Valais, as the largest Swiss wine region, spread out over a large area, has three days for its winery open days – the other regions generally have two days. A new idea this year from the Musée du Vin et de la Vigne (MVV) in Sierre-Salgesch/Salquenen was to offer an inexpensive (CHF15) and relatively easy 2.5 hour hike through a vineyard village of historical interest.
I joined the group Thursday and discovered a corner of paradise that I’ve bypassed numerous times without knowing what I was missing. Plan Cerisier is a popular restaurant next to the road from Martigny to Col de la Forclaz and Chamonix. The name comes from the hamlet just below the restaurant, which is surrounded by some of the canton’s most beautiful vineyards that climb towards Mont Blanc. Ironically, I was looking through an 1876 Thomas Cook guide to Switzerland last night where he describes the sudden view of the Rhone valley spread out below you as you come from Chamonix down to Martigny as one of the most magnificent sights in the Alps. He’s right. This time of year the flowers in the village are spectacular, especially the roses.
Plan Cerisier is a link between that upper world and the valley. It was created entirely by families who lived high above Martigny in two areas, one towards Salvan in Switzerland and the other towards Vallorcine in France. Every family had to have wine for celebrations – births, weddings, funerals – and Plan Cerisier is where these high mountain villagers kept their vines. Tiny houses with cellars below served as temporary homes during the times of the year when they came down to work the vines.
Our guide from the MVV, Patricia, was excellent – knowledgeable and open to questions, and I’d happily join her for another MVV wine walk. At the end we were offered a glass of Gerard Besse fendant (Chasselas) “Champortay” by the local wine museum. Dry and mineral, almost sour finish that is refreshing and just right after a hike on a pleasantly warm day. Besse’s wines are available at the restaurant.
Things I learned in Plan-Cerisier
- These homes are called “mazots” and they are a feature of Martigny, nowhere else, so if you hear a little house or building called that in Grimentz, it’s wrong
- Mazots were used by people as temporary dwellings only, while they were working on the vines
- The cellar was used to store the wine they made once the grapes were harvested and pressed; they put it in 45-litre barrels in order to pack these on mules and take them back home, up the mountainside
- The houses were tightly packed together and never had lawns, ardoise (slate) roofing was used and the French villagers used granite from Mt. Blanc, which they hauled down, to build the lintel that held the door
- In the 1970s an association was created to protect the village as some families began to abandon the homes and outsiders came in to buy the twee dwellings: today Plan Cerisier has strict rules about the use of wood and slate, maintaining the original sizes for doors and windows, no grass (you’ll see one exception) and footpaths maintained so that cars remain outside the housing area
- There are no cerisiers, or cherry trees in the village, which is part of Martigny-Combe – the name is probably a bastardization of an earlier patois name
- The easiest way to see the inside of a mazot is to visit the tiny museum, which holds art exhibits and has a small terrace. It’s open in summer only, on Saturday afternoons.
A wonderful time to visit the village is the last weekend in August, when it comes to life with a very popular festival.
How to get there
Martigny-Combe is on the road to Col de la Forclaz/Chamonix: follow signs for this until you get to the roundabout with a Tamoil station. There are several parking lots in the area; best is to leave your car here and walk up any of the little footpaths, about 10-15 minutes uphill. This is the only steep part of the walk. You can drive up to the restaurant, but parking is only for guests, and that doesn’t mean a long walk followed by a short drink! There are a handful of parking places above the hamlet but these are mostly for residents and on weekends you’re not likely to find a place. The maps provided by the restaurant are helpful. From the restaurant parking lot head straight into the heart of the village and wander around.