Almost three weeks ago, we made use of the beautiful weather to go to Valais and find this ‘lac bleu’ (blue lake) which we had often wondered about each time the Swiss yellow postal bus would whizz past the hamlet of La Gouille whilst taking us to Arolla and we would see the signboard that advertises this little wonder of nature. There is a fishing pond just next to this hamlet and I think that somehow deep in my mind there must have been some kind of unflattering association between this pond and the blue lake which had put me off stopping at La Gouille and exploring the area above the hamlet as, instead of making a stop there, I would usually stay on the postal bus and get off at the end-stop, Arolla, all the more so as this Italian-sounding place is one of my favourite mountain resorts in Valais.
On 14 September, we made an excursion to the mountain of Arolla with a view to reaching a pass, called Pas de Chèvres, but unlike our two companions, Michel and Jan, we gave up some 40 minutes’ (i.e. at our walking pace) from the pass. On our way down from Arolla as the car passed by La Gouille, my wife asked Jan whether ‘lac bleu’ was worth seeing or not. To which she got an emphatic ‘Yes’ and Jan added that the place was not only beautiful but also within easy reach. This was enough to put the blue lake high on our list of must-see places for 2014. 😉
Together with the cantons of Grisons (at the eastern end of Switzerland) and Ticino (south east), the canton of Valais (Wallis in German) ranks in my opinion among the top three least spoilt cantons in this country. Whenever I find myself in one of the remote mountain valleys of Valais, I feel that I am in the presence of a setting that is truly ‘elemental’ and one that is therefore particularly propitious to some kind of inward journey – however short this journey may be. True, there are places in the canton of Vaud (where we live), for instance in Alpes vaudoises, where I feel that I am up against such elemental forces, but the general ruggedness and altitude of the mountain settings of Valais, as well as the presence of some massive glaciers there, somehow make the experience feel ‘rawer’ to me.
An experience probably highly necessary given the eyesore, the noise and the dust we have to cope with because of the construction sites (yes, plural!) below our block…
The walk from La Gouille to the blue lake was rather uneventful. It called for a climb through relatively easy terrain, first through some woods above the hamlet and then through the more rugged type of mountain terrain we had to climb on our last trip in the region. When we reached the first expanse of open ground — which looked south (towards the valley of Arolla and Mont Collon, the almost tiara shaped mountain that overlooks that valley) –, we saw some cows and their herder.
These cows are typical of this region; the breed is called race d’Hérens (Hérens is the name of another valley). Short and stocky and sporting some horns, they look more like miniature bulls than cows. Maybe this explains why they are claimed to have a natural tendency to fight each other in spring to sort out who is to become the ‘queen’ of the herd, i.e. the cow that will lead the rest of the herd in summer. Cow fights (combats des reines) are organised each year in August, September and October at several locations in Valais and even in Italy (Vallée d’Aoste).
I waved hello to the herder, who was sitting in the grass with a book in his hand. He waved back. It was a beautiful day and it struck me how lucky this man was to be sitting in the grass with a book while having only to keep a watchful eye on his herd of cows. A little further up the mountain (after another woody area), we came across some mayens (alpine huts), including some which obviously served as stables from the dung we could see nearby, and a small chalet, Chez Léon, with a sign ‘Drinks served here’. But Léon was nowhere to be seen and I therefore assumed that Léon was the cow herder in the field roughly a kilometre below us. A strange idea took my fancy, namely I wondered whether Léon was not a modern, alpine version of the Greek philosopher Diogenes.
I was not able to pursue such musings for too long because the blue lake stood not more than 5 minutes away from the mayens, just up the hill in fact. Even though I have seen other blue lakes (those of Tovel and Carezza, both in the Italian Dolomites), I was literally taken aback by the beauty of this small alpine lake, located much higher at 2,090 metres of altitude (versus 1,178m and 1,600m for the Italian lakes): the lake’s limpidness at the edge and turquoise colour in the middle really stood out against the autumn hues of the rugged terrain around me and of the pines and larches standing above the lake right opposite me. What a true feast for the eyes it was.
The people who had been sitting under this tree when we arrived were kind enough to vacate the spot not long after and we were thus able to enjoy some shade while admiring the beautiful colours in front of us. Probably because the weather was so nice (I was wearing short sleeves and a pair of shorts and I still felt warm) and there were so few people around (it was a week day), we did not feel compelled at all to leave the lake and carry on climbing the mountain – for my part, I usually feel that I must explore as much as possible of an area to get my money’s worth out of an excursion, but not on that occasion. What we did instead was that we rested under a larch and took in as much we could of the beautiful scenery before us.
After the couple that was occupying a spot near the waterfall had left, I decided to walk over to the waterfall which flows into the lake and find out how it would feel to sit on a rock just by this waterfall. It was so great an experience that I decided to take out the book I had brought with me and read it on a large rock amidst the waterfall. Although this book was not the kind of book best suited to such a locus amoenus (Latin for pleasant place), I made sure to take a few breaks from reading to enjoy the experience almost to the full (to enjoy it really to the full, I suppose that I would have had to bathe in this small lake). This might seem like a literary commonplace (recall for instance, the invocation of the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine ‘O Time! Suspend thy flight’ in his famous work The Lake, 1820), but it seemed to me that the passing of time had, if not come to a halt, a least slowed down greatly while I was sitting on that rock by the waterfall…I suppose it would have been the perfect place to meditate rather than read, but I am not yet there. 😉
After having spent some 40 to 45 minutes at the waterfall, I decided to go and explore the area behind the tree where my wife was staying. From this panorama you can see that ‘lac bleu’ comprises in fact two ponds and that it is bigger than it seems based on the first pictures of this entry.
We decided that it was time to go, after having spent a good 90 minutes at this beautiful site. However, this was not to be before having seen the lake from another vantage point (looking north). There was some grass nearby and I decided to lie down on it and enjoy the last rays of the sun whilst my wife would be taking some pictures (which you can see here).
Then we made our way downhill and we soon came across the ‘inhabitants’ of this area. I walked slowly as close to these two specimens of this particularly ‘elemental’ breed of cows as I deemed it safe to be and I took a couple of shots. Seeing one cow almost face to face, I recalled this famous head of a bull from the Roman times found near Martigny (in Valais) and displayed at the Gianadda Foundation and I reckoned that the Roman soldier who had created this head must have taken one of these cows as his model.
To sum up, it was a perfect outing, almost like a dream because of the peace, serenity and even spirituality we felt while contemplating this place. I shall certainly recollect with much pleasure the intensity of the colours we were able to admire when we shall have to go through these bleak days towards the end of autumn when the days are short or there is a thick mist around.
PS Should this entry (or my wife’s) have given you the desire to go and visit this locus amoenus, then please respect the place and do not leave any litter (one should make it a habit to carry plastic bags when on a hiking excursion).
[‘Do not throw your rubbish, simply get rid of your bad habits’, http://www.summit-foundation.org/]
‘If, when you reach such a place, you feel compelled to stop because of the beauty, the harmony that this place breaths; if your worries of the moment seem frivolous in the face of such peace, if you come to realise that your 5-minute stop has extended into an hour or longer, then you are saved. […] To stop at such places, with your mouth closed but your soul open is the equivalent of a long prayer.’ Slobodan Despot, Valais mystique : 24 itinéraires spirituels, Xenia, Vevey, 2009, p. 92 [my translation]
- In search of the blue lake … (wife’s account of the same excursion on her blog – many pictures)