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Swiss Robin Hood shows path to true happiness

A bottle of wine has become a symbol of the village of Saillon

(Keystone Archive)

Switzerland's most legendary outlaw is showing the way to true happiness. The Farinet path, through the village of Saillon in canton Valais, takes visitors on a spiritual journey that leads not only to a better understanding of human values, but also the "smallest vineyard in the world", currently owned by the Dalai Lama.

Joseph-Samuel Farinet spent many of his 35 years on the run, wanted by the authorities for producing counterfeit coins, which he distributed among the poor. A traditional ballad says that Farinet's money was worth more than that made by the state, because he gave it away.

In 1880, he was found dead at the bottom of a gorge in the mountains near Saillon where he sought refuge. Already famous at the time of his death, his legend has grown.

"He was an outlaw, but an outlaw with a big heart. He was a man of the people," says Pascal Thurre, the retired journalist behind the Farinet Path.

Universal human values

"You don't achieve immortality by making fake coins," he adds. "Farinet is a legend because he embodies universal human values - love, freedom, understanding."

This Robin Hood figure has been immortalised in song, poetry and on film. The actor who played Farinet in the definitive movie version of his life story, Jean-Louis Barrault, created the Friends of Farinet association in 1980, and helped to turn Saillon into a place of pilgrimage for those who wanted to know more about the outlaw, but also about the fundamental truths of life.

For Farinet is only a pretext. Thurre describes the path as a kind of rites of passage. Dotted along the route are 21 superb stained glass windows, created by the artists Robert Héritier and Theo Imboden, which are like modern stations of the cross. At the same time, they trace key events in Farinet's life and show how this illustrates man's quest for true happiness.

"It's important to search for basic human values - silence, friendship, contemplation, true love that is given and not taken, freedom. There's more to life than marketing, profits, money and sex," Thurre says.

The first set of windows, on the flat valley floor, below the ancient village fortifications, deal with man's initial concern to discover himself - through childhood, love, money and even suffering.

Path like life

After the first five windows, the path veers sharply right up a steep-sided vineyard towards the medieval part of the village. "The path is a bit like life. If you decide not only to think of yourself, and you want to help others, it takes a bit of effort," says Thurre.

This second section, which winds through the narrow streets of Saillon, concerns our desire to interact with his fellow man. The windows are entitled Freedom (when Farinet escapes from prison), Friendship, Sharing (Farinet distributing his illegal money to the poor) and Listening.

The final section deals with man's search for fundamental absolutes in life - taking in Action, Contemplation and finally, Death. By now the figure of Farinet in these stunning works of art has no material possessions. His being is stripped down to its essence.

Born in northern Italy

Farinet, this flouter of the law, seems an unusual hero for the obedient Swiss. But the great man was actually born in the Val d'Aoste, in northern Italy, where he was also wanted for counterfeiting.

"He was European. He didn't have Swiss values. He was free, a womaniser, he thumbed his nose at those in power," Thurre says. Nevertheless, Farinet spent 10 years of his life in the Valais, three of them in Saillon and the surrounding mountains.

The road to inner happiness is far from easy. In Saillon it is also very steep. Those that make it to the top, though, are rewarded not only with a greater appreciation of human goodness, but also spectacular views of the Rhone Valley stretching away as far as the eye can see in both directions, with the peaks of the Valais Alps rising imperiously beyond.

Goethe, who visited this very spot, wrote: "I had before my eyes one of the most beautiful views on my voyage." Standing high above the village, you have to admit he had a point.

At the top of this Burning Hill, as it is known, is one last stained-glass window, entitled Immortality. Thurre says this is a place for silence and contemplation, "with the Rhone Valley your cathedral". No picnics are allowed here.

After the 45-minute quest for inner satisfaction, you will probably be in need of refreshment, and if you're lucky, you may get the chance to sample wine from the Dalai Lama's vineyard.

World's smallest vineyard

For here, in one of Switzerland's most important wine-growing regions, is the "smallest vineyard in the world", currently owned by the Buddhist spiritual leader. It is a mere 1.67 square metres, and contains just three plants. The grapes of these three different varieties are mixed with a fine local wine and auctioned off to raise money for deserving causes.

The tiny vineyard has been worked by many a famous pair of hands, from Gérard Depardieu to Zinedine Zidane, from Bertrand Piccard to Peter Ustinov, Maurice Béjart to Pascal Couchepin. Rocks brought from all over the world, symbolising that friendship has no borders, sit beneath the vines.

"Throughout history, the vine has been a symbol of eternity," Thurre explains.

Before the Dalai Lama, it was the French priest Abbé Pierre, champion of the marginalized, who "owned" this tiny patch of land. No-one knows, not even Thurre, who will succeed the Tibetan as the guardian of Farinet's vines.

"It's destiny. It's pure chance - or what Einstein called 'an anonymous letter written by God'," Thurre says.

And does an ordinary mortal become a Friend of Farinet? "You already are," says Thurre. Anyone who comes here and loves the dream is a member. There's no membership fee. All you have to do is accept that we are on Earth to achieve happiness."

by Roy Probert

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