If I were to list my four or five favourite destinations, then I would include Martigny in the Swiss canton of Valais. I have spent a few days there every year since 2010 and each year when leaving, I promise myself to return one more time.
Martigny is a relatively small town with a population of about 15,000, strategically placed at the junction of the routes from Italy, via the Grand-Saint-Bernhard pass, that from France, via the Route de la Forclaz and the Rhône valley, where the river turns ninety degrees northward, to eventually empty into Lac Léman.
During 1996-1998, I was employed as MD of a Swiss computer services company, with head office in Neuchâtel, and satellite offices in Zürich, Amsterdam, Paris and London. When I had the opportunity, I spent time in the mountains, hiking, scrambling and climbing: in the Jura in the early springtime, in the pre-Alp in summer and in the Alps in late summer, before the snow-line started to descend.
With no Swiss-German linguistic ability, but confidence in French, I tended to the cantons of Jura, Vaud, Geneva, Lausanne and Sion. And on my way to the Alps, I often passed Martigny: on the way up the Rhöne valley to Zinal or Zermat, up to the Col de Forclaz and on to Chamonix, or through Martigny to Verbier or the Val de Bagnes.
Only once did I stop on my way through Martigny and then but for a short time. I had seen a sign for a Roman amphitheatre. I was not disappointed. The site was well-preserved with a plethora of exhibits, photographs and documentation. My appetite for Martigny was whetted.
But it was not until 2010 that I returned to the area. I wanted to attempt the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela in the autumn, but I was not confident that my lame leg could handle 20-30 km per day, so I decided to test myself, by walking from Geneva to Martigny, via the southern side of Lac Léman. The test was successful in that I managed the distance each day with no problem, despite the early July heat wave. As I had two days free before meeting Lotta and my sons in Chamonix, I decided to stay in Martigny and explore the town and surrounding area.
I returned to the amphitheatre and beside it there was now a new building housing the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard. It had been opened in 2006 and in addition to many kennels of Saint Bernard dogs, there was an excellent exhibition dedicated to the history of the Saint Bernard pass, with a theatre showing vintage films. I spent most of an afternoon there.
Close by the amphitheatre and the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard is the Fondation Pierre Gianadda. It is undoubtedly the most important cultural attraction in Martigny and was founded by Léonard Gianadda in 1978. He was a successful local engineer and when his workers started excavation for a new building on the outskirts of Martigny, they uncovered the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury. Gianadda abandoned his original plan and instead built a museum to encompass the ruins and dedicated it in the name of his younger brother, who was killed in a plane crash two years earlier. Today the museum has an exhibition of locally discovered Gallo-Roman artifacts, a large vintage car museum, a sculpture park, classical concerts and three times each year, an exhibition of paintings of a well-known master.
Down the other side of the narrow valley flows the river La Dranse, across which is the covered bridge, the Pont de la Bâtiaz, leading to a group of old houses huddled under the steep cliffs above. A steep path eventually leads one to Le Chateau de la Bâtiaz, towering over Martigny.
It was originally built in 1260 on the ruins of a Roman fort of the first century. In the constant conflict between the Dukes of Savoy and Sion, it changed hands many times until it was finally destroyed in 1518. It was restored in the 20th century.
When in Martigny, one of my favourite walks is to ascend to the Chateau de la Bâtiaz and continue up the steep mountainside to the upper vineyards. From there the path gently descends to the upper valley at Martigny-Bourg. For much of the descent, it is as if one is in a helicopter, such is the view of the town below.
On other days, I head up the Rhône valley through the orchards and vineyards to Charrat, across the valley to Fully and then back along the vineyards on the other side, until crossing the river back to Martigny. And of course, it goes without saying that I have my customary stop for a cold beer en route.
In 2009 the Tour de France passed through Martigny. That was the year my two elder sons cycled from Camberley in the UK to Chamonix, to meet us and their two younger brothers.
On their return to the UK, they decided to cycle over the Col de Forclaz at 1527m and down to Martigny, in time to see the Tour de France pass, before continuing on to Geneva. The descent from the Col de Forclaz is steep and the views are breath-taking, especially on a bicycle.
Once down in Martigny, the two lads somehow managed to find themselves on the wrong side of the barriers. The crowds must have thought that they were two clowns hired to entertain them, while they waited for the main act to arrive.
Having been in South Africa for most of this year, I have not managed to spend any time in Martigny and the Alps.
Perhaps I will make it back next year…