Dalai Lama, Swiss Robin Hood and the pursuit of happiness
Vineyards of Saillon
I arrive by bus in the medieval village of Saillon, in Switzerland’s Valais region, 150 kms from Geneva, in the southern part of the country. The sun is shining over the Rhone Valley with its legendary river, stepped vineyards and the surrounding Alps. It is a perfect day for a pilgrimage.
Saillon is known for thermal baths, exquisite wine and the world’s smallest vineyard, owned by the Dalai Lama, which was bequeathed to him. The vineyard, a small plot of land only 1.618 sq. metres with just 3 vines, sits on top of a hill overlooking the Rhone and is a memorial for Switzerland’s most legendary outlaw, Joseph-Samuel Farinet, also known as the Swiss Robin Hood.
Farinet Path through the vineyards
My guide picks me up and we drive a short distance where we begin to walk the Farinet Path, which traces the life of the 19th century outlaw. Filled with symbolism, it was designed as a spiritual pilgrimage inviting visitors to reflect on the essentials in life and discover the essence of happiness. “The Farinet Path is a personal journey about finding happiness,” says my guide. It starts in the village, winds uphill through the stepped vineyards and ends at Dalai Lama’s vineyard on a hill on top of Saillon. It is 3 kms and takes about an hour or so.
Medieval village of Saillon
One of the 21 stained glass windows along the Farinet Path
We begin at a beautiful stained glass window, glistening in the sun. The guide tells me about the legend of Farinet, a criminal on the run who loved women and wine, and especially making counterfeit money and giving it to the poor. Buried in Saillon, he died in mysterious circumstance (found dead at the bottom of a gorges). “It was murder or an accident, no-one knows,” says my guide. Farinet has been memorialized in a novel, songs, movies, and even local currency, because of the values he stood for – freedom, peace – values he shares with the Dalai Lama. The village even has a museum of counterfeit money.
The second-last window on the path, depicting the death of Farinet
Along the path, there are 21 extraordinary stained glass stations, made by Swiss artists. Each station tells the story of the counterfeiter’s life, from childhood, to self-discovery, to injustice, to escaping prison, to love, to giving away his counterfeit money to the poor, to death. The are 3 sections of 7 themes; like the stations of the cross). For each station, my guide shares more of the folklore – and universal truths – about love, friendship, injustice, pleasure, silence, contemplation, understanding, action and freedom.
Stranger resting, enjoying the sunshine
Walking through the Saillon vineyards is a dream come true. The Valais is one of Switzerland’s most important wine regions where several grape varietals are grown, such as Pinot Noir, Syrah and the indigenous Fendant. Amidst the vines, a man appears to be resting on a stone bench. Vehicles are not permitted in the vineyards, so the only sound is our shoes trampling the dirt and the whir of my Canon.
We reach the top of Saillon hill (La Colline Ardente) and stroll through the Pascal Thurre Passage named after the local visionary who helped put the destination on the map. Along the walkway are small plaques with words etched into them to remind the pilgrim of the essence of life, like destiny and courage. Signs with words of inspiration from past visitors, many famous, such as Madonna, hang along the path; and there is a slate where you can write messages (see my message below).
Colline Ardente, a place for silence, joy and contemplation.
Pacal Thurre Passage, final window, “immortality,” awaits us at the end. Dalai Lama’s vineyard is to the left.
Guess who?! I wonder if it is still there?
Destiny, one of the plaques in the ground
The Pascal Thurre passage leads us to the Dalai Lama’s vineyard with its 3 “Farinet” vines (named after the outlaw), which produce grapes that are blended in the production of a local wine and then sold to raise money for charity. Like so much in Switzerland, it may be small, but it has a big heart. Although the Dalai Lama has only visited once, the vineyard is taken care of by many celebrities, such as Gérard Depardieu, Peter Ustinov and royalty. Their names appear on signs in the vineyard. Symbolically, the plot of land, at 1.618 sq. metres, was registered in the mathematical Pythagoras Golden Ratio, divine proportion.
Dalai Lama’s vineyard and the 3 “Farinet vines” (the ones with the stakes)
Dalai Lama sign
Metal book dedication
Places to consider visiting
And at last, we reach the final and most impressive Farinet stained glass window: immortality. As the story goes, Farinet by now has been stripped of all material possessions, all he has is his essence – he is free. At the base of the window is a dedication: “The wind blows where it wants.” ~ Saint Jean
Immortality window is next to the vineyard and overlooking the Rhone Valley and Valais Alps
“The wind blows where it wants.” ~ Saint Jean. Plaque in the ground at the base of ‘Immortality’ station.
Part of the memorial for Farinet, made for an anniversary performance.
On full display around us is the magnificent Rhone Valley and Valais Alps, as far as my eyes can see. A few birds are fluttering about. The wind whistles through my hair. Ah yes, “The wind blows where it wants” …
In this moment, with nothing but my camera, I am free.
My lovely guide
After our walk, my legs a bit wobbly now, I check into my hotel, les Bains de Saillon, and relax in its thermal baths, located alongside the Rhone River in the valley. With the sun setting, I look up to the hill where I walked amongst the vines, and I get a sense my life is about to change.
If you go…
Where to stay: Les Bains de Saillon (the Baths of Saillon) 4-star hotel and thermal park, which has contemporary-style rooms, several restaurants and outstanding spa and wellness facilities. Reservations: https://www.bainsdesaillon.ch/en/.
Getting there: The closest major airport is Geneva (150 kms). By train from Geneva (airport or city centre) to Saillon, with a transfer to bus in Martigny (15 mins drive) to Saillon (bus takes you to the doorsteps of Bains de Saillon). To drive is (1.5 hrs). Be sure to check out the Swiss Travel Pass offerings and schedule directly. Train and bus travel is Switzerland is easy and convenient.
Shannon Skinner is an award-winning host/creator of ExtraordinaryWomenTV.com, radio host, international speaker, author and travel journalist. She lives to travel the world and write about it. Follow her on Twitter at @Shannon_Skinner.
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