The International Alphorn Festival 2012!

It was on our drive back from Dalpe (in Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland) to Geneva that we learned about alphorn festivals. We had stopped in the Swiss region of Valais at a cheese shop to pick up some local (and organic!) cheese and I saw a sign for the Valais region’s alphorn festival. Googling that, we learned that the following weekend was the International Alphorn Festival, which would be held for the 11th year in Nendaz, part of the Four Valleys ski area.

But let me stop here and explain about alphorns. These are the long wooden horns — commonly seven or eight feet, though they fold up to a more reasonable size that can be more easily carried around — dating back hundreds of years. They are used by mountain dwellers in Switzerland and neighbouring countries. Curved at the end and finishing in a cup-shaped bell, they make a deep sonorous (and sometimes haunting) sound. They are similar to Tibetan horns except that those are made of brass.

We first encountered alphorns in Zermatt last summer. Getting out of the cablecar at Rothorn, ready for a summer hike, we came upon three alphorn players playing glorious music — it still sends chills up my spine thinking of it now. You also hear alphorns if you take the train between Zurich’s airport terminals, where they play a very Swiss soundtrack — cowbells, alphorns, cows.

Apparently, Mozart’s father composed music for alphorns in 1775, the Sinfonia Pastorella for alphorn and string orchestra.

My family is not as fond as alphorns as I am but agreed to attend the festival which runs for three days. It includes a competition (for individuals and groups) as well as folkoric performances by many groups from around the region and a parade. Though ‘international’, most competitors were from Switzerland or bordering countries — France, Germany, Austria.

The competition was held in a quiet field overlooking the mountains. Signs admonished us to be silent, and except for the wine bar providing drinks, we were. The judges sat in a fully enclosed tent to avoid any possible bias. Like Gregorian chant the music was hugely relaxing, so relaxing my husband was quickly asleep.

Folkloric performances in the centre of town were less serious and included a large troupe of male and female cowbell performers — they hold these incredibly large cowbells while hunched over and play them on their knees. Unfortunately, the cowbells only play a single note.

The finals were held Sunday at the top of the Tracouet cablecar, 2200 metres. Spectacular views, food stalls, a wine bar (of course!) and the thrill of all 100+ alphorn players in an ensemble! I’m keen on a week of alphorn lessons next summer, but haven’t yet convinced the family.

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Days 5 and 6 of the Swiss alpine hike!

We were happy to move on from imposing infrastructure back to the quieter trails. The walk from Basodino to Cabanna Cristallina was billed as three hours and — perhaps a sign that we were making good progress! — we made it in exactly that. By this time we had two groups of walkers in our family, the ‘mountain goats’ (who were always up in front) and the brown-eyed beavers who were a little bit slower.

This was a steep uphill trek, alongside lakes and dams, through fog and cloud but no rain. We had known there would be some snow to cross and were a bit anxious about that. We were all wearing hiking boots and had walking sticks but hadn’t ever walked in such conditions. We took it slowly, walked in the footsteps already made in the path, and made it across the six or seven patches of snow arriving at Cristallina just after noon.

Cristallina is one of the newer huts, build in the 1990s: It is perched on a ridge at about 2500 metres and is very Scandinavian in design with lots of large windows looking onto the glacier and filled with light. Chamois and marmots abound. We settled into a lunch of homemade gnocchi and tagliatelle with butter and sage and a yummy almond paste cake. We were amused by the ‘own label’ wine that they served, given how far we were from vineyards, from trees!

It was windy and cold, so aside from a bit of mineral exploration, we didn’t pursue further walks in the area that day.

Dinner was pizzocheri a local Ticinese dish which followed minestrone, sausage rolls and then fruit tarts for dessert. The main dish was a pasta casserole made with cheese, leeks and wide noodles.

The next morning was a downhill hike, back to a main road where we would pick up the Swiss Postal Bus to Airolo, and then get a connection back to Dalpe and our car. Schedules are not only posted online but are adhered to! We had a twenty minute connection in Airolo, a mid-sized town, which was just enough time to order and consume a margarita pizza.

Getting back to our car, still parked at the lot in front of Dalpe’s single shop, everyone felt a sense of real accomplishment and was ready for a relaxed drive home!

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The Swiss alpine hike — days 3 and 4

On day 3 we were headed to the three hundred year old mountain town of Fusio where we would stay in a hotel. Again, we were slower than expected, taking 4.5 hours rather than the 3 that were indicated but with the bounty of minerals along the way, we could not have done it any faster! By the end of the day, Josh’s pockets and his backpack were overflowing with stones! We walked through pasture and fields and flutters of butterflies. We climbed up to Passo Campulungo and then headed down. We saw Fusio ahead of us, a picturesque town of a few hundred people beneath Lake Sambuco that seems to depend on tourism. There were certainly lots of hikers around. There are two hotels and a hostel in town and we stayed in the ‘rustico’ at the Osterio Antica Dazio which has a lovely terrace for meals, but a LOT of flies! Our room was furnished with a 1794 stove and had marble bedside tables, a change from Swiss Alpine Club huts! There is another hotel in Fusio called Albergo Pineto that specializes in pizza and has a lovely view of the town.

The next morning we headed off on the Postal Bus (a wonderful transportation network), through a series of equally charming towns — Magno with its wild looking church, Pesscia with wonderfully renovated houses, Bagnola. We were headed to San Carlo to get the cableway up to Basadino where we would be back into swiss alpine huts. We had hoped to get to a bank machine in Bignasco where we needed to change buses but found that the nearest bank machine was a 40 minute walk. The bank machine seemed important as most of the huts are cash only (but as it turned out, our last night was at a hut that accepted credit cards). The 30 minute ride from Bignasco to San Carlo was on a quite crowded bus, all hikers, and mostly alongside a gloriously clear river. Foroglio seemed a popular stop along the way and was well posted with numerous hiking trail signs.

The cableway from San Carlo goes about every half hour. It was crowded too, mostly with day visitors, and only a few overnight hikers like us. We reached the top which had a bit of a feel of a Soviet-era industrial installation, with dams all around and a very cold-looking highrise hotel. Our hut was a short walk down from the top and unlike all the others we stayed in owing to its proximity to a cablecar. There was a freezer full of ice cream! Hot water coming out of the bathroom taps!

That said, the food was good, the staff were friendly, the other guests chatty! A couple from Ticino had missed the last cableway down at the end of the day so they were stuck for the night, but easily accomodated at the hut. At dinner, we met a couple doing the reverse route to ours and arranged that we would pick up the headlamp they had left and in exchange, send us a pair of forgotten (and smelly) socks.

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The Swiss alpine hike — days 1 and 2

Everyone was tired after the first day of hiking — we had a long day getting to Dalpe and then spent the day climbing 1000 metres. We were happy to hang ut in the dining room, play cards, and await dinner. You can just rent the bed in Swiss Alpine Club huts or, for an additional amount (from CHF 25-50 depending on age, whether you are a member of the Swiss Alpine Club, etc) also include dinner and breakfast. Hot showers were an additional CHF 5.

It being a summer weekend the hut was nearly full, all tables occupied, decks of cards heavily used, games of chess underway.

The dinner was terrific! Minestrone (which seems to be the standard in the Ticino huts), a lovely mixed salad, polenta with a beef and mushroom stew, and chocolate pudding. This hut has a helicopter drop every couple of weeks and has additional supplies walked in every few days. They get some supplies from the local dairy.

The next day we were headed to Cabanna Leit in what was billed as a 2.5 hour hike. Switzerland has over 62,000 km of marked hiking trails and boards very helpfully offer typical times to reach one’s destination. We are pretty good on the ‘uphill’ but miserably slow on the downhill and day 2 had a lot of downhill. And uphill. And downhill. Very steep downhill. Downhill where there had been, some time earlier, a landslide. And a sheet of ice, about 50 feet across, to traverse. A small area with ropes provided to assist the walk. And — a huge bonus for Josh — spectacular minerals and rocks which for a budding geologist was a real treat.

It was raining on this second morning, so we played more games in Campo Tencio and only set out about 11 am. It was foggy and damp but didn’t rain anymore.

When we reached Cabanna Leit in the late afternoon, we were again greeted by delicious cakes and friendly staff. This hut was less crowded but dinner was no less yummy — minestrone, risotto with meatballs, tiramisu! And a terrific Ticino Merlot. Among our fellow guests were five minerology students from the University of Plymouth, based here for a month conducting a survey. This is such a mineral-rich area and Josh got the chance to see some of what they had collected and the tools they use. Garnet, tremolite, lots of quartz and plenty more.

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Swiss alpine hiking — what a treat!

My birthday present this year was a hike to the Leventina Valley in Ticino — the Italian part of Switzerland. This is something I had been wanting to do for months and months.  I detest camping, but I love hiking, and the hut-to-hut approach seemed like the perfect way to go.  Let me first explain the concept of Swiss alpine huts.  Close to 200 of these are part of the Swiss Alpine Club (, in addition to which are many privately owned huts.  They offer dormitory room sleeping, but often with smaller rooms accomodating two, four, six or eight people. They also provide full catering — three (even four!) course meals, breakfast and lunch if you want it, in addition to delicious cakes and wine lists!  Lots of old magazines and games and cards are available. Bedding is provided (pillow, sheet, duvet) but is not often washed, so you need to bring along is a sleeping sheet.  Hot showers are available too, sometimes for a small fee.  

Our hike was one which friends had done a year ago, so we had a basis on which to plan.  Six nights, two in hotels, four in huts, and five days of hiking, usually 3 to 4 hours a day.  For our family of five, with Maya (15), Daniel (12) and Josh (10) having diverse views on the joys of hiking, this seemed perfect.

So away we go!

We headed out from Geneva on a Friday evening, driving down to Dalpe in northern Ticino, about a four hour drive. We hadn’t been this way before, so had concluded we wanted to go over the Nufenen pass, rather than through the Gotthard Tunnel which was reportedly hugely congested following a landslide. We reached Dalpe, a tiny town, at about 11:15 pm and checked into our room which was like an urban version of the Swiss Alpine Club huts ahead of us — big three-bedded rooms with shared toilet. At CHF 42 per person (the Swiss franc is about a dollar) this was a deal. The owner was friendly, the beer was good, we slept well.

Dalpe appears to have exactly one shop where we were able to buy bread, cheese and fruit for lunch the first day. We were travelling lightly — day packs for the boys and me (with our clothes, toiletries, silk sleeping sheets and a book), larger packs for Steve and Maya.

Day 1 was going to be a 1000 metre climb to Cabanna Campo Tencio — the oldest hut in Ticino celebrating its 100th anniversary!

It took us a few minutes to find the red and white blazes that indicated the route and off we went. The scenary was beautiful, with lots of waterfalls, forest, cows and cow herders, and the walk took us about four hours. After about 40 minutes we passed Piumogna, by a river, which would also have had bread and cheese for sale.

We reached Campo Tencio in the late afternoon.

I love the etiquette of the huts. You arrive, take off your boots in the ‘boot room’, put on a pair of available crocs or plastic sandals and hang up your walking sticks. No shoes inside! We checked in and were given a room for six, with two three-bedded bunks.

The dining room was a large space with wooden tables and benches and a large professional kitchen. We were delighted to see the array of available wines and the delicious looking cakes (lamponi tart, the local ‘torte de pane’, apple cake, etc). The hut is staffed by four persons, the hut ‘guardian’, two Swiss women and a Nepali originally from Bhutan.

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