Treasure hunting in the Swiss Alps
Anthony Coppin discovers the hidden secrets of a hiking in the stunning countryside of Switzerland
I’m cautious about tales of buried treasures - wherever the location - but on a visit to Switzerland I had crystal clear proof that just below the surface of the Binn Valley there are gems for the taking.My glistening souvenir was rock - not the Blackpool variety but an attractive clump of sparkling quartz dug out fairly easily from the pleasant terrain of a hillside in Binntal (tal means ‘valley’), a delightful corner of the Swiss canton of Valais. And seemingly not too well known to Brits.Geology is not normally a particular interest of mine, but walking so close to what are effectively open cast mini-mineral mines – the contents of which are free for the taking – it wasn’t hard to develop an interest for this visit.Summertime in this part of Switzerland means green landscape rather than snow-covered countryside and more gentle, though no less spectacular, scenery than say the high slopes leading to ski resorts Zermatt or Saas Fee to the south.It is the countryside which wowed me – think Tarn Hows but on a hugely grander scale. The region is a paradise for walkers who visit from throughout Switzerland and further afield. There are meadows, hills, forests and mountain trails aplenty.Sometimes the distinction between hills and mountains might blur, so linking up to a local guide for a few hours will help – especially when the guide in question is also an expert at finding some of the buried crystals for which Binntal is renowned.Our mineral searching hike was led by Rene In-Albon, accompanied by his charming and equally fleet of foot daughter Daniela. Both were (typically Swiss) diplomatic enough not to say anything about my entirely unsuitable footwear – sandals on a rockface aren’t a good idea!At a steep angle it is easy to slip - or slide. I did both but thankfully another in our party of treasure hunters stopped my freefall. After that bit of mountain adventure I watched, fascinated as Rene prodded a rock scree with his poles to produce several pieces of quartz, one of which was kindly handed to me – too nervous in my sandals to scramble over to observe the dig in more detail. Back on the valley floor there’s a rock museum / shop run by mineral collector Andre Gorsatt in the hamlet of Fald. It is a geologist’s dream with displays of all the colourful crystals found locally.We only had three days in the valley (actually a series of inter-connecting valleys), so the emphasis was very much on witnessing the beauty of the countryside. A second walk the next day took our party through stunning terrain, at a much less acute angle this time! Our destination was Lake Massersee, upper Binntal.Again we had a sure-footed guide, Andreas Weissen, whose humility and down-to-earth approach belied the fact that he is an ex-president of International Commission for the Protection of the Alps.I may have flagged a bit, but as much of the circa five-mile route was bordered by alpine plants (a horticulturalist’s delight) and as the ascent was mainly via shade-covered forest, shielding us from the warm Swiss sun, the pace was acceptable for this less than fit journalist. With Andreas’s encouragement we made it to the clear, azure lake, ready for a cooling paddle and a picnic.Our base for our Binntal stay was Berghotel Chaserstatt on the outskirts of Ernen village. Part of the hotel was once a cable car station. Perched 5,000ft on the hillside overlooking the valley there are gorgeous panoramas to gasp at, the sweet scent of the meadowland to take in, and the gentle, almost orchestral, sound of cowbells to listen to – a kaleidoscope of sensory experiences making for a hugely memorable break.Chaserstatt is reached via chicane type roads and tracks typical of the Alpine region. (Thanks to our extrovert hosts Jan and Georg for their hospitality … driving us into Ernen and back several times). It is clear from their TripAdviser reviews they are doing a great job.Ernen village, our dropping off and picking up point, is well served by local bus links. Looking round the square is a lesson from Swiss history. Ancient murals still bedeck some of the centuries old buildings.The centre of the village also serves as a bus stop, with buses arriving and heading off in all directions, taking tourists to many of the other villages, hamlets and attractions.The whole region is part of the Binntal nature park (landschaftsparkibinntal), the “park” being looked after in a similar way to British National Parks or our AONBs.One of the publicity blurbs says Binntal is an advocate of “gentle tourism.” That’s a good way of explaining my time in this hugely welcoming corner of Switzerland where both locals and tourists appreciate the subtle yet sublime grandeur of the region.As a relatively fair weather walker, I was there in the summertime and hope to return again next summer.
Getting there: there are regular flights from Manchester to Zurich, then take the excellent Swiss rail network through stunning scenery to Brig and carry on by rail and / or bus into the heart of the valley. Remember some trains leave from “outside” the station! It may look a long distance on the map from Zurich (or even Geneva) airport, but the superb Swiss rail service ensures a rapid and comfortable journey.Activities: walking/trekking, sightseeing, mule rides, history, digging for crystals, rock/geological trails and admiring the magnificent scenery.Tip to help with travel costs: get a Swiss Rail pass in Britain before flying to Switzerland, and consider buying an Adventure (Erlebnis) card from a railway station or PostBus driver for local travel.