Walking through the Highlands

The myth

The myth of the “Lost Valley” (Verlorene Thal) is a Walser legend that tells of a mysterious valley, a wonderful and welcoming natural environment where the Alpine people had experienced the dawn of their history. The valley was later lost, and with it the very memory of that stupendous place, they began to search for it, traveling through one valley after another, one hill after another, in the hope of finally finding that valley which was for them a village and a world, where they could return to live, cultivate, raise and build a home, in full harmony with the mountain and their community.

In the southern valleys of Monte Rosa, a welcoming, habitable and arable mountain, the Walser found the valley of their myth, a mother-mountain where they could grow and multiply villages and communities, overcoming the challenges brought by the climate, wild environment and limited available resources.

The saying

The saying “walk like a Walser”, widespread in Rezia-an Alpine geographic region (now the Grisons) once inhabited by the Rhaetian people-since the last centuries of the medieval age, is an expression used to designate any mountaineer capable of walking with a certain stride, with a proud and powerful gait, without fearing distances, in fact almost challenging them.

Men known as “Walser” came from far and wide, as at the Thusis fair in the Viamala region. Rather than their distinctive language, they were identified by their familiarity with walking long mountain trails, which they were, moreover, well acquainted with. No one said “speak like a Walser,” but rather “walk like a Walser.”

The message

The myth and the saying both express the same message with different narrative forms: in order to understand the world of the Walser people, it is necessary to think in terms of mobility, of the extension and conquest of space, a space that is arduous, harsh and wild, but also boundless, fascinating and free, which few people of those times could inhabit.

In the Walser world, the idea of space is stronger than that of time: even if historical research, mainly focused on learning about the origins of their migrations, has privileged the temporal element, it is space that dominates the mentality of the settlers of the Highlands, where no one before them had dared to think of residing (wohnen), staying (bleiben), living forever (leben). The verbs of the Walser are basic verbs of motion, in their simplicity and directness: arrive, stay, leave, return. They are the verbs of a migrant population that has always seen movement as the essence of its becoming: arriving (in the rediscovered valley), staying to inhabit it, leaving again by migrating in search of new settlements or for work, and finally returning seasonally to their village.

This way of perceiving the arc of one’s existence as a journey, which will also meet the essence of Christian spirituality, ends up shaping the very structure of the land anthropized and humanized by the Walser settlers. Not just a single center, but a constellation of villages (Dörfer), of mountain pastures, of farmsteads, even hours’ walking distance from each other, but linked together by an immense network of family relations, of clan kinships, by relationships of solidarity and cooperation at the basis of which lies the common or consortium ownership of environmental resources (water, forests, pastures).

The extraordinary man-made landscape that the Walser have shaped over the centuries with their actions, careful never to consume those resources that by regenerating themselves will constitute the heritage of the next generations, and with their intuition of a possible balance between exploitation and preservation of the environment, represents today a stimulating model of the future, and not of the past, upon the tracks of which we too can set out, truly trying to “walk like a Walser”.