An amazing history
1000 years of history
According to the most reliable hypotheses, in the fifth century AD, the Germanic population of the Alemanns, from whom the Walsers descend, lived in Swabia in the south of Germany.. It was the period of the barbarian invasions and many European populations were on the move. Groups of Alemanns began to descend southwards, and one of them settled in the valleys of the present-day Oberland, especially in the Valley of the Aare, where, centuries later, Bern was to be founded. In subsequent centuries, these populations set off once more and entered the Rhone Valley, colonising the upper part thereof. Switzerland still did not exist, but the region was already called Vallais, Wallis in German. The colonisation was gradual and came to an end towards the year 1000.
The conquest of the Alps
In the twelfth century, the Alemanns set off on the move once more, but not as in previous migrations, which had been veritable movements en masse.. In this case, the Vallais was not depopulated; many small groups simply left to colonise relatively unexploited and sometimes unused land. At first they moved into neighbouring valleys, then moved further afield. On account of their origin they were called Walliser, or people form the Vallais, a name later contracted into Walser. Through alternating phases, this phenomenon of colonisation lasted for about 300 years and, by the fifteenth century, had de facto come to an end. At the end of the process, colonies were distributed over a huge area. If we relate them to modern-day states, they occupied most of southern Switzerland, vast portions of the Voralberg in Austria, about half of Liechtenstein, small areas of Savoy in France and, in Italy, the whole area round Monte Rosa, the high Val d'Ossola and some minor areas.
Travel in the olden days
In that period, people travelled on foot along paths and mule tracks, or at best, along dirt roads. Goods were transported on muleback or carried by hand. In their travels, the Walser had to carry their tools, seeds and, above all, animals - cattle, sheep and goats - with them. The presence of the animals made for slow going. The Walsers did not travel by night, so it was necessary to find a different shelter at the end of every day. When tackling the highest mountain passes, they had to sleep in the mountain pastures along the way. They obviously travelled only in summer, since it was impossible to face long journeys in the snow.
Were the mountains really a border?
Today we are used to considering mountain chains as barriers, but this is a modern idea. In the Middle Ages, the Alps were by no means a border area. For example, in the days of the Walser migrations, the Val d'Aosta, the low Vallais and Savoy, which today belong to different countries, were part of a single state, the Duchy of Savoy. As to the valleys of Ayas and Gressoney, they were in part the property of the great feudal landowners of the Vallais. Exchanges of goods and people between the various valleys were frequent and this favoured cultural integration.
Reasons for travelling
At this point, one may wonder what pushed Walser colonists to leave the Vallais to face such difficult journeys to settle in often inhospitable lands. Unfortunately, historians have yet to find a certain answer to this question. The causes were probably many and correlated. The start of a period of relative peace and the consequent population increase led many people to emigrate in search of new land. Especially at first, the relatively favourable climate of the period allowed them to promote the cultivation of new land, especially at high altitudes.
Choosing new land
If we look at the map of the Walser colonies, what most strikes us is the great dispersion of their settlements. Their colonies in fact occupy a very large number of small separate areas. But how did colonists choose where to settle? The fact is that the Walsers did not move into deserted areas: all the valleys were already inhabited by pre-existing populations of different languages and cultures. The colonists occupied the most impracticable, isolated areas, which the locals had either discarded or used only marginally. They received the lands from the local lord according to the rules of the feudal system, which was then in force virtually throughout the Alps. In certain cases, the lord created advantageous conditions, sometimes offering tax exemptions for people who reclaimed new land, though this does not appear to have happened very frequently in the valleys in question.
South of Monte Rosa
The first Walser expansion seems to have been made southwards. To cross from the Vallais to the Italian side of Monte Rosa, they used the Colle di San Teodulo (which links the valley of Zermatt with the Valtournenche) and the Colle del Monte Moro (which links the valley of Saas with the Valle Anzasca). Some say that they also used other very high-altitude mountain passes, but this seems implausible. Crossing over such high mountains would have meant exposing men and animals to pointless risks.. It would be wrong to forget that the Walsers were farmers and breeders, not sportsmen on holiday! The Walsers who crossed from the Colle del Monte Moro settled in the Valle Anzasca and Val Sesia, in present-day Piedmont. Those who descended from the Colle di San Teodulo colonised the high valleys of Ayas and Gressoney. Some groups are also known to have crossed from the Val di Gressoney to the Val Sesia in the fourteenth century, probably to recolonise areas that had been depopulated by the plague. In that period, Walsers were living at the heads of all the valleys round Monte Rosa.
The colonies of the Val d'Aosta
At this point, it is worth listing the colonies which the Walsers founded in the Val d'Aosta.
- Val d'Ayas. Up the valley from Champoluc, they founded many villages, the most important of which was St. Jacques. The area later became known as the Canton des Allemands.
- Val di Gressoney. Gressoney and Issime, are both Walser settlements, each formed by a main village and many smaller hamlets. The village of Niel, in the Franco-Provencal municipality of Gaby was also Walser.
- Gettaz des Allemands. A small settlement in the main valley in the area of the municipality of Champdepraz.
Of these colonies, only the ones in the Val di Gressoney conserved the original Walser language, culture and traditions. In the others, the colonists integrated with the Franco-Provencal populations, though the landscape is still marked by many signs of their presence.
Besides the main colonies, many minor settlements also existed, records of which remain only in ancient documents of property belonging to the 'Alemanns'.
The Walsers in the Val di Gressoney
The heart of the Walser world
The Walser settlements of the Val di Gressoney are the only ones in the Val d'Aosta that have survived to this day. With the neighbouring colonies of Alagna and Macugnaga in the Piedmontese valleys, they combine to form one of the most important Walser regions in the whole of the Alps. Unlike the Val d'Ayas, where the Canton des Allemands constituted a single community, here two distinct colonies were formed: Issime and Gressoney.
The oldest colony
It is highly likely that the colony of Issime dates from before 1200. On the basis of present knowledge, it is not only the oldest Walser settlement in the Val d'Aosta, but also one of the first that people from the Vallais founded outside their own region. It soon lost all contact with the Vallais, to the extent that Töitschu, the language of the Walsers of Issime and very similar to ancient German, remained isolated for centuries. Issime belonged to the lords of the Vallais, who set up residence there and turned it into an important business and administrative centre. A small caste of notaries, judges, functionaries and ecclesiastics was formed and was also highly active in Aosta. Agriculture instead was relatively poor, and from the second half of the fourteenth century, many people left Issime to find work elsewhere. Unlike the Walsers of Gressoney and Ayas, those of Issime knew French and emigrated especially to the regions where the language was spoken, such as the Aosta area, Savoy, the Dauphinate and French Switzerland, where they worked mainly as bricklayers and carpenters.
The colony of Gressoney was probably founded soon after that of Issime. Unlike the latter, however, it maintained closer contacts with the Vallais and the other Walser colonies and less frequent ones with the Franco-Provencal populations. The number of people who knew French or patois was limited. The languages spoken were Titsch (the Walser of Gressoney) and German. For centuries, the inhabitants of Gressoney developed their linguistic peculiarity. In the sixteenth century, they had the parish priest of Issime, on whom they depended, send them a German-speaking vicar. In the eighteenth century, the Counts of Challant, the lords of the area, adhered to the request of local judges who knew the language, and the bishop of Aosta allowed the catechism to be translated into German. Emigration from Gressoney, like that from Issime, was sizeable, but it was directed at German-speaking villages. Emigrants from Gressoney worked first as travelling tradesmen, but in the course of time, many settled in the main towns and cities of German-speaking Switzerland and Germany. A network of emigrants was thus established and supported the village economy for four centuries. The name Grischeneyer, or person from Gressoney, became a synonym for 'merchant'. With the remittances of emigrants, it was possible to set up commercial institutes and scholarships were offered for the training of notaries, municipal secretaries and German-speaking parish priests. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many Gressoney families extended their economic interests to the rest of the Val d'Aosta and Piedmont. The best-off families had sumptuous residences built in Gressoney. Inspired by urban bourgeois models, they are still visible today.
The problem of the colony of Gaby
Issime and Gressoney are separated by the Franco-Provencal community of Gaby, in the district of which stands the village of Niel, of certain Walser origin. In Gaby, some localities still have German names and a German inscription can still be seen. Could this be a Walser colony that absorbed the Franco-Provencal language? The question still remains unanswered.
The settlement of Tschaval
The methods the Walsers used to found their colonies are still relatively unknown. The few surviving documents include one about the settlement of Tschaval, up the valley from Gressoney-La-Trinité. More specifically, it is the contract with which, in 1256, the Vallaises granted three 'Alemanns', three Walsers, the right to settle in the area of Tschaval, which had previously been a mountain pasture. The three undertook to pay the local lord various tributes and a tenth of their harvest and new-born livestock. They also pledged to supply the Lord four men in the event of war. They acquired the right to cultivate the area, though, true to the feudal system, it remained the property of the lord. The colonists bargained directly with the Vallaises, without intermediaries, a fact which demonstrates that they were not under subjection. In the German-speaking villages, they enjoyed broad administrative and legal autonomy under the so-called 'Walser law'. In the settlement of Tschaval, there is no mention of this, which suggests that the Walsers were bound by the same obligations as the local populations.
Man and the environment
A reshaped landscape
The colonisation of an uncultivated area was a long, drawn-out process. First, it was necessary to chop down the woods in the areas that were to be transformed into arable or pasture land.
The resulting timber was used to build new houses and to make furniture and tools, but also as firewood. Once it had been deforested, the land was almost always strewn with stones, which prevented it from being cultivated and stopped the grass from growing. Thus began the long clearance work that could last for years.
The huge quantity of stones obtained was used to build houses, to cobble mule-tracks and to build dry stone walls to consolidate the land.
Without the stones, the land, no longer protected by woodland, would have been easy prey to erosion and landslides and if, despite all the hard work, stones remained, they were piled up at the of the fields so that they occupied as little land as possible.
Adapting to survive
The mountain populations thus transformed the environment to their own advantage, but they did not do so irrationally. Capitalising on their deep knowledge of the mountains, they chose new land carefully. On the steepest slopes, they conserved woodland to prevent landslides and avalanches. This provided firewood, but also pine needles for the animals' litters and green leaves to feed the sheep and goats on. Flatter, damper areas were kept as meadow land, whereas the drier slopes were cultivated on. Houses were built on more arid land to avoid wasting fertile land and were situated at points exposed to the sun and sheltered from wind, landslides and avalanches. The highest villages were built on the gently sloping valley sides formed by the action of the glaciers during the great ice ages. Most of the villages of the valley floor were built, instead, on alluvial fans which, being higher than the main rivers, were safe from floods.
The problem of water
Systems of drainage channels were built immediately on deforested land to collect rainwater. In this way it was possible to prevent water from running in a haphazard fashion and eroding the most fertile part of the soil.
The water collected fed the village fountains and the rivulets which kept cellars cool.
In the Val d'Ayas, which has a particularly dry climate, numerous irrigation channels, rû, were dug to carry water to the meadows. The large Rû Cortot also began in this valley. Still visible today, it collects water from the Vallone delle Cime Bianche and carries it for more than 25 km over the Col del Joux above Saint Vincent.
Rû were also dug in the Val di Gressoney in the Middle Ages, though the problem of water must never have been serious there on account of the higher rainfall of the valley.
When the mountains were covered with fields
Today there are no cultivated fields left in the valleys of Ayas and Gressoney, but once they were everywhere.. The most common crops were cereals, especially rye, barley and oats. Corn was relatively rare because it did not adapt so well to the cold mountain climate.
Every family had its own kitchen garden, in which it grew various types of pulses and lettuce, as well as turnips, cabbage, leeks, spinach and wild rhubarb. There were very few fruit trees on account of the excessively high altitude.
Many inhabitants of Ayas, however, owned vineyards round St. Vincent, Chatillon, Chambave and Nus. In the lower, damp areas of the valleys they also grew hemp and perhaps also flax. Towards the beginning of the nineteenth century, potatoes began to be widely grown and became one of the main sources of food.
Previously crops had been rotated, with fields being left to rest periodically to reacquire fertility, but now there was an annual or biennial alternation between cereals and potatoes.
The fields were cultivated by hand without beasts of burden, which were only used to carry materials and goods. The soil was fertilised by the manure produced by the livestock. Since it rarely sufficed for all the fields, the latter had to be fertilised on a rotation basis.
Men and animals
Livestock breeding was, together with agriculture, the principal resource for the local populations. Every family owned a few animals: the odd cow, sheep and goats. Normally a pig would also kept. If it ate anything, the other animals needed a great quantity of grass to live on. In the damper areas, the land was kept as pasture and mown twice a year. The grass was dried on the land or on the balconies of houses, if they were not over-damp. The hay produced in this way served to feed the animals in winter. In the summer, instead, the animals were taken to graze in the higher mountain pastures.
Different methods were adopted for different animals. The goats, for example, were taken to pasture every day, usually by a young boy who would do the rounds of the various families to pick them up.
For cattle, the system was more complex. In the middle of June, they were herded to the lowest pastures. They then climbed gradually as the grass grew until the end of July, when they reached the highest pastures. Here they stayed until the end of August, when they began to descend. They eventually returned to the villages at the end of September.
Life in the mountain pastures
When they went up to the pastures, the locals slept in baite, small, very simple stone cottages. The most 'primitive' consisted of a stall and a small space which served both as a kitchen and as a dairy room.
Behind the stall, a cellar was dug into the ground; it was used for storing milk and thickening the layer of cream on top that was used to produce butter. The people slept under the ridge of the roof on palliasses. It was a very hard life and, with the passing of time, cottages were altered and made more comfortable.
The most 'modern' had a separate room, which served as a kitchen and a dormitory. Butter and cheese were produced in the cottages, then taken down to the valley.
A separate world, but not an isolated one
Simple, functional houses
It is very hard to understand how far German colonisation influenced the development of architecture in Ayas and Gressoney. It is now accepted that it is impossible to speak about Walser architecture.
Observing the buildings preserved in the two valleys, it is possible to note no substantial differences between the architecture of the areas colonised by the Walsers and that of the surrounding area.
In their general line, the architectural models of Ayas and Gressoney are similar, but display local variations in terms of the internal distribution of spaces and building techniques.
In these valleys, the oldest datable houses were built in the fifteenth century. For simplicity' sake, it is possible to say that the most of the oldest had two floors.
The ground floor was made of stone and consisted of a large single room, which served as a stall and a dwelling.
In these 'primitive' buildings, men and animals shared the same living space. People occupied a small part of the stall, which was sometimes delimited by a simple wood fence. Alongside the stall there was often also a small cellar.
The top part of the house, built of larch logs, was called stadel in Val di Gressoney and raccard in the Val d'Ayas. It served as a sheaf store, a threshing floor and a granary.. Wood pillars separated the two floors, thus protecting the top part from the dampness of the stall and keeping mice and rats out.
In the course of the centuries, buildings changed and became increasingly large and complex. From the seventeenth century, the stone basement floors were doubled.
The lower floor was occupied by the stall and the cellar, the top floor by a kitchen and living room. Despite the presence of a living room, in winter people continued to stay in the stall, which warmed by the animals' bodies, to save wood. The top wooden part of the building also changed, becoming larger and more complex, sometimes occupying more than one floor.
The living room was very simple, but warm and comfortable: the furniture consisted of a table, a bench and a few chairs. Sometimes a curtain separated the living quarters from the sleeping quarters, which contained very narrow, short beds.
Though the average statue of people in the past was much shorter than today, the locals must have had to sleep crouched up in them.
Cooking and food
The kitchen was used exclusively as a work room to cook meals, process milk and make cheese. It was equipped with a fireplace in which a pot hung from a chain attached to a sort of fork with a mobile crossbar.
The fire was set against to the wall with the living room, which was often replaced by a slab of earthenware stone, which conducted heat better. In this way, it was possible to heat the living room without producing smoke. Especially in the Val di Gressoney, an earthenware stone stove was sometimes situated in the living room. The foods that were cooked were very simple: barley soup, porridge and melted cheese. It is curious to note that in these valleys the Walsers produced not fontina, but various types of toma, as the inhabitants of Gressoney do to this day.
Food - cheese but also turnips, cabbages, some meat and lard - was usually stored in the cellar. Food storage was fundamental for getting through the winter. Since there were no fridges in those days, it was necessary to exploit the coolness of the cellar. Even more importantly salt was used for preservation purposes, either dry or in brine - why is why it used to be so precious.
Under the ridge of the roof, butter beans and aromatic and medicinal herbs were hung to dry. The area under the roof was use to store bread and cured and dried meats, which were kept on wood frames hanging from the ceiling to prevent mice and cats from getting at them.
From cereal to bread
The staple food was bread, which was made of wholemeal rye or barley flour. The process which turned cereal into bread was somewhat complex.
Threshing was done by hand with sickles. The cereals were then bound together in sheaves and taken to the stadel, or raccard.
In Ayas, the raccard comprised two or four rooms, the so-called tchambéray, where the sheaves were arranged in a circle with the ears pointing towards the centre of the room. In this way the ears were kept warm and ripened earlier, while the grains did not scatter everywhere. The ears matured for at least a month, after which the cereals were threshed on the special aia, or threshing floor, at the centre of the raccard, delimited by a wooden separator, against which the ears were beaten to make the biggest grains fall out. The beating then continued on the floor, with long, slightly curved sticks or short wooden beaters.
In Gressoney, the interior of the stadel was unique, without walls to divide the sheaf stores from the threshing floor, which was situated level with the entrance doors with a more carefully constructed floor to avoid the dispersion of the precious grains.
After threshing, the stems were gathered together into sheaves and used as straw to feed the animals. Grains instead were separated from the discarded waste and stored. Most were taken to the mill to be ground. The mills were very simple.
In them, water struck the wooden wheels to make the grinding stones rotate on a stone, thus crushing the grains.
The flour produced in this way was partly stored and partly used to make bread.
The communal buildings
Besides houses, there was also a series of what we might call 'service' buildings: mills to grind cereals, ovens to bake bread, forges to work metal, and sawmills, dairies and schools. Sometimes they belonged to a single family but, more often than not, they were communal and every family was entitled to use them.
The forges, instead, were owned by smiths, who produced all the small iron implements - sickles, door hinges, locks and so on - necessary for the everyday life of the population. If a village was large enough, it would comprise all these buildings. In areas in which there were many small settlements, the inhabitants agreed to erect communal buildings in strategic positions with respect to inhabited centres.
One special communal building was the chapel. In the main ones, the Sunday mass brought together the population of the surrounding villages.
Some of the larger villages built their own chapels. Though Mass was celebrated only on special occasions, they were nonetheless the spiritual centre' of the village.
In touch with the world
Though they were not touched by the major communication routes that passed through the central Val d'Aosta, the heads of the Valtournenche, the Val d'Ayas and the Val di Gressoney, were by no means isolated. Some roads passed through them which, albeit secondary, were of considerable historical importance.
The wine route
One of these routes linked the Canton Vallese to the central Val d'Aosta: it crossed the Colle di San Teodulo, and then descended to the Valtournenche or the Val d'Ayas. It was important above all for the transport of Val d'Aosta wine to Switzerland. It does not appear to have been subject to tolls; on the contrary, the Duchy of Savoy and the Vallais authorities established that the inhabitants of the community should have a free passage along the road between the two states.
The Val Sesia
Another path set out from Alta Val Sesia, in present-day Piedmont, cutting across the Val di Gressoney and Val d'Ayas, over the Colle di Valdobbia and Colle della Ranzola, to arrive at St. Vincent, via the Col del Joux, and join the main road over the Alps. This route was used by all inhabitants of the Val Sesia - not only the Walsers - who emigrated into the Val d'Aosta, seasonally or permanently. Until 1713, the border between the duchies of Savoy and Milan passed the Colle di Valdobbia.. Partly to exploit the traffic, the Savoys set up a customs post and introduced tolls in the Val di Gressoney at the start of the mule-track which climbed up the mountain. Since the crossing was tough, dangerous going in winter, a refuge was built in the eighteenth century. In 1823 it was enlarged and modernised by a certain canon Sottile, and named Ospizio Sottile in his memory.
The Walser way
For their migrations south of Monte Rosa, the Walsers used two roads. The first descended from Colle di San Teodulo and joined the Valtournenche, the Val d'Ayas, the Val di Gressoney and the Val Sesia over the Colle delle Cime Bianche, Colle della Bettaforca and Colle d'Olen. The second descended from the Passo del Monte Moro and joined the Valle Anzasca and the Val Sesia over the Colle del Turlo. In the Val Sesia these roads joined together to create a route which joined the heads of all the valleys around Monte Rosa. This was the only route in the area that was situated entirely in Walser territory. Even when the migrations ended, along this road close and frequent contacts were maintained between the colonies and the Vallais. The various communities also used this way to enter neighbouring valleys to steal and rob. For example, in 1381, a veritable peace treaty was signed - in 'neutral' territory at Zermatt, in the neighbouring Vallais - between the communities of Macugnaga, Antey and Torgnon to put an end to the thefts and violence that were being perpetrated in the mountain pastures.
The way of the Gressonari
To go to Switzerland it seems that the merchants of Gressoney, Gressonari, did not use the Colle di San Teodulo, the shortest route, but preferred to use Colle della Ranzola and Colle del Joux to reach St. Vincent. From here they joined the road which led to the Great St Bernard. The reason was probably to get as quickly as possible onto the major communication routes, which were the most convenient and safe, besides offering opportunities for earning money that did not exist along the high mountain routes.
Besides the most frequented routes, there was also a web of paths and mule-tracks of local importance which joined all the settlements together. These routes often exploited mountain crossings, such as the Colle Pinter, that were not used by the main roads. Since these secondary routes were devoid of customs posts, they were often used to smuggle salt, tobacco and other goods or for the stealing of livestock.
A multilingual zone
A cross-roads of cultures
Few areas of Europe have experienced such a tangle of different ways of writing and speaking as these valleys. In the list which follows, designed to give a brief overview of the situation, we speak in terms of 'languages', though in some cases the term may not be exact.
Provencal is still spoken today in much of the south of France and in the southern Piedmontese Alps.
In the northern Piedmontese Alps and the Val d'Aosta, Provencal was also spoken in the Middle Ages, but in subsequent centuries it blended with French to generate a different language, Franco-Provencal. Known locally as patois, for centuries it was the popular language of the Val d'Aosta. Still commonly used by the inhabitants of the Val d'Aosta, it has always been a spoken language and has acquired a written form only recently.
The Walser language
The Walsers speak a language of the Germanic group distinct from German. It derives from the medieval language of the Alemanns and has different and names and rather different forms in the various areas of the Alps. The language of the Walsers of Issime, Töitschu, was very archaic and similar to medieval German.. The language of Gressoney, Titsch, was more similar to modern German. We have no records of the language of the Walsers of Ayas, though it was presumably similar to Titsch. The Walser languages, like the patois, were spoken languages which have only recently assumed a written form.
The official language in all the Franco-Provencal areas. It was used to write documents and as the spoken language in schools and churches. It was commonly used by the high classes, whereas the people, though familiar with it, preferred to speak patois. It was the official language also in the Walser villages, and at Ayas it was used for writing also in the private sphere. To this day it is, with Italian, the official language of the Val d'Aosta.
German played an important role in the area of Gressoney, where it spread thanks to commercial relations with Switzerland and Germany. Though it never became an official language, that is what it effectively was in religious and social life and in the local schools. Since Walser had no written form, German was used in its place in literary texts and non-legal documents. It is used in the literature of Gressoney to this day.
Italian arrived in the Val d'Aosta in the late nineteenth century, but only spread widely after World War I with the development of tourism and major means of communication. With French, it is the official language of the region.
Albeit not a language of the area, it was often used by the Franco-Provencal and Walser populations as a 'lingua franca' to maintain relations with the inhabitants of the Piedmontese plain below.
The slang of Ayas
Until the twentieth century, many inhabitants of Ayas used to descend into Piedmont in the winter to work as clog-makers. As time went by, their Piedmontese employers began to understand their patois, and the 'Ayassini' thus created a code - djèrg or 'slang' - to be able to speak together without being understood. The slang is not a language but a series of words of which only they knew the meaning, and it is interesting that many of these words clearly derive from the Walser language of Ayas. Today it is vanishing rapidly.
The problem of place names
The presence of all these languages, both written and spoken, is reflected in place names. Many in the area have two different versions, often three. Frequently, several ways have been created to write the same name. Don't be surprised if the place names shown in this guide and along the Great Walser Path are different from the ones you are normally acquainted with.
The Walsers today
The mountains over the last 200 years
The last two centuries have seen profound mutations change the economy and the society of the Alps. The first changes came about with the Napoleon conquest, which transformed the road system. Traffic moved along a few major communication routes and all the old secondary commercial roads went out of use. But the true crisis for the mountains came towards the end of the nineteenth century. With the industrial revolution, agriculture changed too.. Mountain agriculture was especially poor and was no longer able to withstand the competition of that of the plains. The building of roads and railways allowed for faster connections and made the inhabitants of the Alps familiar with the products and comforts of city life. Furthermore, the development of industry attracted workers towards the cities. Hence the depopulation of the mountains, which lasted until the second half of the twentieth century.
Consequences for the Val d'Ayas and the Valle di Gressoney
The consequences were also serious in the high Val d'Ayas and the Valle di Gressoney. High-altitude villages were abandoned or replaced by mountain pastures.
Most of the population emigrated and those who remained were concentrated into the lower villages, such as Champoluc or Gressoney-St.-Jean. The commerce of the Gressonari slumped and relations with emigrant families rapidly slackened. Agriculture vanished almost totally from the valleys. It had become cheaper and less tiring to buy in products from the outside than to produce them in loco. Livestock breeding survived, however, and the fields were replaced by meadows, which produced forage for the animals. The worst moment came during World War II, when the local population was left without most of their young men. Since then tourism has developed in the valleys. The inhabitants who stayed on thus found a new source of income and the economy recovered. The villages of the valley floor grew in size and the first ski-lifts began to appear. The valleys thus assumed their present-day appearance. Mountain culture was very much affected by this situation. Linguistically, Franco-Provencal and Walser were joined by Italian, while the architecture lost its distinctive features and assimilated 'city' models. Most of the old traditions were lost, though, at the same time, home comforts now regarded as indispensable, such as electricity, telephones and covered roads, at last reached the mountains.
What is left of Walser culture in the Val d'Aosta?
How did Walser culture react to these changes and what is the present situation? As we saw in the previous chapters, the Walser settlements of the Val di Gressoney are the only ones that have survived to this day in the Val d'Aosta. The economic revolution and alienation due to tourism seriously jeopardised the Walser language and culture in this valley too. As to the language, it has resisted most in Issime, a village less exposed to external influences and more tied to agriculture. In Gressoney, despite cultural support initiatives and the efforts of the administration, the situation is becoming difficult. Recently, however, a law was passed to protect linguistic minorities, including the Walsers of the Val d'Aosta.
It is to be hoped that the present negative trend will be reversed and that the local population manages to capitalise on this unique opportunity to prevent a language and a culture that have survived for nearly nine centuries from vanishing forever.