Between two catsits in Geneva from the 22nd till 24th of May, 2023, we took the train to Sion in the Canton of Valais (German: Wallis) of Switzerland. We spent two wonderful days in the town and the surrounding villages before hitchhiking back to Genthod, Geneva.
- 1 Planning our Visit to Sion
- 2 Train from Geneva to Sion + Checking into the Airbnb
- 3 Valère Basilica + Tourbillon Castle
- 4 The Underground Lake Of Saint-Léonard
- 5 Les Pyramides d’Euseigne Rock Formations
- 6 Hitchhiking with a Swiss in Switzerland (Finally!)
- 7 Thanks for being here, consider buying me a (small) bottle of Valais wine!
- 8 Enjoyed the pictures and info? Feel free to share this post
Planning our Visit to Sion
I really wanted to visit more parts of Switzerland that I hadn’t been to before. Jonas and I had successfully visited the (unofficial) capital Bern a week earlier and had a lot of fun. Our schedule in Switzerland was very tight, with commitments to take care of people’s cats left and right. While we were catsitting in Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany, we noticed there were two days between two catsits that were both in the Geneva area. But what do we do with just two days? One idea was to stay in Geneva. A bit boring. Another idea was to go to France where things are cheaper.
But my last idea was to go to the Valais region. It’s a part of Switzerland (I think) I’ve never been to. I knew that the region has an underground lake and some rock formations, but otherwise, I knew nothing about it.
The capital and main town of the canton of Valais is Sion and it’s connected by Swiss rail. In fact, there’s a direct train connection from Geneva. No need to switch trains. So while taking care of Moritz the cat in Freiburg, we booked an Airbnb in Sion and the tickets to visit the nearby underground lake. Both were expensive, but especially the Airbnb stung at €110 per night. But it was also the best option available and waiting to book would definitely not make sense. Thankfully, through housesitting, most of our accommodation in Switzerland is free of charge.
Train from Geneva to Sion + Checking into the Airbnb
On the 22nd of May, we handed over the care of orange cat Willie in Geneva back to his parents. Once it was time to leave, we said goodbye to them and headed to the Genève-Cornavin railway station on foot. Jonas had booked the train tickets to Sion in the very useful SBB app (Android – Apple), which cost €28 per person.
Besides a fellow passenger who got almost pickpocketed by another passenger, the train ride wasn’t very eventful. It was a beautiful sunny day, so we had great views of Lake Geneva. Then the tracks followed the Rhône River upstream. Though the riverbed has been partly canalized, it’s still very fast and wild, which reminded me of the Dutch children’s song my sister and I learned back in the olden days:
There were a couple of waterfalls in the distance adding to the flow. And much of it was parallel to a highway. We’re probably hitchhiking back to Geneva from Sion in two days via this road. In the distance, I saw the two hills with the basilica and castle of Sion.
Upon arrival in Sion, we still had more than an hour before check-in time at the Airbnb. But because we’re traveling relatively light, it’s no problem to wander around the city with our backpacks.
So we walked from the train station via as many pedestrian zones as possible to the Place de la Planta. There we sat down on a bench to plot a route through the town. We noticed it was really warm and sunny, and we should probably apply sunscreen before we go out again later. We received a text from our host that the apartment would be ready at 14:00.
From this city park, we walked to the Cathedral of Sion, which we entered. It had very nice stained glass windows. After that, I led the way through as many small streets and tunnels as possible, following a nun here and there and ending up at a statue of Saint Théodule, the patron saint of Valais.
A modern touch came from all the interactive signs about earthquakes in Valais and Sion in particular. It’s part of a self-guided tour of Sion you can download here.
We met a very cute cat before we wandered to the historic ruins of the Sous-le-Scex burial church. There’s not much more left than an outline of the church, but French signs tell about this 5th-century burial place and the human remains archaeologists have found. Today it’s also a meeting place with benches and some shade below the steep rocks of the Valère Basilica.
Jonas and I walked from here to the Airbnb close to the Rhône River and arrived at 14:05. We followed the instructions for check-in, but there was loud music coming from behind the door. Jonas opened it, but the apartment wasn’t ready yet at all. A lady cleaning the public corridor walked by and talked in French to Jonas. When she found out we were renting the place, she said “Be careful, you’re paying way too much!” to which Jonas replied, “Well so is all of Switzerland.”
The host showed up with dry laundry. There was a hiccup with cleaning the apartment because the shared laundry facilities were occupied. It took another 40 minutes with us awkwardly being around and him talking to Jonas there before it was ready, after which he said we should put money in a jar if we use any salt or oil for cooking (?!) and we should water all his plants, since they’re for him like cats for other people. Weirdly-cheap behavior. Anyway, he did give us some tips for things to do in the area, which included the hot springs near the Euseigne Pyramids—though he hadn’t been there himself.
Once we were alone, we packed a day bag to go hiking and I wrote a quick hitchhiking sign for Sion. I wanted to go to the Pyramides d’Euseigne, but Jonas suggested staying in town. So we decided to go to the two peaks inside Sion.
Valère Basilica + Tourbillon Castle
Once outside, we first walked via a different route to the start of the path to Valère Basilica-cum-Castle. We crossed the Sionne River (La Sionne), which is just a canalized torrent rushing through town, partially covered by the city. It’s a good candidate for daylighting. My route also included a quick visit past the Rennaissance-style building Maison Supersaxo and the town hall of Sion with its beautiful astronomical clock.
The narrow and steep streets led up to the square Maurice-Zermatten between the basilica and the castle of Sion. We walked up to the basilica first via the steep Medieval cobblestone stairs. The Valère Basilica built between 1100–1300 houses the world’s oldest playable organ, dating back to 1435. Imagine being one of the few organists allowed to play on it. I was very excited to see it with my own eyes, but unfortunately, the basilica is closed on Mondays. Shit, we should have gone to the pyramids instead! All we could do is peer through the keyhole of the main gate.
But we didn’t climb up this hill for no reason at all. To the east of the fortified church, there were some rocky outcrops with excellent views over the basilica, the Tourbillon Castle with its vineyards, the River Rhône, and the surrounding mountains, some with ski resorts on pause.
Next, we walked downhill to cross over to the other, taller, hill of Sion, the one with Tourbillon Castle. It was a steep hike mostly without shadow, but the vistas were incredible. Once we were through the gate of the castle, we had incredible views over Valère Basilica and Sion, with the airport creating a giant gaping gap in the landscape and the mountain peak of Haut de Cry fully visible. I wish we had more than two days here.
The actual castle was a bit further up and thankfully the gate was open. Once in the courtyard, we wandered around for good vistas and things to do, but some things were also closed, such as access to the corner turret. Jonas spent some time looking for the cistern of the castle while I photographed the northern vineyards of Sion with the mountains. A few lizards scurried away when we got too close.
Another exit from the castle led to a grassy plateau where we could properly admire the altitude difference between Tourbillon and Valère. That’s also the spot with a nice view of the Rhône bend right below it and the train line that curves along. There’s an alternative path down and out of the castle, of which we found the trailhead, but it was very steep and sketchy. If we’d done this trip in reverse, I’d have been good to hike it up, but not down. Though often the steepest parts are at the beginning and end of a trail.
The castle was about to be closed for the evening, so we headed downhill the way we’d come. But there was plenty of light left, so we decided to walk home via the long way, northward. We came past a nice brutalist building and then made a stop at a café called Réservoir, where we had a beer. The staff was very nice and they brought everyone a snack, which – unfortunately for me – was a few bites of ham pizza. Jonas gladly ate it all.
Going around the two hills, we also came past a big cemetery. The infrastructure became quite hostile to walking. We walked past two people that jumped up when they saw us, asking for the time. Considering the isolated place we were in I didn’t want to engage. We tried to walk home next to the Rhône River, for which we needed to cross a road that wasn’t exactly designed for pedestrians and then walk through an area with an equestrian club.
Finally, we made it to the embankment of the Rhône. It flows so fast and though there’s almost no place to get in or out, I’d be down to paddle it. We crossed back to the Sion side of the river via a very nice pedestrian/cyclist bridge called Vissigen. Once at home, we cooked a simple dinner and started filling in the details of what we’d do on our second day.
The Underground Lake Of Saint-Léonard
The following day, we took the train from Sion to the next village, Saint-Léonard. That’s where the cave lake of the same name is, which was one of the primary motivators to base ourselves in Sion for these two days.
Since we already had tickets, all we had to do was take the train or bus and be there on time. We chose the train again, which required a bit more walking on the Saint-Léonard side. It was a pleasant walk through the village and we even met a friendly cat.
At the entrance to the underground lake, we were told that we were early for the 11:00 tour. But we booked the 10:45 tour. I think because it was a slow day, they just grouped us together with the next tour instead of doing it for just the two of us. Unfortunately, the eight other people we were joined with did include a toddler. Not sure why that was even allowed, besides the horror of cave acoustics and screaming children.
We descended to the boats wearing our rain jackets for warmth. The cave is quite spectacular and the biggest happy surprise was the fish they keep in the water to keep it clean. All of them are male fish. Despite the harsh winters here, the cave water never freezes.
At the end of the cave, they keep some caskets of booze for events. All in all, it’s quite a commercial cave as they also do concerts and weddings and all. Nothing like the blissful chaos of the Khao Kop Cave in Thailand—an experience that’s truly hard to beat.
Afterward, the tour lady I had thus far deemed sympathetic asked for tips because she’s “a single mom and a part-time clown” – all statements were believable – despite all of us except the crying toddler paying €12.30 for a 20-minute tour. I mean, the audacity to ask for more money when there are Indian citizens in this group who paid at the very least €80 for a Schengen visa (not counting rejections) and oodles more for flights to get here and then probably get treated like shit by Swiss hotel staff.
This and the Airbnb host asking us to chip in for *checks notes* salt usage… it all felt incredibly cheap. I’m not calling for greater hospitality or generosity, just more awareness of how expensive things are here for everyone else. This is Switzerland and you are Swiss. Sit down and enjoy your benefits.
Les Pyramides d’Euseigne Rock Formations
We took the train back to Sion and then switched over to the bus with a snack and overpriced coffee in hand. We took bus number 381 Les Haudères, which normally stops in Euseigne.
Going up the mountain I was feeling a little woozy because the bus was so big, the road so small, and the abyss so gazingly. When we noticed road works ahead, Jonas asked the bus driver if he was still stopping at our intended stop in Euseigne, which he said he didn’t but two stops later. Also, he said from there we couldn’t visit the Pyramides d’Euseigne. Shit, now what?
We decided to still get out in Euseigne and then try to find one of the many trails that leads to these fairy chimneys/hoodoos. After much deliberation and a lot of doubt, we did find a path through a pasture that got close to it and we could see like one hoodoo through the foliage. There was construction going on below, so I thought we couldn’t visit it. We still walked down to the construction site to check it out.
To our pleasant surprise, we could walk over the construction site to the ‘pyramids’. The workers were building a new tunnel through the mountain since the old one probably doesn’t fit the average car anymore.
The balancing rock formation was really cool. Birds were sometimes resting on them. I kept being amazed that the tunnel engineers manage to do all that drilling without destroying these natural marvels. Uh, I hope this statement will still be true by the time the tunnel is done.
After the rocks, we wanted to hike to the Combioula hot springs. But by this time our water was low and we’d still have more than 7 kilometers of hiking to go. Of course, there’s a chance we can refill our water. Or we get down there and there’s no drinking water and we have to climb up 500 meters again with just a drop. So we decided to call it a day and return to Sion.
Hitchhiking with a Swiss in Switzerland (Finally!)
I had made the Sion hitchhiking sign and I intended to use it. We first tried in one spot and took some cute photos, but we thought it wasn’t very safe for stopping right after a tunnel, so we kept walking.
A little while later, we found a good spot that also doubles as a bus stop when the road isn’t bypassed completely as it is now. It looked very good and the first car stopped. Weird door handles, so this is another Tesla. It’s the second one we’ve hitched.
The driver’s name was Cédric and he could take us to the part of Sion that’s on the left bank of the Rhône. That was fine, from there we can walk home. Jonas spoke French with him until we switched to English when my French was très disappointing. I enjoyed the ride as I felt much safer on these winding roads in a vehicle that’s close to the ground than in the tall bus. And this was also my very first hitch with a Swiss person in a Swiss-plated car in Switzerland. Yay!
Once down, we walked to a nearby Denner’s supermarket to buy some food to cook at home and some wine. I spent ages looking for local Valais wine that’s red, not too expensive, and a reasonable quantity for people who have to hitchhike to Geneva tomorrow morning. I almost gave up and supported Spain or Italy. Eventually, I found this bad boy for €3.40. It was okay. After all, Valais is known for its white wines, not reds.
Thanks for being here, consider buying me a (small) bottle of Valais wine!
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