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. ūüėä

Regular readers may recall that we live in a small village, called Evol√®ne, which lies at almost 1,400m or 4,600ft in the Val d’H√©rens 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’H√©rens 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 Haud√®res, 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. ūüėä

*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… ūü§óūüéÜūüĎć

Coronavirus update – a personal view from Switzerland

Over the past 15 and a half years, I have had many reasons to be thankful and very grateful that I live in Switzerland, but, perhaps, none more so than during the current Coronavirus situation.

When the outbreak started, (it was so long ago now, I forget the exact date), Switzerland was one of the first affected regions in Europe. The lockdown came very quickly, with shops closed, a limit of no more than 5 people in a group and social distancing everywhere.

I recall checking the “Worldometers” website and seeing that the Swiss were ahead of the UK, at least in terms of cases, if not number of deaths, for several days. In the most unwanted league table (unless you are an American President perhaps?) the Swiss were in the top 10 – possibly ‘peaking’ at number 4 or 5. This was not good news for a country with no more than 8.65 million inhabitants.

Wind forward a few months and, while the virus still takes its toll all around the world, based on the figures from yesterday, I see that Switzerland are now down to number 31 in terms of Total Cases. But does this relative ‘improvement’, or worsening for those now in the top 30, tell the whole story?

If you sort the table by Active Cases, the Swiss drop to number 99 with 454 cases. Though that could be as low as 103rd as it seems the UK, Spain, Netherlands and Sweden don’t declare (or maybe don’t know) the number of Active cases. (The Worldometers website simply says N/A). To put that number into context, 454 is less Active Cases than the Maldives, Norway and Australia.

And then, if we consider New Cases, at least based on the figures from yesterday, the Swiss are 123rd (equal with Zimbabwe and Cyprus), with only 3 new cases reported. In effect, the virus has been brought under control and Contact Tracing is now in place to investigate and keep on top of any new cases.

So how did they achieve this I wonder? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I would speculate that a lot of it is due to the national psyche of the Swiss. They are conditioned to follow rules. (Well, at least most people are – there are always a few in every society unfortunately). They have rules which many might find a bit silly, like, you should not make any unnecessary loud noise (like DIY drilling, strimming or playing loud music) to disturb the peace and tranquility of the neighbourhood, before 7am, between 12 noon and 1pm and after 7pm – and certainly not at anytime on a Sunday or a Public Holiday. Cars have to be washed at a dedicated facility, not on your drive or wherever. The list goes on… (I have thought I should blog about some of these rules, but it becomes a way of life…)

Unlike the UK, the nation doesn’t have to be thanked for doing well and be urged to continue to follow the government advice, it’s simply expected of everyone, by everyone. You will also never find the Swiss bragging or gloating about how well they have handled the situation, they are far too modest for that and would probably consider it rather vulgar to do so. (It would be like Roger Federer saying, “Yes, of course I am the greatest tennis player of all time!” and then repeating that in French, German and Italian, just to emphasise the point. It’s just never going to happen).

Nor will you find them today dancing in the streets and celebrating their success. They are far too cautious to think it’s all over. We are still only in the 2nd phase of the de-confinement, though the 3rd phase starts in about a week. Gatherings of more than 1,000 are still banned until the end of August and social distancing is still in place wherever you go. As I say, the Swiss like to stick to their rules and I, for one, am sincerely glad that they do and I applaud them for it. (If I had a Swiss flag icon, I would fly it proudly here – on their behalf of course!)

Below are some stats taken from the Worldometers website together with a picture of an Idas Blue butterfly which I took on Sunday. I’ve been trying to find an excuse to post it and I hope it brightens up your day! ūüėä

Mike’s Music Monday #52

Please note that this post was scheduled well before the Coronavirus outbreak, so please don’t be offended by the title of the song…¬† (I did think about swapping it for another song, but it is quite humorous in a ‘dark’ sort of way).

OK – some of you may be glad to know that this is the last in this series. (Hooray, I hear you cry).¬† I know it’s not been that popular, but it has filled in some gaps, which I may well fill this coming year with some other random posts (yet to be determined).

Anyway, for my last song, it seemed appropriate to play this one by Just Jack, called the Day I Died.¬† I had the pleasure of watching Just Jack live at the D Club in Lausanne some years ago.¬† He introduced this as a ‘happy song’, so who am I to argue.¬† Whatever, I think the lyrics and video are superb.¬† (In case you didn’t know Just Jack (Allsop) appears at the end of the video, as the medic who shakes his head).

 

Southern Finland

The remainder of our holiday was spent on the Finnish mainland.  After catching the ferry back from Brändö, we drove up the west coast via the beautiful, UNESCO World Heritage town of Rauma and then on to Yyteri beach, which is one of the longest sandy beaches in Scandinavia at around 6km.  From there we turned east to our base for the next 4 nights, which was a self-catering wooden lodge, or chalet, next to Lake Vesijako.

We returned to spend 2 more nights in the delightful city of Turku, which is the oldest town in Finland, with stops en route at the towns of Lammi and Hämeenlinna

Some other things I learnt during this trip (which you might also like to know):

  • As well as having thousands of islands, there are 100’s if not also thousands of lakes in Finland as well (and the Finns take great advantage of these by having weekend lodges close by).
  • There are a huge number and variety of mushrooms and toadstools in the woods. (During one walk, I met a man and his wife foraging.¬† They had collected at least one big bucket load of one particular type).
  • The woods are not all conifers as I imagined they might be.¬† There appears to be an equal number of deciduous trees as well.
  • The people are extremely welcoming and friendly.
  • The Finnish language seems to specialise in very long words, which often include double A’s, E’s, I’s, K’s, M’s, N’s or U’s.¬† The longest word I encountered, which I don’t think is exceptional, was 25 letters long.
  • I don’t know the significance, but many (most?) street or track names end in ‘antie’, ‘entie’, ‘ontie’ or ‘untie’.
  • The peak summer holiday season is from mid-June to mid-August and, before and after that period, you may find some things are not running or closed.¬† (Though the ferries appear to run all year round – when it’s not completely iced over of course!)
  • In the depths of winter, when conditions allow, it’s possible to drive over the ice to some islands. (No doubt special tyres and a brave or trusting nature are required for this).
  • Last, but by no means least, the beer in Finland (and Stockholm) is pretty good.¬† They certainly know how to make a tasty IPA. ūüėä Cheers! ūüćĽ

Swiss National Route 6, Gruben to St Niklaus (Day 3 of 3)

Unusually, I was up at the crack of dawn for the last day of my walk.¬† Well, the hotel bar shut at 10pm, so what else was there to do but got to sleep and even I can manage on 8 hours!¬† So it was that I set off well before the ‘Brits’ (see previous post) and, if you don’t count cows or birds or butterflies, I never saw a soul until I got near to the Augstbordpass, where I espied someone on the horizon.¬† (I later caught them up on the descent – see pic 17).

The weather was dry, but rather dull, with high cloud, so not great for photography,¬† The highlights on the ascent were spotting and capturing (on camera, that is) 3 birds – one I knew, one I thought I knew, but didn’t, and the other I have no idea… (Help!?)

The descent was ‘interesting’ shall we say, as there was still a lot of snow around and I’m not happy walking across, especially sloping, snow in what are effectively trainers – oh yes, and without walking poles.¬† (Although they are useful in some circumstances, like 1% of the time, I’m not a fan of poles as, to my mind, they are extra baggage and they get in the way when things get a bit bouldery and some scrambling is required – which it was on this trip).¬† Anyway I survived about 5 or 6 short(ish) sections and my leg only disappeared once up to the knee.¬† I should have taken a picture – there was already a big hole and now there are two… ūüôā

Later, the sun started to come out and the last section down from Jungen was a joy to behold, with butterflies everywhere.¬† I was being teased by Apollos and even a Swallowtail fluttering around my head but, when they landed, they were out of reach and I would have needed to hang off the cliff face to get a picture.¬† I saw more Marbled Whites than I’ve ever seen in my entire life (and that’s a few – well, maybe 12) and a host of others, not shown below, simply because they either didn’t land or I have no way of identifying them and there’s enough in this gallery anyway.

I couldn’t leave this post without highlighting two flowers…

Pic 12: I’m 99% sure are called King-of-the-Alps.¬† They look like Alpine Forget-me-nots, but they only grow to a height of between 1 and 6 cm (unlike their look-a-like, which grows to 5 to 15cm).¬† My book describes them as “Rather rare” and I think it’s the first time I’ve seen them, certainly posted a picture of them.

Pic 27: Has the delightful name of Swiss Treacle Mustard and if that’s not a name to conjure with nothing is.¬† ūüôā

Transhumance

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…

 

Haute Nendaz to Euseigne (2 Bisses) Walk

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 ‚Äď often by daring routes ‚Äď 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 H√©remence.¬† 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’H√©rens.¬† 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).

La Forclaz to Les Haud√®res (Walk 6)

Yesterday morning, I¬†went for a short (8k/5 mile) run to test out my ribs, with the intention of running¬†at what Mastersmarathonrunner calls a ‘jokingly slow’ pace.¬† I like this expression as it makes me smile – triggering thoughts of a really¬†easy, enjoyable¬†run.¬† I guess it sits below ‘Easy’ in the pecking order of running pace terms.¬† In the event, my ribs were a little sore, but fine, and I ran at around my marathon pace.

It was a gorgeous, blue sky day, so in the afternoon, I also took off for an 11.5k/7 mile¬†walk from the chalet up¬†to La Forclaz (Valais) and then down to Les Haud√®res and back.¬† After the recent warm temperatures, I wasn’t expecting¬†to see as much snow, especially on the south facing slopes.

HandiCapRando* trip to Saillon

Before I retired, I put my name down to help with a¬†group of Nestl√© volunteers, who give up their time to take disabled people¬†into the mountains.¬† They use a specially designed¬† ‘Joelette’, which has one wheel supporting a sort of modern sedan chair. (See pic 5 or link below).¬† It has a disc brake to slow the descent and a little motor to help going uphill.

The weather forecast for the afternoon of our trip (i.e. last Friday) was not good, so the route was changed to be a relatively straightforward meander through the vineyards above Saillon.

I’ve been to Saillon a few times, but I learnt so much that day from Jean-Michel, the organiser and leader of the group.¬† For example, I learnt that:

  1. The vineyard region¬†is named after a¬†guy called¬†Farinet (1845-80),¬†who escaped from an Italian jail and¬†was a famous counterfeiter.¬† You would think that this would make him unpopular, but he¬†became known as the Robin Hood of the Alps, because he helped the poor.¬† He’s¬†now buried in Saillon and there’s a ‘Fausse Monnaie’ museum in the centre of the village in his honour.
  2. The world’s¬†smallest registered vineyard, which has¬†just¬†three vines,¬†is located above the village.¬† Each year famous personalities from the world of sport, art and politics,¬†come to ceremoniously¬†work on the vines.¬†¬† (Some of their names are painted on signposts in the vineyard).

    For a long time, the vines belonged to Abbé Pierre, but he bequeathed them to the Dalai Lama, who is still the owner today.  There are hundreds of hand-written plaques placed near the vineyard with religious or spiritual messages.

    Unfortunately, due to the rain and my hands being¬†busy holding the Joelette,¬†I didn’t manage to capture any images of this particular area. Sorry !

*For more information on the HandiCapRando organisation please see this link (in French).

 

English Lake District Walk, Day 2 (of 4) ‚Äď Rosthwaite to Wasdale Head

Reposted as I forgot to add the watermark and I promised Pete I’d give him the credit for his photos !

It’s a rather strange anomaly but only one of the many¬†‘lakes’ in the English Lake District is actually called a Lake,¬†i.e. Bassenthwaite Lake.¬† The rest have their own names, like Buttermere, Derwent Water or Wast Water.¬† Smaller bodies of water are called Tarns.¬† Don’t ask me why, that’s just the way it is. (The hills are also called fells for some reason too !)

Today’s route takes us from Rosthwaite, over Glaramara (@783m)¬†and down via Sprinkling and Styhead Tarns, to the very welcome sight of the Wasdale Head Inn – said to be the birthplace of rock climbing.¬† While there, I was reminded of home, as there were some black and white photos of the Arolla valley. ūüôā