Around Basel: Historical secrets on the hike from Rodersdorf to Flüh

The area around Basel is full of secrets. 

Source: Swiss Mobile (with my notes added) 

In October 2020, I hiked from Rodersdorf to Flüh (red line), and discovered five secrets:

  1. Historical border stones from the years 1817, 1890 and 1951 between France and Switzerland – why from 1817? And can you see the “D” (Germany or “D”eutschland) hidden “behind” the “F” for France? 
  2. Biederthal and its castle, Burg (Biederthal) – why are they separated by the border between France and Switzerland?
  3. Why does the canton of Solothurn (SO) “own” an exclave within Basel (BL)? What can the Burg Rotberg tell us about this?
  4. Why did the Romans dig a cart road (“Karrweg”) into the rocks to get from Flüh to Hofstetten – avoiding the valley? 
  5. The Chälegrabe above Hofstetten – why is this spectacular gorge called “Chäle”-Grabe”?

In this blog, I will start with secrets #1 and #2, while leaving the other secrets for the next blogs.

 

1 The historical border stones between Metzerlen and Burg

Where the (car) road from Rodersdorf up to Metzerlen reaches the highest point of the pass, it touches the border between France and Switzerland.

The hiking signs to the Remel (or Raemel in French) are on the French side.  

Here we find stone #109 that is from 1890. It shows the edge of the French/Swiss border pointing to the wooden steps,…

… where the path lined with more historical border stones starts. The stones are either

  • from 1817 (just after the Congress of Vienna, 1815),
  • from 1890 (the Alsace belonged to Germany since 1870/71) or…
  • from 1951 (which happens to be my year of birth). 

After having climbed the wooden steps, we come across stone #110 from 1817. Why 1817? At the Congress of Vienna, in 1815, statesmen and diplomats had reorganized Europe, which needed to be documented.

All border stones from 1817 show the coat of arms of the Swiss canton Solothurn with S and O engraved to the sides.

On the French side, the French engraved the fleur de Lys. After 1870/71, the Germans, having conquered the Alsace, removed the flower to replace it with “D” for Germany. After World War I (1918), the Alsace became French again, and the French changed the  “D” into the “F” for France, but the “D” can still be seen (border stone #110). 

There must have been an inventory of the country borders in 1890. The Alsace was still part of Germany and Bismarck had just resigned. The 1890 stones have an “S” with a cross engraved on the Swiss side (stone #116).

The stones from 1951 have been produced more “efficiently”: A plain “S” and a plain “F” mark the countries (stone #115).

The pretty path with the border stones winds through the forest and crosses the romantic Y-shaped canyon of the Geissberg above Biederthal.

At Burg, we leave the canton Solothurn. We are now in the former Prince-Bishopric of Basel. 

 

2 Biederthal and its castle Burg (Biederthal) – why are they separated by the border between France and Switzerland?

In 1168, Friedrich Barbarossa, the one with the red beard, gave the area to the Habsburgians, as a fief. They built the castle or Burg Biederthal in 1250 to watch over their tithe courtyard Biederthal (Dinghof). In 1269, the archbishop of Basel bought just the castle/Burg of Biederthal, without its tithe courtyard Biederthal, which remained with the Habsburgians and later became part of France. This is why the country border separates the castle from “its” village. Burg now became a village of its own.

In 1946, Burg selected this coat of arms.

Source: wiki entry for Burg

Where does the coat of arms come from? The answer: The archbishop of Basel granted Burg as a fief to the noblemen von Wessenberg. They owned it from 1401 to 1793. Around Burg  we can find the historical border stones of the Wessenberg. One well-kept stone is a few meters below the summit “Remel/Raemel” above Burg. From the Wessenberg, the community of Burg took the coat of arms in 1946.

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna decided to merge the former Prince-Bishopric of Basel with Switzerland; Burg became part of the canton of Bern, belonging to the district Laufental. Later, in 1993, the Laufental (with Burg) voted to join the canton of Baselland instead. Nevertheless, many border stones around Burg have kept showing the coat of arms of Bern, the bear. This stone with the bear of Berne marks the border with France, just below Burg.

Border stones from 1817, 1890 and 1951 and a castle separated from “its” village by the border of France and Switzerland – yes, the area around Basel is full of secrets that can be discovered hiking.

 

Sources: https://www.baselland.ch/politik-und-behorden/gemeinden/burg-il/unsere-gemeinde/geschichte-wappen

 

 

Four days at Salgesch – discovering Leukerbad, the underground lake and the Pfynwald

In September 2020, we spent four days at Salgesch. In my former blog, I have already talked about discovering Salgesch and the area around it.

Let us now move a little farther away, to Leukerbad, to the underground lake Saint-Léonard near Sion and to the Pfynwald or Forêt de Finges.

Source: Google Maps

 

Leukerbad – discovering the hot springs

On our second day at Salgesch, we visit Leukerbad, located on 1400m above sea level surrounded by an amphitheatre of steep rocks. Crossing these steep rocks, the Gemmipass connects Leukerbad in the Valais with Kandersteg in the Bernese Alps.

Emerging from these steep rocks, the Dala has eroded a deep gorge above Leukerbad. We explore it using the so-called “Thermal-Springs Gangway”.

I  hear a a rattling noise. My friend uses the rope winch to pull up a bucket from the well basin far below. The water in the bucket and hence in the well below us is warm, almost hot.

This is one amidst 65 hot springs in the Dala canyon, as this panel tells us: The yellow-browinsh area follows the Dala, and it is here, where the 65 hot springs of Leukerbad have their sources. Some of them have temperatures up to 51 degrees.

The water emerges in the Dala canyon, after having been heated up at 500m below seal level. Originally it is rain water from the mountains east of Leukerbad (Torrenthorn and Majinghorn) that takes about forty years to seep deeply into the soil, where it is heated up to emerge in this canyon. Already the Romans made use of the hot springs of Leukerbad – the hottest in Switzerland.

Now I understand, why the gangway along the Dala gorge is called “Thermal-Springs Gangway” (Thermalquellen-Steg).

A series of ladders take us out of the impressive Dala canyon.

Looking at the creeks and meadows nearby, I can hardly believe that this narrow and steep canyon is so close.

In the warm sunshine, we eat our sandwiches at the romantic green lake Majing…

… with some branches in it.

We return to Leukerbad. Strolling through the village, we touch the water emerging at the fountains – most of it is warm, one fountain is even hot.

We visit the church of Leukerbad. The original choir is from the late 15th century. Some frescos have been restored such as the crucifixion at the back. In the late 19th century, the church was enlarged and the old choir became a side chapel.

We round off our day at the Alpentherme enjoying the gorgeous view of the mountains in the outside pool, while being massaged by bubbling jets.

 

The underground lake Saint-Léonard

On our third day, the sky is cloudy and temperatures are cooler. Just right for a visit of the underground lake Saint-Léonard that I had always wanted to see one day.

At the entry gate, we have to rush. A few seats are still free in the boat, and we can immediately join the next tour that is about to start. Ladders lead down to the cave. The boat takes us along the lake that is some 300m long and 20m wide. At the end, we find another boat…

… and the trouts swimming around with agility and indicating that the water quality is good.

The guide explains to us that the underground lake has been discovered in 1943. At that time, the water level was much higher. An earthquake of 5.6 on the Richter scale made the water level go down. In1949 the cave was opened to the public.

 

The Pfynwald / Forêt de Finges

Below the village Varen, the Rhone (called “Rotten” in the Upper German speaking Valais) meanders along the Pfynwald (on the left side of the valley, photo taken from the road to Leukerbad). In the upper forest, the place names are in German and in the lower forest, they are in French, as the language border between the French and the German language crosses the Pfynwald.

The Pfynwald is a nature reserve, and it is one of the largest contiguous pine forests in the Alps.

With astonishment, we notice quite some birch trees amidst the pine trees.

South of the Pfynwald are the Illgraben (canyon of the Ill creek) and the Illhorn (the corresponding mountain peak). Very steep and rough here.

The Bhutan bridge crosses the canyon of the Ill creek. The suspension bridge symbolizes the link between the languages (French and German) and between different cultures (Alps and Himalaya).

This bridge was engineered in Bhutan and implemented by a construction company of the Valais, guided by an engineer of Bhutan. It was an interesting cooperation, where both sides learnt from one another. This is what the panel on the other side of the bridge explains.

The Buddhist sanctuary, a “chort”, greets hikers at the foot of the bridge. It has been built and blessed by Bhutanese Lamas from France.

After a two hours’ walk in the forest, we return to Salgesch to have our last wine tasting at the cellar of our winegrower and to eat a delicious Raclette at the restaurant Barrique in the centre of the city.

 

Enjoying the balcony of our BnB

The south facing balcony of our BnB with the view of the Pfynwald (forest) and the Illhorn (mountain peak) was a great place to be in the early morning, when the sun rises behind the glass wall…

… or when it rises behind the clouds.

After our last late summer evening on the balcony, we say good-bye to Salgesch and the Valais. We leave it using the Grimsel, one of the passes that the Alemanni used to migrate to the Upper Valais a 1000 years ago. We think of returning to Salgesch next year, when we will have run out of wine from the Valais once again.

 

Soruces:
Hans-Ed. Fierz David, “Über die Leuker Thermalquellen…“, Zürich 1942.
Panels along the Thermalquellen -Steg
André Beerli, “La Suisse Inconnue: Valais”, TSC and Shell Switzerland, oJg.

Four days at Salgesch – hiking in and around the vineyards

In September 2020, I stayed four days at Salgesch. With a friend, we had booked a studio in the beautiful BnB Vino Veritas.

Source: Google Maps

Let us start by exploring the village centre of Salgesch and walking above Salgesch along the Suone (water channel) to the Raspille canyon.

Salgesch – the centre

Salgesch is surrounded by vineyards that form kind of an amphitheatre above the village.

Some vineyards are very steep.

The centre of Salgesch is pretty with houses typical of the Valais…

… such as the wine museum.

In the 13th century, Saint John’s association (also called the Order of Malta) founded a hospital at Salgesch. Presumably due to that, the main church is dedicated to John the Baptist.

John the Baptist appears on the stained windows. Here, he is dressed in his fur coat and accompanied by the Agnus Dei.

The benches demonstrate that Salgesch is connected with vines.

The bakery and many vineyards at Salgesch are owned by families with the name “Mathier”. Old family traditions. Also “my” winegrower is called Mathier. He sells all the traditional wines of the Valais such as Petite Arvine, Amigne, Heida (white) or Cornalin, Humagne Rouge (red) as well as the “usual” grapes Chasselas (called Fendant here), Sylvaner (called Johannisberg here), Gamay (the Beaujolais grape), Pinot Noir (the Burgundy grape, often blended with Gamay, which is called Dôle) or Shiraz (the Côte du Rhone grape). We will benefit from tasting their wines.

Along the Suone above the vineyards to the creek La Raspille

When walking uphill through the vineyards towards Varon, we enjoy the widening view. Through the vines, we can see the Rhone valley with Salgesch below us.

We catch the Mengis Suone, which is a water channel that is fed from the Raspille; now it is without water.

Such water channels are in use in the whole Valais. They are called “Suonen” in the German speaking Upper Valais and “bisses” in the French speaking Middle and Lower Valais. It is assumed that building these water channels goes back to the 14th century, when cattle breeding came up that required pasture land providing hay as winter forage (see Gilbert A. Rouvinez, p. 5).

The canyon of the Raspille is the language border between German (Upper Valais) and French (Lower and Middle Valais).

On the French speaking side we follow the water channel that leads to Sierre.

Panels explain the geology, biology and culture. On the French speaking side of the Raspille, the text comes first in French and then in German. One panel clarifies the reason for the large barren area above Salgesch, called “Blatta”, which is bordered by steep rocks on the top. In the last Ice Age, the Rhone valley was filled with ice. When the glacier retreated, this slope became unstable. It ended with a huge landslide that broke off from the rocks and slid down over the “Blatta” to create small hills in the valley that are good for winegrowing.

From below, we can see two lines of trees on the “Blatta”; they indicate, where the water channels are: The Menings Wasserleitu (the “small” lower channel) and the Grossi Wasserleitu (the “large” upper channel).

Where the Raspille reaches the bottom of the Rhone valley, water erosion created spectacular pyramids.

The water cemented the pebbles and chalk rocks from the landslide, some parts more, some parts less; the harder parts resisted the subsequent erosion and remained as pyramids.

The pyramids gave their name to one range of wines of our wine grower Mathier: “Les Pyramides”. We learnt that, when degusting at their winery.

The chapel Maria of Seven Sorrows (Kapelle Maria Sieben Schmerzen)

On a small hill, the chapel Maria of Seven Sorrows guards over Salgesch.

The small and steep Way of the Cross winds up to the chapel. It is not possible to get there by car.

The chapel is closed…

… and we enjoy the view of the Rhone valley with the Pfynwald from here.

Post Scriptum: Why is the canton Valais called “Valais” and why is it bi-lingual?

Back at home, I wonder, why the Valais is called “Valais” and why it is bi-lingual with French spoken in the Lower and Middle Valley up to the Raspille/Pfynwald, while in the Upper Valais, the people speak German. They are difficult to understand by us whom they call “Üsserschwiizer” or “Outer Swiss people”. Here is a short summary of what I found.

After 1000 B.C, Celts immigrated to the secluded Rhone valley and called it just “valley” (Nant in the Celtic language). The Rhone valley is indeed secluded, surrounded by rough mountains in the north, east and south. The Rhone valley only opens to the Lake of Geneva in the west. The Romans conquered the area in 57 B.C. and named it “Vallis” (=”valley” in Latin). They Romanized the Celts, and until the eight century, their variety of the Latin language evolved to something called Franco-Provencal (also “patois” which translates to “dialect”). In the 6th century, the Burgundians and later the Francs conquered the Valais, while north from here, Alemannic tribes slowly migrated into the Bernese Alps.

Until the 9th/10th century, Franco-Provençal was spoken in the Lower, Middle AND Upper Valais. Village names in the Upper Valais tell us about that: “Geschinen” comes from “Casina”, and “Gestelen” originates from “Castiglione” (Meyer, p.3).  In the 9/10th century, the Alemannic tribes from the Bernese Alps immigrated into the Upper Valais, probably using the Lötschenpass, the Gemmipass and the Grimselpass. They “imported” the Alemannic Dialect, as it was spoken in the Bernese Alps. Now I understand, why I hear similarities between the dialects of the Bernese Alps and the Valais (which I both do not always understand easily).

Around the year 1000, the king of High Burgundy handed over the Upper and Middle Valais to the bishop of Sitten/Sion, and at about the same time, the Savoyards conquered the Lower Valais along with some places in the other parts of the Valais. They strived to subdue the whole Rhone valley or Valais. However, they met resistance. In the 14th century, the Alemannic people from the Upper Valais were inspired by the will of freedom of the original Swiss cantons, and they took over the lead to fight against the Savoys. The Alemannic speaking Upper Valais conquered the Middle Valais up to Sitten. The bishop had to give special rights to the German speaking people from the Upper Valais for supporting him against Savoy.

In 1475, an army from the Upper Valais, assisted by the original Swiss cantons (“Eidgenossen”), defeated the Savoys near Sitten. The French speaking Lower Valais became a subdued area of the Upper Valley (“Untertanengebiet”; many original cantons had such subdued zones). The German language was now the ruling language in the Valais, while the French language had the stigma of being related with the enemy, Savoy. The prevalence of the German language lasted until 1798.

In 1798, inspired by the French Revolution, the French speaking people from the Lower and Middle Valais demanded their rights and the German speaking people granted them more rights, however, too late. Napoleon conquered the Valais and made it a French province in 1802; in 1810 it became the Département du Simplon. Now, under Napoleon, the French language dominated.

In 1815, during the Congress of Vienna, the Valais joined Switzerland. From now on French and German formally had equal rights, which was confirmed in 1844, when French and German became both approved national languages in Switzerland. However, the majority of people living in the new canton Valais spoke French and therefore French dominated over the German language. With the construction of the Lötschberg tunnel in 1913, the Upper Valais moved “closer” to German speaking Bern which gave the German speaking people of the Valais more self-confidence again.

Since the 1960’s, the tensions between the language groups have decreased and cross-language communication has improved.

Sources:
Gilbert A. Rouvinez, “Balades le long des BISSES du VALAIS”, 180 Editions 2020.
Jean-Pierre Meyer, “Zur Geschichte des Sprachverlaufs im Wallis”, PDF o Jahrgang
André Beerli, “La Suisse Inconnue: Valais”, TCS Suisse et Shell Switzerland, without date
Further reading: Excellent blog by the Freizeitfreunde.