Monday, April 14, 2014

Castles, Cobbles and Coffee in Sion

Rue des Chateaux
It was the name originally given to the stronghold captured by King David of the Israelites and where a temple was built on the hill above it. It also means “an imaginary place considered to be perfect and ideal”.

In Switzerland, Sion is the capital of the Canton of Valais but otherwise fits the description well. Like the original one, this Sion (pronounced See-ohn) is also overseen by a fortified church, Notre-Dame-de-Valère. In fact, there are two hills with fortified castles that rise above this charming medieval town, nestled in the fertile Rhone Valley and surrounded by vineyards and orchards.

Sion is an attractive town of 27,000 with a long history. Archeological evidence suggests that the site was inhabited during Neolithic times. People came to the otherwise flat valley floor, attracted by the two jutting rocky hills, visible from afar and now adorned with the medieval castles Valère and Tourbillon. “They are an odd sight, which matches the common Swiss notion that the locals (named Sédunois, after the town's Latin name Sedunum, meaning Place of Castles) are themselves a bit odd, impenetrably taciturn and clannish,” says one Swiss website. Sion enjoys a beautiful climate: dry, mild and consistently clear; its afternoons are bathed in bright sunshine, and I could imagine myself in rural Spain – warm, dry breezes blending the aroma of dusty pine needles with the chittering of thousands of cicadas. Sion's wines are outstanding.

Attracted by the two medieval castles that crowned the two hills above the town, I steered my ToulouseMobile from the highway and took the narrow cobbled Rue des Chateaux up a steep incline to a parking lot from which I could scamper to either castle. The late 13th Century Chateau de Tourbillon with its crenulated walls is now in ruins. On the other hill, the Chateau de Valère is a 12th or 13th Century fortified church and houses the world’s oldest playing organ (made in 1390). No, I didn’t play it like Inspector Clouseau’s mad boss, but I did feel rather peckish after that long walk up the hill.

In search of a good food and coffee experience, I drove down the windy cobbled lane that spilled out onto Rue du Grand-Pont, the wide tree-lined and cobbled main street of the old-town. There, across the street from the Hotel de Ville, with its 17th century clock tower, I found what I was looking for: La Croix Fédérale, a restaurant and brasserie with arcade windows in the Valais tradition.  Its sign looked as old as the medieval town itself and invited. As soon as I entered, I knew I had hit the jackpot. The place was filled with locals, lingering over wine and roesti, and discussing philosophy and politics. The smell of fondue permeated. Perfect, I thought. It was a cat’s paradise.

Patrons of Croix Federale get friendly with Toulouse
I sat down by the window and nodded to the two gentlemen lingering over a carafe of white wine. They nodded back. I ordered  Roesti d’Alpage and a Salade Bruschetta de Gambas  from the waitress. She gave me a strange look, like she’d never seen a talking French stuffed cat before; but to give her credit, she took my order. To accompany my Valais meal, I chose a local white wine from Sion; a 2010 Hurlevent Petite Arvine.  I found it light yet wonderfully expressive in subtle fruity notes. It was the perfect companion to my savory meal. 
Roesti is a simple farmer’s leftover dish. Essentially roesti consists of shredded potatoes cooked then baked with cheese and other things, representing a gourmet version of “hashbrowns”. This dish was lovingly baked with mushrooms, cheese, onions, ham and a fried egg on top. The subtle flavors had married wonderfully in the baking dish and I feasted happily with puffy cheeks. The salad was its own feast. Presented in a colorful arrangement of pickled beets, carrots, and greens accompanying the bruschetta and sweet shrimp, it ate itself.  Well, it’s just an expression; I did the eating, of course! Don’t forget that great walk I had!

Toulouse and his Roesti
Dalia, the manager, later joined me with drinks and we shared stories of travels, good food and animals. I showed her a picture of my whippet friend, Sparky in the USA, and she showed me her two dogs on her iPhone.

Contact Information: La Croix Federale, Pub, Bistro, Brasserie; Grand-Pont 13,1950 Sion, Valais, Suisse; telephone: 027 322 16 95
Toulouse with his cafe creme

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