Have Mule, Will Travel
By Patricia Keegan and Dan Davis
It's not often you find a hotel or restaurant that has parking space for your mule. But in the hamlet of Binn, Switzerland, the Hotel Ofenhorn's outdoor restaurant offers ample refreshment beneath shady trees with hitching posts on the side. This backroads make that footpath waystation in the southwestern Valais canton is seldom mentioned in guidebooks. Binn is even hard to find on maps. (Focus a magnifying glass at the eastern end of the canton between Fiesch and the Italian border.) Without a car to drive the local mountain road that mimics the twisting Binntal River, hiking or mule trekking provides the only access, just as it has done for centuries. The trail follows an ancient trade route to Italy through alpine meadows, farms, mountain tunnels, and over stone bridges. Outfitter Stefan Schweizer of Bergland Produkte , saddles up in the village of Ernen (near Fiesch). His mule treks the only one offered in this side valley of the Valais begin in a courtyard that practically lies in the shadow of the Tellhaus, Ernen's most famous building. The Tellhaus has the earliest depiction of Switzerland's legendary folk hero, William Tell, who shot an arrow off his son's head. Stefan's mules bray and stamp their hooves just as they might have done in the late 16th century when the Tellhaus fresco was painted. This Swiss trip marks my first hiking experience. With the exception of a New Yorker in his 60's, the eight Americans, two Swiss, three Japanese, and a German couple are all younger than me; and judging by their faded packs and coordinated gear, all are old hands at hiking. Even the Germans' dog, Lupa, wears saddle packs filled with dog food. Two mules carry excess gear and baskets of food. Three others are saddled to allow us to alternate hiking and riding. The mules are fresh, and so am I, so I relinquish the saddle seats to one of the Japanese, who communicates with us mainly through smiles and gestures. Stefan's assistants lead the mules, giving those in the saddle nothing to do but hold on and enjoy the scenery. We amble past sun blackened chalets built of aged larchwood. On balconies, decked with rioting red geraniums and yellow pansies, housewives air down comforters. Cow bells clang in backyard pastures. Not one soul gives the mules a second glance. An earthen switchback trail marks the old Valais route to Italy. Pine roots act as ladder rungs on the steepest section. My calf muscles start to feel as firm as cheese wheels. I begin to wish I hadn't given up my turn in the saddle. We traipse through a barnyard, past a farmhouse and a tiny whitewashed chapel the cluster of buildings a symbol of the self sufficiency practiced for generations by these secluded Binntal farmers. As late as 100 years ago, the Swiss traveled this route to trade cheese, corn and leather for Italian rice, wine, textiles, salt and spices. Then only mule trains negotiated these steep and narrow trails. Lupa leaps ahead, kibble jiggling in his packs. In a small clearing a stucco chapel perches above the valley. Here Stefan spreads a blanket onto the chapel steps and lays out cheeses made from sheep's and cow's milk. The cheeses are prized local varieties made in small quantities in the high alpine only during summer months. Slices of salty beef sausages and crusty wheels of brown bread complement the cheeses. A saffron rice and raisin salad, carrots and wine round out the picnic. 'The Swiss people were afraid of the mountains,' Swiss native, Natalie Kenmeugni, tells me as we drowse like butterflies in the sunshine. 'They thought bad spirits caused avalanches and falling stones. They thought the sounds the wind makes were poltergeists. They put on masks at the end of winter and rang big bells to make noise to chase the bad spirits away.' I can hear the bells, but they belong to cows, mere dots on the opposite hillside. Suddenly, snarling and barking shatters our peace. A couple of descending hikers rushes into the clearing where their dog has attacked Lupa. We rally around the Germans' dog, defending him as if Lupa belonged to all of us. The couple snare their hound and drag him away, but the spell is broken. Rain clouds are gathering. Quietly, we pack up and move out along a trail that zig-zags downhill across a stone bridge spanning a boulder tossed gorge. The path narrows and switchbacks upward. The mules trudge farther ahead out of sight and then out of hearing. A tunnel of fir trees spreads upturned angel wing branches overhead. The calves of my legs start a slow burn. My stumbling steps dislodge pebbles that spill into a rock slide. For several moments I listen to the cascade of stones I can no longer see. Then the sound is swallowed up by the gorge far...far below. The trail ascends through a pine forest umbrella that shelters us during a brief, but chilly, shower. Oh, dear mules, where are you now?
The fast walking New Yorker leads the way along the rustic trek that hugs the mountain's hunched back. The inexperienced hikers, like me, concentrate on the scenery from the backs of the sure-footed mules. Rough hewn mountain tunnels slice across the final miles to Binn. The nature-loving Germans will camp on the trail that night as the mules continue into Italy. The rest of us take the high road by car back to the 20th century. Two hours later I arrive in Sion, Switzerland's oldest city, proving that this is a country where you can hike all day in the Alps and still make it into the city for an evening concert in a castle. My destination, however, is the pool and spa of the Hotel Des Vignes, a pink stucco palace tucked into a hillside of vineyards. A glass of 'Arvine' wine a Valaisian specialty and a swim rejuvenate me for an evening outing: driving amid the vineyards. As far as I can see, mountain vineyards of Switzerland's main wine-growing canton ripple down to the city sprawled below. Golden light gilds the vines where burbling water rushes through irrigation canals called 'bisses,' which Valaisian wine growers have relied upon for centuries. Hiking provides the perfect complement for Switzerland's hearty cuisine. Nearly every meal includes a variation on Rosti a potato, onion and egg dish. Some of the simpler specialties are the tastiest. Raclette, a dripping grilled cheese is served with gherkin pickles, onions and Rosti. Even remote mountain restaurants present artfully arranged entrees garnished with herbs and decorative designs swirled in the sauces. 'The Swiss are known for their hospitality,' says Denise Guigoz, a local guide. She laughs as she hands me an appetizer of 'Serac,' a farmer's cheese made that morning. 'My mother used to chase after tourists with buckets of meat.' I accept a second serving of succulently roasted pork, knowing that this indulgence of calories can easily be walked away in the morning on a hike through the vineyards. Months later I receive a letter from one of the Japanese hikers with whom I had exchanged business cards. A photo is enclosed with a note that reads, 'So send for memory during our Swiss day.' It makes me crave a meal of farmer's cheese eaten on the open trail beside a faithful mule.
Getting There: Swissair flies from Washington, DC's Dulles International to Zurich two days a week via Boston. Also, Swissair code-shares with Delta and Austrian Airlines, using on an Austrian aircraft for nonstop flights to Geneva six days a week. Call 1-800-221-4750 for reservations. For information on Switzerland, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 608 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10020. 212-757-5944. FAX 212-262-6116.