This spectacularly beautiful Swiss valley is quickly and easily accessed by auto or rail yet remains remote and undiscovered. Its residents speak a special Swiss-German dialect and hold hard to ancient and mysterious traditions. Our "Editor's Choice" hotel offers large, comfortable guest rooms with sweeping views of the valley. There's also info on ski weeks, the Lötschentaler Museum, and vacation rentals ranging in price from 400 to 700 Sfr. ($263-$460) per week.
By Bob Bestor
A spectacularly beautiful Swiss valley that is quickly and easily accessed by automobile or rail yet remains remote and undiscovered.
The spine is the Rhône river and its valley. Sticking out on both sides of it are wiggly ribs of intersecting valleys accessed by dead-end roads that snake high into the Alps. In these upper valleys are found some of Switzerland's best-known resorts: Zermatt, Saas Fee, Crans Montana, Verbier. Some, like Evolene, Leukerbad and Zinal are not so well-known - at least by Americans. One of the most obscure is the Lötschental, a valley that holds hard to some ancient and mysterious traditions and whose residents speak a special Swiss-German dialect.
The University of Basel has evidence of a 1,000-year-old settlement in the Lötschental, but prior to 1913 and the building of the Goppenstein tunnel which connects Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland with the Rhône Valley, the valley's tiny villages were accessible only via high - 8,200 feet - mountain passes. its inhabitants were virtually cut off from the outside world.
Among the almost tribal traditions still observed in the valley is the Tschäggätä, a mostly fur costume with a large bell hung around the waist and a wooden face mask covering the head. It is the mask that interests most. Hand-carved by one of only two or three local artisans, each is a uniquely wild and spooky work of art. The fiercest are made in the village of Wiler by Anges Rieder-Jerien. You can see her studio - and hundreds of masks - by making an appointment through the tourist office.
The masks and costumes are worn only a couple of times each year, most spectacularly in a parade on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. Only bachelors participate in the Tschäggättä and, according to Ms. Rieder-Jerien, their identities are never revealed.
Another tradition is that of the "red soldiers." Wearing white and scarlet uniforms adorned with gold buttons, swords, rifles and a tall, white feather, they are descendants of men who fought in foreign wars. They march with a brass band on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The custom dates from 1625 when returning warriors began to save their parade uniforms for wearing on Sundays and holidays to honor God.
Though tourism began in 1972 with the building of the Lauchernalp ski area, the valley retains the quaintness and charm that many larger, more popular Valasian resorts have sacrificed for financial success.
Most buildings are of the customary rough wood, blackened by age and weather, and the accommodations are for the most part simple.
At the same time, the tunnel has brought 21st century civilization to the valley's residents. Using the country's nonpareil system of rail, buses and tunnels, a tourist office employee in Wiler told Gemütlichkeit he and his wife go to the movies in Bern and are home a little over an hour after the credits have rolled. Goppenstein is on the international Lötschberg-Simplon railway line (Bern-Brig-Milan) and a fast train stops about twice each hour.
Civilization in the Lötschental is mainly four small villages: Ferden, Kippel, Wiler and Blatten. The one with the best buildings is Kippel, the ski area is accessed at Wiler, Blatten is the most rustic and Ferden is perhaps the least interesting.
One can reach the valley easily by rail - train to Goppenstein and bus into the valley - or by car. From Spiez take the road into the mountain to Kandersteg and board the car train (25 Sfr./$16) for the 15-minute run to Goppenstein. From there, turn left and it's only a few minutes into the valley. From the main highway that runs along the Rhône from Lake Geneva to Brig, look for signs to the turn north to Goppenstein. From the river it's only a few minutes up a very good but twisty road.
For those seeking a self-catering vacation rentals, the Lötschental should be considered. And, like almost any place in Switzerland, it makes a good headquarters for the traveler with a rail pass. Many interesting destinations are within a two-hour train ride.
If you choose the Lötschental be prepared for the quiet, country life. Skiers and summer visitors who enjoy the outdoors will find plenty to do for a week or so, but less active travelers who want more than the glorious scenery and a good book, will have to rely on a car or rail pass for day-trips out of the valley.
The best hotel we saw in the Lötschental and one of the most remote. its village, Blatten, is as far up the valley as you can go in winter.
A member of the Relais du Silence association since 1994, the Edelweiss started as a small grocery store in 1923, became a hotel-restaurant in 1964 and was fully renovated in 1993.
Its guestrooms are the largest and most comfortable of the hotels discussed here. Our recommendation is Number 202 with slanting pine ceiling and a balcony with sweeping views of the valley. Number 203 is a large single with comfortable sitting area. All rooms are equipped with direct-dial phones, TV, radio and minibar.
Those who pick the Edelweiss would be well advised to also choose the half-board option (30 Sfr./$20). The hotel's kitchen produces good, simple meals and the cellar is stocked entirely with Valasian wines.
The Edelweiss also has a small vacation house suitable for two to four persons which it rents for 400 to 570 Sfr. ($266-$380) per week, depending on the time of year and number of persons. Breakfast and dinner is available at the hotel for 217 Sfr. ($145) per person (150 Sfr./$100 for kids).
Daily Rates: Singles 85 to 125 Sfr. ($56-$82), doubles 140 to 210 DM ($92-$138). Half-pension 30 Sfr. ($20)
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20
Hotel Nest-und Bietschhorn
The Lötschental's oldest hotel. Guestrooms and bathrooms are a bit smaller than at the Edelweiss. Room amenities are similar to the Edelweiss except that there are no TVs, though they can be rented.
Has the reputation as the best food in the valley. Classic dishes such as veal steak with morel mushroom sauce and noodles (38 Sfr. $25), sautéed chopped veal "Zürich style" with Rösti (32 Sfr./$21), and game dishes, take a back seat to such local specialities as a ragout of Valasian lamb with house-made noodles (20 Sfr./$13) and Valasian rack of lamb with polenta (32 Sfr./$21).
Daily Rates: Singles 65 to 85 Sfr. ($43-$56), doubles 125 to 160 Sfr. ($82-$105). Half-pension 31 Sfr. ($20)
Contact: Hotel Nest- und Bietschhorn, CH-3919 Ried b. Blatten (Lötschental), tel. +41/027/939 11 06, fax 939 18 22, Web: nest-bietschhorn.ch/, proprietor: Fam. Erwin Bellwald-Grob
Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 12/20
Hotel zur Wildi
Serious skiers and walkers will want to consider these rustic family accommodations perched on the mountain side several hundred feet above Wiler on the ski slope. Guestrooms are plain but spacious and several can accommodate three to four persons. In winter the hotel is accessible only by cable car.
Daily Rates: Singles 84 Sfr. ($55), doubles 138 Sfr ($91). Half-pension 20 Sfr. ($13)
Rating: Quality 9/20, Value 12/20
A simple, very rustic hotel and restaurant directly on the main valley road and across the street from the Lauchernalp cable car.
Daily Rates: Singles 65 to 75 Sfr. ($43-$49), doubles 130 to 150 Sfr. ($86-$99).
Contact: Hotel-Restaurant Sporting, CH-3918 Wiler/Lötschental/Wallis, tel. +41/027/939 13 77, fax 939 10 87, proprietor: Familie A. Rieder
Rating: Quality 9/20, Value 10/20
This rough little gem at the remote northeast end of the valley is open only from May to October. A favorite of hikers, it is fully booked most weekends so reserve in advance. Excellent kitchen.
Daily Rates: Singles 53 to 76 Sfr. ($35-$50), doubles 106 to 152 Sfr. ($70-$100).
Contact: Hotel Fafleralp CH-3919 Fafleralp, tel. +41/027/939 14 15, fax 939 14 53, proprietor: Christian Henzen
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 14/20
Altitude: 1217 meters/3,993 feet
Rail travel time from Goppenstein to:
* Bern 1:13 hr/min
* Brig 0:25 hr/min
* Geneva 3:01 hr/min
* Interlaken 1:02 hr/min
* Lucerne 2:40 hr/min
* Milan 2:17 hr/min
* Montreux 1:03 hr/min
* Sion 0:51 hr/min
* Spiez 0:40 hr/min
* Thun 0:50 hr/min
* Zermatt 2:02 hr/min
* Zürich 2:34 hr/min
Arriving by train:
Fast trains on the Basel-Bern-Brig-Milan line stop at Goppenstein at least hourly in both directions; from there it is only a few minutes by postal bus to the main villages: Ferden, Kippel, Wiler, Ried, Blatten.
The Lötschentaler Wanderpass
The Lötschental is a network of roads, trails, lifts, and mountain huts. With the Wanderpass, walkers get a week's unlimited access to the valley's Postal Bus system and to the cable car and lifts, as well as fee entrance to the Lötschentaler Museum. Price is 59 Sfr./$39 per person or 119 Sfr./$78 for a family.
The tourist office (see above) offers one-week Alpine and Nordic ski packages that include hotel accommodations with breakfast, lift pass, ski bus pass, and welcome drink. For Alpine skiers, the per person price for the package in category B hotels is 592 Sfr. ($395) and 648 Sfr. ($426) in category A hotels. The cross country package is 409 Sfr. ($269) in category B hotels and 466 ($306) in category A hotels.
Displays fine art as well as artifacts from the valley's 4,000-year history, including early traditional dwellings and a bow from the Bronze Age. Located in Kippel and open mid-June through mid-October, Tuesday through Sunday, 10am-6pm, closed 12pm-2pm. Entrance: 4 Sfr. ($2.60), 3.5 Sfr. ($2.30) with guest card, 2.5 Sfr. ($1.65) for student, and 1 Sfr. ($0.66) for kids 6-16.
The valley has several dozen chalets, apartments and even Alpine huts available for short-term rental. Most are in the 400 to 700 Sfr. ($263-$460) per week range. Contact the tourist office for the brochure Verzeichnis der vermietbaren Ferienwohnungen Chalets, Alphütten.