Villars and Its Environs
AND ITS ENVIRONS
Painted and Described by
Author of “Lucerne” “Chamonix” “Lausanne”
“Alpine Flowers and Gardens” &c.
BLACKIE AND SON LIMITED
LONDON GLASGOW AND BOMBAY
In this series have already appeared:
- VILLARS AND CHAMPÉRY
Painted and Described by
Other volumes in preparation
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
|Villars: The Grand and the Petit Muveran||Frontispiece|
|St. Maurice: The Château and the Rock of Dailly||8|
|Bex: The Croix de Javernaz and the Dent de Morcles||14|
|Les Plans: Avalanche falling from the Grand Muveran||20|
|Leysin, seen from Les Ecovets||24|
|The Chamossaire, seen from Villars||30|
|In the Village of Chesières||36|
|Mont Blanc and the Aiguille Verte, from Bretaye||40|
|The Dent du Midi, from Villars||46|
|Villars: The Mountains of Savoy||50|
|Villars: A Peep of the Dent de Morcles||54|
|Champéry: The Dent du Midi||60|
AND ITS ENVIRONS
There is no more interesting district in the Rhonevalley, perhaps even in the whole of Switzerland,than that which lies around the north-western entranceto the upper and main portion of the Cantonof Valais—that impressive, narrow entrance formedby the buttress cliffs of the Dent de Morcles and theDent du Midi, just inside of which nestles the ancienttown of St. Maurice. For this district is compact ofgreat variety. It holds examples of all that goes tothe making of Switzerland’s fascination. It holds thefertile plain with its broad, rushing river, the Rhone;it holds, in Aigle and St. Maurice, two châteauedtowns with long and active histories of their own; itholds, in Bex, one of the most delightful spots imaginablefor spring and autumn; in Leysin, a world-knownmountain health resort; popular mountainpleasure resorts in Villars, Chesières, Gryon, LesPlans, Champéry and Morgins; and, in the nativesof the Val d’Illiez, it holds a distinctive race witha distinctive tongue. Moreover, it contains, in thehuge erratic blocks near Monthey and near Bex,remarkable vestiges of the great glacier which onetime filled this valley and flowed on over what isnow Lac Léman; it has noble peaks in number andof no mean order for the climber; it possesses atleast three glaciers which, though small, are full ofindividual interest and beauty; and it harbours aflora so rich as to have become renowned. And yetall of this, and more besides, is packed within a comparativelyrestricted area. One reason for this greatvariety in so small a compass is the curiously strikingfact of the Rhone dividing Vaud from Valais, andthus at the same time dividing to a marked extentwhat is wild and truly Alpine circumstance from whatis relatively tame and rural. For Champéry, althoughat some 650 feet lower altitude than Villars, its vis-à-visacross the valley of the Rhone, partakes ofthe rude Alpine character of Valais, whilst Villars haswhat may be called the civilized setting so generallycharacteristic of Vaud. The difference may be notedin their respective vegetations—in the trees andflowers. For instance, at Champéry the bell-gentian(Gentiana excisa) and the yellow pea (Lathyrusluteus) can be found within a few minutes of thehotels, whereas at Villars one must walk at least anhour and a half higher up to find the gentian, andthe pea I have not found there at all. Or again,Villars possesses fine deciduous trees in quantity andits pines are perfect park-like specimens; whilst atChampéry deciduous trees are inconspicuous and thepines are of the rugged Alpine order. Villars possessesthe finer panorama—one of the finest in Switzerland,particularly in winter—but Champéry provides thetruer Alpine pictures, especially in summer.
Indeed the very variety of this district—historically,geographically, botanically sets a difficult taskbefore so slight a volume as this present. However,an attempt must be made towards adequacy. Notime can be wasted, and we had best start at St.Maurice and work diligently round in a circle byway of Bex, Les Plans, and Villars, thence to Aigleand Leysin, ending up with Monthey, Morgins, andChampéry, meanwhile knitting the whole district togetherwith general and comparative facts.
The scene as one approaches St. Maurice fromthe north-west is among the most noted in Valais.The old castle hugging the cliff to the right anddominating the swift and troubled Rhone rushing lowbeneath the ancient stone bridge, with the great sheerRock of Dailly to the left—it is a memorable picture,particularly in spring, when the wild wallflowers andlaburnum deck the castle cliffs, and the young tintsof spruce and larch soften the stern aspect of thefortress. Fortress? Yes, the Rock of Dailly, buttressof the Dent de Morcles, is a veritable Gibraltar, designedto stop and crush all invasion by way of theSimplon and the Grand St. Bernard. From an arrantcivilian’s standpoint it would seem an absolute impossibilityfor an invading army to live to pass thenarrow defile of St. Maurice. Those innumerable andmighty guns hidden in the face of that grim precipiceare apparently able to overwhelm all intruders, andthe defile of St. Maurice would seem as safe to-dayas when in olden times it was closed by a great gate.One has only to watch at nighttime the firing practice,illuminated by searchlights and directed againstthe forests and cliffs high upon the Dent du Midi,to be impressed with the awful deadliness of this rock-fortress.It seems, of course, a sacrilege so to insultthe lovely, peaceful Alps; it seems a gross, insensateoutrage upon a land pre-eminently designed to weanmen from the cult of war. But of its practical effectivenessin case of need there can be no manner ofdoubt. Napoleon to-day would have to go roundsome other way to get to Italy; he could not nowuse Switzerland as a convenient passage. And yet,and yet, it seems to me a shame when I rememberthe delightful months I spent upon the summit ofthe Rock of Dailly some five-and-twenty years ago,and think that now it is closed to mere civilians,that the magnificent prospect, with a sheer dropdown upon the Baths of Lavey, is now only examinedby the trainer of far-reaching cannon, and that theexquisite carpet of Alpine flowers around the Dentde Morcles is trampled under foot by companies andbattalions. It is sometimes hard to reconcile one’squiet ideals with the stern exigencies of life, andperhaps this is particularly so in Switzerland. Itwas on the slopes high above Dailly, now a vastmanœuvre ground for troops, that I once fled hurriedlyin the front of a stampeding herd of cattle driven madby flies, and that I only just escaped destruction byscrambling on to the roof of a friendly cheese châlet.Needless to say, I do not rank such incidents amongmy quiet ideals.
St. Maurice can boast of as long a history as anytown in the country. Looking backwards it is lostin the mists of Time, and it only reveals itself withreal distinctness when the Romans made the townthe centre of their activities in Valais, and JuliusCæsar threw up walls and fortifications around itand gave it the name of Tarnade or Ager Tarnadensis.The well-known savant and archæologist,Dean Bourban, of the Abbey of St. Maurice, saysthat the road which crosses the bridge and runsbeside the Rhone, through the defile, through thetown and on to Martigny and the Grand St. Bernard,is the selfsame road used by the Gauls on their wayto Italy, and by the Romans on their way to Gauland Germany. There is at Bourg St. Pierre, thelast village on the road to the Grand St. Bernard,an ancient milestone, marking the twenty-fourth milebetween Aosta and Martigny on the great militaryroute which ran from Milan, through St. Maurice,to Mayence in Germany. On the front of the oldtown hall of St. Maurice is an inscription saying:“I am Christian since the year 58”. According totradition St. Peter crossed the Grand St. Bernardand preached Christianity throughout Valais, and ifthis be fact, then he must of necessity have beento St. Maurice. But the town’s present name wasnot then in existence; it is derived from the massacrein 302 of the Theban Legion commanded by Maurice.The massacre is said to have occurred in what isnow the Bois Noir, about two miles out along theroad to Martigny—a wild sparse forest of stuntedpines beneath which the lovely rosy springtime heather(Erica carnea) luxuriates. This forest was the scene,too, of the terrible rockfall in 1835 from the summitof the Dent du Midi, which mountain, in its grandestand most gaunt aspect, dominates this part of thevalley, having as vis-à-vis the Dent de Morcles.The old Abbey of St. Maurice, built upon paganfoundations, was for centuries a spoilt child of theChurch. Endowments and gifts were showered uponit by Charlemagne and other kings and princes, andits actually existing treasure is priceless, includingas it does specimens of gold and silversmiths’ artfrom the sixth to the seventeenth centuries. Highup on the side of the precipitous cliffs at the backof the abbey is an ancient hermitage. As one looksat it from the town there appears no sign of a pathor even of a ledge for the chapel; but on closer inspectionone finds a steep and stony way up, borderedat intervals throughout its length by Stations of theCross. When I visited it some years ago the hermitwas absent, but there were rats in abundance. Pilgrimagesto this chapel used to be frequent (I believethat it is closed at present), and I understand that onthese occasions freshly broken stone was strewn aboutthe path, and that those who felt their consciences inneed of drastic measures went up the whole way ontheir hands and knees.
Ten minutes’ climb above the Château of St. Maurice(now the gendarmerie and prison) is the beautifulFairies’ Grotto, one of the natural wonders of thisdistrict. It is noted locally as having been the residenceof Frisette, the good fairy, after her troublesand vexations with the bad fairy, Turlure, who, if mymemory serves me, frequented the woods and pasturesaround Bex. The Canton of Valais is remarkablyrich in legend. If we accept the result of thepatient and exhaustive researches of Mme F. Byse,Milton must have made himself familiar with certainof these fairy tales when he was at Bex on his wayfrom Italy; for L’Allegro is held to contain conceitsand fancies gathered from this district. Emile Javelle,the famous author-alpinist (his title for himself wasclubiste inutile!), in writing of his first ascent of theDent du Midi, tells of his guide’s fear of the dreadful,fiery, devastating dragon that for ages had inhabitedthe very district through which they must pass thatof Bonaveau and the vallon of Susanfe, above Champéry.I myself have had narrated to me at midnightcreepy hair-lifting stories of the doings of malevolentspirits doomed since ages to frequent certain oldchâlets around Champéry, notably those on the highplateau of Barmaz—upon which châlets I involuntarilykeep one