From the air, Switzerland's villages appear strung like pearls, lining the roads that rope along the valley floors, and the switchbacks that climb up the mountains' foothills.
Given the challenging terrain of the Alps, the most charming Swiss villages can be difficult to explore at times. During summers, they can often only be reached by one road. And when the pass routes close during winter, some of these villages become virtually inaccessible by car.
Swiss barn on stilts in Münster Geschinen
Münster-Geschinen is one such town. Located along Furkastrasse in the region of Goms, it is part of the bilingual canton of Valais. The village stretches up the side of the valley by the Rhône river and is comprised of a mixture of characteristic dark timbered houses and barns, which are constructed on stilts, in a manner typical of the region.
This curious building style was developed centuries ago to keep the barns accessible during heavy winter snows. These barns served multiple purposes: to provide shelter for animals, to keep firewood dry, and to keep the food storage up and away from pests.
The stilts also allow for dry air to circulate under the floor of the barn, ensuring there is no damp or rot. The barns balance in a Zen-like fashion on flat stone plates sandwiched in between the larch-wood stilts. This is an effective and dramatic technique designed to compartmentalize any insect damage or rot and keep it from spreading. This is rather like the watertight containers on a modern ship.
Centuries' old timber protects these barns
Native Larch trees from the surrounding hillsides were used to build most of the dwellings in this village - the big and small ones, the old and new ones. The characteristic Larch wood boasts an incredibly dense grain and a high sap content. As a result, it is extremely robust and resistant to the elements. It is the perfect building material for the harsh alpine conditions here in the Goms region.
Notice the color difference between the fresh Larch and the old:
Many of these houses and barns have timber that is hundreds of years old. This is evidenced by the incredible width and size of the well-weathered planks which show their characteristic dark color from all that exposure to the elements.
The town center of Münster-Geschinen features a beautiful wood-shingled Post-Hotel, once a common feature of many alpine villages. Today, it is only open during the summer months when it serves decent coffee in a cozy lodge atmosphere.
Münster's "new Gothic" church is also of note. Typically, Switzerland is not associated with Gothic architecture in the same way that neighboring France and Germany are. Nevertheless, the Gothic work that has survived is spectacular, the product of a few well-known artisans.
The Church of St. Maria in Münster-Geschinen features a stunning Gothic altarpiece built in 1509 by Jörg Keller, a famous church architect from Lucerne:
How to go about exploring Münster-Geschinen
To get the full scenic effect, this town is best accessed by car. During the summer, Münster-Geschinen can be reached by car from the north by driving over the breathtaking Grimsel Pass. At the bottom of the pass, instead of going left towards the Rhône glacier and the Furka Pass (which you should see on your way back), turn right to continue down the valley, following the Rhône river.
In the fall, the trees on the surrounding hillsides turn a vibrant yellow, contrasting beautifully with the dark wood houses and the snow-capped Alps. Wander through the quiet village and enjoy the colorful stillness and the crisp air. Then, step into one of the cafes to warm up with a bowl of creamy fennel soup and dried bresaola.
During the winter, take the car ferry-train from the Furka base tunnel. It is an exciting experience, particularly for children, that involves parking on a flatbed train car and riding in your car under the Furka mountain... This is a particularly magical experience during a snowstorm!
Münster-Geschinen is perfect for those who want to take a break from the hustle and bustle, or the hiking and skiing. Enjoy a quiet moment wandering through an utterly unique village that looks much the same as it did in the middle ages.
It is a unique part of Switzerland that remains a quiet testament to the wonderful diversity of the country’s heritage, languages, cuisine, and architecture.
(All photos shot on 35mm Kodak Ektar 100 film)