With a certain festive period approaching, Jude and I took ourselves off to Zurich for a few days to find some ‘different’ presents. I’d been there before to run the marathon, but I hadn’t really had time to explore the city and I have to say that we were both very impressed with how organised and quiet it was. It was more like a large village than a big city. It was also nice to see the wooden Christmas market stalls and the streets decorated with more lights than you could ever count.
Grass plays a very important part in the lifecycle of the mountains. It’s around this time of year that the farmers take their second cut to feed the animals during the long cold winter. And, of course, where there is grass, you will often find an abundance of tiny creatures, which leap out of your way as you walk along the paths. Below are just some of the grasshoppers and crickets that I managed to capture. (They are devilishly quick at jumping out of the way when you approach with a camera).
I’m often asked what’s the difference between a cricket and a grasshopper and the answer is that, in general, crickets have very long antennae, whereas the grasshopper’s are quite short. The same sort of distinction can be made between moths and butterflies where, again in general, the latter have a sort of bulb at the end of their antennae, while moths don’t and theirs can be more feathery or saw-edged.
As you may know, I like to educate as well as entertain, so…
Transhumance – what is it? It’s a word that I’d certainly never come across in all my long years until my very learned friend, Pete, told me about it. Dictionary.com defines it as:
“the seasonal migration of livestock, and the people who tend them, between lowlands and adjacent mountains.”
Although a noun, it’s derived from the French verb transhumer – to shift ground, which itself is modelled on the Spanish, trashumar.
This activity takes place in our local villages twice a year, but I’ve never got involved until yesterday, when I accepted an open invitation from Marius of the Ferme de Clos Lombard to accompany his cows up to the meadows near Lac d’Arbey.
The cows spend most of the winter down in the valley inside their sheds, only coming out if and when the weather allows. So you can imagine their joy at spending the summer on the open fields high on the alpage (that’s the verdant area of open land between the valley and the high, rocky mountain peaks).
After setting off through the village and briefly along the road to Lannaz, the procession of cows and people took to the path up to the far side of Lac d’Arbey. About half way, there was a short pause for the cows, and some of the people I might add, to catch their breath. (I know how they feel after a winter of inactivity!) Two or three (cows that is) made bids for early freedom, but they were soon brought back into line by the helpful followers. And then finally, after a few more short breaks, we all arrived at the lake where not only the cows took to wading in…
As you may know, I like to bring you something new on this site, ideally with a little bit of knowledge or information, so, today, I will introduce you to two of the fifty or so bisses in the Valais region of Switzerland. As the Valais website says:
A bisse is an open ditch delivering priceless water from mountain streams – often by daring routes – to arid pastures and fields, vineyards and orchards. Many bisses are still in use today and so are carefully maintained. Numerous trails accompany these historic watercourses, inviting visitors to varied hikes on historic trails.
I should add that some of them were built as early as the 13th century and they vary from simple ditches, to wooden or metal troughs and even through solid rock sometimes (as you will see below).
Now, I’ve been meaning to walk one of these routes for a while and, since they tend to be at a relatively low level (in this case around 1400 metres / 4,600 ft) they are currently free of snow. Looking at the map, I decided to take the Postbus up to Haute Nendaz, then walk south along the Bisse Vieux before following the Grand Bisse de Vex all the way around to Héremence. From there I took the footpath down to Euseigne to catch the Postbus back home. In total it was a distance of 25.5 km or 16 miles, though, of course, the going was either gently ascending or descending alongside the bisses.
Along the way I was initially disappointed with the number of flowers and butterflies on view, though that soon picked up as I rounded the corner into the Val d’Hérens. There I spotted a Comma butterfly (or two) for the first time ever and several ‘new’ flowers, which unfortunately I haven’t yet found (or had the time to find) in my Alpine flower book.
My apologies for posting so many pictures, but it was hard to decide which to leave out. I hope they give you a good feel for the many and varied things you can see on the walk(s).
Every two years, our village plays host to the CIME (Célébration Interculturelles de la Montagne, Evolène) festival, where musicians and dancers from different mountain areas around the world come to perform and make friends. This year, there were representatives from Russia (Urals), Poland (Tatras), Uganda (Rwenzori), Spain (Montserrat), India (Mont Girnar) and Bolivia (Andes). As well as impromptu shows in the local villages and organised evening performances over the 5 days, the Festival ends on the day of Assumption (15th August) with a procession through the village of the performers inter-mingled with local people in their traditional Val d’Hérens costumes.
Last Tuesday (1st August) was Swiss National Day. In Saas Grund, the traditional procession wasn’t due to start until 4pm, so I hoped to be back from my walk in time to watch it go by. I’d planned to go over the Ofental Pass into Italy, then along a (quite precipitous) ridge and return down the Furggtall valley. However, when I got off the Postbus at Mattmark, the wind was blowing a gale (which isn’t good if you plan to be exposed on a ridge) and I could see the distant mountains were engulfed in clouds. (See pics 1 and 2 for the contrast in weather). So, a re-think was required, and a quick scan of the map revealed a nice walk, with a 671m / 2,200 ft climb, to the Schwartzbergchopf.
On the way, the signposts also said it was the way to the Britannia Hut. But, to get there, I knew that you had to cross a glacier (or two in fact) but I didn’t think I was equipped to take on that challenge. At least that was until I saw several other groups coming the other way (including a family with 2 young children) without ropes or crampons or a guide… After catching up with a group just above the glacier, a very nice lady explained that it was perfectly safe to cross as long as you followed the blue posts which had been placed at around 30m/yard intervals. She even pointed out a group of walkers who were already crossing, (see pic 10).
Now, regular readers will know that I have already been across a glacier (twice) with my mate Pete. (Indeed I’ve walked up the Aletsch glacier – but that was with crampons and a guide!) But this seemed different somehow… Anyway, my concerns were unfounded, as there were no gaping chasms (aka crevasses) for me to fall into and there was quite a re-assuring crunch underfoot as I stepped across. To my surprise, (and relief after our experiences last year), despite there being some meltwater running down the glacier, it was not slippery at all.
From the Britannia Hut there was a third glacier to cross (also waymarked) before I took the path to Plattjen, where I caught the gondola lift back down to Saas Fee and, from there, walked to Saas Grund, just in time to catch the procession. 😊
The main reason for travelling over to Scotland again this year was to attend Hannah’s wedding. Hannah is the younger daughter of Judith’s great friend Kate. She and her husband, Geoff, are the owners of the award winning Waterside Café in Lochcarron. (More about there in a later post).
The whole of the wedding day went beautifully, with traditional Scottish dress in evidence. During the ceremony, the rings were delivered to the front by a Great Grey Owl – a magnificent creature, especially when viewed close up. (Sorry about the poor photo, but it kept moving its head!) Mike is an aspiring film actor, so there was a Hollywood theme to the reception.
Although I’ve posted photos of this event before, they were not taken in the relatively new Hérens Arena which, I have to say, is perfect for watching this magnificent spectacle. The Val d’Hérens cows naturally ‘fight’ by either psyching the opposition out, so that they walk away, or by locking horns and pushing each other until one gives way. This can take anywhere from a few seconds to 20 minutes, but the top 7 in each category are awarded a fabulous cowbell. (I should add that apart from the occasional bloody nose, the cows are very, VERY rarely harmed during this competition).
The categories are defined either by the age of the cows or by their weight – with Category III being from 529 to 623 Kg, Category II from 624 to 684 Kg and the Category I from 686 to 815 Kg (which is about 108 to 128 stones or 3/4’s of a US ton).
It’s still a bit of a mystery to me how they whittle down the 16 or so starters (in each Category ‘final’) to the eventual winners, as it all seems a bit haphazard to start with. But it’s a very social occasion and, today, it was very nice to see some local farmers walking away with many of the prizes. Congratulations to Antoine, Jean-Paul, Johann and Marius. 🙂
It seems the whole of the Valais has descended upon our village today, as it’s the last weekend of the Carnaval. There’s a real party atmosphere, with stalls, lots of drinking (of course) and a band playing, though some of you may be alarmed at the fairly gruesome images to follow. The masks are designed to scare away the evil winter spirits, but they can also have that effect on some young children too. As you will see from one of the images – the figures are only human, so don’t have nightmares – especially over pictures 4 and 5 ! 😉
For info, the masks are all made out of wood and hand carved and painted by local sculptor Hugo Beytrison. He also creates incredibly intricate wooden sculptures of birds and animals from huge tree trunks with a chain saw!
For the past week or so, Jude and I have foresaken the glorious sunshine in Switzerland for a beach holiday in Gozo. Our flights to Malta landed late in the day and returned early, so our week on Gozo was sandwiched between 2 separate nights on Malta – one in Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsashlock) and one in the capital, Valletta.
I’m not sure why, but I’d imagined the islands to be green and fertile. It was only when I noticed on the map they were further south than Tunis that I realised the land would be dry and barren. Though somehow they do manage to grow grapes to make some very acceptable local wines. The San Blas beer wasn’t too bad either ! 🙂
Apart from the over-crowded roads on Malta (the highest density of cars per capita in Europe I gather), our lasting impressions will be of the crystal clear blue waters, the quality of the restaurants and the many, huge churches. The biggest, in Xewkija (pronounced Shookeeya) was only built between 1951 and 1970 and has a dome larger than St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It has an internal diameter of 27 metres, a circumference of 85 metres and weighs 45,000 tons. It was so big inside I couldn’t fit it into just one picture. Also, the old church, upon whose site it now stands, was dismantled and rebuilt brick by brick inside the back of the new building.
Valetta was the highlight of Malta, with its grid of narrow streets, its history and many ancient buildings.