From the Val d’Herens we made our way back to the main Rhône Valley, through Sion and up the side of the valley into the town of Savièse. This is wine growing country. Vines line the slopes in their perfect queues, waiting for sunshine and water to ripen the grapes. There are orchards lower down the slopes and grassy pastures for livestock. This is the type of agriculture that is dependent on water, but the streams in this valley are often torrents that cascade straight down the mountain in their own gorges. The water doesn’t get very far. This is where the ‘Bisses’ come in. Open irrigation channels that capture the water at a relatively high altitude as it starts it’s journey down the steep slopes, and then spreads it among the fields.
The Bisses of the Valais region are at least medieval in origin and many are still in use today. There are walking routes along some of them and here in Savièse we could walk along the Bisse du Torrent Neuf thanks to a very handily positioned motorhome aire at the top of the town.
Savièse Motorhome Parking
The route to the parking was reasonably straightforward until we got to the town, when the sat nav tried to take us up cobbled narrow streets. Either the parking or the Bisse du Torrent Neuf are signposted pretty much all the way so it’s not too difficult to navigate the old fashioned way, but it’s never helpful to have the sat nav barking incorrect orders to turn around when possible.
When we got to the parking it was a large open space with good views across the valley to the south. Of course this meant it was also warm in the sunshine. The information booth was manned by a sunbathing young person who came and took my 10 CHF in cash to pay for an overnight stay. It was only afterwards I realised I could have also paid using an app.
We sat and relaxed in the afternoon sunshine, deciding to leave the walk to the following morning.
Overnight we had heavy rain that took us by surprise as it bounced through our open skylight and dripped into our bed. It had been a long time since we’d heard the tap tap of raindrops on the roof in the night and even longer since it had been hard enough to make us close the rood.
In the morning the air was fresh and the skies were grey. It wasn’t horrible weather, just overcast, and we welcomed the chance to walk in the cool.
Walking the Torrent Neuf
We had a couple of kilometers to walk to the start of the ‘Torrent Neuf’ walk proper. We walked past fields and through woodland. Already the irrigation channels were visible and we could see where the water was being used to provide a sprinkler system working under the natural pressure of the stream and sprinkling the fields even though there had been rain the night before.
At the start of the walk is a cafe, they were just setting up as we walked through their outside seating. A couple of water wheels demonstrated the power of the water.
As we climbed the gentle gradient of the bisse we could start to see how it had been constructed. Open ditches carried water initially but as the path rose further up the side of the gorge the channels were no longer filled with water. It was obvious why. Historically wooden troughs were used to carry the water around the sides of the cliffs and these troughs have mostly gone. Rock falls and avalanches must have made maintenance a seasonal activity. Something that no longer happens as older bisses have been replaced by concrete channels.
A small chapel sits part way along the path. You can see why it would have been important to people who were risking their lives to maintain the waterway.
In some places, where the original bisse would have clung to the face of the cliff, suspension bridges have been built. They reduce the risk of future rockfalls destroying the tourist path and add a bit of excitement to the walk as they bounce with every step. You can still see the scars of the original bisse on the walls of the gorge, gradually disappearing as years of erosion and plant growth start to hide them.
In other sections canopies have been built to protect the path. As you walk along you can see how friable the rock is. It seems extraordinary that anyone would have tried to attach such structures to something so impermanent and just brings home how important they must have been for the local people.
The route has been constructed to provide visitors with an insight into the historic construction of the Bisses. Reconstructions and photographs show the way in which communities cooperated to ensure that the water was being delivered through these channels and numerous plaques are dedicated to the local businesses who contributed to the construction of the new path.
The whole thing is a fascinating open air museum and definitely worth a visit.