Peace in the valley - Val d’Anniviers
It’s 4:45am, and the alarm wakes me with a singularly shrill signal. The lobby of the classic Hotel Bella Tola is as dark as the night outside in the village of St-Luc, 1,655m above sea level. The lift attendant will arrive at the valley station soon. When he does, he sleepily inserts the key in the lock and we enter an empty, brightly lit cable car and start heading up the mountain.
We continue out into the dark via one of the longest tow lifts in Switzerland. Being ferried up a mountainside under a coal black sky, virtually friction-free, is a strange experience. We have to take off our skis and climb the last 50 meters of the journey before we can see the flag at the 3,025-m summit of Bella Tola.
The Val d’Anniviers is in the Swiss canton of Valais. Unlike the more famous winter resorts in Valais such as Zermatt and Verbier, the five resorts in the Val d’Anniviers – St-Luc, Chandolin, Grimentz, Zinal and Vercorin – are sympathetically small scale, even though the area contains 220km of pistes. And this sunrise safari is one of the pleasures that awaits you here, where winter is not simply synonymous with classic Alpine skiing. Mountaintop excursions or ski touring, locally called randonnée, are becoming increasingly popular as are more tranquil activities such as tramping through forests in snowshoes. Back to the top of the mountain, where we enjoy hot mountain herbal tea and a few bites of dark chocolate cake, the sky slowly turns from dark to pale lilac.
At 7am, the sun arrives. Suddenly you can clearly see the peaks of the Matterhorn, Ober Gabelhorn, Zinalrothorn and Weisshorn, all over 4,000 m high and known collectively as the Imperial Crown. It’s a magnificent panorama to behold. From the top of Bella Tola you can either take a four-kilometer adrenalin-fueled ski back down to St-Luc, or slide 50m down to Restaurant Tignousa. Our growling stomachs make it an easy decision and we are soon tucking into a hearty breakfast of croissants, baguettes, jam, honeyed yogurt, smoked sausages and salted cheeses, all washed down with lashings of café au lait.
The day starts anew and outside, mountain guide Pasco Zufferey is ready to take us on today’s excursion. We’re going to go around the summit and then descend the other side of the mountain towards Chandolin, a route that we can take by ski touring but which is not an option for regular skiers.
Ski touring is a form of skiing typically done off-piste, where both uphill and downhill travel are possible, through the use of bindings or skins that allow for free movement of the heel to enable a walking pace.
We’re soon completely surrounded by summits and silence. Being away from the regular runs gives you a delicious sense of freedom. We attach the skins to our skis, ready to start a hike. “Don’t lift your skis in the air. Let them glide and use your arms and hips,” Zufferey advises us.
A few hours later, we drag our spaghetti-like limbs into Restaurant Tsapé in Chandolin for the plat du jour of rösti and beef. Zufferey still looks outrageously fresh – he has enjoyed today’s ski touring immensely. “The higher the altitude, the better the snow and the better the skiing,” he says. “And I love the silence that you get when off-piste.”
The rest of the day is given over to exploring the villages of the Val d’Anniviers with their extremely well-preserved old houses. Picture-postcard pretty Grimentz feels like the archetypal timeless Swiss mountain village.
In the evening, we lace up our boots again and attach snowshoes for an hour-long walk along the mountain ridge. Afterwards, we come to an illuminated forest clearing. Chef Pierre is standing over a hot pan preparing raclette with local mountain cheeses. He methodically stirs the cheese as it melts into the wine. Nature guide Pascale Haegler says, “What I love about Val d’Anniviers is that everything feels so familiar. After a week of skiing, you’re almost considered a local – unlike Zermatt where tourists are often viewed as wallets.”
The scent of the melted cheeses and pine forest reaches our noses. Haegler pours some white wine made from Fendant, a local white grape variety that is also known as Chasselas, into small plastic mugs.
The small scale and sense of familiarity have been something of a common denominator throughout the history of the villages here and something that permeates the region’s four classic hotels: The Bella Tola, Weisshorn, Grand Hotel Chandolin and the Grand Hotel Cervin. They were all built in the latter part of the 19th century in response to the birth of alpinism. The first, Bella Tola, was built in 1859. The hotel was run by four generations of the Pont Family until 1996 when it was purchased by Anne-Françoise and Claude Buchs. “I grew up in Val d’Anniviers myself, so when my husband and I had the opportunity to move back home 20 years ago and take it over, we jumped at the chance,” Anne-Françoise says.
Bella Tola was bought lock, stock and barrel, warts and all. Antique furniture, fixtures and fittings and bric-a-brac have been retained to preserve the hotel’s personality. But when they first bought it, “It felt like the Titanic, slowly but surely sinking beneath the waves,” Anne-Françoise says, who met her husband Claude 25 years ago at the famous École Hôtelière de Lausanne.
The hotel was in serious need of renovation. But after five years, the first evidence of progress came when Bella Tola was named Historical Hotel of the Year in Switzerland in 2001. And in 2004, the Buchs built the first spa in the Val d’Anniviers in a new extension. Today, the pulling power of the mountains is the only thing that can drag regular guests out of the hotel.
“I hope the guests like the fact that the hotel has retained its elegance and is managed by enthusiastic husband and wife owners, that is to say, Claude and me,” Anne-Françoise says glancing towards the kitchen where her husband has donned an apron and is stirring raclette pans.
The following afternoon, we visit the St-Luc après-ski spot, Le Tapouk on Place de la Marmotte, where young snowboarders intermingle with big families between 4pm and 8pm. The Val d’Anniviers is not the place to go if you want to party all night. But if you’re looking for a relaxing place to go skiing, mountain hiking or simply to catch some winter sun – it is the ideal winter wonderland.
Text: Lars Collin