Champéry and the Tour des Dents du Midi

August 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

The range of seven peaks known as the Dents du Midi (Teeth of the South) sits high above the Rhône valley in Western Switzerland and is tantalisingly visible from the shores of Lac Léman (lake Geneva).

After staring at these dreamy mountains for years since I first visited the area back in the 1980s I was finally going to approach them on foot via the long distance footpath called the Tour des Dents du Midi. If you were really up for it you could complete the walk in 2 long days: we decided to opt for the 4 day option making our base the picturesque alpine village of Champéry in the canton of Valais.

Wending our way up the Val d’Illiez towards Champéry we kept seeing roadside stalls selling Valais apricots. The Valais is named after the mighty Rhône valley which dominates the region. It is the warmest and sunniest part of Switzerland and is famed for its red wines and its fruit trees. I’d previously experienced Valais fruit in the winter in the form of hideously strong schnapps, pomme (apple), williamine (pear) and the like. At the third roadside stall we just had to break our journey to experience the fruit in its much more pleasant undistilled form:

Delicious, ripe and juicy, much more appealing than the bullet-hard pellets that pass for apricots in supermarkets back home.

Our base in Champéry was the comfortable and good value Beau Séjour hotel at one end of the village main street. It’s pretty as a picture, all dark wood and pink geraniums and the annexe rooms where we slept were spacious and well-equipped. The hotel doesn’t serve meals other than breakfast but this was not a problem as we strolled down to the excellent Café du Nord for dinner.

The Beau Séjour does do a fine breakfast, the highlight of which for us was cooking our own pancakes on a dinky electrically heated tabletop device. Sadly, looking out of the window from our cost breakfast table, the weather outside was, exactly as forecast, grim. Undaunted, we merely donned our waterproofs and set off from the Grand Paradis chairlift carpark. We had 6 hours walking ahead of us including 900m of ascent.

The showers stopped intermittently and we were rewarded with views of precipitous slopes and alpine meadows. We took a lunch break at the Cabane d’Antème, pretty basic with building work audibly in progress. Soup was reconstituted Maggi or similar and coffee was instant but the chocolate cake was the real deal.

After another 3 hours’ trudging in the rain, the Alpage de Chindonne was a welcome sight bas we rounded our final corner. This was amazingly comfortable for a mountain hut, more like a small hotel, with prices too match! We were too late for the cheaper basic pasta meal, the répas du randonneur, so it was the à la carte option of viand sechée du Valais followed by the national Swiss potato dish, rösti.

Here is the board of viande sechée du Valais:

After a breakfast of bread and jam we set out on day 2 of our walk. Mercifully the rain had stopped and the sun broke through clouds and it became a beautiful day. A good thing too as we had 7 hours walking ahead of us. We spent the morning rounding the corner into the main Rhône valley arriving at the cliff top village of Mex in time for lunch. We then had a gruelling 1,000m climb up to the col du Jorat from where we could see down to our destination, the Auberge de Salanfe. By common consent this was the best hut of the tour. It has a spectacular lakeside setting, comfortable rooms, good food and efficient and friendly service. Dinner, a homemade vegetable soup and emincé de boeuf (beef casserole) with rice and vegetables, was wolfed down by all.

Day 3 turned out to be a relatively short 3 hour walk over the col to the Cabane de Susanfe as our planned peak, the Haut Cîme, 3,257m, turned out to be unobtainable because of the quantity of fresh snow down to 2,400m. We arrived at the Cabane at around lunchtime and spent a lazy afternoon in the sunshine rehydrating first on sirop de mélisse (homemade lemon balm cordial) and later on a microbrewery beer from Sion. Dinner was packet cream of asparagus soup followed by chilling con carne, then apple sauce for pudding. Sounds a little odd but it all tastes good after a day’s hiking. The Cabane de Susanfe is a genuine Swiss Alpine Club hut with just a coomunal dormitory and hut bunk sleeping arrangements. This proved the most difficult part of the walk: sharing a mattress with a pot-bellied snoring stranger is not my idea of fun….

After a slightly Spartan breakfast of homemade bread (good but not enough of it), jam and instant hot chocolate, we set off on the final leg of the journey back to Champéry and civilisation. After a tricky first hour we were through the steepest section of the walk, the Pas d’Encel, effectively the jaws of the valley. The buvette de Bonavau made a welcome break with tempting homemade fruit tarts on display:

Too soon it was back to civilization in Champéry. It was a sunny Sunday lunchtime and we were pleasantly surprised to find both the bakery open and a little market in full swing in the village centre. We stocked up on bread – both Valais rye bread with walnuts plus white bread for the softies in our party. The cheeses were a wonderfully ripe and stinky Tomme de Bruson from the neighbouring valley and a local artisan-made rinded goat cheese. The salami was chewy, flavoursome and flavoured with génepi. I think this variety of peach is called doughnut – they were small, fragantly white-fleshed and juicy.

A perfect picnic to conclude a successful walk, even if the Haut Cîme remained out of reach this time.

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