After a long ascent via hairpins through smaller and smaller villages in the Swiss Alps, the bumpy track around the mountainside eventually petered out into a stony path, indicating we had reached the end of our journey. I had a sinking feeling that we were in the wrong place. There should have been a collection of high-design chalets around here somewhere, all floor-to-ceiling glass and exposed concrete, according to the website images. But all I could see were a handful of dilapidated wooden farm sheds. I bundled the toddlers out of the car and walked closer, worrying that we had accidentally booked somewhere very basic and inappropriate for them and their grandparents. A discreet sign reading “Anako Lodge” reassured me; we were where we were meant to be. At the back of the first hut, we spied a couple in a wooden hot-tub, wine on a table beside them. Then our little hut, the Mayen à Madeleine, where a peek inside revealed modern interiors – like the pictures I’d seen. We sunk into its colourful chairs to admire this isolated corner of the Val d’Hérens: the icy Dents de Veisivi, Dent Blanche (4,357 metres) and Mont Collon (3,637) towering above, the tongue of the Ferpècle glacier poking down, then shelves of flower-flecked fields cascading to the wider valley floor.
For centuries, Alpine farmers used such mazots, mayens, greniers, raccards and granges, as the different types of buildings are variously known, to store valuables and crops, or for shelter on high pastures. Distraught at how many of these pieces of Alpine history were being left to rot, local architect Olivier Cheseaux has set about rescuing some since 2008, dismantling them and rebuilding them, plank by plank, near the tiny hamlet of La Forclaz, to create Anako Lodge. From the outside, his seven mayens look as they have for 200 to 300 years – pretty larch huts, raised on stilts, weathered by snow and wind. But inside, he has built modern rooms in plywood, pine and concrete, with sleek kitchens and wet-rooms. Racing through ours, my three-year-old daughter screamed in delight on discovering a double-height landing with a playhouse and a proper climbing wall with ropes. By the end of the week, she could climb it easily.
It was while out paragliding that Cheseaux clocked the potential of this area, at the top of the Val d’Hérens, for a low-key tourism project. Much less developed than other Rhône tributary valleys, where glitzy ski resorts like Verbier and Zermatt boast designer shopping and champagne bars, the Val d’Hérens remains a peaceful, traditional idyll, famous for cow-fighting and cheese. “The only services here are the shop and bar in the village,” Cheseaux told me later. “I want people to be independent and discover everything for themselves.” We might never have done so but for a new website launched by the Swiss tourist board last year, as a kind of Airbnb for mountain huts. Its 260-strong list includes more remote hikers’ huts, ski chalets and farms. An accompanying online tool lets visitors book hundreds of rural experiences. We chose a day with cheese-maker and farmer Marius Pannatier, a twinkly charmer in a funky straw hat, who rears the region’s black Hérens cattle above Evolène. He led us onto a rickety chairlift and up to the communal dairy shared by farmers across the valley.
Marius insisted on driving us in his dog-hairy car, unsure of my daughter’s stamina for the hike to the higher pastures. She was terrified at first, but then he taught her to build a fire, letting her put kindling in flames. When he brought fresh pear juice from his knapsack, her eyes were full of love. “When I was young,” he said, “we spent the whole summer up in the mountains. Now you are fighting against iPads, computers …” From his bag came dried beef from his cows, a wheel of raclette cheese which he melted over the fire, a couple of bottles of Petite Arvine white wine, and a bottle of juicy red Dôle. By the time the crescendo of cowbells marked the herd’s arrival, I was rather merry. After some tentative patting of the docile beasts, we pottered down the mountain in the fading light. As well as spectacular hiking, the Grande-Dixence dam is unmissable. Its 285-metre wall makes it the world’s tallest gravity dam and, from its base, a dead-ringer for the wall in Game of Thrones. I skipped the tour and ran around it instead, disturbing butterflies and marmots, who scampered off, shaking their big bottoms.
That night a fellow guest stopped by to give us a huge puffball mushroom she’d found while walking, which I fried with garlic for a delicately earthy dinner. Once the kids were asleep, I slunk out to the hot-tub to float beneath the full moon, listening to the crackle of burning logs, while the jagged lightning forks of a storm flickered over the mountains. In the dark, all modern touches were invisible. Fire, wine and the sky, simple pleasures to experience, just as folk have been doing for centuries.
The accommodation was provided by Switzerland Tourism and Anako Lodge. Mayens from £681 a week sleeps two; Mayen à Madeleine from £1,041 a week sleeps six. Book these and more huts at alp.holidaybooking.ch.
Car hire and flights
Autoeurope (from £155 a week from Geneva) provided car hire. EasyJet, Swiss and BA fly to Geneva from several UK airports.
Credit: Gemma Bowers for The Guardian, 24 June 2018.