Midwesterners head up North to Wisconsin to escape. The Swiss just head up. Second home Swiss chalets tucked in alpine meadows are so common that there is a great migration upward every weekend. So when Cathy, a colleague, invited us to her chalet in the Vaudoises Alps, we couldn’t wait for Sunday.
The adventure begins with the drive to Les Ormonts, a village 1,200 meter high between Leysin, Les Diablerets, and Villars. We wind around hairpin curves carved into a mountainside, where hardy grapevines cling to the porous soil and cows appear to stand on two legs grazing on the sheer slopes.
Cathy and Jan’s chalet was tucked on a ledge in Les Vöettes, a hamlet of chocolate-colored cubes spill across the verdant valley like tossed dice. My friends bought the chalet in late 90s, but it dates back to 1755 when it was a herder’s shed sheltering livestock brought up for the summer. A historical landmark, like most of chalets in the area, any alteration must be approved by the Swiss government.
In the 1950s, the chalet was restored, renovated and expanded, yet retaining the original wood. The facade facing south across the valley from Leysin was a darker brown toasted by the sun. The faded red shutters, nearly 3 centuries old, were as light as cork and like the mushroom clinging under window ledge had turned to petrified wood. In pots lining the balcony, red geraniums swayed in the late summer breeze.
Ducking into their front door was like stepping into a museum especially with Cathy’s antique decor. Three wood burning stoves heated the two-floor chalet in the winter. Even in summer the thick walls with small windows, maintained a temperature ten degrees below the one found outside. A cowbell, old farm implements, an ancient clock, and other antiques hung from the chalet walls. A four-poster bed, armoire, rocking chair like my grandma’s, and other family heirlooms, made me feel like I stepped back in time.
At a height of only 5’8, the doorways were made for the small statured people of yesteryear and only Cathy could enter the room without ducking. Both of our husbands had to stoop in the dining room.
On the veranda overlooking the valley, we enjoyed the picnic lunch that Cathy purchased in the village that morning. We savored the regional specialties: freshly baked, brown pull-apart rolls, sliced ham, aged sausage and cheeses, Tomme Vaudoise, a soft creamy cheese stuffed with garlic and a year old Etivaz, and a tangier 3 year old version. Dessert was a thick, creamy yogurt mixed with fresh raspberries.
From their chalet, we hiked up another 500 meters along a winding path. The woods opened up to green pastures where cows grazed savoring their last weekend in the mountains before the traditional désalpe, migration to lower lands. Back at the chalet, Cathy served apple struddle and Jan poured unpasteurized milk, compliments of the neighbor’s cows, from a silver milk jug of yesteryear.
The fresh cream, milk and cheeses were as good as those from his Normandy region, Gérald confessed, « But don’t tell anyone. The French maintain strict loyalty to their home regions. »
Then, as the sun began to sink behind the mountain, we bid farewell to Heidi land and followed the caravan of cars snaking down the mountainside toward modern civilization in the cities of Lausanne and Geneva.