The history of the oldest hamlet in the Alps surprises even locals

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Halfway through, hikers emerge from a copse to discover a pile of stones, ancient remains of a cattle pen. Marking the end of the most hair-raising stretch of the trail (now secured with safety ropes) is a 250-year-old stone-cut lynx trap, one of only two discovered in the Zermatt area.

More a village walk than a mountain path, the second segment of the Kulturwege, inaugurated last year, weaves its way between gädis, wohnhauses and stadiums (grain barns built on mushroom-shaped stilts) erected from 1300 to 1600. A gädi has been converted into an exhibition space dedicated to the backbone of Zermatt’s agrarian society: women. Curated by local Othmar Perren, vintage photos from the exhibit show women carrying everything from sheaves of rye (a staple Valais grain) to cow manure in woven wicker backpacks known as tschifras.

(The Nat Geo archives frame the lives of women around the world.)

“They [Zermattens] lived on cereals and cows until the 1950s”, explains the creator of the trail René Biner, also president of the local historical society Verein Alts-Zermatt and descendant of one of the founding families of Zermatt.

When it opens next summer, the third segment will take travelers through the beginnings of Zermatt, traveling three miles downhill through four hamlets: Furi, Fleschen, Zum See and Blatten. Known collectively as Aroleid, these hamlets joined Winklemattehn, Zmutt and Im Hof ​​(the present historic quarter of Zermatt) in renouncing their independence. In 1791 they merged into a single community called Zer Matt, meaning “by or on the prairiein the old local dialect.

Zermatt’s hamlets were almost entirely self-sufficient until the Visp-Zermatt railway line was built in 1891. The opening of this line, and with it tourism, led to the abandonment of many of these barns. Others had to be dismantled “like LEGO” to escape the expanding glaciers, says Bellwald, as we inspect a gädi near Fleschen. The trail team believe it was recycled from the remains of a nearby house in Im Boden which was swallowed up by the Gorner Glacier during Europe’s Little Ice Age, which lasted from the 14th to 19th centuries .

The final stretch of the segment winds through a fragrant pine forest, ending in an early 20th-century teahouse, one of many that Claus Julen, a retired teacher-turned-amateur historian, says was built for English tourists. Precursors of Zermatt’s high-altitude gastronomic restaurants, these restaurants run by women sagieras hawked souvenirs, refreshments and bouquets of alpine flowers during the summer, Zermatt’s main tourist season until 1927.

Fill gaps

Science played a key role in the formation of the Kulturwege. Biner had long assumed that the hamlets of Zermatt were older than the dates inscribed on his barns and dwellings. But he needed hard evidence.

Cue tree detective Martin Schmidhalter. The dendrochronologist spent two decades dating some of the most isolated hamlets in the Swiss Alps by establishing when their wooden structures were built. “Normally the trees were cut down in the winter and used to build houses the following summer,” he says.

Schmidhalter’s fieldwork for the Kulturwege began in earnest in 2012, when he set to work analyzing pencil-sized timber samples from a handful of structures along what is now the Zermatt-Zmutt trail. After calculating the annual growth rings of wood under a microscope, the data is processed by a computer program that spits out reams of ECG-like graphs that allow Schmidhalter to determine the birth and death of a tree.

The research led to two remarkable discoveries. The first, in 2019, proved that Europe’s oldest barn has been hidden in plain sight on a scenic plateau overlooking the town of Zermatt for over seven centuries. The highest point of the first Kulturwege trail, the Herbrig Stadel proves that the area was settled as early as 1261.

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