Spring in the Swiss Alps

(entered in the Sunday Times Travel Competition in 1985)

Our holiday in Les Haudères in May came about because we were offered a chalet in that village at that time, but we could not have done better if we had chosen the place and the time of year.

On April 30th 1985 my mother, my brother and I set out from our home in Bridport to drive to Switzerland. When we reached the ferry terminal in Weymouth I discovered that I had forgotten to bring my passport. By the time I had gone back for it we had missed the only ferry for the day, so it was not until May 1st that we crossed the Channel to Cherbourg.

From Cherbourg we made our way across France, avoiding large towns and main roads, and staying in country hotels. The advantage of travelling in a foreign country is that everything you see comes as a surprise. At Crèvecoeur we came across a fifteenth-century half-timbered chateau. At Montargis we had an intriguing glimpse down a canal with houses along both sides. And at Ornans we discovered a town of exceptional beauty with houses built out over a river.

But nothing that we saw in France could compare with the beauty of Les Haudères when we finally arrived there. The walls of the houses are made from the trunks of larch trees, roughly squared, and laid horizontally. The roofs are made up of large unsquared stone slabs. Between the floors certain of the timbers extend beyond the limits of the walls to support balconies. Sometimes there are as many as four of these balconies, one above the other, connected by wooden steps.

On our first day we drove up the Cwm de Ferpecle until we came to a tunnel that was blocked by a wall of ice. It extended from the floor to the ceiling three quarters of the way across the road. We continued on foot until we reached a point where the road disappeared into the mountainside. Through gaps in the clouds we could see the sun shining on the snow high above us. Later in the day the clouds lifted, and we were able to appreciate the village in its setting of snow-covered mountains.

I decided to try and reach the snow. To reduce the height that I would have to climb I drove as far as Arolla. I walked up the valley along the road, and when it petered out I carried on over the snow to the area described on the map as Bas Glacier d’Arolla. It was just a field of snow, and I would not have recognised it as a glacier without the map. As I walked across it the temperature was perfect. The sun was shining, and the air was so fresh that the experience of breathing was like that of eating ice-cream. When I sat on a rock to eat the food I had brought with me I was entirely surrounded by snow.

Higher up it got steeper. I found it easy walking uphill on snow because I could dig my toes in and keep my feet level. The higher I climbed the more interesting became the scenery. Chunks of ice were strewn about the hillside like boulders, and covered in a layer of pure white snow. Pinnacles of ice rose above my head, and whenever there was an overhang great thick icicles hung down, reflecting the sunlight and the blue of the sky. I had never seen anything so beautiful before in my life. At first I spent all my time taking photographs. Then I stopped and listened. There was absolute silence. Finally I started to make my way down. As I walked, little snowballs bounced down in front of me, leaving marks like animal tracks. It was not until I was nearly back at the car that I started to grow tired.

On subsequent days we explored the countryside round Les Haudères and neighbouring villages. With the help of a flower book found in the chalet we learned to recognise the Spring Gentian, the Alpine Snowbell and a host of other wild flowers. Among the birds we saw were crested tits and black redstarts.

On May 13th we set out for Zermatt, but when we got to Visp it was raining, so we turned back. At Sion we walked round the old part of the town and climbed up to the two hilltop castles, Chateau Valere and Chateau Tourbillon.

The following day we set out again for Zermatt, and this time the weather was fine. Everything in Zermatt is ultra-modern. It is in a different century from Les Haudères.   The highlight of our visit was a trip on the mountain railway to Gornergrat. On the way up we saw marmots in the snow, but they were too far away to photograph. At Gornegrat there were Alpine choughs circling round the observatory. Even at 10,000 feet I didn’t need a coat on, and the snow was so deep it was impossible to walk through it.

On another day we saw marmots from the road to Arolla. Either they would be between us and the sun, or they would disappear before I had got the camera ready, but eventually I managed to photograph one.

When we drove back through France we avoided motorways and large towns as before; but we also avoided the roads we had used on the outward journey, so that once again everything we saw was unfamiliar. At Autun we found a Roman amphitheatre, and at Vendome we discovered an old ruined castle. At Gien we stayed in a hotel where our windows looked out across the River Loire to an old stone bridge.

When we got near to Cherbourg we had a little time in hand, so we stopped to visit Mont St-Michel, that French counterpart of St Michael’s Mount. There was a lot more to it than I had imagined, with old houses lining a narrow street, and flights of steps running in all directions.

By travelling in May we were able to combine the snows of winter with the warmth of summer and the wild flowers of spring. If we had gone any later the mountain railway would have been crowded, and if we had gone any earlier the marmots would not have emerged from hibernation. By studying a map we could have found a village in the mountains, but by this means we could never have found a village so utterly unspoilt as Les Haudères.