Valais is a Swiss canton in the southwest of Switzerland, surrounding the valley of the Rhone river, from where it originates to Lake Geneva. The river separates the Bernese Alps in the north from the Pennine Alps in the south. Valais contains some of the driest as well as some of the wettest parts of Switzerland, and is perhaps best known for being the home of the Matterhorn and popular ski resorts like Verbier and Zermatt. Meanwhile, the interior of Valais is not very well known to the outside world. Valais is a canton of many contrasts.
In the first century BC, Romans under Julius Caesar came into the area from Italy and dispersed through the valley of the Rhone. Though Christianity arrived in Valais in the fourth century as clerics and merchants traversed the Grand-St.-Bernard pass, the Reformation was not able to penetrate this canton, which remains mostly Catholic.
Over the course of several hundred years, Walsers, as Valais inhabitants are known, have voluntarily left in times of hardship to seek a better life in other places. This has resulted in Walser communities surviving at points very far from Valais, such as Argentina, retaining their own dialect and cultural practices. Valais was an independent republic from 1628 until 1815. After a brief time as a French possession under Napoleon's rule, it joined the Swiss Confederation.
Geographically, the region of Valais is very diverse and less touched by modernity than other parts of Switzerland. Twenty percent of the canton consists of glaciers, and yet Valais has the lowest rainfall of all Switzerland. In fact, because of the dry climate, the region has ideal vine growing conditions and produces some of the best wines in Switzerland. In the Middle Ages, a network of channels for transport of irrigation water were put in place, and you can still see traces of them today. Now, however, Valais has several of the highest altitude dams in the world, which supply about one-fourth of Switzerland's electricity needs.
To the south of Valais is Italy, while to the southwest is France. On the north, the canton is bordered by cantons of Vaud and Bern with cantons of Ticino and Uri on the east. There are 50 mountains that reach higher than 4,000 meters in altitude, the highest bein Monte Rosa, with an elevation of 4,638 meters. The most famous mountain, however, is the Matterhorn, which rises 4,478 meters.
Most (around two-thirds) of the people in Valais speak French, though there is also a fairly large proportion of Arpitan speakers. The official name for Arpitan is Franco Provencal because it shares characteristics with French and with Provencal, but does not belong to either. The northeastern part of Valais speks Walliser German.
Valais is not heavily populated. The entire canton has a population of just under 300,000, and of these, about 19% are foreigners. The largest town is the capital Sion, and other major towns are Brig, Martigny, Monthey, and Sierre. Over 80% of the population is Catholic, with 6% Protestant and the rest belonging to other religions.
Due to the physical geography of Valais and the sparse population, there are no big industrial or manufacturing centers in the canton of Valais. The two biggest sectors of the economy are cognac production and tourism. The best known cognac is Williamine, made from locally grown pears. The Matterhorn is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Swiss mountains, and nearby Zermatt is located at the Matterhorn's northern base. Zermatt has a population of less than 6,000 permanently, but the numbers vary widely with the season.
Further west, other mountainous regions are also quite popular, such as French-speaking resorts close to Verbier. Resorts to the north of the Rhone valley are also popular. These look southwards toward the Pennine Alps. Ski season is also big in the Goms region, though it is less well-known than other Swiss ski areas.
Valais has agricultural production, too, predominantly dairy farming and cattle breeding. There are many orchards in Valais, and saffron is also produced here. The western part of Valais is the only industrial region. In this area, which runs from the Valais part of Lake Geneva to St-Maurice, there are pharmaceutical factories, such as Novartis.
The longest road tunnel in the world, the Lotschberg Base Tunnel, is the longest land tunnel in the world at over 21 miles long. It opened in 2007. Because of the importance of tourism in Valais, there are plenty of cable cars and mountain railways through Valais with spectacular views.
Valais is one of the less well-known of the Swiss cantons, despite being home to the famous Matterhorn. Surrounded as it is by mountains, Valais has been a little more cut off from the larger world and has retained much of its unique charm because of it. While the tourist brochures won't direct you to spend your vacation in Valais, those who do go off the beaten path and explore this canton will be richly rewarded due to the natural scenery and the culture.