Valais (Wallis in German) is amongst the larger Swiss cantons, and the one with the most rugged mountain scenery. The cantonal capital and largest town is Sion, a beautiful medieval burg that was the seat of the Bishop of Valais from 580 AD onwards. The two other sizable towns are Martigny and Sierre. Valais was ruled by the bishops at Sion for most of the middle ages. It was invaded by Napoleon in 1798 and only joined the Helvetic Confederation in 1815.
Valais has borders with Italy and France, and with the cantons of Uri, Ticino, Berne and Geneva. The canton is bilingual, both French and German are widely spoken here. Valais has long been the most remote canton, the 10 highest peaks in Switzerland are all in Valais. These include the Matterhorn (4478m), Dufour Spitz (4634m, in the Monte Rosa group), Dolomite Blanche (4357m), and the Dom (4545m, part of the Mischabel group) which is highest peak wholly within Switzerland.
Two of the best Swiss ski resorts, Zermatt and Verbier, are in Valais and both offer excellent intermediate slopes and year-round skiing on glaciers. The beautifully named ski-resort of Crans Montana is one of the many others. A lot of the best hiking in Switzerland is within the mountains and valleys of Valais. In the summer, the peaks are still capped with snow, and the alpine flora is in bloom, making for enduring memories. As is the norm for Switzerland, hiking trails are practically everywhere and they are for the most part very well marked.
The canton has seen enormous change and advancement over the past century as the tourism industry here has developed and transport becomes easier. Up until the late 19th century many of the valleys in Valais were inaccessible for many months of the year and the inhabitants cut-off from the rest of the world. One of the most remote and beautiful valleys in Valias is the Lotschental (sometimes called the hidden-valley), which was closed to travellers for most of the year till the train line was extended to the valley in 1910.
The largest and most important valley in Valais is the Goms, which is the northernmost valley on the Rhone. From here there are various valleys towards the north and south carved out by the many tributaries of the Rhone. Two of the most distinctive features about Valais life are the traditional wooden houses with stone bases and the heavy, dark Valiser bread which contains nuts. Valais is also the backbone of the Swiss wine industry and produces more wine than any other canton, most of it white.