The History of Visp

Once a market town, now the industrial centre of the Upper Valais and soon a transport hub. After the Brig-Glis/Naters region, Visp is the other – and smaller – centre in the floor of the Upper Valais valley. However, in many respects, it has grown well beyond its potential in recent decades for a community of its size. Visp’s infrastructure has made it an economic, cultural, sporting, health, hospital and lately also transport centre for the Upper Valais.

From spiritual to secular nobility

The Bishop of Sion, who – since 999 – was also the secular authority, transferred power to a steward for the Zenden (district) of Visp. The stewards initially came from the local nobility, but later from outside families when, in 1250, the daughter of the then steward married the impoverished Count Gottfried von Biandrate from Piedmont. A turbulent, violent reign followed, lasting well over 100 years. The people subsequently wrested ever more rights from the Bishop.

First mentioned in 1214, Visp remained a popular market town for hundreds of years while also being an important export and logistics centre from the two Visp valleys to Italy and the Mediterranean. This was shown by the construction in 1352 of the Pflanzetta, a widely known “Sust”, or important goods warehouse, transshipment centre and administrative building under one roof.

The battle of Visp 1388 – a victory for the Upper Valais

The community has also been involved in many military conflicts. Such as in 1388, as the united communities of the Upper Valais defeated a tyrannical lord from Savoy with courage and deception, memorialised by the Blue Stone still in the middle of the town.

In 1799 the people of Visp once again found themselves under foreign control as the Upper Valais took severe losses at the land bridge in Visp and laid down their arms; the town was then plundered by the French troops.

When the modern federal state was founded in 1848, control of the region passed from the citizens to the municipality. This was expanded eastwards in 1972 by the incorporation of Eyholz from Grosshüs to the border with Brig-Glis.

Spatial development blocked by flooding

Sitting between the two largest rivers in the Valais, the Rhone and the Vispa, Visp’s spatial growth has long been limited to the slightly elevated parts of the village around the two church hills. All too often, these waters breached their banks, leading to enormous damage to the crops in the plain below the hills.

Visp has been at the forefront of tourism since tourism began

Foreigners – especially rich Britons – discovered for themselves the beauty of the Alps in the middle of the 19th century, with the Matterhorn receiving particular attention. Given the state of the roads at the time, whoever wanted to go there needed to stop in Visp, stay overnight or change to other “modes of transport”. Simple hostels came first, then several stately hotels. Farmers and carters became hoteliers, porters, coach drivers, haulers, baggage and sedan carriers.

Business increased and the standard of living improved as Visp became the temporary terminus of the Jura-Simplon railway in 1876. However, the heyday was brief; by 1891 the Visp-Zermatt railway was already carrying guests all the way up to Zermatt in comfort. Visp was demoted to an interchange station. Many residents lost their main or side income. When the VZ railway was extended to Brig at the end of the 1920s, it was another step to Visp becoming a transport irrelevance.

Visp – the workhouse of the Upper Valais

Only once the two rivers had been channelled and the plain drained in 1870 – after many years of effort – was the settlement able to expand to the north. Together with the new hydroelectric station in the Saas valley, this provided the conditions for the relocation of Lonza AG from Gampel to Visp in 1907, signalling the start of the industrial age for the community. At the turn of the millennium, Visp had a population of 6,500, but with 7,200 work places is the most important employment centre in the Upper Valais. 4,800 workers commute to Visp every day. 2,700 employees work in the Lonza AG chemical plants alone. The company’s success, for nearly a century, is thus of great importance for the economic security of the entire Upper Valais.

Thanks to the personnel transport organised by the factory, many worker-farmers were able to keep living in the surrounding mountain villages. The construction of railways and chair-lifts, hotels and chalets by initiative groups further supported tourism services.

Tourism today – a regional collaboration

However, as this largely concerned smaller stations and as Visp was well situated for transport with a broad range of infrastructure available, an association made good sense. These considerations led to the formation in 1986 of the tourism association “rund um Visp” (around Visp); 24 municipalities from four districts are now involved. In Visp itself, Bahnhofstrasse (Station Street) has been converted to a pedestrian-friendly shopping zone. The weekly “Pürumärt” (farmers’ market) honours and maintains the market square’s centuries old traditional role as the centre of economic life. Beautifully restored and renovated, the Old Town with both churches is ringed by remnants of the city wall. The oldest building, the Meierturm (Steward’s Tower) dates from the 12th century.

A parish nearly 1,000 years old

The history of the Visp parish reaches back to the 11th or maybe even 10th century. One of the largest in the Valais, it includes roughly the area of the later community, the modern Visp district. Today, 93% of people in Visp identify as catholic and 7% as protestant.

In the large earthquake in 1855, in which practically every building in the village was damaged, the tower of the parish church lost its majestic corrugated spire. This could not be remounted: for architectural rather than financial reasons.

Since 1938, Visp has been the seat of St. Jodern House, the catholic seminary for the Upper Valais.

Location for a private school since 1528

Education has long played an important role in Visp. The humanist Thomas Platter founded a private school here as early as 1528. A pioneering action was the foundation of the first secondary school in the Upper Valais in 1935. Visp today is the educational centre for the youth of seven municipalities.

Since the 1920s, Visp has been the home of the Upper Valais Agricultural College as well as the training college for metalwork and trades. The training college, which has been teaching in Visp in its own rooms since the 1960s, will soon become even more important. The two existing school buildings will now be joined by a third. This will house new workshops for practical training. A three-way sports hall will later finally enable the sporting activities that have been mandatory for 20 years.

The School of Economics (HWV) for the Upper Valais was relocated from Visp to Sierre after 12 years of building works in which the municipality invested significantly. It was replaced by the Upper Valais Antenna for Cantonal Business Development, combined with broad-based training for entrepreneurs. Visp is the home of the Valais School of Health Sciences and Social Work (HES-SO) for German speakers.

Infrastructure without comparison in the canton

The fact that the citizens of Visp are active in over 100 clubs, full of initiative and often successful is due to Visp having a sporting and cultural infrastructure that – relative to the number of residents – is without comparison in the entire canton.

For example, without the Ice Hockey Club Visp – Swiss champions in 1962 – the Upper Valais would be less likely to have an ice stadium that can be used so flexibly. Without cultural achievements over the decades with impacts far beyond the region, there would probably be no “La Poste” Culture and Congress Centre, a 600-seat theatre that would not look out of place in a city ten times the size and which has been a welcome addition to the regional scene since 1991.

However, “La Poste” had its price. The feat needed more than petty cash. After years in which the municipality was solely liable for repaying debt interest up to CHF 4 million, various favourable factors at the start of the century ensured a tangible debt reduction. The municipality can – with a prerequisite of solid finances – look to the third millennium with confidence.

Flood risk diverted

The initial correction of the Rhone nearly 150 years ago finally allowed Visp to build also in the valley floor. Since then, the settlement has only been spared the worst damage from various floods with a lot of luck.

This recurrent threat has demanded effective action for decades. The third correction of the Rhone is now underway – the cost reaches into the billions of francs – with the Visp region as the most urgent priority, likewise that of the Vispa.

This will finally relieve Visp of the danger of floods. The industrial zone – the only sizeable one in the Upper Valais – and the future residential zones in the west will thus be secured.

A solid industrial location

Although the fusion trend at the end of the 20th century also preoccupied Lonza, its shareholders and especially its employees, the work places in the Visp factories should be able to be retained – no matter the name and products. Regularly modernised research and production plants, significant expansion opportunities and a workforce recognised as service-oriented, reliable and capable should guarantee this.

This should also apply to biotechnology, which started with much promise in Visp in 2001 with an important new facility for research and production, but which was then briskly put on ice owing to the global drop in demand. In the meantime, though, this sector also appears to be heating back up, if slowly.

The settlement of further small and medium-sized enterprises and the support of new businesses is desirable. The municipality wants to become active in this with targeted marketing of the town.

Bern – less than 1 hour from Visp

Since the opening of the NEAT tunnel, travel time between Visp and Bern is now only 54 minutes. Commuting for work or study is now plausible, another trump for the standard of living in Visp.

After 20 years of stagnation, population growth too

While the population has levelled off at around 6,500 for the last 20 years, this could soon change. Visp’s new function as an international railway hub for almost the whole of the Valais has generated a feeling of optimism with the result that, for example, there have never been so many construction projects. The increase in relocation of companies and institutions from other regions is clear to see.

It is the – continually growing – regional shopping centre for daily needs and building materials, distribution centre for drinks for the entire Upper Valais and headquarters for a whole range of Valais electricity companies. Annual regional public fairs and exhibitions have been held for over 30 years. Visp is the location of the acute care hospital for the Upper Valais.

If it actively acknowledges its function as a centre and develops consciously and specifically, Visp will be well prepared for the challenges of a new era. This can be expected to be accompanied by the notably strong growth of the town.