They call Valais the California of Switzerland. I can see why. The trees bejeweled with fresh summer fruit, the rows of vineyards along the valleys, the excellent food, and the beautiful wildflowers all make me feel as if I’m traveling in my home state. But I’m not. I’m in the Swiss Alps. Nendaz, to be specific.
Having never visited the canton of Valais before the tourism board brought me here, I arrive with no preconceived notions of what it will be like. Perhaps that’s why I’m so surprised to find such striking similarities to my state.
As soon as I board the train from Geneva Airport to Sion—the closest city to the alpine town of Nendaz—I am struck by the abundance of vineyards and the revelation that Switzerland produces good wines (I taste them—somebody has to—and concur).
When my connecting bus arrives in Nendaz, I spend two days hiking in the Swiss Alps. Again, I am struck by how familiar the territory feels. The same colorful wildflowers that paint the hills of Northern California grow the mountains in Switzerland, and the miles of bisses—manmade irrigation channels with hiking trails beside them—feel as familiar as the creeks back home.
Even my guide, a ginormous St. Bernard, reminds me of my old family dogs in Silicon Valley.
And the gondola that takes me up the mountain to go hiking makes me feel like I’m in Lake Tahoe.
But there are little differences that reveal that I’m not actually in California. The pretty chalets, for example, and the Swiss food.
I eat raclette and sample Assiettes Valaisannes—big boards of air-cured meats and local cheeses. I dine on hearty sausages and rosti potatoes, Alpine Macaroni and as much Swiss cheese as I can stuff into my arteries. California cuisine this is not, but there are no complaints coming from my mouth (or my stomach).
Then there are the distinctly local ways of doing things. Hiking, for example. Back home we wear shoes, but in Nendaz there is a trail dedicated to barefoot hiking. Off come my flip flops and on goes the hike. I am nervous at first, but once my feet adjust to the feeling of grass and dirt, I find that barefoot hiking is my kind of thing. Go figure. Northern Californians are hippies, after all.
But perhaps the biggest difference of all is the music. In particular, the music of one type of instrument: the alphorn. I have seen a lot of musical instruments back home, but only in coming to the Swiss Alps do I discover a giant wooden horn that measures over 11 feet in height and comes with a built-in footrest.
I am in Nendaz for the annual International Alphorn Festival, which means that I have a chance to hear some of the world’s best players of said instrument. From competitions to performances, traditional music to pop, the rich, full sound of the alphorn provides a distinctly local backdrop to my travels in the Swiss Alps.
At the end of the festival, I take the gondola back to the top of the mountain to witness the grand finale: a giant half-moon of alphorn players giving a concert with the Alps in the background. It is a uniquely beautiful sight and sound to experience, and about as far from California as alpine traditions get.
The same goes for the parade that winds through the streets. It features traditional dress, historic customs, rousing accordion music, and lively folk dances. It ends in a tent where music, dancing, and Swiss food fill up the evening.
It also features one of the loudest celebrations of local culture I’ve ever heard: cowbells. Lines of local men yoke themselves with the giant bells. They move slowly through the streets, leaving a cacophony of tintinnabulation in their wake.
And speaking of cowbells, one of my favorite differences between Valais and California is that while both have their fair share of cows, only the Swiss ones wear bells. As I hike across the barefoot trail, along the bisses, and down the mountain, this bovine summer Sound of Music lulls me into a peaceful state.
As does the train back to Geneva Airport. Past the vineyards, along the lake, and through the city, it travels away from Nendaz and the Swiss Alps and closer to my flight home. But I’m not going back to California. No, it’s home to London for me. Then again, next time I’m homesick for my home state, I might just cut my journey time by 10 hours and return to the California of Switzerland instead.