On a recent summer day a few of us took a walk along one of the famous bisses du Valais – the Torrent Neuf or bisse de Savièse – which is located on the sunny side of the Valais above Sion. The bisses are irrigation channels that transport water from the mountains to the vineyards and orchards below.
Mountain irrigation in the Swiss Alps has a long tradition of more than 700 years, especially in the Rhône Valley. The ingenious system of bisses was used for many centuries but since the first decades of the 20th century, due to the decrease of mountain agriculture, the bisses were abandoned and often replaced by tunnels. Today the bisses are being restored and integrated into the tourist industry as hiking paths. Because of their slight incline to allow for the flow of the water from the glacier streams, the paths beside the water channels are level and easy.
The channels are normally 5 to 10km long, though some are longer, and are cut directly into the valley side. In the old days, in the presence of high rock cliffs, wood channels had to be built into the rock face to transport the water. This work was incredibly difficult and hazardous.
The Torrent Neuf bisse was constructed between 1430 and 1448 to irrigate the arid plateau of Savièse above Sion. It was maintained and used throughout the centuries until the early 1900’s. The wooden structures were abandoned definitively in 1934 and were partially destroyed. A tunnel was built to replace the channel and the original bisse was forgotten little by little until 2005 when an Association for the Safeguard of Torrent Neuf was formed. The association of private individuals and the municipality of Savièse decided to rehabilitate the old bisse. This gigantic undertaking is described in a video that was shown on Passe-moi les jumelles in October 2009 (cf. http://www.rts.ch/video/emissions/passe-moi-les-jumelles/837616-le-bisse-de-saviese.html).
Since the documentary was shown, work on the bisse has continued and, up to the time we walked the channel early this summer, 6km of hiking trail, and five suspension bridges, four of which are nearly 100m in length, were finished. At certain points, the bridges replace the wooden structures that had been abandoned. Website: www.torrent-neuf.ch.
The path is easy except for the suspension bridges, which may scare some, though we saw small children, and even a dog, who crossed without a problem. The trail along the slowly flowing water is mostly under tree cover, so quite enjoyable even on a hot day. There is a café toward the beginning of the path and a buvette at the end, and midway one passes a little church where you can light a candle and ring a bell that resounds throughout the valley below. A large bronze statue of a bear, the guardian of the bisse according to legend, stands watch over a part of the walkway. There is a spectacular waterfall towards the end of the path and wonderful vistas all along.
The trail is open from May 1 to November 1. It covers a distance of 12km in the two directions and takes about 3.5 hours to walk. The easiest way to approach the beginning of the path is by car driving up from Sion, though a post bus stops at Savièse-Profirmin Torrent-Neuf as well. (cf. http://www.myswitzerland.com/en/bisse-torrent-neuf.html ).
Contact information (in French):
Office de Tourisme de Savièse
Tel: 027 395 2737
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