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‘Far from the maddening crowd’, so goes the title of a famous novel written by Thomas Hardy. This is also how one of my best friends chose to celebrate his fiftieth birthday a week ago. The venue he opted for was an old farm building in the Jura mountains, approximately an hour’s walk from the nearest town, a favourite with the Genevese in winter when there is enough snow for people to be out enjoying the cold, but generally immaculate, fluffy and deep white which it is also so nice to listen to one’s feet plod through.
My wife was still recovering from the flu, so she decided not to join us. Anyhow I am not sure that she would have enjoyed it as much as I did, as there was no running water, and therefore probably not even a toilet in the building itself. In addition, we had to sleep in a cold room, just under the roof, because it had not been heated for many days, as the building is uninhabited in winter.
As one of the participants’ walking ability is slightly impaired and in fact I was not in my best shape either (my right knee has been troubling me since my first run in the snow mid-January), it took us more than three hours to reach our lodgings for the night. What is more, before that, we had to plough through the snow in the dark – even if the other members of the party all seemed to have far more powerful headlamps than the one I was wearing…
One of the first things we did once we had reached this high pasture farm (cows graze in the area in summer) was to haul some water out of the well with a bucket (we needed it for the cooking, the tea and the dish-washing) and then get the stove to spread some heat into the kitchen/dining-room as well as into the adjacent bedroom (fortunately, there was also an electrical heater in the bedroom), both located at the far-end of the building, just under the roof (shaped a bit like a Mayan pyramid).
In keeping with the rustic quality of our lodgings for the night (and also because the food had to be carried by back, mainly by the ‘master of ceremonies’), the birthday meal was very simple: potatoes and raclette cheese, in addition to some organic champagne produced in Geneva and some white wine from the Valais and Geneva’s countryside. Fortunately, the ‘birthday boy’ did not have to carry the machine for melting the cheese as there was one there – as you would expect from any self-respecting kitchen belonging to a building where cows are milked in summer.
So although it was certainly not the largest gathering of people I had seen for a birthday held by this long-time friend of mine, it was certainly the most intimate. It was also the birthday party during which I saw him work the most, poor him. This was also because he had been lent the key to this high pasture farm as his father knew the person in charge of the mountain association to which the farm belongs. This is why the ‘birthday boy’ made sure the following morning that we would leave the place in exactly the same state as we had found it – not, of course, that we would have not done so had he not known the person who had lent him the key to the place.
Unfortunately, the ‘birthday boy’ had to be back in Geneva by 1:30 pm the following day, so it was a bit of a rush to get back to the car park the next morning. However, I shall certainly look back on this short mountain excursion, overnight stay and birthday party with fond memories: the sense of camaraderie and the cheerful mood shared by all of the participants plus the cosy feeling the farm lodgings seemed to exude all made for a highly memorable experience.
In summer, most high pasture farms (‘chalets d’alpage’ in French) will sell refreshments or snacks (at a place called ‘buvette’ in French); some even provide (affordable) accommodation, for example at this chalet d’alpage in the Alpes vaudoises (and with pictures showing plenty of snow, courtesy of the Internet Archive, so the page might take a minute or two to download).
Here is a website for locating chalets d’alpage in Vaud, Valais and in other cantons with a buvette: http://www.buvette-alpage.ch.
For my next pair of snow boots, I shall make sure that I purchase a brand that manufactures them in Europe (not in some country which never sees any snow)… Strangely, one of the participants had experienced the same problem with exactly the same brand.