Dusk; the first stars flickering in an indigo sky, a chill breeze from the lower valley a reminder of the altitude. A stroll before bed in the sleepy Swiss village of Evolène, unknown to me a week ago. Suddenly the clamour of cowbells echoes down the street, not the lazy chime from a cow grazing the mountainside, this is urgent, alarming. The din gets closer as two grotesque shapes emerge through the gloom, half-beast, half-human. Well over two metres tall with gruesome masks, clanging those incessant bells, they stumble toward me. Then they’re past and gone, leaving the unmistakable reek of billy goat hanging in the air.
Welcome to Carnaval.
It centres round Peluches (good monsters) driving out Empaillés (baddies) with Maries (cross-dressing males) involved somewhere along the way. What I’d seen were Peluches, the first of many over the next two days.
Evolène, a pretty village at 1,300m halfway up the Val d’Hérens, is in the French-speaking Valais, just an eagle’s flight from Italy. The official language may be French, but they do things their own way here and speak Arpitan, more like Frenchtalian.
I’m also here to sample the skiing, marketed as ‘Espace Dent Blanche’ after the dominating 4,357m peak of the same name, dotted along the valley and split into four sectors, Arolla, La Forclaz, Lannaz, and Les Masses, all accessed by bus or car, no doorstep convenience here. Following my disquieting encounter the previous evening I need calm and tranquillity so decide on Lannaz. The bus from Evolène is packed to the gunwales with half-terming ski-tripping schoolchildren. Oh dear. I’m far from Far From the Madding Crowd. Access to the ancient two-man chair is past an equally ancient chapel dated 1711. Then an icy, slithery, adverse-cambered slide to a queue which gives me flash-backs to the ‘80s. Oh dear, oh dear. There’s time on the ascent to read a couple of chapters of War and Peace, if I had it with me. Which I haven’t.
The extent of the skiing at Lannaz is, to put it charitably, limited. It rises to 2,680m with two runs (marked red, more like blue) returning to the start of the T-bar that drags me up. A black is shown (all resorts feel they must have a black) but I can only imagine the printers of the piste map ran out of red ink and got the colour wrong. But wait. My negativity turned to positivity when I stop to look round. All the clattering, chattering children have disappeared and I’m left in peace to contemplate the panorama topped by the toppest of the tops, the mighty Dent Blanche.
Time for my obligatory 11.00 hot choc on the sun-soaked terrace of the café-resto La Remointze. Sadly the calm is short-lived as the cranky chairlift rattles over my head carrying strange objects and figures. First a solitary black bass drum, then a black-clad figure entwined by a tuba. More and more surreal cargo follows; what turns out to be the thirty-six piece La Frénégonde steampunk brass band, who’d have looked more at home at a Haitian voodoo funeral than on a Swiss mountain. Then, to my utmost horror, a huge Peluche looms above. More arrive to spread mayhem and confusion. Nobody is safe from their stinks and lunging embraces. Time to depart. I’m forced to take the rickety lift back to the valley as there’s no snow on the lower slopes.
Being Switzerland, and being in the mountains, and being surrounded by pastures, the matter of sustenance is a little tricky for me as an abstainer from cheese and red meat. The ubiquitous fondue is strictly fondon’t. La Paix is a comfy eatery specialising in ‘Casse-Croûte Fondue’, Evolène’s baker Nicolas Métrailler supplying the casing for the liquescent cheese within. My companions nibble away at the outer walls of the bread, spearing chunks to mop up the molten heart-attack. Me? Chicken and chips and a glass of one of the best kept secrets of the Valais – their wines. Propriétaire, Marie-Jo Gessler, recommends a Fendant. Most acceptable.
Then to bed at the utterly delightful Gîte Rural La Peniche (more of which later). Tomorrow is Carnaval Parade and the first sight of Empaillés and possibly the odd, very odd, Maries.
To paraphrase Charles Dickens, ‘It was one of those February days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade’. In a field near my gîte an extraordinary scene presents itself; roughly-hewn figures stitched together from hessian sacking are being stuffed with straw, the visible extremities of the man within dwarfed by the bloated costume. Worzel meets Sumo, meets the Wizard of Oz scarecrow, meets The Hulk. Quite unable to take drink in the hot sun, drink is nevertheless being taken, aided and abetted by wives and girlfriends. The drink of choice, eau de vie, brandy.
Once sewn into his costume, an Empaillé (literally ‘stuffed’), cannot feed or water himself, can barely walk, and, if he falls, has to be heaved back to the vertical with some difficulty. Gradually the gaggle of giants stagger to life and begin waddling into the town centre, heaving themselves through the crowd, leering through grotesque masks. From the opposite end of the street the cursed cowbells can be heard getting closer and closer. Suddenly the mass parts and Peluches appear, grabbing screaming women (always women) to their smelly skins. Anarchy reigns. No #metoo in Evolène. I take sanctuary in the Café-Restaurant La Pension d’Evolène (clearly the best bar as all the locals drink there) until some sort of order returns. Outside looks like the lunch-break on a Dr Who film set. An exhausted Empaillié lies helpless on his back, others stare dazedly into space.
Escaping the madness I head for Arolla, the head of the valley at 2,000m rising to 3,000m. There are two lifts here (possibly three, the piste map is unreadable) and they’re T-bars and boy, do they go on…and on…and on. It feels like an hour before I top out at Fontanness and a welcome café (actually a shipping container) staffed by Rastafari drop-outs who’ve patently reached a higher plane, metaphysically I think. Happy chappies serving not hash-brownies but chocolate cake. And the view. My word, the view. The mighty Matterhorn over yonder, Verbier and Crans Montana the other way.
After my own kind of meta-musing I try to decipher the map and my route down. A blue and red are shown, but piste markers denote a black which I’d seen on my long ride up. Chopped up, heavy and unpisted, I’m in no mood to attempt it, so follow the red poles. Wrong. Perhaps the pisteurs placing the poles had stayed too long at Rasta heaven. I’m on the black with no going back. I get down cursing sloppy marking and misleading maps.
I retreat to my base, the Gîte Rural ‘La Peniche’ (literally meaning ‘The Houseboat) simple, calm, and run by Catherine and her husband Marius, who built it himself. I’m awakened each day in my upside-down hull-shaped room by the enchanting sound of forty Hérens pure breed cows being fed in the barn next door. Marius shows me round after breakfast.
If ever a man was in love with forty-one females at the same time, it’s him (his wife being top of the list, he assures me). Each of the beautiful creatures gets a stroke and a whispered word. The valley is famous for its fighting cows. In spring, they are released onto the mountainside after wintering inside, and vie for dominance, the winner being crowned ‘Queen’. Cibelle is Marius’s Top-Cow, a docile fourteen-year old with longer eyelashes than a Kardashian.
What an adventure: reeking monsters, straw men, Rastas at 3,000m, fighting cows, and some ‘interesting’ skiing thrown in. Who said Switzerland is quiet? Oh. I just remembered. I never got to see the cross-dressing Maries. Just as well, perhaps.
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