On Tuesday, Jude and I took a trip down to Switzerland’s largest lake, Lac Léman or Lake Geneva. We parked up in Villeneuve, which lies at the eastern end and walked along the lakeside towards Montreux. Along the way is one of Switzerland’s “Top 10” tourist sites, the Château de Chillon.
The site began as a Roman outpost, to guard the route through the alpine passes, but construction started in the 10th century. As you can imagine it has an interesting history and you can read all about it here.
Equally interesting are the legends which surround the small island seen in picture 4. Surprisingly (to me anyway) it’s the only natural island in the lake, Technically it’s called the Île de Peilz but, being British, I like the story about it being given as a gift to Queen Victoria when she visited the region. A tree was planted on the island and it’s known as Queen Victoria’s tree. For more legends and even a video of the tree please click here.
Note that the first two images below were taken near Ollon, on our way to the lake.
Warning: Routes on maps and weather forecasts can be misleading…
Regarding the first point – when I looked at the map, this appeared to be just a ‘simple’ circular walk through the vineyards from and to St-Pierre-de-Clages. (Don’t ask me why they have the hyphens in there, but they do). The Swiss mobile app said it was ‘only’ 10km (6 miles) long, with 420m (1,378 ft) of ascent. But, in the event, it turned out to be an extremely varied walk with quite a stiff climb out of the valley.
On the second point – it was supposed to be wall to wall sunshine… Ever the optimist, I hoped the clouds would clear as the day progressed, but I was sadly disappointed. 🙁 My apologies therefore for the poor quality of the images below.
The walk did start through the vineyards, heading towards the huge rockface which looms over the valley. There I met a lady who asked me if I’d come to spot the birds. (Well, we were standing next to an information board showing the birds that we might see in the area). After explaining that I was just there to do this walk, she told me she was on the look out for a ‘bruant fou’ or rock bunting. There were 4 or 5 other ‘twitchers’ around too, with their long lenses and binoculars, (see pic 7). Though I couldn’t quite see why they were getting so excited about this little bird, which is quite common I’m sure. E.g. Jude and I saw them just a few weeks ago on our walk along the Bisse de Clavau. (The information board also suggested that they might be there all year round, however…)
After a short detour to explore the ‘tunnel’ seen in pics 3-7, the track/path began to rise up and above the village of Chamoson. Eventually it levelled off and I had an unexpected surprise when I discovered that the path ran alongside the Bisse de Poteu. (So that’s another bisse ticked off my list!)
From there the route dropped down to run alongside the River Losentse. Now I’d like to say that Swiss rivers are very pretty, but that is not often the case (in the Valais anyway). Indeed, following huge storms and mudslides in both 2018 and, especially, 2019, the Losentse has gouged out the hillside, creating what can only be described as a huge, grey mess. So it came as no surprise when the bridge, which I was supposed to cross, had disappeared completely. (See pic 20). There was an easy alternative down the left hand side of the river, but I was still half-heartedly wondering if I could get across to follow the official route, when I noticed the makeshift plank. (Again, see pic 20 if you haven’t already spotted it).
Once back on track, the route meandered down through Chamoson, where I took a quick peak inside the church, before descending through the vineyards to St-Pierre-de-Clages. All things considered it was an interesting walk, which I’ll have to repeat in the summer or autumn when the vines are fully grown and, preferably when the sun is shining!
In case you’ve been wondering, Du Cep à la Cime translates as From Vine to the Peak and is one of the official ‘local’ routes, no. 177 (more info. found here). There are information boards all the way along the route, giving details of e.g. the geology, the birds and, of course, wine production in the area.
Following on from my post yesterday… When I reached Sion, I had just missed the 14:10 bus back to Evolène (by about 20 minutes). This meant I had a good hour and a half to wait before the next one. So what was a person to do with all the bars and cafés closed? Answer: Take a wander around the town and, in particular, walk up to the Valere Basilica and Chateau de Tourbillon, which were also closed, but both give fabulous views of each other as well as up and down the Rhone valley.
You do see some weird and wonderful things though while wandering around. I forgot to mention yesterday that I saw a man not just taking his dog for a walk but his cat as well! (It looked like a Siamese to me, but I could be wrong and it wasn’t even on a lead). And then as I descended from taking picture 7 below, I saw a man walking backwards up a small slope, lifting his feet quite deliberately as he did so. I hadn’t realised until I looked closely at picture 8 that I’d caught him ‘in action’. As we say in Yorkshire (and Lancashire), “There’s nowt so queer as folk!”
In an attempt to get away from snow-covered paths (if not sub-zero temperatures), yesterday Jude dropped me off down in Sion to do another pair of the very many bisse* walks which snake around the sides of the Rhone valley. This walk is route 212 on the Swissmobile app, though I did it in reverse, starting at the Pont de la Morge and heading up towards the village of Drône. Since I planned to catch the bus back home, I extended the walk to descend into Sion, which also took me along a very short section of the (previously posted) Bisse de Clavau.
As you will see from the gallery below, the route gives excellent views both up and down the Rhone valley as it meanders through the vineyards. I was pleasantly surprised how many birds there were flitting around. Although they are not great photos, (my camera doesn’t do zoom very well), I did manage to capture a couple of Rock Buntings and a pair of European Nuthatches (though I’ve only included a picture of one of them). Both pictures, 14 and 16, are heavily cropped, so a little blurred.
In addition, you know when you get that feeling that you are being watched? Well, I just happened to turn my head to the side during my descent from Drône and there in the field was a Roe deer. I edged forward to get a clearer view and clicked the camera straight away and I was glad I did, as it turned and ran off almost immediately. (The picture, 28, below is also cropped, otherwise you might not have seen it!)
Last but not least, I should highlight the rather rickety looking monorail, in pics 32 and 33. These are used to collect the grapes in the autumn. As you will see, some of the terracing is very steep and this saves them lugging huge quantities of grapes back to the lanes which run through the vineyards. It looks quite a precarious piece of kit and I’m not sure I’d want to be perched on that seat as it goes up and down!
*Regular readers will of course remember that ‘bisses’ are irrigation channels, built to bring water to the fields – in this case the many vineyards which blanket the south facing slopes.
When I got back to the car park after my walk up Bella Lui, I thought I’d have a quick look at the Bisse du Ro. I wasn’t planning on doing the whole route, of 5 km (3 miles) there and 5 km (3 miles) back, but there was a sign at the start saying it was closed in 2 km (1.25 miles), so I thought I’d do what I could.
This of course meant that if I had been able to continue on my intended route over Bella Lui and down the path from the Col de l’Arpochey, I would have been stuck on the other side of whatever blockage there was. So it was a good job I did turn around when I did. 😊
As you will see, it’s not a route recommended for anyone with vertigo!
For some time I’ve thought about describing some of the ‘nuances’ of an expat living in Switzerland, but never quite got around to it. (It’s amazing what self-isolation can do to you!*) So here is the first in a series, which may run and run, depending upon what life here throws at me (and Jude) during the year. I hope you will find it interesting, or at least a little different to life wherever you may be. 😊
Regular readers may recall that we live in a small village, called Evolène, which lies at almost 1,400m or 4,600ft in the Val d’Hérens in the southern part of Switzerland. We describe it as authentic, as the traditions that have gone on for eons are still continuing today. In particular the Val d’Hérens breed of cow is almost revered around here (quite rightly of course), due to its uniqueness.
There are several small farms in and around the 6 villages at the top of the valley (the other 5 are Les Haudères, Villa, La Sage, La Forclaz and Arolla) and each farmer has only around 8 to 12 cows. (This compares with about 100 per typical farm in the UK). In the winter, since we’re under 1 to 2 feet of snow for most of the time, the cows are kept in their sheds until the Spring/early Summer.
Sometime in June, when there’s a spell of good dry weather, the farmers will come to cut the grass in the fields. The whole of the Commune is divided up into hundreds of small plots, each legally owned by different people, but it seems each farmer ‘owns’ the right to cut the grass on many different plots. Rather curiously, these plots are not always adjacent to each other, so it can lead to a sort of patchwork of cut/not cut grass. (See pic 6 below).
Every year, 2 ladies come with their grass cutter, go through our small field and cut the grass in the 4 plots below. The total size of these 4 plots is only about 20 yards by 70 yards (max). So it’s farming on a small scale by anyone’s standards. How many plots these 2 ladies cut altogether, is a mystery. When these ladies came the very first time, just after we’d moved in, we thought we must have upset the locals as they disappeared without touching our grass. We needn’t have worried as our plot is used by another famer…
Almost exactly 2 weeks later, Johan, the farmer who lives just below us, comes to cut the grass in our field and many of the other plots around and about the neighbouring chalets. The grass is then left for a day, before being turned or tossed around by a sort of spinning machine (and/or by hand) and a day later it’s ‘rowed up’ to be scooped up into the back of a truck. Every little blade of useful hay is gathered up by 2, sometimes 3, helpers raking into line any stray bits which have escaped or were not rowed correctly. Below are a few pictures of the machines and farmers in action on various plots in the valley.
At the end of June, once the snow has disappeared from what’s known as the ‘alpage’ (i.e. that area of lush meadow between the higher villages and the rocky mountain tops), the cows are all taken up to graze for the summer. This is known locally as the Inalp or transhumance, which I joined in with once and blogged about here.
At the end of September, all the cows are brought back down to their respective farms to get ready for the winter again. However, there are often several days of glorious sunshine to be had. So the farmers, Johan again in this case, places an electric wire or fence around the fields he uses and then brings the cows up for the day – usually around 10am. (The sun has reached the fields by then). Around 4pm, he, or someone from his family, then leads them back to the sheds.
All of this brings me neatly to this video of the cows arriving for the day and crossing our small field. (I would call it a garden but we enjoy the cows coming so much, we have resisted the temptation to ‘do something with it’ and have left it in the capable hands of the farmer to use. 😊
*Footnote: Our 10 day isolation period ends today (though I understand the UK has now been taken off the Swiss ‘red list’!) Glorious weather is forecast for the next few days, so ‘normal service’ will resume tomorrow… 🤗🎆👍
On our way to the coast to catch the ferry to the UK, Jude and I pulled off the motorway to take a look at the American war cemetery and memorial at Saint-Avold. It’s a moving sight to see 10,489 headstones laid out so neatly, row after row after row. There are also another 444 names of those ‘missing in action’ etched onto 2 large tablets either side of the main memorial. We owe every single one of them a huge debt.
“Those interred at the Lorraine American Cemetery died mostly in the autumn of 1944 during the Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine as the Americans sought to expel the Germans from fortress city of Metz and advance on the Siegfried Line during the latter stages of world War II. They were mainly part of the U.S. Third and Seventh Armies.
In the late 1940s many bodies from the Saint Avold region were repatriated to the US or concentrated at Lorraine.”
It’s difficult to reflect the size of the cemetery in a few photos, so I’ve added a video at the end (muted because there was a lot of wind noise).
The 15th August is normally the date when the Mid-summer Festival takes place in our village. But this year, for obvious reasons, it was cancelled. So we were not treated to the helicopter rescue of the dummy which had fallen (or was he pushed?) off the rockface, nor the stream of vintage cars. And the usual procession, of the villagers demonstrating the traditional arts and crafts, will have to wait until next year.
So, I decided to have a wander through the village and take some photos to show you what our village looks like during the summer. Normally the main street would be packed from one end to the other but, this year, there were just the usual weekend and holiday visitors. It was also nice to see the locals dressed in their traditional costumes, simply relaxing and enjoying some time with their families.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s nothing my wife enjoys more than being on a boat. So when she discovered that you could take a boat up the river to one of, if not, THE best preserved medieval towns in Switzerland, it had to be done, even if it did involve wearing a mask en route.
Above the town sits Hohenklingen Castle. We hadn’t planned to visit it, but when we discovered there wasn’t a return boat at 15:30 and the next one was at 5pm, well… It’s only a 200m/650ft climb and there is a café/restaurant at the top so, it just had to be done. It was worth every step of the way though for the views from the top of the tower – and the refreshing beer of course! 🥵+🍺=😋
For the second half of our holiday, we drove over to Schaffhausen, primarily to see the Rhine Falls – but more of them later…
On the way we stopped off at a small village called Kaiserstuhl, which sits on the Swiss side of the Rhine and border with Germany. So we took great delight in walking over the bridge into a different country. Indeed, although we had planned to stay wholly in Switzerland during our trip, we were encouraged by not being challenged at gunpoint on the border (in fact we saw nobody), so we decided to take the direct route to Schaffhausen from there. This involved going into or, rather, through Germany not once, but twice. (Such is the weird shape of the border in that area, that there is even a small German enclave completely inside Switzerland, called Büsingen am Hochrhein). Maybe it was because we crossed the borders at lunchtime, but we didn’t get stopped once.
Having checked in to our hotel, we again went for a wander around the town. I can certainly recommend a visit and I hope my pictures do justice to both of the locations we visited.
Interesting footnote: Although Switzerland was not directly involved in the 2nd World War, Schaffhausen and the building in the last photo in particular, was bombed on 1st April 1944. This was apparently due to a navigational error, caused by bad weather conditions. Wiki says that it was mistaken for Ludwigshafen am Rhein, as it sits on the north side of the Rhine. Four million dollars were paid in restitution and, the writing on the front indicates that, the building was rebuilt in 1945.