After Interlaken, I met up with my friend Cédric, whom I’d met in Wicklow, and his family. For two days, I stayed with them in a tiny town in the Canton du Valais in French Switzerland with a view of Mont Blanc. The region of the French and Swiss Alps is one of the prettiest in Europe, full of little towns of no more than half a thousand people running down sloping mountainsides or nestled in valleys. Trient, thankfully, is in a valley.
It’s a dream. Quiet, remote, bordered by unfettered mountains of pine forest and perfect blue skies and filled with fresh mountain air. You could walk it from end to end in ten minutes. There’s not much to it; a pink church on the hill, a rocky stream running through town, a few cows and horses grazing on the side, and little scattered houses, perfect in their loose and imperfect conformity to the Swiss ski lodge ideal implanted firmly in my mind. In the center is a hotel with one café, which I don’t think I ever saw anyone visit.
We stayed with their extended family and friends for his cousin’s 16th birthday party. Only a few people spoke any English and for two days I was surrounded by friendly French babble. Swiss French, to be exact. It’s more similar to French French than Swiss German is to German German. The Swiss can understand a German speaking German, but Germans cannot understand Swiss German.
Most of the conversations were lost on me and I focused a lot on playing with the puppy and guinea pig, and taking in the simple yet magnificent surroundings. After two days, however, I was surprised to find that I could catch the gist of 1/3 of what was being said.
Cédric told me at one point about how much slower news reached these little villages, but said it’s been overcome for the most part with the advent of the internet. In the past, fads reached Trient a year after they reached cities like Baden. What a secluded world of villages within cramped and compact Europe it is, separated by physical barriers. You could be passing around a mountain and not know that an entire existence is thriving on the other side. Village dialects are still prominent.
That’s not to say it’s behind the times. It is still Switzerland after all. Other than a few trucks, everything else is modern and in great condition, the houses big yet quaint, and Main Street, the only street, lined with Ikea-inspired lamps.
I certainly added to my repertoire of Swiss experiences here. Here are a few:
- After dinner the first day, someone brought out wooden stilts and everyone got excited, since it was that time again. That time to walk down the street on stilts. This was typical after-dinner entertainment, I was told, and then I had my awkward turn.
- Walking around the village, we stopped and watched a cow being airlifted via helicopter. This happened sometimes, when a cow wandered away and strayed into dangerous territory. But how did they know when that happened? Someone must have been taking stock of their cows and noticed one missing, and called in for help. Is there a cow rescue hotline? And how far could the cow have wandered? As it arced across the sky I wondered where exactly is was being taken to, so far away.
- Later that night, we sat around the table again after resting and an enormous cheese wheel was brought out placed onto a raclette, a machine that slowly melted it from the top. A traditional meal which originated from that very area, the top was skimmed off bit by bit and passed around onto plates, and eaten with potatoes and pickles, just as it was centuries ago. This very relaxing second dinner went on for hours while everyone talked and laughed, secretly waiting for their turn to get some cheese. I was told that this, too, was very traditional.
- The second day, Cédric’s dad took Cédric, his cousin, her friend, and myself rock climbing at a natural and well-known rock-wall. I’d been rock-climbing before, but not on a near-vertical wall with few crevices. There’s a technique to moving your body and the whole art is in knowing how to shift your weight, which took me several immeasurably frustrating tries to hit accidentally upon. Once I did, it was like, as Oprah would say, “Aha!” and it became much easier. Once I got to the top, Cédric’s dad yelled at me from below to turn my head and there was Mont Blanc in the distance. And it was good.
Rock-climbing seems to be the national sport in Siwtzerland, and you are in a minority if you don’t scale rock walls. There’s also a widespread sport I didn’t know about until I got to Europe, called bouldering. It is the art of scaling boulders and involves a lot more finesse with shifting your body weight.
Over the course of two days, a constant stream of people passed through town on the Tour de Mont Blanc, carrying backpacks and walking sticks, some riding mules, and settled into the hotel. Trient was a known stop on this route. The mules took their rest under the shade of trees.
And the incredible stargazing. In a sky free of ambient light, the Milky Way is revealed. I hadn’t seen so many stars since we went camping in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania six years ago.
This was without doubt one of the best ways to visit a country, and I wish I’d seen more of Europe this way. There are many things I would do differently on another trip and among them are a lot more couchsurfing and WWOOFing, perhaps some camping, too, and less hostelling.
EDIT: Trient’s population is closer to half of what the title suggests.