The sleepy streets of the village of Leuk reveal little of its history, but a step inside its medieval structures is a step into a mysterious past.
Travellers passing by the village on the northern slopes of the Rhone Valley largely ignore it, as they head for holidays at the Leukerbad spa down the road, but once, the village was an important trading centre.
At the medieval church in Leuk, André Ruffiner, a retired teacher and volunteer guide, opens the cellar door and displays to a small group of visitors what most never see.
From floor to ceiling, thousands of human skulls line the walls.
"The chapel was restored between 1981 and 1983, and when they removed the floorboards, they realised there was a hollow space below," explains Ruffiner.
Hidden behind false walls
The skulls and a collection of religious statues were so cleverly hidden behind a series of false walls and cabinets that the restorers thought the room was nothing more than a cavity.
"The authorities thought the space could be used to house a community centre," Ruffiner says. "When they suddenly wanted to remove a cabinet placed against a back wall, they discovered a room full of human skulls, thousands of human skulls!"
The skulls completely cover the wall, which is nearly 20 metres long and three metres high - and the pile is about two and a half metres deep. Every cubic metre contains about 400 skulls.
There are many theories on why the skulls are there, but the people who hid them so well most likely ensured that all evidence and records of the secret room's existence were destroyed.
Bullet holes in skulls
"The cemetery may have been dug up at one time and the skulls then kept here," says Ruffiner. He then points to the number of skulls pierced by what could be bullet holes. "There is also the theory that they could be the skulls from the soldiers killed in the Battle of Pfyn in 1798, when the German-speaking communities of the Valais fought against the French."
Ruffiner suggests that the rooms may have been concealed during the Reformation, to protect the skulls and statues from the fury of the iconoclasts.
The sheer number of skulls makes it easy to overlook a well-preserved dance of death fresco, and a life size representation of the crucifix. In the former, knights and bishops vainly attempt to buy their way out of death, and the latter is marked by large clumps of blood carved out of the wooden sculpture.
A few of the other statues found in the charnel house are now on display in the restored church above.
Ruffiner says the church restoration and discovery of the charnel house have encouraged residents to preserve the many faded patrician houses in the village, and to save the Episcopal Palace from ruin.
The palace was once the summer residence of the Bishop of Sion, and restoration work is due to begin next March. The plans of the star Swiss architect, Mario Botta, to convert it into a cultural centre include a glass dome rising out of the tower.
Visitors climbing to the top will be able to enjoy splendid views of the Rhone Valley, and it is also designed to make the castle more of a landmark, which Leuk officials say will attract more people to the village.
by Dale Bechtel