by Bob Bestor
French-speaking, vineyard-ringed, Sion is Switzerland's oldest city and the capital of the Valais. Add it to your next trip's "hot list.”
For years, we thought of the old city of Sion as merely an intriguing-looking town we often passed on the way to somewhere else. But now, after two visits, we're not sure why this French-speaking town near the west end of Switzerland's Rhône valley doesn't attract more visitors.
One reason may be that it has to compete for attention with several more famous destinations in its own canton, the Valais. More familiar names such as Saas Fee, Crans-Montana, Verbier and Zermatt get most of the attention.
Approaching Sion from either direction on the main valley road, one is immediately struck by its medieval, almost Moorish, skyline. Out of the valley's rocky soil rise two imposing fortresses, the twin castles of Valere and Tourbillon.
Valere is actually a church which, incidentally, contains the world's oldest playable organ, and Tourbillon was the summer residence of the Prince Bishop of Martigny until it was destroyed by fire in 1788. It remains in ruins.
Tourist office brochures tout Sion as the "capital of Swiss California" and call it a "warm, sunny land of vineyards, orchards, strawberry and raspberry fields." Like several other Swiss destinations, local boosters claim Sion has the country's best climate with the least rainfall and the most days of sunshine.
Whether true or not, Sion is a place to be visited in any weather.
In winter, it is the center of the val d'Herens ski region including such little-known (in this country) villages as Arolla, Evolene, Nax, La Sage, Thyon, Les Collons and others. Most are within a few minutes drive of Sion.
On the slopes of the Rhône are thousands of acres of steeply-terraced vineyards. The rocky soil and sunshiny climate encourage several grape varieties and the wine trade flourishes.
But the wine comes at a price; the narrow terraces, some of which contain only two or three short rows of vines, are an engineering wonder and, when one realizes each vine must be tended by human hands about eight times a year, it's a maintenance headache of Excedrin proportions.
Where to Stay
Hotel Des Vignes
Easily the best hotel in or near Sion, (located in Uvrier, about 5 km east) Des Vignes looks better now than on our first visit in 1992: the Romanesque architecture fits better with the matured landscaping; guestrooms have held up well, and a few subtle additions have made the stunning lobby even more inviting. The latter still features a shiny black grand piano, a 360-degree black granite fireplace and a view past the vineyards to Sion's twin fortresses.
It's hard to believe this is a small, family-run hotel. With that lobby, the immaculately tended grounds and gardens, and a perfect vineyard setting, Des Vignes at first glance looks the part of a luxurious four or five-star property. But it is owned and run by a congenial former teacher and wife, Pierre and Christiane Menegale-Duc, and there is no uniformed doorman or concierge. Relaxed, three-star ambiance all the way.
The restaurant has been upgraded and the indoor Astroturf putting green remains, as does the pool that juts into the vineyards under a glass roof and there are still tennis courts and a pleasant library off the lobby.
Guestrooms are spacious but we offer the same mild criticism we did five years ago: the lack of comfortable furniture for sitting in some rooms.
One of the hotel's most desirable chambers is Number 222, a "duplex" on two levels with the living area below and bedroom above. There are bathrooms on both levels. M. Menegale-Duc offers Gemütlichkeit readers a 15% discount so the price for two persons in this room is 285 Sfr. ($178) less 43 Sfr. ($27) for a Gemütlichkeit price of 242 Sfr. ($151).
Less elaborate and smaller is Number 111 at 175 Sfr. ($109) for two persons or 149 Sfr. ($93) with the discount. To obtain the lower price you must reserve ahead and ask for the Gemütlichkeit discount.
And this is a first for us; mineral water from your room's minibar is free!
This is an excellent hotel in a great setting. The 15% subscriber discount makes it also a genuine bargain.
• Daily Rates: Singles 125 to 225 Sfr. ($78-$141), doubles 175 to 215 Sfr. ($109-$134), suites and duplexes 255 to 285 ($159-$178). Readers who reserve in advance and ask for the Gemütlichkeit discount will be granted 15% off the forgoing prices.
Contact: Hotel Des Vignes, Rue du Pont 9, CH-1958, tel. +41/027/203 1671, fax 203 3727.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 17/20*
It would be nice if this modern, business-oriented hotel were closer to Sion's old quarter than the 10-15 minute walk it is. Though of the Red Lion/Marriott genre, the Europa offers slightly above average comfort and services. Due to the dearth of charming small hotels in Sion, it is our first choice in town.
Our corner room, Number 402, was quite large and had most of the usual features; satellite TV, minibar, even terrycloth robes. Under the windows were handy built-ins and desk space but electrical outlets were overlooked. Plugging in a laptop computer or a video battery recharger required disconnecting one of the lamps or the television.
It also lacked comfortable furniture, the only place to sit was on one of two upright chairs.
The bathroom was good sized but poorly lit and lacked space to hang towels.
Special "business suites" which rent for 160 Sfr. ($100) single and 200 Sfr. ($125) double have small, separate rooms equipped with two phone lines and fax or modem connections.
• Daily Rates: Singles 110 to 160 Sfr. ($69-$100), doubles 160 to 200 Sfr. ($100-$125). Free Parking.
Contact: Hotel Europa, Rue de l'Envol 19, CH-1950 Sion, tel. +41/027/322 2423, fax 322 2535, Prop: Fam. G. et J.-M. Rupp
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 13/20
Hotel Du Rhône
A good choice in the town center, though housed in an uninviting, circa 1960s or 70s concrete and steel building, is the Du Rhône, part of the Best Western group.
Forget the hotel's not very promising exterior, inside is better. The Du Rhône is family operated so the welcome and service is a cut above. Reception is one flight up from street level.
Rooms are simpler than at the Europa but substantially less expensive. Number 401 is a nice corner double with two comfortable chairs.
The restaurant serves excellent traditional Swiss dishes (see page 5).
• Daily Rates: Singles 99 Sfr. ($62), doubles 140 Sfr. ($88). Prices for a full week with breakfast and dinner range from 678 Sfr. ($424) in a single room to 1104 Sfr. ($690) for two persons in a double.
Contact: Hotel Du Rhône, Rue du Scex 10, CH-1950 Sion, tel. +41/027/322 8291, fax 323 1188. Prop: Anne-Marie Minder.
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 14/20
Hotel du Midi
Another hotel in the town center is the du Midi which offers about a dozen modest but clean rooms above its café and restaurant.
Room Number four's three large windows - virtually floor to ceiling - give this corner double a pleasant, wide-open feel. The drawback is the shower and toilet are in a tiny space separated from the sink which is in the sleeping room.
Room Number 5 is small but has a larger, more conventional bathroom.
Rooms have cable TV and direct-dial phones.
• Daily Rates: Singles 65 to 105 Sfr. ($41-$66), doubles 85 to 120 Sfr. ($53-$75).
Contact: Hotel du Midi, Place du Midi 29, CH-1950 Sion, tel. +41/027/323 1331, fax 323 6173.
Rating: Quality 9/20, Value 13/20
Auberge du Pont
Outside the city, in the same area as the Hotel Des Vignes, is the Auberge du Pont, a restaurant with five rooms to rent.
Number 4, since it appears slightly larger than the others, would be our pick. It has cable TV on a tiny set and a small bathroom with shower, no tub.
This restaurant in the vineyards seems to be a neighborhood gathering place. The garden in the rear is very pleasant in fine weather.
This place is quaint, cozy and very good value.
• Daily Rates: Singles 55 Sfr. ($34), doubles 95 Sfr. ($59).
Contact: Auberge du Pont, CH-1958, Uvrier-St. Lonard, tel. +41/027/2032231, fax 203 5175. Prop: M. G. Anthamatten.
Rating: Quality 8/20, Value 14/20
Places to Eat
Au Cheval Blanc
Those who seek restaurants which, in style and price, rest between simple meat and potatoes country inns and tony places with tuxedoed captains and wine stewards, will feel very much at home at here.
This storefront bistro offers interestingly prepared dishes from a menu that depends heavily on fresh and seasonal ingredients.
Obviously popular with the locals, Cheval Blanc is a lively spot in the center of the old town.
The decor takes its character from Van Gogh prints, granite floors, antique clocks and bright print table cloths.
Our first indication that Cheval Blanc leaves tradition to others was the Valasian beer served on draught. It is unfiltered, something rarely seen in Switzerland.
We began with appetizers of fresh oysters (6 Sfr./$3.75), the price for which included a glass of very dry white wine.
A main dish of delicious grilled lamb chops came with both white and green asparagus and oven roasted potatoes. There were four chops in all, two were kept warm in the kitchen for a second serving.
One of the better dishes we've had anywhere in the past year was Zarzuela, a gigantic Spanish-inspired seafood stew prepared for two persons (42 Sfr./$26 per person). In it were mussels, chunks of lobster, shrimp, fish pieces, prawns, and potatoes, all swimming in a garlicky broth laced with olive oil and flavored with a variety of herbs including saffron. With glasses of chardonnay from Cave Les Futailles across the street, and baskets of good bread for dipping, it was sublime.
A dinner for two here, without beverages, will be about $50-$60.
• Au Cheval Blanc, Grand-Pont 23, CH-1930, Sion, tel. +41/027/322 1867. Prop: Olga and Alain Grosjean.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 13/20
Restaurant du Rhône
A no less popular place, though with a somewhat older clientèle, is the restaurant of the Hotel du Rhône. In its rather staid dining room we had some of the best examples in recent memory of traditional Swiss dishes.
Emince de Veau "Zürichoiser" (35 Sfr./$22) is on menus all over Switzerland. Du Rôhne's rendition of the standard was all one could ask for. The tender, sautéed veal chunks came bathed in a light mushroom cream sauce that had been flamed in cognac. The accompanying Rösti was somewhat loose, more like our hash browns, than the usual dense patty. No matter, with the sauce and veal it completed a plate of deliciously satisfying comfort food. And, there was a second serving.
Another down-home winner was Risotto with Spargel (white asparagus) and lots of cheese. A huge plate for 16 Sfr. ($10).
Three course dinners for two here will be about $45.
• Hotel Du Rhône, Rue du Scex 10, CH-1950 Sion, tel. +41/027/322 8291, fax 323 1188.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
MORE ABOUT SION
Altitude: 512 meters, 1,680 feet
* Geneva 159 km 99 miles
* Lucerne 83 km 114 miles
* Martigny 29 km 18 miles
* Montreux 68 km 43 miles
* Zürich 277 km 173 miles
Rail Connections: There are frequent trains from Sion to virtually all points in Switzerland. Depending on routing and connections, the trip to Zürich can take as little as three and one-half hours, Geneva one hour-20 minutes, Munich about eight hours and Vienna about 13 hours.
Sion Tourist Office: Place de la Planta, CH-1950 Sion, tel. +41/027 322 85 86, fax 322 18 82
Excursion to Saillon: After exploring this small village, which is about nine miles from Sion, one can walk up a steep path to the ruined castle of Peter of Savoy.
Excursion to Isarables: At Riddes, on the N9 Autobahn between Martigny and Sion, one can either ride the almost vertical cable car or choose to drive the switchbacks up to this village set on a precarious slope overlooking the valley. Inhabitants carry the name "Bedjuis," possibly because it is thought they descended from Bedouins, part of the Saracen hordes who overran several of the Alpine valleys in the 8th century.
Wine Road: Between Martigny and Leuk, a distance of about 30 miles, the Vignoble du Valais, or wine route of the Valais, passes through more than 20 wine villages.
The Subterranean Lake of St. Leonard: Open to the public since 1949, this underground lake near the village of St. Leonard is one of the largest in Europe. A half-hour boat ride on it is mildly interesting and costs 6 Sfr. ($4) for adults, 4 Sfr. ($2.67) for kids up to 18 and 2 Sfr. ($1.33) for children under 12.
Sion Guide: The courtly Pierre Chatelain, a former Swissair and Swiss Air Force pilot, loves to share the history and legends of his town. Arranged through the Sion Tourist Office for 100 Sfr. ($67), he conducts fascinating, private two-hour tours of the old town.
Walking/Hiking: Bisse is a special word in the Valais for canals used for agricultural irrigation. Along them are relatively easy walking paths which provide a wide variety of routes and vistas. There are trails through deep gorges and along steep ledges with views of valleys, mountains and villages.
These and many other walks and hikes, over 6,000 km of marked trails, are detailed in the booklet, Sentiers Valasians, available free from the Sion Tourist Office.