INALPES AND DESALPES IN THE VAL FERRET
Life in the Val Ferret follows a seasonal agricultural pattern. The biannual movement of cows and sheep from the numerous farms in this Valais location are a joy to watch.
Sheep and Cow Highway
At dawn on one June day, my husband awakened me from a deep sleep. A herd of 150 baa’ing sheep, accompanied by their shepherds and sheep dogs, were walking en masse up to the higher meadows along the one road in the valley. Several sheep strayed over to breakfast on our neighbors’ grass, until they were brought back into line by the hardworking sheep dogs. No doubt, this scene has been repeated annually for decades, if not centuries. One modern note, a car with its headlights ablaze led the parade to warn any vehicles that might be coming down the valley at that early hour.
We took our visiting Florida friends to Inalpes this past June, assuming that it would be a parade of decorated cows that you see in Desalpes. But the meadow was cordoned off with one large cow fence, a single rope three feet high. The farmers brought their herd into this communal pasture and let them munch on the verdant grass and wildflowers. That was it, no parades.
We joked that Inalpes was a bit like the first day of summer camp, where all the campers had a chance to mingle and get to know each other before spending the summer together. The main difference, these ‘campers’ weighed hundreds of pounds, packed two daunting looking horns, and engaged in spontaneous fighting.
One farm was late in bringing their cows down. When they finally appeared, the cows thundered down the hill. My friend and I took refuge behind an SUV conveniently parked by the side of the road for our protection. Although the farmers say that the reines are gentle, at a full clip with horns leading they are just a bit frightening.
Desalpes de La Fouly
What goes up must come down – at least before the winter cold and snows set in. So the town of La Fouly at the top of Val Ferret celebrates Desalpes, usually in the third week of September. The cows may not be celebrating, because this signals the end of fresh air and open pastures in the high meadows, and the beginning of long months in the barn. At least it will be snug and warm.
As crowds gather in the village, cameras ready, the parade begins. Farm by farm – Les Ars, La Peule and others – each with a sign and often with a decorated float leading, ready their cows to begin the processional.
The lead cow is bedecked in flowers, some in headdresses worthy of Carnival in Rio. The onlookers lining the sides of the roads sometimes need to jump back as an independent minded cow decides to quicken the pace or swerve out of line.
Bellringers, hoisting large cow bells that they clang against their legs, amble back and forth down the street in formation. Alpenhorn players sling their instruments over their shoulders, stopping now and then to give a haunting concert. Singing groups serenade the onlookers. A woodcarver busily turns a tree trunk into an Alpen work of art
Le Combat des Reines
Val Ferret is known for its Reines or queens, black fighting cows. So a specialty of the day is the combat. Onlookers gather around the circular enclosure, lush with succulent wildflowers and grass, as the black cows are brought into the circle in pairs. Rarely is there serious fighting. Usually just pushing each other around, staring each other down with sideways glances and stomping their hooves. Occasionally, they will go head to head, but carefully threading their horns to avoid the eyes. Then they push head on – forehead to forehead. Sometimes a cow will just feast on the wildflowers, declining to make any aggressive moves. No aggressive movement lasts more than a minute, so the Mayor of La Fouly and other experts assign points to each contestant, somewhat like wrestling matches in the US.
Locals bet on their favorites, with food and wine baskets as the trophies. Although I didn’t bet, two years ago I picked Onze (Lindt) as my favorite – and she won the contest.
My favorite contest involves the sheep dogs. A flock of sheep is kept in an enclosure. At the whistle, the enclosure is opened and the sheep dog must get all the sheep down the hill and into another enclosure. The dog who does this in the fastest time wins the contest. I hope the sheep are richly compensated for all their frenetic running about.
Cheese and Wine
No festive day would be complete without food and drink. Under a large tent, locals busily load potatoes and melted shavings from Val Ferret raclette cheese rounds onto plates, then garnish with cornichons and little onions. Visitors can choose from a selection of wines, beers and non-alcoholic drinks. Sitting at long wooden tables, camaraderie abounds, especially as bottles of wine are brought to the table to be shared by all.
The Day Winds Down
After parading and eating late into the day, the farmers prepare their cows for the further journey down the valley from La Fouly. Cow-carrying vehicles wait in the large parking lot at the far end of La Fouly. The cows will get a comfortable ride down, usually to the farmers’ pastures in Prayon and other villages along the way to the winter barns. The sheep? They walk.
For more information, visit http://www.lafouly.net/descript/culture-desalpe.php.
Traveling to the Val Ferret
The Val Ferret is easily accessible from Geneva – a two-hour train ride to Martigny. In Martigny, board the little red TMR two-car St. Bernard express train, decorated with St. Bernard dogs of course. At Sembrancher, cross the platform to catch the train to Orsieres. In Orsieres, red buses with the same St. Bernard dog motif await to take you to La Fouly, or any of the villages along the way.
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