The criminal who inspired a new currency
As my train travelled through the mountainous Rhône Valley in southern Switzerland, it was plain to see what this region is known for. Terraced vineyards carpeted the slopes, while fruit trees covered the valley floor: apple, pear and especially apricot, from which the area makes its famous schnapps, Abricotine.
The people in the Swiss canton of Valais are rightly proud of their home-grown products. And so it’s perhaps no surprise that they are now embracing a home-grown way to buy them.
In May 2017, a group of Valais residents launched a new regional currency. Like the UK’s Bristol pound and the the Franco-Spanish Basque region's Eusko, it’s a complementary rather than replacement currency. Its banknotes are worth the same as Swiss francs – the country’s official currency – but can only be spent in participating businesses in the Valais, which so far includes more than 150 restaurants, artisans, farm shops and wineries.
It’s a local initiative, backed by local people, that aims to boost the local economy, so it is apt that it’s been given a name with such local meaning: Farinet.
The name Farinet is common in Valais towns: it’s a restaurant in Crans-Montana, a pub in Champéry, and an après-ski bar in Verbier where skiers dance on tables in their thermals.
Tourists may not realise its significance, but locals know that all those popular nightspots are so called because their namesake, Joseph-Samuel Farinet, probably would have enjoyed dancing on tables himself.
A roguish charmer, a lover of wine and women and an escaped convict, Farinet was a 19th-Century counterfeiter and a legend in these parts, even if the myth that now surrounds him is more colourful than the reality.
After fleeing from authorities in his native Italy where he was wanted on counterfeit charges, Farinet arrived in the Valais in 1869 and once again began minting fake money – specifically, 20 centime coins dated 1850. To court favour with the poverty-stricken locals, he was generous with his forged currency, in return gaining food, shelter and protection from the authorities who pursued him. In doing so, he not only evaded capture for many years but also liberated local people from debt, something that later earned him the nickname ‘Robin Hood of the Alps’.
In 1880, at the age of 35, Farinet was finally cornered by police in a gorge above the medieval Valais village of Saillon where he fell, jumped or was possibly killed – a mysterious death that only added to the intrigue of his life.
“In Valais everyone knows this story,” said David Crettenand, a member of the committee that established the Farinet currency.
Farinet, a name that speaks to the Valaisans
Crettenand admits that naming the new currency after a notorious counterfeiter could create ambiguity, with some people asking if it’s fake, but that doesn’t bother him. He feels it’s more important that the name embodies the aims of the currency: to be rooted in the region, to foster networks between local people and to boost the local economy. “Farinet is a name that speaks to the Valaisans,” he said. “It’s very much a part of the region, and that’s the aim of the currency, to be regional.”
It’s also a name the people here take pride in, something that was obvious when I visited Saillon, where Farinet met his unfortunate end and is buried.
The legend is paraded in the village’s Museum of Counterfeit Money, which displays a copy of a court judgement convicting the famous forger, and one of his fake coins. It also explains how the man became a myth through a 1932 novel, Farinet ou la Fausse Monnaie, by Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and a 1938 film Farinet ou l’Or dans la Montagne, which romanticised the story, painting Farinet as a freedom-loving hero of the people.
In 1980, Farinet’s generous reputation inspired a group of fans calling themselves the ‘Friends of Farinet’ – among them French actor Jean-Louis Barrault, who played the counterfeiter in the film – to plant a tiny vineyard above Saillon in Farinet’s name. With only three vines, it’s registered as the smallest in the world. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in charitable spirit. The vineyard was bequeathed to the Dalai Lama in 2000, and the proceeds from its modest sales go towards helping disadvantaged children. Meanwhile the vineyard itself has become a sort of pilgrimage site for the free spirited, a place dedicated to freedom, love, peace and living the good life, values Farinet has come to embody.
Messages left over the years by visitors – including local officials and famous names – swing in the wind on colourful panels strung along a path leading up to the vines. “Better to go fishing on a bike than to a job in a Mercedes,” reads one. “If you view life as rose tinted it will become so,” says another. It’s a whimsical homage to the mythical spirit of a figure who, once hunted by the authorities, now has them leaving messages in his honour.
The rebel outsider became a local hero, so it seems fitting that the counterfeiter now has his own legal currency. He would surely be laughing in his grave.