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… 🤗🎆👍

Self-isolation in Evolène, Val d’Hérens…

Jude and I are now back home and, thankfully, over half way through our self-isolation period of 10 days. There are, of course, worse places to be holed up, but I’m feeling a bit like a caged tiger, wanting to get out and about, especially while the sun is shining and there’s not so much snow on the ground. (I’d estimate the snow line to be at around the 2,500m or 8,000ft mark).

I’ve kept myself busy by posting some of our good friend Arthur’s paintings of his time in the Comores. Click here for two examples, with 4 more to come over the next 4 days.

But, with nowhere to go and wanting to post something on this site, I decided to take a few pictures from both within and around the chalet.

Walk from Ashbourne to Alstonefield via Ilam, Peak District, England

The weather wasn’t particularly kind while we were staying in the Peak District, but I did manage to get out for another, longish walk, starting in Ashbourne and finishing at our cottage in Alstonefield. Although “The Dales” is generally taken to mean the Yorkshire Dales, there are far more Dales in the Peak District. This walk alone took in Lin Dale, Dove Dale and Hall Dale.

As I approached Mapleton (pronounced as in M’apple’ton btw), I met up with 2 gentleman and a dog, who were also walking to Ilam. I forget their names now (and my apologies to them if they are now reading this), but we had a very nice chat as we strolled along.

After bidding them farewell, (as they went for a cuppa in the café at Ilam Hall), I turned east to take in a small hill, called Thorpe Cloud (@287m or 942ft). On a fine day, I’m sure the views are wonderful. From there, I descended into Lin Dale before heading north along Dove Dale and up Hall Dale to the Watts-Russell Arms (for a more interesting refreshment. 😊)

Walk from Alstonefield to Hartington, Peak District, England

After our two weeks of ‘self-isolation’ in North Wales, Jude and I decamped across to another cottage in Alstonefield, in the Peak District National Park. There we met up with various members of our family, including my daughter, Sarah and her husband, Karl. Although the weather was a bit gloomy, we set off to do a walk to the nearby village of Hartington, following the beautiful River Dove.

The Peak District is generally considered to be (and is mostly) in Derbyshire, but I’ve just read that the River Dove forms the border between it and Staffordshire. So, as we went back and forth across the various bridges (see below), we were (unknowingly in my case) skipping between the two counties.

It’s also Sarah’s birthday today, so it’s perhaps appropriate that I should post some pictures of her. HAPPY BIRTHDAY Sarah! 🎂💐🥂😊

Mawddach Estuary, Barmouth, North Wales

It was not for nothing that (now Sir) Tom Jones sang about the Green, Green Grass of Home. Wales can be a very wet place (as you may have gathered from all the moss and lush looking fields in my previous post). So, as if to prove I’m not just a fair weather walker, here are few pictures, mainly of the Mawddach Trail (a former railway line) from Penmaenpool to Barmouth.

Saas Valley Walk, Day 4 of 4, Britannia hut to Saas Grund, Valais, Switzerland

Another blue sky day and another glacier to cross… though this time just a short 100 yards or so, before we commenced the long descent into Saas Grund. Our plan was to head for Plattjen, then traverse around the valley to Saas Fee but, at a fork in the path, a signpost indicated for us to go right, when we should have gone left and we had dropped around 300m (or 1,000ft) of height before we realised our mistake. Neither of us wanted to climb back up, so we continued along the very steep path down to Saas Almagell (much to the annoyance of Pete’s knees) before walking along the riverside path to Saas Grund.

Naturally we enjoyed a celebratory beer, before Jude arrived to pick us up and drive home. 🍻😊

Saas Valley Walk, Day 3 of 4, (part 1) Almagelleralp Berghotel to the Schwarzbergchopf, Valais, Switzerland

Pete and I have been doing multi-day events together for over 25 years – ever since we ‘ran’ Wainwright’s English Coast to Coast, in a relay format, with our good friends, Colin and Liam, in 1995. But I don’t think we’ve ever had a day as spectacular as this one. So I hope you will forgive me for splitting it into two parts. Even by my standards I took a lot of photos (almost 600) and, together with Pete’s, I couldn’t possibly pare them down to just one post.

By contrast to the mists of Day 2, we awoke to perfectly blue skies. (See pic 1). So the descent to Saas Almagell was cool, but very pleasant. And, for the first time ever, we decided to use public transport to get from there to the Mattmark reservoir. This saved our aging legs around 6 km (3.5 miles) of walking and 500m (1,650ft) of ascent, on what was already going to be a big day.

The Mattmark reservoir is one of many in the Valais, generating renewable energy for the canton – hence it’s marketing strapline of “Source d’Énergie”, which equally applies to the feeling you get when you visit this wonderful part of the world.

Tomorrow, I will bring you not just photos of Pete and I crossing the Allalin and Hohlaub glaciers, but a video or 2 as well. So stay tuned… 😊

Saas Valley Walk, Day 2 of 4, Weissmies hut to the Almagelleralp Berghotel, Valais, Switzerland

We awoke to find that the hut was shrouded in mistand visibility was down to about 20 yards. But we hadn’t been going more than 10 minutes when the clouds miraculously lifted.

We had chosen to take the less steep service track down to Kreuzboden, but we hadn’t realised that the overnight rain had swelled the stream, which the track had to cross several times. Our first crossing was OK, as there were some decent stepping stones, but we had to scramble down by the side of the stream to find two other crossing points. (As in pics 1, 4 & 8).

By the time we neared Kreuzboden the cloud had come down again, so it was with some amusement that, after we had crossed for the third time (pic 8), we noticed that there was a bridge not more than 30 yards away. (See pic 9). Oh, how we laughed!!

I was also extremely excited to find out (later of course, when I looked it up) that the Incised Bellflower, (pics 13 & 14) is described as “very rare” in my Alpine flower book, which I think is a first. In Switzerland it only occurs in the south of the Valais and in NW Ticino. (I therefore thought it deserved 2 photos. 😊)

Our plan for the day was to drop off our rucksacks at the Almageller Berghotel, where we would stay for the night* and then walk up to the Almageller mountain hut and back again. The 700m or 2,300ft of ascent/descent was certainly a lot easier without our packs.

*At the Berhotel, not only did we have a room to ourselves but, apart from the staff, we were the only people staying that night, so we had the whole place to ourselves! (This also happened on our Tour de Muverans trip a few years ago, so hiking midweek in September is certainly recommended, if you want to keep away from the crowds).

Saas Valley Walk, Day 1 of 4, Gspon to the Weissmies mountain hut, Valais, Switzerland

To set the scene… The plan for our 4 day walk was as follows:

  • Day 1: Gspon to the Weissmies hut
  • Day 2: Weissmies hut to the Berghotel at Almagelleralp, with an extension up to and back from the Almageller hut
  • Day 3: Almagelleralp to the Britannia hut
  • Day 4: Britannia hut to Saas Grund

After driving for just over an hour from our chalet to Stalden, which sits at the ‘confluence’ of the Saas and Matter valleys, (the latter being most famous for the Matterhorn), Pete and I bade farewell to my wife, Jude, and took the gondola lift up to Gspon. As an aside, we were squeezed in with about 7 other walkers and another 8 cyclists with their mountain bikes. So much for social distancing! But, thankfully, masks were compulsory (and a week later, I’m still feeling OK. 😊)

I’d read that Gspon was ‘famous’ for having the highest football pitch in Europe. It often hosts the European mountain village championships so, as keen football fans, Pete and I had to take a look. (For more info. please read here).

From Gspon the path undulated along the east side of the Saas valley, passing some tiny hamlets and a beautiful church at Finilu. Several rocks and boulder fields were safely negotiated before the final climb up to the mountain hut, where we had a room (normally sleeping up to 8 people) all to ourselves.

As you will see the weather was a little grey, but the sun did eventually come out and the small amount of rain, which was forecast for late afternoon, didn’t materialised until the evening. 👍