Last week Mr R and I ventured into the Chablais Géopark, which lies in a remarkable natural landscape in the Haute Savoie in the northern French Alps. The Chablis Géopark particularly focuses on themes of glacial heritage and water and is an area where traditional architecture and Alpine farming all bear witness to strong links between man and nature.
The Global Geoparks Network (GGN) was created by UNESCO with the aim of promoting and conserving the planet’s geological heritage, as well as encouraging education and sustainable research and development by the concerned communities. From its founding 24 Geoparks established in 2004, there are now 127 Geoparks located in 35 different countries, including the Chablais Géopark which became a member in 2012.
The Chablais Géopark consists of 23 geosites, all of which encourage the visitor to learn and understand the geology and history of the alpine landscape, aided by numerous information boards which explain formation of landscapes, flora and fauna.
We took our first hike in the geosite of lac de Plagnes, which is accessed from the small French town of Abondance with its stunning medieval abbey set against an austere but beautiful mountain backdrop. Abondance is also the home of cheese making in the region and the local Abondance cattle were very much in evidence, both visually and audibly with noisy bells clanging around their necks as they grazed the mountain pastures. Historically, the local economy was mainly based on livestock, but more recently the Haut Savoie Alps have turned into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, particularly in the winter ski season but also increasingly in the summer as daredevil bikers take to the mountain trails. It was good to discover that there are still around 40 working farms in the Abondance valley, which are in themselves a tourist attraction. Many sell cheese direct from the farm and some welcome tourists to cheese making demonstrations. Some farms even host supper evenings, serving typical Savoyard dishes, always with cheese at the heart of the dish.
We began our walk from lac de Plagnes, which is a photographer’s dream, nestling between trees and mountains at more than 1100 metres above sea level. In winter, the lake is declared safe by the commune for ice skating for a certain period and in the summer it is a popular place to picnic or to fish. This glacial formed lake is now artificially dammed and provides a spillway that eventually leads to the Malève, a tributary of the River Dranse in the Abondance valley. The River Dranse has been of particular economic importance in the valley due to the many mills and saw mills which depended on water to power them. It was also a means to of irrigation and transporting wood through the valley. It also powers the turbines of three electricity stations so it is not surprising that water is a strong feature in the Chablais Géopark.
Our walk took us through a wetland area, where information boards told us how the glacial lakes had shrunk over thousands of years and why some of the peat bogs were now dying, under attack from vegetation growing on top of the peat that has taken many thousands of years to form.
From there we walked on and came to the intriguing rock of Cubourré, born beneath the sea millions of years and thus full of ancient sediment and fossils. It was abandoned in its current position by the Arden glacier just 16,000 years ago, which of course counts as very recent in the geologic time scale.
The area is home to an array of flora and fauna. Butterflies were aplenty, and we enjoyed spotting Fritillaries, Ringlets, Swallowtails and others, some of which we were unable to identify. Bees were in plenty, feasting on the alpine nectar.
From the lower pastures, surrounded by peaks reaching up to over 2400 metres, we took a steep mountain path up where about 45 minutes later we arrived at the Refuge des Tindérêts, a wonderful isolated mountain retreat sitting at some 1450 metres. The refuge offers drinks and a small mountain food menu, as well as 31 beds spread across three dormitories at 12.5 euros per night.
Not needing a bed for the night, Mr R and I refreshed ourselves with a large panaché before taking the same path back down the mountain from whence we came, ready to continue our adventures the following day.
Part two to follow……