Walk around Lac de Montsalvens, Gruyère, Switzerland

Like many of you no doubt, Jude and I have been longing to get away for a bit of a break. The hotels in Switzerland are still open and we took advantage of a special Dinner, Bed and Breakfast offer at a hotel in the small village of Charmey.

I think it’s fair to say that the Gruyère region is more ‘chocolate box’ pretty than the more rugged Alps of the Valais, as I hope these photos show.

Walk from La Luette to Sion, Valais, Switzerland

The weather has been pretty warm across most of Central Europe for the past week or so and a few of the butterflies have come out to play. I therefore decided to take a walk down the Val d’Hérens to see what I could find.

I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t see anything along the upper path leading to Ossona, as the temperature was still only 5 degrees C (41 F). After dropping down to the river, I took a detour to take some photos of the ancient Pont Riva footbridge and was bemoaning my luck, thinking it must still be too early, when not one but two Orange Tips came along at once. Conveniently they were a male and female and they stayed still long enough to get some reasonable pictures.

I then missed two Camberwell Beauties, something brown and a large orange one, but as I got nearer to the (much warmer) Rhone valley, a lot more butterflies and a skipper appeared. I was lucky to capture the Brimstone, as most of them seemed to be taking part in some sort of long distance flight race. And, I wasn’t expecting to see a Comma this early in the year, but I spotted at least 4 in my travels.

Also, it’s funny what you see in your photographs when you go through them. If you look closely at the Pasqueflower in picture 20, you will see a small green resident. And the Comma picture (no. 44) wasn’t my best, but it also had a small creature crawling up the branch, so I decided to include that one in the gallery.

Arolla to Lac Bleu (Walk 10) in the (deep) snow

I promised in my post on Monday that I would return to do this walk with my GPS. I knew that things would be ‘interesting’ when the GPS showed I was about 10 metres to the right of the road I was walking on to get to the start. A walk, of around 4km or 2.5 miles, which would take me no more than 1h 30 mins in the summer, turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Read on…

It wasn’t long before I reached the point where I turned around last time and I discovered that the path did a quick left-right zig-zag up the hill. So far, so good, but the way ahead still wasn’t crystal clear. I spent the next hour or so picking my way through the trees, often knee deep in snow, either just to the left or just to the right of the line shown on the GPS. If I was to the left, the route below and to the right often looked easier. Then I’d look up and the route above looked better. Never mind one zig-zag, I must have zig-zagged all the way along that first section.

I came across the open area where I was worried before about an avalanche. I decided to drop down to where the trees were only 10 to 15 metres apart. Big mistake. I took one step down and my leg disappeared into a huge hole. It was like stepping off a 3 foot wall (or rock probably). I was instantly thrown forward, down the slope and started to slide. The good news was that I was going head first and so I could see that I was heading for a small bush. I grabbed a branch and this arrested my slide. The bush, or at least what’s sticking out of the snow, can be seen just below the centre of picture 8, with the hole up to the right (below the middle one of the three trees top right).

Safely on the other side, the going got much easier as the snow had been cleared by the sun – but only for about 300 to 400 metres. My next challenge was a short section which was/is ‘protected’ by a metal chain. (They normally fix these where the ground goes away steeply, or straight down, to the side). The problem was that half of the chain was still under snow and I couldn’t get it out to hold onto. So I had to kick foot holds, VERY carefully over the top. (See pics 13 and 14).

And then it got worse…

I was back in the woods, zig-zagging up and down the slopes again and the snow got deeper and deeper. I reached a gully where I could see a bridge, slightly above, which I needed to cross, but the way around to it, looked too risky. So I climbed up through the trees, thinking it would be safer to make my way across and down to it. (You may have gathered by now that turning back was not really an option as I was much nearer to Lac Bleu than Arolla).

Then I heard voices, which turned out to be a some ski-tourers coming down the gully. A guide, 30 metres (or 100ft) below, was calling to his clients. I figured that if he could get there on skis, I could get across to the bridge – and so I dropped back down to where I’d started. But getting around to the bridge proved to be the hardest challenge of all.

I kid you not, the ‘slope’ of the snow must have been at least 60 or 70 degrees. So I was trying to climb up by kicking my feet into the snow, but as soon as I put my weight on my foot, it went back down to, more or less, where it started. It must have taken me about 20 minutes to cover just 25 metres. The snow was that deep it was over the top of the sides of the bridge. So I did, literally, go ‘over’ the bridge.

After more zig-zagging through the trees, I came to another gully. And the view back down to Satarma (pic 16) looked infinitely more appealing than another 20 minutes or more working my way around to what might have been a good path to Lac Bleu and then a descent to La Gouille and Satarma. So that’s what I did, I ‘walked’ (more like, stumbled) down the snowy slope, sometimes ankle deep, sometimes knee deep and more than once up to my thighs. Twice I got myself stuck, where I couldn’t move either leg, but luckily there was a branch nearby to help haul myself upright and out.

Five hours and 45 minutes after setting off, I arrived in Satarma. My feet were wet and soggy after all the snow that had melted into my boots. I took them off, wrung out the water from my socks and put them back on before trudging, disconsolately, back up the road to Arolla. I’ve never been so pleased and relieved to finish a walk.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I avoid snowy walks for the next few weeks…

Note that the last 3 photos below were taken on the way back to Evolène.

Snowy walk around Arolla, Val d’Hérens, Switzerland

By stark contrast to the Spring-like conditions of my post yesterday, the situation up at the top end of our valley, in Arolla (@2,000m or 6,560ft) couldn’t be more different. The snow is still 60cm or 2ft deep in places and, on Sunday, the place was over-run with skiers getting their end of season fix.

My plan was to walk the last of my “Easy” walks (Walk 10) from Arolla to Lac Bleu, but I soon discovered that the path was hard to find. (Note to self – take the GPS next time!) Picture 4 below shows the signpost where I was due to turn left. I thought twice about it, but persevered. About 20 minutes later, having seen no way markers for the past 10 minutes, I gave up and came back to the same junction and went right.

This lower path was meant to be a snow-shoeing route but, again, I somehow managed to get off the official route and found myself facing a trudge across an open snow-field with a slope of at least 45 degrees from up left down to the right. Now, almost every week we hear of people dying in avalanches, so, with the sun blazing down, I wasn’t going to risk adding to that statistic and I made my way, very carefully, down to the road under the ‘cover’ of several bushes and trees.

“What now?” I thought to myself and, rather than walk back along the road, I headed across to the other side of the river and followed the snow-shoeing route, before taking a rather cheeky short cut across the cross-country piste back to Arolla. At least it gave me the chance to take some more photos for you. 😊

I shall return later this coming week, with GPS in hand, to complete Walk 10 (if I can).

Walk in the Pfyn-Finges Nature Reserve, Valais, Switzerland

On Friday Jude and I drove down to the Rhone valley to take a stroll around the Pfyn-Finges Nature Reserve. We’ve been there a few times before, most notably last year when we spotted oodles of wildlife – but then, that was in June. So we were not sure what to expect, though the sun was shining and the temperature was in the teens (55-60’s F).

As you will see below, there wasn’t a huge amount of variety, but there were loads of damselflies. Rather frustratingly, they remained just out of reach for me to get a good, crisp photograph to identify them for sure. But what the images lack in quality is made up for in quantity… 😉

Chemin du Vignoble Cycle Ride (Route 72), Valais, Switzerland

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Switzerland is criss-crossed by a huge network of numbered walking and cycling routes. Regional route no. 72 is a two stage cycle ride from Martigny to Leuk of around 82km (51 miles) and 1750m (5,740ft) of ascent. I dare say some people might be able to do that in a day but, Why rush? I say, especially when the vast majority of the route is clear of traffic and the views are, well, like below…

So it was that I decided to do just a short section of it above Sion, linking it up with the National Route 1 along the Rhone to make a somewhat less arduous and circular route of only 38.3 km (24 miles) and 830m (2,720ft) of ascent. A little bit of it overlapped with Route 140, so some of these images may look similar to my post of 2 weeks ago, but I’ve tried to find some different views, particularly of the individual snow-capped mountains (see pics 12-17).

I was also very pleased to see and to capture one of the many Queen of Spain Fritillaries, which seem to be fluttering around some of the vineyards. However, I’m afraid I cannot identify the two pink flowers in pics 7 & 8, which were also growing in between the rows of vines. So, if anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to comment.

For more information on the full 2 day Chemin du Vignoble route, please click here.

Lacs de la Corne and de la Brèche Walk, Valais, Switzerland

Yesterday, Jude and I took advantage of what might be the last drop of Spring sunshine for a while, by driving down to the Rhone valley to do a bit of bird spotting. Our route took us through the woods around 2 small lakes and alongside quite a few holes of the Sierre Golf Course.

Unfortunately we didn’t manage to get any decent shots of any of the birds but, for any enthusiasts out there, we spotted a few Goldeneyes, a pair of Mallards and a female Goosander on one of the lakes and 2 European Nuthatches, a (probably Great) Spotted Woodpecker, a Treecreeper, a Crow, a Robin and several Blue, Great and Long-tailed tits in the surrounding woods. Had I had a ‘fishing rod’ with me, I could have collected about 20 golf balls from the streams running between the course and the footpaths.

And, yes, that is a very hardy lady swimming in one of the lakes in picture 8. The air temperature couldn’t have been more than 13 degrees C (55 F) maximum, so I would imagine, after clear skies overnight, the water temperature was in single digits C (or somewhere between 32 and 48 F). We stopped nearby for lunch and saw her drying herself, like a cormorant, with arms out and facing the sun. Once dried and dressed she walked by and Jude asked her if she swam every day. She answered by saying that she tries to go in as often as she can, within the confines of her work schedule, which is about 2 or 3 times per week. Brrrr….!

Châteaux de Sion et Environs, (Route 140), Valais, Switzerland

Most of the routes that I use are derived from the SwitzerlandMobility website, which is a fantastic resource (should you ever wish to explore this fine country). Not only does it show every single walking path or track, but it also includes cycling, mountain biking, roller blading and, would you believe, canoeing routes. It’s very easy to use – just zoom in to the region you’re interested in then select the appropriate type of exercise on the left and specify whether you’d like to view the National, Regional and/or Local routes. You can also draw and download your own routes, (as I do frequently), but this requires an annual subscription of around 35 Swiss francs (35 US dollars/£30). Well worth every cent, I’d say!

So, while searching for another new route to walk, I had a quick look at the cycling options and discovered this circular, regional route (no. 140) around the villages above Sion. At 42 km (or 26 miles), it didn’t seem to be too far, for a part-time cyclist like me, though it did have 950m of ascent. The altitude profile suggested that it would be done in 2 separate climbs, with a level-ish section in between, so I thought it might not be too difficult. It was only during the drive down to Sion with my bike in the back of the car that I realised it was the equivalent of cycling back up to Evolène from Sion. (My family and friends, who have visited us, will appreciate how big a climb that is!)

Anyway, all went well as you will see from the images below. Though, try as I might, I couldn’t get the Speed Checker by the side of the road to register anything, such was the incline (see pic 18). The first climb had an average incline of 8.5% over 4.5 km and, purely in the interests of producing this post of course, I did stop frequently to take a few photos. 😊

Lastly, I should also praise the Garmin Edge, which you can see in Pic 9. I’d only used it in the past to track where I’d been and this was the first time I’d downloaded a route to follow. For something so tiny it did an amazing job, giving an alarm around 150 metres before and then at any significant change in direction and also an alarm when I went slightly off the route, plus confirming when I was back on track. 👍👍

‘New’ website…

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was working on adding all 33 of the walks I had documented to this website and now I’m pleased to announce, IT’s FINISHED!! 😊 I had wondered about waiting until 5am on 4th March ’21 to ‘launch’ it, but I just couldn’t wait that long! (I hope you see what I did there).

I’ve updated the banner photos too, to have a little more variety and added a Contact menu option – just in case anyone would like to comment or request any more information. So, please feel free to have a browse around the pages under the “Walks in the Val d’Hérens” heading – at anytime and especially if you are stuck at home and self-isolating. Just select Easy, Medium or Challenging and then click on any of the walks summarised underneath the overview map… You’ll then find a map and a gallery of photos, as well as a route description should anyone visit this area to do any of the walks themselves.

Below are a few random photos taken from the associated galleries… (I should have done a quiz and asked which walk they belonged to… Too late now of course!) I hope it showcases what a wild and naturally beautiful part of the world the Val d’Hérens is!

Your comments and feedback (especially for any improvements) are always welcome of course. 😊

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… 🤗🎆👍