Queen of the Alps, black beauties!


alpage de BalmeYou think it’s strange that cows should fight, and indeed most cows don’t,  but the Hérens breed are unique!

Hérens is the name of a valley in the Valais Alps of Switzerland from whence these cows originate. They are robust, stocky, with solid horns, a majestic port and a fine eye. The particularity of these cows is that they fight to establish a hierarchy within the herd.

Traditionally, most families had a handful of cows, that grazed communally, in herds of 60 or more heads, the alpine pastures during the summer. Hence, after the long winter months, when the cows left the stable for their spring and summer grazing,  it was time for some serious head butting to establish who was boss.

This cow fighting is clearly a battle of wills and weight as the animals lock their horns and foreheads together and push with all their might!  The battles can last anything from 5 seconds to half an hour or more. Finally, the weaker of the two will admit defeat and beat a retreat. Some cows don’t engage in the fighting – not everybody wants to be the boss!  The young heifers are usually very feisty and they and enjoy a bit of tussling between themselves, but needless to say, they will not contemplate taking on the heavy weights! It is very rare that the cows hurt each other, and if they do, it is only superficiel.

The first battles were organised in the Chamonix Valley in 1917 and they took place on the Col de Balme. The Hauts Savoyards invited their Swiss neighbours to a challenge. At the time there were around 250 cows grazing the pastures above le Tour and the majority of the cows were the black Hérens. Across the border, on the other side of the Cold de Balme were 3 thriving Swiss herds, just as keen as the Hauts Savoyards to throw down the gauntlet!  This was to be the beginning of many battles because the “Chamoniards” were as passionate about the Hérens race as the Swiss were.

Today, a handful of breeders maintain this tradition in the Mont-Blanc region. The Combat des Reines takes place at the end of September every year and rotates between Argentière (Le Tour), Servoz, Les Houches and Les Contamines.

On 22 September 2013 at Le Tour, over 100 Hérens cows took part in this years Match. It was a beautiful day and 1,500 spectators turned out to watch. The battles began at 10h30 with the young heifers and lasted through until sunset with the crowning of the Queen of Queens, a heavyweight cow, belonging to a breeder from Morzine, who weighed in a 691kg! Rdv next year in Servoz.. entry free.

Watch the video of the Combat des Reines in Le Tour – 22 September 2013



Visit the superb exhibition, by  photographer JC Van Waes, dedicated to the Hérens Queens.
Vallorcine tourist office from 15th September to 15th November 2013

Entry free. http://www.vallorcine.com/fr/agenda

The Socrates project – Who are the Sicads?

Friday 13th September, 6pm to 8.30pm at the Bistrot des Sports


Meet Daron Sheehan, the author of this environmental adventure thriller and find out more about the Socrates Project.

Why Chamonix?

Daron Sheehan has a particular affection for the Chamonix Valley and spends a lot of time here enjoying the mountains with friends and locals guides!

Just as, in 1816, Mary Shelley was inspired by the Mer de Glace and subsequently began writing her novel Frankenstein, Daron Sheehan has chosen the beauty of the same glacier to stimulate  Sicad conciousness of nature!!  Hence, enlightenment comes to the hero of his novel during a perilous journey down the Mer de Glace.

The Socrates Project opens the idea of sustainability & environmentalism to a wider audience through a fictional adventure narrative – and is praised by environmentalists including Jonathan Porritt and Mark Shand!

The Socrates Project was officially launched in June at Artemis in  London and on MTV in Lebanon, so it is only natural that the next launch event should take place in Chamonix Mont-Blanc!  The book has the unusual merit of being published simultaneously in both English, by Nautilus Media, and in French by Tamyras.


The Socrates Project is a secret attempt by the United Nations to avert the predicted collapse of our civilisations. Simon Oceandis heads up the sicads, who must blend modern science and ancient wisdom to find the solutions before time runs out.

Not everybody welcomes the Project. An influential secret society plots to discredit and destroy the sicads. Torn between the love of a beautiful scientist and a fiery tribeswoman, Simon discovers an exotic world of adventure and wonder. To find the answers to save humanity, he must undergo a deep inner journey, yet his life becomes a frantic race for survival…

 “At best, this book can be a catalyst for change…” – Mark Beaumont, world record breaking cyclist 

Ambassador of The Socrates Project, environmentalist Mark Shand says: “This is a fantastic book, it is going to save the environment. The world needs more books like this.”

Max Chaya, the Middle East’s foremost climber and explorer is another Ambassador: “The Socrates Project is a mind-blowing rollercoaster of a novel, which blends gripping adventure with a voyage of discovery. A thrilling read for all ages, this is especially aimed at the next generation who must find the inspiration to come together, like the sicads, to solve these threatening challenges in real life. There is an Everest for Everyone, but this is one mountain we must all climb together!”

 Join Daron Sheehan for light refreshments  and a chat about the book. He will be giving away a few signed copies on the night.

Waiter’s derby in the streets of Cham

course-de-garcons-de-cafeTomorrow, 4th September, the 5th edition of the Waiters Derby will take place in the streets of Chamonix. Not as high profile, nor as hi-tech as the UTMB… aprons and white jackets are de rigueur instead of lycra, the distance does not exceed 2.2km… but my goodness there will be no sleeping nor dropping bottles on the way!

This traditional race was revived in 2008 after a timelapse of around 70 years, thanks to the initiative on the Chamonix Hotels Syndicate.

Take a look at the video link below which dates back to 1930 and see how much of Chamonix you recognise!


In the 1920′s and 30′s  the race took place on cross country skis!  1 bottle, 1 glass and a ski pole for propulsion. One can but wonder about the state of the skis, but they’re certainly having fun!

Today’s waiters take on 2  glasses, 1 bottle with an extra bottle added en route. The race begins Place Balmat in front of the post office and takes in the rue Paccard, ave Aiguille du Midi, rue du Lyret, Chamonix station, quai des Moulins, rue Vallot and finish at Place Balmat.

70 + participants are expected on 4th September and they will be representing many of Chamonix’s establishments.  The winning waiter and waitress both receive a prize of 350 euros for their skills. A hand carved wooden trophy goes to the winning establishment.

The race is followed by a convivial buffet and tombola for all participants. Prizes include a seasonal winter lift pass, a helicopter flight over the Mont-Blanc Massif for 6 persons and many other generous donations from Chamonix businesses.

Live concert with the excellent local group: Charlotte Lee and the Ug’s

When: Tomorrow 4th September at 3pm
Where: Place Balmat
Registration: Café Valentino – place Balmat
Fee: free of charge

Blaitière mountain pastures – a goaty greeting!

Blaitière by Ruskin

Blaitière mountain pastures are located beneath the Aiguille de Blaitière, on the north facing side of the valley. This pasture land was exploited by peasant farmers from the middle ages up until the 1950′s. The land and farm buildings were then pretty much abandoned until the turn of this century. Lower Blaitière is situated at 1708 m altitude and Upper Blaitière at 1920 m.

copyright: M Burnet
Blaitière-Dessus. copyright: M Burnet

These alpine pastures can be reached from Chamonix (Grepon car park) in between 2h to 3h (lower and upper Blaitière). Alternatively, take the cable car to  Plan de l’Aiguille and you have an easier traverse and then downhill walk – 1h à 1h30.

Les chèvres Saanen cherchent l'ombre

Pascal Payot is the gardian of this alpine paradise, along with his herd of 40 Saanen goats. Meet them at lower Blaitière (Blaitière-Dessous) until mid September. As the weather cools and the grazing diminishes, the troops will regain their winter quarters at their farm in Les Houches ferme des Houches

Since  2000, Pascal Payot has been partaking in the restoration of the farm buildings and the pasture land with a view to reviving mountain farming in the Chamonix Valley. Blaitière was grazed by young heifers between 2001 and 2006 and goats have been  unwittingly improving the quality and biodiversity of the pastures since 2007. In the summer of  2008, with the help of the municipality, the ‘alpage’ was finally equipped with a milking parlour and dairy. So now you can buy your goats cheese straight off the mountain!

IMG_5160IMG_5159Since  2005, the buildings at lower Blaitière are supplied with solar energy. An installation of 26 photo voltaic panels provides 80% of the power needed for the farm.

The most recent innovation is a mini cable way between Chamonix the Alpage with a capacity to transport up to 400kg. The 700m elevation from the valley floor is covered in 15 minutes.  Pascal no longer relies on supplies by helicopter and his cheese production finds its way to local restaurants and shops on a regular basis!

If you can’t make it to Blaitière this summer, make sure you visit Pascal Payot at his farm in Les Houches . He serves delicious high teas and will be delighted to introduce you to his goat family and tell you a bit about his work and passion.

The Temple of Nature at Montenvers

The Temple of Nature was built in 1795 and represents one of the very first refuges in the Alps, located at 1913m altitude, overlooking the Mer de Glace.

Le Temple de la Nature

IMG_5167 Le Temple de la Nature

This octagonal shaped building of great historical interest, replaced a rudimentary stone construction which was built by the English gentleman Charles Blair, in order to offer a protection to the first visitors to the Mer de Glace.

The Temple of  Nature bore witness to many illustrious visitors during the late 1700′s and early 1800′s before the first hotel was built in the 1840′s.  Artists, authors and scientists were inspired by the majesty of the site and not least Mary Shelley, whose visit with Byron in 1816 led to Dr Frankenstein and his monster meeting upon the Mer de Glace!  The emperess Josephine de Beauharnais took shelter in the temple in 1810, the emperess Marie-Louise of Austria in 1814, Charles Nodier and Victor Hugo in 1825, Alexandre Dumas is 1832, John Ruskin in 1835, Georges Sand and Franz Lizt in 1836, and so it goes on!

Le théâtre optique

Le théâtre optique

The Temple has now reopened to the public and an innovative optical theatre takes visitors on a trip into the past where they will meet the likes of Forbes (the Scottish geologist),  Chateaubriand, Louis Pasteur and Agutte the artist.

 Before the Train!

copyright: Musée de Chamonix

copyright: Musée de Chamonix

The Montenvers was first visited in 1741 by William Windham and Richard Pocock, 2 Englishman who compare the glacier to a ‘Sea of Ice’, hence the name “Mer de Glace”! This event marks the beginning of tourism in the Alps.

Over 100 years seperate the first mule trail and the project to build a cog railway which finally saw the day in 1909! The magnificent  Montenvers hotel and restaurant was built in 1880 and conserves a bygone charm which delights today’s visitors.

Copyright: Gay Couttet

Copyright: Gay Couttet

In 1885, the site welcomed 12 000 visitors, essentially arriving by mule! At the time 380 guides and mule owners (along with 200 mules) were kept very busy throughout the summer months.

Times change, the glaciers are receding at present, but the majesty of this unique site is still there to inspire us!

Copyright Matt Burnet

Copyright Matt Burnet