The hills are alive with the sound of music

Playing the Alphorn
Playing the Alphorn

It is one of the world’s wackier festivals, dedicated to a musical instrument the length of a drainpipe and you have to climb up thousands of feet to properly appreciate it.

Switzerland is famous for chocolate and cheese, cuckoo clocks, watches, tax exiles and... in case you have never heard of it and I certainly hadn’t... the alphorn.

The ancestor to a loudspeaker the alphorn is loud – really loud – and it was used in the past to help farmers communicate across great stretches of valleys in Switzerland’s remote alpine regions. Lost animals, gathering herds, bad weather to come, weddings and funerals... all was relayed via the alphorn, whose sound can travel up to 25 miles.

Almost extinct a century ago the alphorn is back at the centre of Swiss pride in their ancient traditions. Its musical prowess is now explored not just by the yodelling traditionalists, but also jazz and new-fringe musicians.

The alphorn love story unfolds perfectly in scenic Haute Nendaz in the midst of the Four Valleys in the French speaking Valais canton. It’s a favourite winter sport destination, spring and summer time Nirvana for mountain bikers, climbers, hikers and leisurely walkers and is said to be the sunniest part of Switzerland.

It is also the spot with the biggest annual international celebration of the alphorn.

Curious about all the noise surrounding the 12-foot long alphorn, carved from spruce wood and the most awkward of travelling companions, I caught a train with cuckoo clock timekeeping from Geneva, gobsmacked by the stunning views of the lakeside and vineyards chiselled into rocky outcrops before we wound upwards.

After a late night in the thronged festival tent where locals and alphorn fans from all over Europe were laying into renowned regional wines, beer and plates of raclette – a delicious combination of melted cheese, potato and gherkins – we were whisked by cable car to 2,200 metres, where the hills were alive with the sound of music.

By mid-morning two hundred alphorns were being played all at once by musicians around a picture postcard mountain lake, while thousands more on the summit of Tracouet cheered and clapped.

The area is also famous for its bisses – historical irrigation channels – with walks alongside. It came as a surprise and a relief to realise that the Swiss also get theses things wrong sometimes. Some of their bisses, built by hand and running tens of kilometres, sprang leaks from day one so could never be used to store the water. A version of Irish Water on the Alps!

A highlight of this short visit was our exploration with local guide Jean Noel Glassey. We explored the fragrant high Alps terrain, famous for ancient larch trees, wild flowers and pastures – in which the fighting Herens cows of the region go into combat in the valley later in the year, in a bovine version of a boxing tournament watched by thousands.

Rising to the challenge I take charge of an alphorn, hauling it across the long grass for a blow and a great mountain backdrop photo opportunity.

“You have to be in good shape, have good lungs and strong stomach muscles to get anything out of it at first,” my tutor advised as I tried to get a sound (left).

Within minutes my alphorn was turning into a Swiss roll as we veered towards a steep incline. A few bars of a local favourite named ‘With the Cows’ was just what the crowds wanted, but the only music I could make was that of a rusty door creaking open and shut. :

- Isabel Conway

For more Nendaz fun try bars Edelweiss, Le Lapin Vert and the Canadian Pub.
Don’t miss dinner at Hotel Mont Rouge Bistrot. Check out www.mont-rouge.ch 
Try a traditional cheese fondue at Chalet des Alpes, Prarion, followed by a bracing, two-hour walk back down to Nendaz via spectacular paths.
For a big blow-out, try lunch on the outside terrace of Hotel Nendaz 4 Vallees on Chemin des Cibles after relaxing in its superb spa and pool.
See www.myswitzerland.com and www.nendaz.ch.
Aer Lingus fly to both Geneva and Zurich daily with good connections also by train and bus to Nendaz.