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History in Albinen

Local History

Albinen Geschichte nostalgisch sw

by Paul Heldner (a chronicler from Glis)
There is disagreement among scholars about whether the name Albinen is derived from “Albignion” (meaning “alp”) or from “Arbignon” (meaning “forest”). Both “Albignion” and “Arbignon” are Old French terms, but since we have no evidence on whether the area around present-day Albinen was pastureland or was still wooded in the relevant era (7th to 10th century A.D.), we do not know which derivation is correct. But whether the area was still a wilderness in the days of the Franks or was being used for grazing cattle, Celtic graves attest to the fact that it was already settled in prehistoric times. Then, sometime around the 11th century A.D., Germanic-speaking tribes came to Albinen from the direction of Leukerbad, cultivated the land and established a permanent settlement here. Albinen first appears in the written record as “Albignun” in 1224; from 1339 we also find the spelling “Arbignon”.
The Burgergemeinde (“citizens’ community”, a statutory corporation in Swiss public law including all individuals who are citizens regardless of where they were born or where they may currently live) of Albinen is also very old, presumably dating to 1226 or not long thereafter, as this was the year when the local peasants “stood together as one” to buy the rights to Albinen from the bishop. The foundation charter is preserved to this day in the town archives.

Albinen also includes the hamlets of Tschingeren (also first mentioned in writing in 1224) and Dorben (first mentioned around 1250). Initially, the most important of these three communities was Dorben, and as such would have been the site of the original thingstead (village hall); Albinen did not become dominant politically until around 1350.

Precious heritage


Early history and growth of AlbinenThe name “Albinen” first appears in a document from 1226. The place names in the area almost all have Romance roots; the Germanic language only became dominant towards the end of the Middle Ages. The village belonged to the parish of Leuk until it was itself elevated to the status of a parish with its own church in 1737. The locals were largely self-sufficient until the 20th century.

The village was accessible only by steep footpaths. According to the Geographical Encyclopaedia of Switzerland, in 1902 Albinen had neither a tavern, nor a shop, nor a salthouse. At the time, it had 380 inhabitants, more than at any other time in its history. The number of residents has been dwindling steadily since the 1940s. The construction of a paved road in the 1960s that made the village accessible by car could not stop the population decline, but it did bring tourists and provide the locals with new sources of income. In 1960, over two-thirds of the working population were occupied in agriculture; that share had dropped to 33 percent ten years later and to only three percent (of 242 inhabitants) by 1990.
Layout of the villageThe clustered or "nucleated" village owes much of its charm to its stunning location high on a steep slope above the Dala gorge. It seems to cling to the mountain face, unlike most mountain villages in the region, which are situated on terraces. Because economical use of land was a primary consideration, development is very dense, and Albinen’s wooden buildings – a traditional mix of residential and utilitarian structures – ascend the slope in tightly spaced rows. The imposing church has pride of place in the centre of the village, its light walls, curved tin roof and prominent, modern tower standing in striking contrast to the surrounding houses, many of which date to the 17th and 18th centuries and are extraordinarily well preserved. The gables of all the houses face the valley, so that the village presents a remarkably uniform picture 
ClassificationThe Federal Inventory of Swiss Heritage Sites (ISOS) classifies Albinen as a heritage site of national importance on account of its unique location, townscape and historic architecture – in other words, it is a true gem! Qualification criteriaISOS assessed the village as follows::

  • XX (out of XXX) or setting: This clustered village is uniquely situated on a crag high above the Dala gorge. However, the over-developed surroundings detract somewhat from its silhouette.
  • XXX (out of XXX) for layout: The village has a particularly appealing, non-hierarchical layout of unusually densely packed small and medium-sized residential and functional buildings, which are extraordinarily uniform. The village also has some terraced housing, whose construction type is interesting from a spatial planning point of view, and a charming village square.
  • XX (out of XXX) for historical architecture: The architecture ranked highly thanks to the high number of traditional Swiss houses and the rare example of a modern parish church that is well integrated into the surrounding architecture.

The ladders of Albinen

Albinenleitern Stich

If you ask the locals when, why and by whom the ladders in Albinen were placed there, they are unlikely to be able to tell you. We don’t really know either. One thing is certain, however. In his Carte generale de la suisse par un voyageur François, published in 1781, Jean Benjamin de la Borde described in careful detail the route from Leukerbad to Albinen (or “Alpen”?) and accompanied his description with a sketch of two ladders.

There are various theories as to the ladders’ origins: 

  • Perhaps the Alemanni, who arrived in the valley via the Gemmi Pass around 800 AD and settled in Leukerbad, Albinen, Guttet, Feschel and Jeizinen, already used to ladders to get here?
  • Or perhaps medieval shepherds and hunters simply used the route to transport their produce and their game?
  • The most widely accepted theory is that the ladders were a second route, beside the old Roman road, to continue from the Gemmi Pass on the way from Kandertal to the Rhone valley.

Or you could come up with your own theory when you traverse the hiking path yourself. It is a breathtaking route well worth a visit! The ladders of Albinen todayToday, the ladders of Albinen form a spectacular hiking trail from Leukerbad to Albinen. Eight well-maintained ladders take you up over a total height of around 100 metres. The course resembles a via ferrata and is a must for all keen hikers – but only if you don’t suffer from vertigo! By the way, the climb up is less hair-raising than the climb down.


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