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Published: February 9th 2014
Motorhome News from Switzerland. Part I
29th August 2013 Dam, Dam, Dam! ........and we're jumping through hoops.
As sunflowers droop their heads in sorrow at the passing of another summer and leaves of poplar turn to gold, and autumn sunshine lights fields of maize on rolling hills, the grey haired nomads dawdle the country lanes of France and Switzerland once more in search of memories and enlightenment. Memories of bright red geraniums in window boxes, snow-capped peaks and crystal air, rippling streams and bright green meadows teeming with wildflowers, brown cows and cream, cheese and chocolate, neatly stacked logs for winter comfort and alpine chalets with shingle roofs. That was ten years ago. That was Switzerland.
Switzerland, a country much spared from the ravages of World War II. A country sworn to neutrality and still to this day maintaining its independence outside of the European Union. Switzerland, a country reveling in its economic prowess, the powerful Swiss franc and one of the highest incomes per capita in Europe. It is also close to being the most expensive place in Europe to live, with the possible exception of our beloved Norway - also a
non-EU member as it happens. Switzerland, a country with a reputation to maintain: squeaky-clean, regimented, fastideous, efficient, flamboyant and proud, like the timepieces it's so famed for.
We start, as is often the case when we visit mainland Europe across the Channel, with daughter Sonia and her six-year-old son Fred, in France; a chance to catch up with family remote from the little island we call home. There are blackberries ripe for picking in the hedgerows right now, a fresh wind for flying the new kite and sufficient warmth in the air approachng autumn for Fred to splash around in le lac and play on the beach in the few days before school starts again. There are brown cows in the rolling pastures of the Limousin too, their heads down in the lush grass of scattered farms on rolling hills and dense woodland copses. Such is the beauty of the Limousin, a rich green tapestry, the mellow ringing of distant cow-bells and the call of buzzards overhead.
There's a brief window too for our paths to cross once again with those wandering Aussie motorhomers, Brian and Kathryn, in the French Alps, as we make our way
eastwards towards the Swiss border. From the blackberries and sweet chestnut forests of Limousin we climb high into the hills, to the blueberries and walnut trees of the Auvergne and down again to the wheat and smiling sunflower fields and honey-stone cottages with red-tiled roofs as we turn towards Lyon and the Rhone Valley.
Brian and Kathryn joined us at our campsite at Lepin-le-Lac near Chambery and we sat out in the fresh evening air, glasses raised in celebration, watching hang-gliders turning majestically on the thermals as the last rays of sunshine disappeared behind the limestone escarpment. Our all too brief journey together took us out beyond Chambery to St Jean de la Porte, snaking down the Col du Frene to the Isere canal at Combe de Savoie, and beyond to the alpine valleys towards Beaufort and the now snowless ski resort of Les Saisies. Above us, the snow-capped peaks of Mt Blanc beckoned as we hiked the forest trails in search of wild blueberries for tea. The wandering Aussies left us the following morning, continuing their journey south towards the sun as we turned to Chamonix and into Switzerland. We'll meet again - somewhere - soon.
Chamonix has changed little since our last visit back in 2005. The sheer spectacle of this magnicent setting immersed amidst the stunning glaciers and jagged peaks of the towering Aiguilles range never fails to inspire the senses, to brighten the eye of the beholder and raise a smile of immeasureable pleasure. It's the immense scale of the mountainous glacial skyline that bares the soul; the realisation that we humans are so insignificant in the overall plan of our maker.
The abandoned border post with France stands neglected as we cross finally into Switzeraland, climbing the gear-box challenging road winding up the Col de la Forclaz and down once more to the broad agricultural valley and alpine pastureland of the Val Ferret, where we camped, as gathering grey clouds turned to heavy rain overnight. When we finally raised our heads from the pillow the following morning, the avid campers on site had upped sticks, packing their soaked tents into huge backpacks and setting off once more with leaden feet along the trail to the east where we had walked the previous evening. The glacier above us was no longer visible and swirling mist shrouded the peaks, ghostly grey puffs
of cloud twisting and turning on the faint breeze. Mountain weather is always unpredictable. We take it as it comes. There is beauty and pleasure everywhere whatever the weather.
This journey takes us to many new places and one or two we have visited before. For now, we'll leave the cities of Geneva and Zurich to the north and east and take to the hills to stretch our legs and enjoy the wilderness.
The Swiss were quick to realise the need for energy to fuel the growing demand for consumer products shortly after the end of WWII and set about building a number of huge dams along the mountainous valleys to generate electricity. You'll have already guessed that valleys such as this represent our sort of challenge; there's always something to see at the end of the road, the end of the valley, around the next corner or from the top of the next hill. The first of three dams awaiting our coming was the Barrage de Mauvoisin, presenting us with a demanding uphill hike and the prospect of sighting a little bird we're still hoping to see one day. We had been led to believe there could
be Wall Creepers along the track up the Val de Bagnes, (those wonderful, elusive, high-altitude birds with blood-red wings in flight) at the bridge over the gorge, but they eluded us once again. I suspect they were nesting here earlier in the year and the young are now fledged and long gone. But the Barrage spreads it's massive concrete wall across the head of the valley way up ahead of us, its vivacious curve drawing us ever closer up the hill on steep well-worn tracks; through long, narrow, construction tunnels, our ears drumming to the the echo of our comforting chatter and crunching feet on slippery shale, breathless, holding tight to the cold wet rope guiding our way up through the darkness. This is no walk for the faint hearted, but rewarding none-the-less for four hours of strenuous effort, the masses of wild flowers humming with bees, the sight of fresh snow on the peaks above and the most amazing views back down the valley. Memories. More memories.
It was to be a cold night. Turning back down the twisting road we drove on to the next valley, the Val d' Heremence, on tight hairpin bends rising precipitously as
we neared the huge dam, the Barrage de la Grande Dixence, Janice white-knuckled and ashen faced at the steep drops at every turn though she should be accustomed to such challenges as we forever practise jumping through hoops as we travel. It's cold here at 7000ft, even in September, parked up for the night in the shadow of the dam wall in readiness for the first cable-car up to the top of the dam at 9.35 next morning. We'll not need to climb to this one but there's a challenging long hike to test our resolve none-the-less. At 285m (935 ft) high, Grande Dixence is the tallest gravity dam in the world. It took fourteen years to build, from 1950 to 1964, and generates sufficient electricity to power 400,000 Swiss households. We hiked seemingly for hours from the terminal at the top on relatively flat ground beside the crystal waters of the reservoir, our legs now recovered after a good night's rest, but the high altitude proved challenging for the lungs, the legs a little wobbly from time-to-time, the marmots whistling at us in mockery, ravens croaking in applause from high above, and Alpine choughs frolicking in family groups in
the thin air they seem to love. There were tunnels on this route too; with automatic lights, no sound of civilisation and no other souls in sight so early in the morning. All around us the snow-capped mountains so reminiscent of the Rockies, the wild-flower meadows, and peace; a few snatched hours of glorious peace. Janice was so much happier as we left Grande Dixence, back down the hairy zig-zag valley in the knowledge that the serpentine road was behind us now.
Fruit trees lined the wide Rhone Valley, broken here and there by small groups of commercial buildings as we drove on to Val d'Anniviers to camp overnight in Grimentz, a delightful tiny tinsel-town village of traditional wooden alpine houses raised off the ground on stilts and flat stones, sinking under the weight of red and pink gerraniums! Call it chocolate-box, call it make-believe if you will - but it is really truly gorgeous, our eyes wide and bright with delight and our cameras in overdrive, for this is the Switzerland we love to love. This is ski-country, where winter ski-tourism spells money, smells money and looks money, oh, so different from the previous totally uncommercialised
valleys which we also love for all those opposing reasons. Grimentz Tourist Information helped us out with a campsite for motorhomes on the edge of town and an 'out of season' offer of a Tourist Tax of 2.50 Sfr per person, per day, which covered the cost of camping (with electricity and all services) and all local busses and cable cars in the area. According to the bus timetables we were also out of season as there were few busses running to anywhere we might wish to visit. The cable car however, proved its worth next morning. There was a massive building project under way in town, preparing a new cable car centre to be completed before the winter snows arrive. Our luck was out. There was no snow for us to enrol for the snowboarding school.
Another English couple arrived shortly after we plugged in the elctricity on the campsite. They are 'full timing' much as we did back in 2004-2007 but they're doing it in style in a double-axle monster unit, with room to sleep at least a regiment or two. As it happened, they were there with their four dogs. That's fine when the sun shines,
but rather unpleasant when they're soaking wet and leaping all over the upholstery. "We've recently inherited our fourth dog," they told us. "We saw him tied up outside a circus tent, poor thing. He had no water and looked in rather bad condition, so we asked the owner if we could buy him."
"You can take him for all I care," the circus owner said. "And so, here he is; deaf as a post, blind in one eye, walks with a permanent list to starboard and looking much like Jack Russel - hedgehog cross, he now follows us around like a little baby."
They had dropped into Switzerland for a ten-day dog training course the lady told us. Good thinking. Perhaps they'll teach them all to do double backward somersalts, ride bareback on horses around the ring and jump through burning hoops.
We're clutching our cable-car ticket the next morning, waiting here for the first Telepherique, or Telecabin as they choose to call it here, shivering in the cold. Just us and the staff from the cafe at the top. We never get it right, do we? With ten years or more
of motohoming experience across three Continents under our belts, here we are, stuck up the top of a frosty mountain without a scarf or pair of gloves between us. As luck would have it the clouds had gone off somewhere else for the day by the time we reached the summit and things were looking up. The lift up took around five minutes. The spectacular walk down took one and a half hours, every second of it sheer delight. You're never far from a snowy mountain in Switzerland.
Determined not to waste a free bus pass the cheap-skate nomads took the post-bus next morning to the Moiry Dam five miles up the valley. This is dam number three if you're paying attention and it's another altitude leg-stretcher around the reservoir with the stunning Glacier de Moiry in our sights. Cow-bells rang out across the valley in unison with the rhythm of our footsteps as black cows headed home for milking in a long line, out beyond the aquamarine waters of the reservoir, and beyond, those magical snow-capped mountains on the horizon.
There's a cost to that 'free' bus pass. There's no such thing as a free
bus pass in Switzerland. It was freezing cold by the time we returned to the dam and the two-a-day 'off season' yellow bus was not due for another two hours. Weary and shivering uncontrolably we took to the local cafe, the only building to be seen, for a hot chocolate; a mug of hot water and chocolate from a packet for what might otherwise be termed a small mortgage in any other country. Who cares. It's only money as we say. It's the memories that count.
There will be more motorhome news from Switzerland in a few days as we make an appointment with James Bond, on Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Be sure to tune in again soon for more Motorhome News from Switzerland - Part II.
David and Janice
The Grey haired nomads
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