Life in Switzerland, Part 1 – Cows

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… 🤗🎆👍

Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial, Saint-Avold, Moselle, France

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.”

Wikipedia


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).

Evolène, Val d’Hérens, Valais, Switzerland

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.

If you would like to see an example of what we all missed, here’s a post of the Mid-summer Festival from 2016.

Note that the last two images, courtesy of Wiki, position Evolène on the map of Switzerland and the canton of Valais and give some facts and figures about the Commune – just in case you wondered… 😊

Swiss Trip to the North (part 4)

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! 🥵+🍺=😋

Swiss Trip to the North (part 3)

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.

Swiss Trip to the North (part 1)

Back in April, Jude and I were due to go to Basel, to see an Edward Hopper exhibition. But this, of course, had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, museums, hotels and restaurants have now re-opened in Switzerland, so we decided to re-book our trip.

In addition, we hope to visit every canton in Switzerland and see some of the many delights the country has to offer. So we decided to include a couple of nights in Schaffhausen, to see the famous Rhine Falls, which are the largest in Europe. But more of them later…

After driving directly to Basel and checking in to our accommodation, we had just enough time to visit the Kunstmuseum, which also has an excellent collection of artwork on show.

As you will see from my selection of photos below, I often find the detail of some paintings more fascinating than the overall images themselves! For example, I was particularly amused by the 3 tiny people standing on the glacier in the painting of the Finsteraarhorn by Kaspar Wolf. (See pic no. 7). It looks like one of them might be waving. Kaspar obviously had a great sense of humour as the 3 people sitting on the rock in the next painting look incredibly relaxed for such a precarious position.

Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, England, UK

Let me take you back to 1995, if not a little earlier than that, when my mate Colin and I had the ‘idea’ to do the English Coast to Coast walk, created and made famous by the great Alfred Wainwright, from St. Bee’s in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. Our plan was to run the 182 mile (293km) route in relay, over the space of 4 days, with one person on the route and the other driving a car to a prearranged changeover point. This way we could travel light, leaving the rest of our gear in the boot of the car, and we’d overnight in B&Bs or, preferably, Inns. 🍻👍😊

But we soon realised that there was a flaw in our grand idea – What if one of us got lost or was injured? (Remember, this was when mobile phones were still evolving even into those early ‘bricks’). Answer therefore: Recruit another two mates, called Pete and Tim, so that we’d have 2 on each leg, for a second opinion on any tricky route finding and someone to run for help, just in case. So it was that the 4 of us lined up in traditional fashion, with our toes dipped in the Irish Sea in April 1995. (See pic 1).

The event went so well, the following year we did the Offa’s Dyke Path (this time with Liam included) and in 1997, the West Highland Way (in 2 days). These were followed by The Wold’s Way (1998), where Dave was added to our happy band of runners, the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path (1999) and a trip to southern Ireland in 2000, to do parts of the Dingle Way and Beara Way, plus a hike up to the top of Carrantuohill (which scared the living daylights out of Pete. It was only then that we discovered he suffered from vertigo).

Wind forward a few more years and, after St Cuthbert’s Way (2005), Glyndwrs Way (2007) and the Dales Way (2009), in 2010 we decided to re-visit the best route of them all – the Coast to Coast (C2C). But this time in a more leisurely 5 days (well, we were 15 years older) and with all 6 of us present. (Pic 2).

Below, we have a small selection of my photos from that event. But, because we were doing it in relay format, even after doing the C2C twice I still haven’t done it all. Due to the way we rotate the groupings each day and the different stopover points, some of the legs I covered the second time around were the same or similar to the first and I still haven’t had the joy of bog-hopping near Nine Standards Rigg. (Or maybe, as one of the main organisers of these events, I deliberately avoided that leg? 😉)

Abbotsbury to Dorchester Walk (Day 7)

On Day 7, Pete caught the bus and train back home, but I had an extra day before flying back to Geneva.  My plan was to walk part of the South Dorset Ridgeway then turn north to Dorchester.  But it was soon obvious that the weather and, more importantly, the state of the paths, (see pic 3), would determine the best way forward.   I figured, after all, I was there to enjoy myself and not slip and slide ankle deep in mud.

A quick look at the map showed a very direct route along quiet roads and paths and so that became Plan B – especially as it went through the delightfully named Martinstown or Winterbourne St Martin, where there was a pub. 😊  I arrived there a little early so I explored the church before spending an hour or so drying out in front of a roaring fire and chatting to the locals.  That included a 95 year old gentleman who walked in shortly after me (completely unaided by an stick or other support) and quipped “You’ve got to get up early to be the first in this pub!”  He was a great character, who’d been in the RAF. He told me his home was flooded just before Christmas and he was living temporarily in a rented cottage nearby.  He hoped to be back in his house sometime during April.

The route also took me past the Hardy Monument on the top of Black Down, where there’s a 360 degree viewpoint – on a clear day of course.  (See pic 8).   I should explain that this ‘Hardy’ was not the Dorchester writer, Thomas Hardy, famous for his Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. (I’ve never read any of these by the way, Pete told me… You can learn all sorts of things on these trips…!)  The monument was built in memory of another local hero, the Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy (1769 – 1839), who was Captain of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805).  Almost any British school boy or girl will tell you, as Vice-admiral Horatio Nelson lay dying, he uttered the immortal words: “Kiss me Hardy”.

That brings us to the end of my UK trip.  I hope you have enjoyed the series.  The sun is now shining brightly in the Val d’Hérens, so I hope to bring you some more Swiss pictures in the next few days. 😊

 

South West Coast Path, Day 6, Weymouth to Abbotsbury

I mentioned on Day 1 that there were 2 reasons why Pete had chosen to do this part of the SW Coast Path and the second reason was that the first ever ‘proper’ book that he’d read as a young boy was called Moonfleet, which was set in this area of the country.  It was written by John Meade Falkner in 1898 and is a tale of adventure, smuggling and a search for Blackbeard’s lost diamond.  But overall it’s a story of loyalty and a great friendship between the two main characters, John Trenchard and Elzevir Block.

Pete had sent me a copy of the book just before Christmas for me to read as ‘homework’ before our trip and I’m glad he did, as it really added to the enjoyment of our walk.  The Old Fleet church is featured in the book, as is the Moonfleet Manor.  There is even an Inn in the book called the Why Not? (and Why Not? indeed, I always say 😉).

Pete and I also met up with two of his old University pals, Jacky and Alan, who now live in Dorchester.  We met them and their dog at the Moonfleet Manor and they walked a section of the route with us.