says Andres. "They've stayed in the valley, while I left it." He still feels a special pride, though, whenever someone recognizes his distinctly accented German. "Oh, but you are typical," his wife, Margit, chimes in, laughing. "The Walsers all initially emigrated," although that was nearly 800 years ago.

My wife and I are staying with longtime friends Andres and Margit in Felsberg, a picturesque lowland village along the Rhine in eastern Switzerland's Graubünden. Geographically, it is by far the largest Swiss canton and is divided by towering mountain ranges into secluded valleys, each a world unto itself. In many of those valleys, the Walsers - a unique alpine tribe - have lived for centuries in tiny communities high on the slopes. The isolation led to the preservation not only of their dialect, but also of a whole range of traditions and ways of life.

Originally, Andres explains, they were a Germanic people who grew crops and herded animals in the higher elevations of Wallis (also known by its French name, Valais), a canton in south-central Switzerland. The lowlanders in Wallis mainly spoke a medieval form of French. Then, in the 13th century, the Walsers began to migrate.

Historians are not certain exactly why. It might have been due to overpopulation, or perhaps conflicts with the local feudal landowners. Some moved south and west, establishing Walser colonies that still exist in Italy and France. But most moved northeastward, over the mountains into Graubünden, where certain feudal lords granted them special privileges in exchange for patrolling and controlling the high mountain passes. Others moved on even farther; today, there are Walser communities in Liechtenstein and Austria, as well.

In each place, they settled on high-altitude land where no one had lived before, mainly because it was hard to survive and eke out a living on poor soil and where winters could be extremely harsh. Life was much easier in the warmer, fertile valley bottoms. But the Walsers were already familiar with building extremely robust houses and barns to cope with those conditions, and they had developed a type of subsistence farming suited to the high mountain terrain.

Andres and Margit drive us up a winding switchback road to visit a Walser village called Tenna, perched high above the lush Safien Valley. The air is crisp and clear, the mountain views spectacular. A sign welcomes us in Walser German to a lovely settlement of only a few dozen homes, with a two-room school; a little sennerei, or cheese factory; and a church dating to 1524.

The gravestones record a handful of family names, the same ones generation after generation. The ancient houses, mainly of squared-off logs and stone, with steep roofs to shed the snow, have huge stacks of firewood piled outside and tiny outbuildings that are actually large ovens for baking bread. Cows and sheep munch away everywhere. Scattered across grassy slopes with clusters of larch trees are sturdy sheds for storing hay to feed the animals over the long winters. It is May, and the herds have not yet been moved up to the much higher summer grazing areas.

We lunch outdoors at the hotel, enjoying barley soup and grilled mushrooms on bread, and washing it down with hard cider. Andres regales us with stories about his childhood in the 1960s and '70s at an even smaller Walser hamlet elsewhere in the canton.

Each family had only a few cows and perhaps a pig, chickens, and rabbits. Andres' family usually kept six to eight sheep and goats, as well. They had a summer vegetable plot for their own needs and nearby meadows where their animals could graze once the snow melted in spring. The basis of the economy was milk production. In evenings during the school year, Andres helped to feed the cows, and his father milked them by hand. The school he attended was in a larger village, far below. In winter, he sledded down each day and had to pull his sled back up, a long, steep trek.

During the summer vacation, Andres helped with the haying. He used a scythe to cut the grass, gathered it up, and carried it on his back to the barn, where it was stored to feed the animals the following winter. Meanwhile, the herds were led far up onto "the alp," the extreme mountain terrain beyond the tree line.

Each family owned plots of meadow at several elevations. The animals were taken progressively higher as the snow melted and fresh grass became available for grazing. A small group of village men and boys, including Andres' older brother, Hans, went up with the herds and stayed there for the entire season. Today, some women are involved, as well. They milked the animals every day, cooperatively, and made cheese, which was stored in cool sheds. In autumn, the herds were brought back down. The cheese was divvied up and sold.

That return from the alp remains a festive annual celebration today. Cash from the cheese, and from fresh milk sold locally for cheese-making during the winter months, was the main source of income. Andres' family also sold the occasional calf or lamb, and young goats at Easter. They called it "Easter lamb." It was farming on the smallest scale imaginable, yet somehow they prospered.

Andres left his mountain home to apprentice as a carpenter, a trade he practiced for many years, in addition to part-time theatrical acting. (Today, he and Margit are health-care professionals, commuting to nearby Chur, a city of 37,000 and the capital of Graubünden.) But Andres has never cut his links to the Walser community or lost his distinctive manner of speech.

Walking through Tenna, he greets an elderly couple. "You must be from Prättigau," the man says, recognizing the accent of Andres' home valley.

After lunch, we stroll up the road to see a new sensation: the world's first solar-powered ski lift. Installed just a couple of years ago, it has photovoltaic panels strung right up the hill along the same posts and cables that pull skiers up on T-bars. In the snow-free season, excess power is fed into the national energy grid. These Walsers may live outside the mainstream, but they are by no means backward.

This is underscored another evening, when our friends take us to Prättigau itself, where Andres' ancestors lived for centuries. He is the only one of five siblings to leave the valley, although he has not moved far. We are there for a concert in Fideris, where one of his sisters now lives. The village is a bit larger than Tälfsch, the hamlet where they grew up, but not far away. It features stunning alpine architecture. Each house is a work of art, with log walls or half-timbered framing, elegant balconies and railings, ornate shuttered windows, and complex tile roofs. Many walls are painted or engraved with religious messages, or bucolic scenes, or the dates (e.g. 1641, 1715) of construction.

Between songs, the band tells jokes in Walser German. Andres laughs along, but Margit, who was raised in Germany and is familiar with mainstream Swiss German, can hardly make out a word. If we were expecting Tirolean oom-pah-pah tunes, we were wrong. The popular local trio treats us to an eclectic display of world music: klezmer, gypsy, tango, blues, Celtic.

Andres' sister tells us she is leaving the next morning for a cycling trip in Ireland. Everyone is from the valley, but each seems well-educated, and most speak amazingly good English. Truly isolated from the world no longer, the Walsers manage to combine traditional ways with a remarkable degree of 21st-century sophistication.

The Swiss National Tourist Office website explains, in English, travel and lodging options for visitors. Go to www.myswitzerland.com.

The Prättigau valley has many villages with various lodgings. For the local tourist board, go to www.praettigau.info.

The next Prättigau festival celebrating the return of the animal herds and cheese from the high alp will be Oct. 6-9, location to be announced. For information, go to www.alpspektakel.ch.