Strange stories

The special culture of the Walser

From the hard survival in the Alps

The Alps are undoubtedly one of the most interesting landscapes in Europe. They act as a barrier between the Mediterranean and the more northerly areas of Central Europe. For thousands of years they were considered ugly, dangerous, unsuitable for agriculture and an obstacle to transit traffic. Although the Alpine passes were crossed thousands of years ago, settlement in the Alps was slow and relatively late.

As land in the plains became scarcer, settlers from all sides also penetrated into the Alpine region. This history of settlement extended over long periods of time, it is highly complicated and for a long time little attention was paid to it.

From the 18th century, when the interest of scientists, and later also of tourists, in the Alps slowly awoke, folklorists also began to take an interest in the inhabitants of the Alps with their, often unique, customs.

Among the inhabitants of the Alps there is a special group that sought settlement possibilities in the Alps only late and then had to move to high altitudes because the valley locations had long been occupied: The "Walser" with their special traditions.

Since the end of the 20th century, mountain hikers in particular have been interested in the Walsers. Many now set out in search of relics from a time when the Walsers had to develop special techniques that allowed them to survive high in the mountains.

Who is a Walser today?
The Walser are originally a simple mountain farming language and fate community of Alemannic origin. But the new age has completely changed their way of life. Whoever speaks Walser German in the old homeland or in the lower valleys or whoever belongs to a Walser clan may rightly consider himself a "Walser" today.

Paul Zinsli. (5, S. 874).

Where do the Walsers come from?
The name Walser comes from Walliser. They are considered to be a German-speaking tribe that once migrated from the Valais; over the mountain passes or from the south through the valleys. Perhaps the Walsers are even the remnant of the Gothic people who had to submit to the Byzantine commander Narses after the Battle of Milchberg (552). There are many speculations about their origin, even that they could have been partly scattered Cathars and other religious refugees.
In contrast to the Alemanni who settled in the Upper Valais and are called Walliser, the colonists who migrated from the upper Rhone valley in the High Middle Ages are called Walser.   

It seems to be reasonably well documented that the Walsers migrated to the Alpine region after the 11th century. Their religion is mostly Catholic[i]. Their various dialects, which can still be heard today, are variations of the German language. Differences in the Walser dialects of Italy and Graubünden (Switzerland) suggest different waves of immigration.

Walser and Waldensian
The "Walsers" are not to be confused with the "Waldensers".
The Waldensians are a Protestant church founded by the reformer Peter Waldes of Lyon (d. before 1218) in the 12th century, which was rigorously persecuted by the Inquisition. One of their retreats were the difficult-to-access "Waldensian valleys" of the Western Alps (in Piedmont on the border with Savoy, northwestern Italy). First tolerated in these valleys, in the 17th century, in the course of the Counter-Reformation, they were also persecuted here, so that today there are only a few confessors of this religion.
The Waldenses are occasionally compared to the Cathars, but the religious teachings of these two Christian communities are by no means identical. (On the subject of "Cathars," read ""The Albigensian Crusade" under "Short, Concise, Curious" on page 302).


The settlement of the Alps

The first permanent inhabitants of high altitudes above 1000 m were monks in the 7th/8th century.

In the High Middle Ages followed a period of wars and turmoil with political refugees. But there were also new ideas, improvements in agricultural cultivation methods and better tools.

In the medieval warm period, from the 12th century, the climate became milder, and the vegetation limit advanced by about 200 meters in altitude. Cereal cultivation and livestock breeding became possible even at higher altitudes. The population had grown significantly. Monasteries and secular princes encouraged adventurous settlers to migrate to high altitudes that had hitherto been used at best as pastures, to clear forests, plant fields, raise livestock, build settlements and thus create a new home for themselves. Various benefits, such as low taxes or exemption from military service, were promised. Thus, groups of Alemannic peasant families moved from the upper reaches of the Rhone in various spurts over the mountain passes and founded a multitude of scattered settlements in what is now Italy, Switzerland and Austria. They were faced with the task of inhabiting an area that had previously been used only temporarily throughout the year. Walser settlements are therefore often located in high valleys or even in exposed terrain, because good land at lower altitudes had long since been used by the ancient indigenous population.

These Walser migrations began at the end of the 12th century and came to an end at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries.

The colonization of the Walsers is essentially regarded as a "peaceful conquest with axe and scythe". However, it will not have been entirely without clashes with the local population, who had long since used many of the high altitudes now occupied by the Walsers as summer pastures. The historical sources hardly report such disputes; a serious war of conquest cannot have occurred among the small groups of people concerned.

When the Little Ice Age began in the mid-16th century with the advance of the glaciers, several Walser settlements had to be abandoned and their inhabitants moved down into the valley. As minorities among the Romansh population, they were soon assimilated there.

Mountain survival

The migrations of the Walsers coincided with an era of transition from small animal husbandry (sheep and goats) to cattle farming. The Walser farmers probably only carried sheep and goats during their migrations, and they remained faithful to these farm animals for centuries. In fact, sheep and goats are easier to keep in the steep mountain terrain than the heavier cattle. The latter, however, are more suitable as barter goods for the markets in the valley. The Walsers supplied the local markets with cattle, butter, cheese and dried meat. In exchange they could trade grain, leather, salt, tools such as scythes, wine, etc.

In order to cope in the high altitudes, an invention typical for the Walsers helped: The Walser farmers in the east did not bring the fodder from the high alpine pastures down to the settlements. To save longer transport routes, the hay harvested in summer was stored in barns located on the alpine pastures. In autumn, the cattle moved downhill in stages to these "feeding barns". Most of them still had a modest living quarters. Only then did they go down to the actual settlement for wintering.

Inner alpine valleys often receive little precipitation, in contrast to the peripheral areas. Therefore, in some places the streams flowing from the glaciers had to be tapped and their water distributed to the fields.[ii].

It was a hard life, and anyone who has visited one or another Walser settlement and imagines life there centuries ago is impressed by the will to survive and the hard struggle for survival of the Walsers.

Even today, the small Walser settlement of Juf at 2126 m above sea level (near Avers in Graubünden/Switzerland) is the highest permanently populated village in Europe

The Walser today

Today, there are still about 150 Walser settlements with about 40,000 people scattered over 300 km as the crow flies from Gressoney in the Aosta Valley (Italy) in southern Walser to Mittelberg in eastern Walser (Allgäu Alps). For the few Walser still living in the old mountain settlements, life has changed fundamentally. The settlements are supplied with electricity, accessible by roads, and agricultural machines determine the cultivation on the areas or slopes in the mountains that still remain profitable.

Recently, the Walser have been attracting increasing attention from mountain hikers. They trace the relics of the hard life of the Walser in the high mountains, admire the old wooden houses in log construction, not infrequently made of larch wood, sometimes still covered with granite slabs, and hear about the special old customs of the Walser. Not to forget the typical granaries of the Valais and the Walser with the characteristic "mouse plates", which prevent the intrusion of rats and mice.

If you want to get to know the friendly Walser people better, you can hike through the mountains on old Walser trails; for example, on the "Great Walser Trail" (2). This leads on 29 stages from Zermatt to Mittelberg. Few people will walk it all the way, but one or the other stage is also worth a hike.

Thus, tourism has also arrived in the villages of the Walser and there is no lack of hotels, restaurants, cafes and stores for souvenirs.

(1) Balmer Emil, Die Walser im Piemont, A. Francke, Bern, 1949.
(2) Irlinger Bernhard, Der grosse Walserweg, J. Berg, Munich. 1996.
(3) Waibel Max, Unterwegs zu den Walsern, Huber, CH-8501 Frauenfeld, 2003.
(4) Welte Adalbert, Die große Flucht (novel), Österreichische Buchgemeinschaft, 1952.
(5) Zinsli Paul, Handbuch der Schweizerischen Volkskultur, vol. 2, 1992.
(6) http;//

[i] Only individual parishes joined the Reformation.
[ii] The most complicated installations of this kind were the "sacred waters" of the Valais. Here, water pipes (called Suonen) were sometimes led high along rock faces. The repairs of the rockfall and avalanche-prone pipelines were not infrequently life-threatening. The novel "An heiligen Wassern" by Jakob Christoph Heer from 1898 dealt with this topic in a poetic way. This novel was made into a film in 1960.