Capital of the canton of Valais, just down the A9 motorway from Sepp Blatter’s home village of Visp, French-speaking Sion is nestled in the mountains, halfway between the Matterhorn and Lake Geneva.
Here hardy FC Sion, kitted out in the 13 stars and bright red livery of their canton, have survived thanks to controversial club president Christian Constantin and a knack for winning the Swiss Cup – even when in the second division.
The club had occupied a mid-table spot in the top flight for most of the post-war period before a purple patch in the 1990s. The title win of 1992 was repeated in 1997, Constantin taking over from the retiring André Luisier as president in between.
Sion were about to go under when Constantin, an architect from nearby Martigny and former goalkeeper with Lugano, returned as owner in 2003. Sacking coaches every other week, stepping in to do the job himself, signing unsignable players and fielding the ineligible, Constantin has made many enemies but Sion have been top flight since 2006 and regular competitors in Europe.
As for the cup, little Sion won each of the 13 cup finals they appeared in, including the 3-0 demolition of mighty FC Basel, in Basel, in 2015. A reversal of the same scoreline, against the same opposition, in 2017 ended Sion’s remarkable run.
With no immediate rivals – although it’s always good to beat Servette – FC Sion attract regional as much as local patriotism. The population of Sion is only just twice that of the Stade de Tourbillon, just over a narrow stretch of the Rhône, so many head in from around the canton, taking advantage of the A9 motorway also alongside.
Given its relative inaccessibility from German-speaking Switzerland, however, Sion has rarely staged a full international. A 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica was the most recent, in 2010 – and not even before a full house.
More regular is the pre-season Valais Cup, played for the third time in 2015 and attracting the likes of Benfica, Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto.
The nearest airport to Sion is Geneva Cointrin International 160km (100 miles) away. A direct train runs from Genève-Aéroport to Sion (every 30min, 2hr journey time, SF26 single). Trains from Bern, Basel and Zürich, including Zürich airport, require a change in Visp.
Sion’s adjacent bus and train stations are strolling distance from the walkable town centre.
Public transport consists of buses, singles SF2.70 from the driver.
Sion has three three-star hotels, all in the town centre.
The old-school Castel, closest to the stadium, has standard doubles from SF160. Also nearby and also with its own restaurant, the Hôtel du Rhône Sion is quiet and comfortable. Slightly near the station, the Hôtel-Restaurant Elite has special offers in the run-up to Christmas.
Also close to the stadium but on the opposite side of the A9 motorway from town, the more recently opened ibis Sion Est fills a gap in the market with 71 two-star rooms.
For a budget stay in town, the main option out of winter is the youth hostel, a short walk from the train station. Along with four-bed dorms, it has five rooms with two beds and two with two beds and private facilities. Check-in starts at 5pm. A SF20 deposit is returned on check-out (8am-10am).
An alternative all year round, also close to the station, is La Pension du Vieux-Canal (chemin du Vieux-Canal, +41 27 322 7200, +41 79 947 0398), with a dozen simple rooms.
Surrounded by vineyards, Sion drinks local Walliser/Valaisanne beer by the bucketload.
In town, bars surround the place du Midi, including Café de la Place (No.31), Le Brésilien with TV sport and, also with football action, old-school Au Boulevard. In summer, their terraces merge in the Valais sunshine.
Also close to the square, opened by sponsors of FC Sion, the Dugout is a standard sports bar with TVs ranged over the bar counter and tables outside in nice weather.
The most established football spot in town, though, is Au Poker on avenue de la Gare. With a classic bar interior decked out in Sion line-ups over the seasons, some of them autographed, Au Poker also provides a large screen for match coverage. Note also the regularly updated league ladder. A back terrace and front extension come into their own on big-game days.
Party-minded Saint James is more club than bar, with DJ nights and late-opening hours.