Travis read somewhere that Simplon Pass is one of the most scenic mountain passes in Switzerland.  When the weather dawned bright and sunny one morning, we set out to find it.  Our “plan” was to take a leisurely day to drive south, then east over the pass before heading into Italy.  Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to make our way out of Switzerland without passing something new we want to explore.

This was certainly the case while driving through the town of Sion in the Valais, the southern sun-belt of Switzerland.  Stunned to see not one, but two, massive castles perched on top of the adjacent hills, we stopped to investigate.  All thoughts of Italy went out the window.  Instead, we visited three castles in town – Château de la Majorie, Château de Valère, and Château de Tourbillon – before spontaneously ending up in the French Alps.

Château de la Majorie

The Château de la Majorie is a 13th-century castle that was once the home of the local bishop.  In 1947, the castle was largely converted into an art museum – Le Musée d’art du Valais, or the Valais Museum of Art.  If you’re visiting Tourbillon or Valerie Castle, you’ll likely pass the Château de la Majorie since there are very few paths – by car or by foot – that lead to either of the other castles.

Chateau de la majorie in sion switzerland

Chateau de la Majorie, Sion, Switzerland

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From the courtyard of Majorie Castle, Tourbillon Castle is visible to the left up on the hilltop and the complex of buildings from Valere Castle is visible up on the right.

Château de Valère

Dating from the 11th-13th century, the Château de Valère has the most to actually see during a visit.  The castle is in good condition and has several noteworthy attractions.  Hikers who make the short trek up the hill can explore All Saints’ Chapel just below the castle, the much larger Basilique Valère on top, and quaint, narrow cobblestone streets with low arched doorways.  If you don’t want to book a guided tour, visiting the castle and basilica are free.

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Château de Valère, Sion, Switzerland

All Saint's Chapel near Valere Castle in Sion switzerland

All Saints’ Chapel at Valère Castle, Sion, Switzerland

Valere Castle in Sion switzerland

Valère Castle, Sion, Switzerland

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Hobbit-sized doorways at the Château de Valère, Sion, Switzerland

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Note how the round window doesn’t line up above the doorway to the Basilique de Valère.

oldest playable pipe organ in the world

Inside the Basilique de Valère, the organ dates from 1435 and is the oldest playable pipe organ in the world.

Château de Tourbillon

Another 13th-century castle, the Château de Tourbillon was once a summer home for the religious elite in Sion.  Unlike Valère, Tourbillon Castle is in ruins, destroyed by a fire in 1788.  Though a slender watchtower and some of the inner walls survived, what mostly remains of the massive castle is just a shell.  That said, it’s an impressive shell!  Access to the hilltop monster requires hiking, and once on top, the views of the surrounding Alps, the town of Sion, and the neighboring Valère Castle are outstanding.

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Vineyards blanket the mountain slopes surrounding Sion and fill the valley between the castles of Tourbillon and Valere.

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Tourbillon Castle is accessible by a short but steep trail that passes through one section of the castle wall.

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The bare leaves of winter suit the ravaged ruins of the castle.

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Other hikers enjoy the spectacular views from Château de Tourbillon.

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Ravaged by fire in 1788, the Château de Tourbillon is mostly a shell.

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Views from Tourbillon Castle are outstanding.

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Backlit by the sun, the Château de Valère is visible on its adjacent hilltop from Tourbillon Castle.

Scenic Drive From the Valais to Chamonix

If you have access to a car and are feeling adventurous after visiting the castles of Sion, the resort town of Chamonix, France is just one incredibly scenic drive away.

When we finally left the castle complex, we only had a couple of hours of daylight left, but we decided to keep on driving.  Altering our route, we backtracked a few miles to the Swiss town of Martigny and headed up over a mountain pass into France.  As soon as we turned onto the Rte de la Forclaz in Martigny, our road became a narrow two-lane road with hairpin turns and patches of ice and snow.  We were in heaven, but I would only recommend the drive in summer or for folks who’re accustomed to driving rural, winding highways in the snow.

the snowy rte de la forclaz road from switzerland to france

From Martigny in Switzerland, the Rte de la Forclaz winds up into the mountains before crossing into France.

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Stopping at a pull-out, we’re rewarded with a superb view of the Valais – and Martigny, Switzerland – spread out far below us.

After miles of twisty icy roads and beautiful snowy mountain scenery, we passed through a tunnel and suddenly, voilà, we were in France!

Sadly, Customs wasn’t there to greet us.  We expected a friendly welcome, balloons – some sort of fanfare.

Perhaps they went for a coffee run.

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The Customs depot at the French/Swiss border along the Rte de la Forclaz isn’t occupied during our visit.  No warm welcome for us.

Luckily, the mountains just kept getting bigger, craggier, and more beautiful, so we quickly forgot this oversight.

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Europe excels at boring tunnels through the Alps for highways.

When we came around a corner and were confronted with a line of peaks that form part of the Mont Blanc massif, my mouth dropped.

Glacier d'Argentiere, Aiguille Verte, and Aiguille de Dru in the French Alps

The flat line of snow/ice to the far left is the Glacier d’Argentière with Aiguille Verte (Green Needle) and Aiguille de Dru dominating the landscape.

By the time we arrived in Chamonix, it was nearly dark.  After poking around in town for a bit, we discovered a mouth-watering bakery and attempted to buy some pastries and cappuccinos. Unfortunately we only had Swiss francs with us and the shop would only accept cash.  Such a rookie mistake, leaving home without euros!

Our dejection quickly faded as we retraced our route back through the jagged peaks, back over the Col des Montets mountain pass.  During the drive home, all we could think about was returning to do more exploring, this time on snow shoes!


Know Before You Go:

  • Château is French for “castle”.  You probably figured that out.
  • Incredibly, Sion actually has  a fourth castle – the Château Montorge.  We didn’t visit it.
  • Official website for Sion Tourisme (EN, FR, DE)

What’s up next on our agenda?

Photographing gorgeous king penguins during Basel Zoo’s “Penguin Parade”…

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