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Valais' valleys

Capital of the mountainous Valais region, in the southwestern corner of Switzerland, Sion (pronounced see-ohh) is an alluring little town of just 27,000 with an exceptionally long history stretching back to settlement in Neolithic times.

SION

Capital of the mountainous Valais region, in the southwestern corner of Switzerland, Sion (pronounced see-ohh) is an alluring little town of just 27,000 with an exceptionally long history stretching back to settlement in Neolithic times. Set down on the narrow, flat floor of the Rhône valley, Sion developed around two jutting, rocky hills, now adorned with the medieval castles Valère (on one peak) and Tourbillon (on the other).

The town enjoys a simply glorious climate: dry, mild and consistently clear. Afternoons are bathed in bright sunshine, and on balmy summer evenings you could imagine yourself in rural Spain - warm, dry breezes blending the aroma of dusty pine needles with the scraping of thousands of cicadas. Sion's wines are outstanding. The ice-bound Alpine resort of Verbier is nearby, just a half-hour west - but it feels a continent away.

A slow wander through Sion's old streets, with its inns and 16th-century shuttered houses, fills an atmospheric afternoon. From the central Place de la Planta, alleys lead to the steep Rue des Châteaux, from where both hilltop castles are accessible. Tourbillon dates from 1294, but was ruined by fire in 1788 and remains dilapidated. Its partner, Valère, though - just as old - has been well maintained, and the castle church is still in use: inside is the oldest playable organ in the world, dating from 1390.

The hills south of Sion are pierced by two long valleys. To the southwest a minor road winds into the Val d'Hérémance, culminating at the giant Barrage de la Grande Dixence, the largest and one of the highest-altitude dams in the world. To the southeast of Sion is the Val d'Hérens, a world apart from the main valley, dotted with mountain farms and high-altitude hamlets. The road penetrates all the way to Arolla, a quiet, isolated mountain village almost on the Italian border, at 2000m above sea level, which has some wonderfully lonesome summer walks among the peaks.

SIERRE

Below the chic ski resort of Crans Montana, a short way east of Sion, lies the idyllic little valley-floor town of Sierre, also set among vineyards. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke spent his last six years in Sierre, where he wrote the celebrated Sonnets To Orpheus; he suffered from leukaemia and died in 1926 after pricking his finger on a rose-thorn.

Sierre lies almost exactly on the French-German language border: the road heading east out of town begins as the Rue de la Gemmi and ends five minutes later as the Gemmistrasse, while the river which in Sierre is known as the Rhône is known as the Rotten in neighbouring Salgesch.

Wine is what fuels both communities, and there are plenty of walking trails through and between the vineyards, with equally numerous opportunities to stop and sample a glass or two. Sierre is the driest town in Switzerland, and gets an average of almost seven-and-a-half hours of sunshine daily in summer, helping it to produce excellent Fendant whites and Pinot Noir reds. Not for nothing did the Romans call the place Sirrum amoenum, Sierre the agreeable.

At the top of the Rue de Villa stands the modest Château de Villa, home of one half of the Musée Valaisan de la Vigne et du Vin, with interesting displays on grape varieties and the history of cultivation. From here, a six-kilometre Wine Path runs through the quiet, shuttered lanes of Sierre for a couple of hours over to Salgesch and out through the vineyards to the other half of the wine museum, the Zumofenhaus, which houses displays on viticulture.

South of Sierre, a narrow chink in the mountain wall marks the start of the Val d'Anniviers, one of the region's most beautiful Alpine valleys, and explorable for some 40km south to the hiking trailhead of Zinal.

Musée Valaisan de la Vigne et du Vin, Château de Villa (00 41 27 456 35 25; www.museevalaisanduvin.ch). Open 2-5pm from Tuesday to Friday, admission Sfr5 (£2.20)

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