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Swiss rides: Central Valais region

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5 Feb 2018
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There is a lot more to Switzerland than meets the eye. Or more specifically, the Pfyn-Finges Nature Park in the Central Valais region is a wonderfully juxtaposed marvel.

When we set out this morning from our base in Unterbäch, Anthony, an experienced guide from local outfit Kudos Cycling, had promised some spectacular terrain, but nothing could have prepared for me for this.

We begin pedalling crisply tarmacked roads hewn into sheer granite escarpments, on whose upper reaches snow still clings, like an ongoing project to stifle the peaks before they puncture the sky.

Down here in the valley the air hangs thick, enveloping lungs and tickling skin like a wet feather as we dip in and out of the shadows.

It feels like the Mediterranean one moment, lizards darting and crackling amid fallen leaves, and reminds us of the Loire Valley the next, with acres upon acres of neatly cropped vineyards.

At once gentle and austere, welcoming but imposing.

Image credit: ©Valais/Wallis Promotion - Christian Pfammatter

Part way along this road that hugs the upper reaches of the banks of the Rhône River, it becomes clear we’re not alone in having been inspired by the Pfyn-Finges Nature Park.

Tucked away by the remnants of an old tunnel is a small Catholic shrine, presiding in a reverential bubble over an almighty view.

We stop to take it in, clearly not the first and certainly not the last to be so enthralled by these wilds.

For us, though, the draw of winding climbs, great natural sculptures and gargantuan dams has us quickly turning on our cleats to roll away in search of more. 

Keeping with tradition

The Pfyn-Finges Nature Park now behind us, we then cross the Rhône to begin the meandering route to the village of Grimentz in the Val d’Anniviers.

Almost immediately the more arid landscape is replaced by something altogether lusher, the near silence of the early part of our ride making way for a litany of clicks and whistles from marmots busying themselves with whatever it is marmots do when they see two cyclists approaching.

A tight group of switchbacks gives way to a straighter road at a comfortable gradient in the low singles through the village of Saint-Jean.

The only human interaction on our ascent comes from a sea of waving hands inside a yellow PostBus, the transport service that links these scattered villages to one another and to the bigger neighbouring towns.

Although why anyone would choose to leave this solitude today is a mystery.

Image credit: ©Valais/Wallis Promotion - Alban Mathieu

Grimentz is like a living postcard. Period chalets built from vieux bois, the sun-scorched slats and rafters of larch and pine, cluster around old cobbled streets.

Their window boxes burgeon with strikingly red geraniums interspersed with the delicate white of edelweiss, while the streets, similarly preserved in antiquity like the chalets, are perfunctorily hosed down.

The village has just witnessed one of many annual cattle parades that are a feature in these valleys, where farmers drive their cattle – their hair and necks adorned with flowers – down from the slopes higher up to the warmth of barns for the winter.

Most prized are the Hérens cows, which take their name from the adjacent Val d’Hérens, to which we now set our course.

Man and nature

The route to Val d’Hérens, which sees the road head south towards Vex and on to Hérémence, lays claim to one of Switzerland’s most celebrated geological sites, the Pyramides d’Euseigne.

The road circumscribes a deep gorge, down into which the pyramids tumble like a sine wave, their great millennia-old spikes of soil capped almost impossibly with huge boulders, deposited at the end of the last Ice Age.

When the meltwaters came they eroded the surrounding soil, but the boulder caps protected these peaks to form the kind of cascading natural crenallations that would make Gaudi weep and scientists question the very laws of physics.

Like Val d’Anniviers next door, Val d’Hérens is peppered with perfectly imperfect villages, whose near tar-black wooden forms cling sleepily to the steep grassy mountainside.

As we progress even they peter out, and soon the environment has returned to moody and dominating as our elevation numbers start to become significant.

But no sooner have we negotiated the last of a deliciously sinuous set of tree-flanked hairpins than the road burrows through a tunnel and remerges in front of the most impressive structure I’ve ever seen.

The Pyramides may have been spectacular, but this is arresting on an entirely different level. We’re at the foot of Grande Dixence Dam, all 285 man-made metres of it, the tallest gravity dam in the world.

Decades of lichen clings to its concrete face, but there’s no softening the immensity of this structure, and for us cyclists, there’s no getting around it, at least not today.

We’re too late to leave our steeds and get the gondola up to Lac des Dix, the lake the dam has created, and the gravel track up has been closed for fear of falling rock.

So, turning on our cleats for a final time, we bid adieu to this monolith and use gravity for our own purposes to freely propel us to our hotel below.

 

Head for the dam

• To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/swissrides4

Leave Unterbäch in a westerly direction on the Kantonsstrasse, passing through the village of Eischoll, where the road’s name changes to Bränner.

Follow signs to Turtmann, head north over the Rhône then ride along the road that follows the river bank before joining back up with the Kantonsstrasse. Follows signs to Sierre, cross the Rhône heading south and follow signs to Vissoie, Saint-Jean and Grimentz.

Retrace your steps towards Sierre, looking for signs to Chippis. Head west from Chippis on the Route de Chippis towards Chalais.

Eventually you’ll hit a roundabout signed Evolène, Hérémence, Dixence. Follow the signs to Dixence, via Hérémence, before heading up to the Dam proper – there is only one road to the Grande Dixence Dam and it is well signed.

From here, retrace your steps once again, staying left when the road forks and following signs to Thyon-Les Collons, the end point of this ride.

For more information, see visitvalais.ch/cycling

 

 

How we did it

We stayed in the town of Unterbäch, which is a 2 hour 10 minute drive from Geneva airport. Alternatively you can get there via Switzerland’s comprehensive public transport network.

The journey takes around 3 hours 20 minutes and involves taking the train from the airport to Raron, changing along the way at Visp then taking the gondola up to Unterbäch.

Accommodation

Perched high up the banks of the Rhône in Unterbäch is the Sporthotel Walliserhof, a three-star hotel that is a homely mix of lodge and ski chalet.

Walliserhof boasts a fully equipped secure bike garage with tools and spares, as well as a fleet of quality hire bikes.

In the summer the hotel also offers guided rides and hikes into the surrounding mountains, and for post-activity recovery there’s a sauna on site for guests and a particularly wonderful kitchen cooking hearty, seasonal fare.

See sporthotel-walliserhof.ch for more details.

Destination

The Rhône River begins at the Rhône Glacier in the Urner Alps, at the far eastern side of the canton of Valais, and flows via Lake Geneva into southeastern France.

Its banks are scattered with attractions, but three of its most famous are found along this route. The Pyramides d’Euseigne in the Val d’Hérens valley are a collection of mighty stone towers topped with almost impossibly balanced rock boulders, which are rather wonderfully referred to by geologists as ‘hoodoos’.

Val d’Hérens also boasts some of Switzerland’s oldest villages, clusters of chalets built in the typical style from sun-scorched vieux bois wood and raised on stilts to house livestock beneath (and ingeniously, warm the chalets in winter).

It’s also home to the Grande Dixence Dam, the world’s tallest gravity dam whose zenith, and the lake it creates, the Lac des Dix, can be reached via cable car from below.

See visitvalais.ch/cycling for more information.

 

Flying to Switzerland

Swiss offers an array of options connecting Zürich to the UK, and won’t charge you extra for your bike

Switzerland is well connected to the UK by air, with national carrier Swiss offering up to 119 weekly flights from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick (seasonal), Manchester, Birmingham and Dublin to Zürich.

All-inclusive fares start from £78 one-way, which includes all airport taxes, one piece of hold luggage and hand luggage, plus an onboard meal and complimentary drink.

Swiss will also transport your bike at no extra cost as part of your standard baggage allowance, which is up to 23kg for Classic fares and 32kg for Business fare. For more information and specific pricing details, visit swiss.com.

For our trip we flew into Zürich and out of Geneva, with flights taking well under two hours from London City Airport. Both Zürich and Geneva are well serviced with local and regional trains, as well as having a full complement of hire car providers on standby, airport shuttles and buses. See swiss.com for more details

• Discover more about cycling in Switzerland at myswitzerland.com/roadcycling