Vitali cycling

After All: Cycling and drinking in a land rich in traditions

From the world's longest hanging bridge to the smallest vineyard: the beautiful Swiss canton of Valais has an impressive balance of technologies old and new.

To someone like me, still recovering after open-heart surgery, the official promotional logo of the Swiss canton of Valais – ‘Engraved on Your Heart’ – was bound to sound a tad too punchy (if not to say scary) in the beginning. The fact that I had – perhaps rather foolhardily – volunteered to tour the canton and the surrounding Alps on an electric bicycle made my patched-up heart, with a new, bovine, aortal valve sewn on to it, beat even faster. “Do I fancy any more ‘engravings’ on my ticker?” I was thinking ruefully.

The dilemma was resolved by my cardiologist. “Your main foes are immobility and stress!” he declared sternly, and added: “A bit of e-biking therapy should do you a lot of good.” He went on to say that mountain biking had been proved to protect the heart muscle and to lower blood pressure. “Besides, as far as I know, travelling and learning about the places’ history and technology makes you happy, so go for it!” he concluded.

To me, the most impressive feature of Valais was a carefully maintained balance of tradition and innovation, with adherence to traditional technologies of cheese- and wine-making, say, going hand-in-hand with cutting-edge robotics, AI, ICT, life sciences and AVs (Europe’s first driverless shuttle bus was trialled in the canton’s capital, Sion, a couple of years ago).

The first living metaphor of that amazing fusion of old and new was to be found right at my first – rather traditional (if only in its lack of air-conditioning) – hotel in the town of Martigny, which shared the building and the reception area with the Idiap Research Institute, a body whose specialisations include “artificial intelligence for society”. 

Waiting for my e-bike to be delivered to reception, I had ample time to study Idiap’s annual report, highlighting some of its engineering innovations, including SIIP (Speaker Identification Integrated Project), which aims to identify criminals by their voices in “lawfully intercepted phone calls”.  Interpol is a partner.

Well, if someone tried to identify me by my voice during my first e-bike ride in the streets of Martigny, they would have definitely failed, for my speech consisted of some untranslatable Russian expletives as well as loud squeaks and squeals, emitted while trying to negotiate a roundabout in the wrong direction (I was still getting to grips with the right-hand traffic), or when the automatically adjustable saddle would suddenly pop up and hit me ... you know where, at times making me fall off the bike. The town’s rush-hour drivers must have had fun watching my progress that afternoon. 

Luckily, my first ride was to the local 120-year-old Morand Distillery, which uses traditional technologies alongside super-modern bottling lines to produce some yummy syrups and liqueurs from locally-grown fruit. It must be due to the intensive tasting of the syrups and (particularly) the liqueurs that my cycling back to the hotel was much more confident, if somewhat less straight-line.

But it is not for the syrups or the liqueurs that Valais is best known. One of the most popular activities offered by the local tourism authority is cycling (or, in my case, e-cycling) through the Valais vineyards in the Rhone valley. 

Vineyards? Yes! Unbeknown to many, vines have been cultivated for over 2,000 years on the territory of modern Switzerland. As John C Sloan notes in his rare book ‘The Surprising Wines of Switzerland’, “fine Swiss wines remain among the country’s best and undiscovered secrets”. Well, I was in strong mind to discover them for myself, for as my trusted cardiologist assured me, a bit of red wine is almost as good for the ailing heart as cycling.

Valais, bordering on France, has both ideal terrain and perfect climate (with over 300 days of sunshine and just 600mm of rainfall a year) for viticulture, hugely helped by the warm ‘foehn’ winds blowing from the mountains and drying the grapes, helping them to ripen.  

So, off I rode – along the ancient ‘bisses’ (historic irrigation channels) and across the much-less-ancient hanging bridges, one of which, the Charles Kuonen bridge, is at 494m the longest of its kind in the world – to visit the local vineyards. Due to the testing (and tasting) nature of this endeavour, I cannot clearly recall all of them, though the wines that I drank (sorry, tasted) everywhere were superb, so I will mention just two.  

Mathilde Roux – a young viticulturist who greeted me at La Cave de l’Orlaya, took over the 8-hectare vineyard in 2016 and has already achieved prominence in the local wine-making circles. Indeed, her original Petite-Arvine white wine, which she offered me to taste, had the distinctive aroma of citrus fruit and the smell of mountain flowers. Her success is due in part to new technologies, such as temperature control during fermentation with the help of a hot or cold glycol solution circulated around the tanks. With her in-depth knowledge and sheer passion for viticulture, Mathilde could probably make even glycol drinkable, or so I thought as I finished my second glass of Petite-Arvine.

To my deep regret, I was not offered anything to drink, or even to taste, at the second vineyard I want to mention. Why? Because the Farinet vineyard in the medieval village of Saillon consists of only ... three vines! No, it’s neither a typo, nor the result of too many tastings – just three (3) vines. 

The world’s officially smallest vineyard was started in 1980 by the Swiss journalist Pascal Thurre as a joke – a joke that gradually evolved into a serious and important charity to help children. Hundreds of celebrity volunteers, including stars of Hollywood, have  been taking turns looking after the three vines, whose humble harvest is mixed with grapes from another vineyard to produce 1,000 bottles of very special wine that get auctioned for about $35,000 every year. All the money goes to charities, with the process being supervised by the vineyard’s honorary owner, the Dalai Lama.  

Looking at the three fragile young vines, stirred gently by the wind, I couldn’t help feeling a touch of warmth and love for this beautiful land being ‘engraved’ on my slowly but surely recuperating heart.

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