The Valais is a region in southern Switzerland that borders on Italy and consists mostly of the valley around the upper Rhône River. The valley was called Vallis Poenina by the Romans, and the Germans refer to it as Wallis. The main attractions here include the Matterhorn, the Great St. Bernard Pass, and Zermatt. The area offers excellent skiing and other winter sports.
The Valais is surrounded by the Alps, with more than 50 major mountain peaks, but the Matterhorn, at 4,410m (14,465 ft.), is by far the most majestic. The Valais contains the largest glacier in Switzerland as well as several others that send tributaries to feed the Rhône, which flows northwest to Lake Geneva, then on through France to the Mediterranean. The Valais also contains about 8 sq. km (3 sq. miles) of lakes.
Often called the hiking capital of Switzerland, the Valais is laced with well-maintained and well-marked mountain paths. Some of these former alpine mule paths are called Roman roads, because in ancient times the Simplon and Great St. Bernard passes were the gateways to the Valais from Italy. Walks along irrigation channels -- called bisses -- are among the most intriguing for nature lovers.
For centuries the Rhône Valley has been a major route through the Alps. The Celts used the Great St. Bernard Pass and Simplon Pass, and then the Gauls held the territory for 500 years. Hannibal and Napoleon both passed through on their way to conquest. Today, wide highways and tunnels provide a direct route to Italy.
Protected by mountains, the Valais enjoys a sunny, stable climate, with weather comparable to that of northwestern Spain and France's Provence. The vineyards are second only to those of the Vaud, and the local wine is known for its fruity bouquet and delicate flavor. Dairy farming is widespread. Just outside most of the regional towns, you'll see mazots or raccards (small, elevated grain-storage barns).
Most residents in the western part of the Valais, from Lake Geneva to Sierre, speak French, while those living to the east speak a German dialect. Many people speak both languages as well as some English. Most residents of the Valais are Roman Catholic, evident in the number of churches, abbeys, and monasteries.
The Valais is an increasingly popular year-round travel destination, but not to worry: The growth of resorts and recreation facilities has not disturbed the natural splendor and tranquillity of the alpine countryside.
Chances are if you're visiting the Valais by train you'll land at the major rail terminus of Martigny, which attracts visitors heading across the Great St. Bernard Pass. Visitors going to the ski resort of Verbier also pass through here. Frequent trains arrive in Martigny from Lausanne every hour, taking 30 minutes; from Montreux, every half-hour, taking 30 minutes; and from Sion, every 15 minutes, and taking 30 minutes.
If you'd like to take one of the most scenic bike trips in the Valais, rent a bike at the kiosk at the Martigny train station (tel. 0900/300-300), for about 28F per day. From there you can cycle through a beautiful region of the lower Valais, heading across the Rhône River to the villages of Fully, Chataigner, Mazembroz, and Saillon. The Rhône Valley route cuts through some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in all of Switzerland. You pass the promenades of Lake Geneva, which, surprisingly, are lined with palm trees and go along miles of Lavaux vineyards. The Alpine pastures in the Urserental are filled with meadows that burst into spring bloom. Always in the distance you can view snow-capped alpine peaks.