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Walser People in Switzerland

Last Updated on October 16, 2023 by Darla Uhl

Walser people were German-speaking Alpine settlers who migrated to various mountainous regions of Switzerland, Italy, and Austria in the 13th century. The Walser people can be found in the cantons of Valais and Graubünden. To some extent, there are also Walser settlements in Ticino and Berner Oberland in Switzerland. The Walser people have a distinct culture and language, mostly due to their isolation in the mountains.

Image of Obermutten, Switzerland, a Walser Settlement by TouringSwitzerland.com

The Walser people are known for their unique architecture. If you go to a Walser settlement, you will see that their houses are characterized by simple, wooden, or stone houses with steep roofs and overhanging eaves.

Although the Walser people supposedly have their traditional clothing, which includes embroidered waistcoats and hats with feathers, I have personally never seen it after visiting many Walser villages in Switzerland.

Overview: Walser People

Image of Bosco Gurin, a Walser Settlement by TouringSwitzerland.com

Walser People from Valais

The Walser people are a unique cultural group that originated in the valleys of the Swiss Alps. In particular, they come from the canton of Valais. Their name comes from the German word “Walchen,” which was used to describe the Romanized Celtic people who lived in the region during the Middle Ages.

The Walser people are believed to have migrated to the Alps from the Rhine Valley in the Late Middle Ages. They settled in the high alpine valleys of Switzerland, Austria, and Italy, where they developed a distinct culture and language.

They were generally left alone by the Romans, since the medieval Romans tended to avoid the mountains, calling them terra maledicta. They thought that mountains were hostile and their inhabitants barbaric, and so the Walser were generally left alone.

Alpine Farming

Image of Obermutten by TouringSwitzerland.com

Although the mountains were tough to live in, with long winters and short summers, the first Walser people were able to figure out a way to survive. The first Walser people figured out the best way to farm and herd. They also improved their skills in woodworking, weaving, and building sturdy houses that could withstand the ever-present dangers in the Swiss Alps.

Over time, the Walser people decided to move on to other high Alpine regions in the country. They slowly moved away from Valais and settled in other high regions such as Davos, Hinterrhein, Safien, and Langwies.

Walser Dialect

The Walser language is a dialect of Alemannic German, which has been influenced by the Romance languages spoken in the regions where they settled. Despite their small numbers and isolated location, there are still around 10,000 Walser people who speak this language.1

Despite being officially Walser German, Walser German dialects spoken in different regions differ slightly due to little contact between them. The original form of Walser German has also been preserved in isolated regions more than in tourist-heavy areas.

Walser People: Geographical Distribution

Image of Tschiertschen by TouringSwitzerland.com

The Walser people are a group of German-speaking people who migrated from the Swiss canton of Valais to the high alpine valleys of Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein, and Austria in the 13th century. Around 150 places in the Alps were founded by the Walser people.

The Alpine life of the Walser people was based on simplicity. I think of it as not quite different from minimalism. They are certainly free from all excess and consumerism.

Walser Villages in Switzerland

In Switzerland, the Walser people are mainly found in the cantons of Valais, Bern, and Graubünden. They tend to live in small villages (or in some cases, hamlets) in the high alpine valleys. Here are some of the Walser Settlements in Switzerland:

Image of Davos Monstein by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Simplon, Valais
  • Blatten, Valais (near Zermatt)
  • Bosco Gurin, Ticino
  • Obersaxen
  • Tschiertschen, Praden
  • Vals Valley (Vals, St. Martin)
  • Safiental (Valendas, Versam, Tenna, Safien)
  • Rheinwald (Medels, Nufenen, Splügen, Sufers, Hinterrhein, Avers)
  • Schanfigg (Arosa, Langwies)
  • Albula (Mutten, Monstein, Schmitten, Wiesen)
  • Landquart (Davos, Klosters, Furna, Says, St. Antönien, Valzeina)
  • Wartau

Walser Villages Outside of Switzerland

  • In Italy, the Walser people are mainly found in the Aosta Valley, where they have been living since the 13th century. They live in small villages and hamlets in the high alpine valleys of the Aosta Valley and Sesia Valley.
  • In Liechtenstein, the Walser people are mainly found in the municipality of Triesenberg.
  • In Austria, the Walser people are mainly found in the state of Vorarlberg, particularly in Grosses Walsertal and Kleinwalsertal. They also have settlements in Brandner Valley, Montafon, and Tannberg.

Tourism in Walser Villages

Image of Vals by TouringSwitzerland.com

Although the Walser people have had successes with their way of farming, tourism has since become an increasingly important activity for them.

Here are some places or things you can do to learn more about the Walser people besides visiting the villages listed above:

  1. Walser Trail Graubünden – The Walser Trail extends over 300 kilometers and has 23 daily stages. The trail goes from San Bernardino (Valle Mesolcina, Graubünden, Switzerland) until Brand (Vorarlberg, Austria).
  2. Walser Trail Obersaxen – The Walser Trail in Obersaxen is a 10-kilometer circular trail that shows the Walser cultural history from Giraniga until Sassli.
  3. Museum Walserhaus, Bosco Gurin – You can buy the Walserhaus Museum in Bosco Gurin, the highest village in Canton Ticino that is inhabited all year round.
  4. Heimatmuseum Arosa-Schanfigg: Shows the history of Arosa from the time the Walser people came until today.
  5. Stallmuseum Uf Truaja – Traditional farm work is shown in the context of a guided tour in the Stall Museum located in Peist. Every piece of equipment is labeled in the Walser dialect as well.
  6. Walserama – Located in Rheinwald, Walserama houses a collection of artifacts from the cultural heritage of the Walser people in Rheinwald.

Final Thoughts: Walser People in Switzerland

The Walser people are a distinct community that stands apart from the rest. Upon visiting a Walser settlement, one quickly realizes their minimalist and simple way of life, shaped by their relentless efforts to adapt and survive in the harsh alpine settings. The houses in these settlements reflect this simplicity, lacking the ornate embellishments found in other Swiss villages.

Image of a House in Tschiertschen by TouringSwitzerland.com

What truly fascinates me is the unwavering commitment of the Walser people to preserve their heritage. It is heartening to witness how they hold onto their culture and traditions, respecting their past by establishing museums and ensuring that future generations can learn from it. This dedication to safeguarding their roots is commendable, and I hope that it ensures that their rich heritage will endure.

Considering the challenges posed by globalization, one can’t help but wonder about the future of the Walser people. However, there remains a glimmer of hope that their efforts to preserve their traditions, culture, and language will persist.

As the world continues to evolve, my hope remains that the Walser people will find ways to maintain their traditions, culture, and language, ensuring that their remarkable legacy endures for future generations.

Resources

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Darla Uhl is the owner of TouringSwitzerland.com. Her home is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Having lived almost 20 years in Switzerland, she's traveled extensively all over the country.

Darla's favorite regions to visit in Switzerland include Engadin, Lake Geneva, Bernese Oberland, Ticino, and Valais. She loves spending time with her family, hiking, visiting museums, and reading books.