Sold on Andermatt!
“The hills are alive with the sound of music….” we sing as our train meanders trough the green Swiss hils. We are three Dutch “powder babes” on a quest for some typical Swiss treats: mountains of cheese, chocolate, and of course our favorite snack: powder! This year, Caroline, Len and I are celebrating Easter in Andermatt and Disentis, two charming villages in the heart of the Swiss Alps.
Railway to heaven
A church sits on each hilltop above the rolling lush green meadows, the iconic red and white flag waving proudly. It feels like we have stepped into a tourism brochure, the landscape recreated with Swiss precision. From the panoramic windows on board the Glacier Express we see the massive Alps appear in the distance, with snow-covered tops and Toblerone-like peaks. We have exactly four minutes to make our connection, including all our ski bags, airbags and suitcases, but it’s fine – no delays for this red train. We get out in Disentis (pronounced as “This-and-this”) and can already hear the bells ringing in the huge Benedictine monastery that dates back to 720. As the monks are called to vespers, we know that our sacred ground lies almost 2000 meters higher, where the slopes of Disentis await.
Jodelaahitii – the Alps are just so pretty
The next morning, the trees in the valley are covered with a fresh layer of snow: our prayers have been answered! We meet Adi, our friendly Swiss guide, in a practically empty gondola. No powder stress today. In less than 15 minutes we ascend from 1100 meters to almost 3000, where the rugged mountains majestically tower over the clouds. Enchanted by this phenomenal view, we make our first runs through 20 centimeters of powder just beyond the quiet pistes. Pointing to a steep, untouched northern slope, Adi asks whether we feel like touring up. He doesn’t have to ask us twice, and pretty soon our skis are in touring mode and the first kick turn is quick to follow. From the top of a Swiss peak, we can look straight down into the spring green valley where cows are grazing and trees are blossoming. We conjure Swiss delicacies such as Alpine cheese and chunks of chocolate from our mobile minibar. For dessert, the virgin northern slope awaits, and we fly down it, amazed by the good quality of the snow. Before I know it, I am at the bottom of the face, adrenaline racing through my body. What a fantastic feeling! I cheer when Len skis up with a huge smile on her face. Tomorrow is officially Good Friday, but today is already pretty great!
Gemsstock: a freeride paradise
As the conductor’s whistle blows – once again, exactly on time – we leave Disentis behind us. The train slowly climbs uphill, and the surrounding mountains become increasingly rougher. As we cross the Oberalp Pass, we can’t help but notice the dozens of avalanche barriers on the Gemsstock: Andermatt’s freeride mountain. Brakes squealing, our train braves the steep hairpin turns on the way to our destination, whose population is almost equal to its elevation measured in meters: 1444. With its many northern slopes and spectacular terrain, Andermatt has been high on our list of dream destinations for years. The microclimate guarantees lots of snow, and sure enough the flakes have also been falling here in the past few days!
We meet our guide Marco, who sports a deep goggle tan, at the top of the Gemsstock at 2961 meters. Before we hit the trail, we take time to admire the 360° panorama view. “We are in the heart of Switzerland and from here you can see half the country and about 600 peaks.” It is truly stunning; I could spend the entire day gazing at these white giants, which look positively friendly today surrounded by blue skies. As we do a pieps check, Marco points out the various powder possibilities. I had always been under the impression that Andermatt was synonymous with serious powder stress, but this late in the season we are practically the only freeriders. We are so lucky! The snow is light as a feather and our spray mists and sparkles in the bright sun. We ski the best snow of the trip, and possibly the best snow that I have ever skied so late in the season. Everywhere we look we see beautiful couloirs that are no more than a short traverse, hike or tour away. What an abundance of possibilities! Later, when the snow has become too heavy, it is time for a beer in the hot sun, a spring skiing must! Cheerful German Schlager music is coming from the “Schirm,” a little bar set up in an open tent on the mountain. When Caroline decides to turn the bar into a disco, the party really gets going. Eventually, after the sun has set we all conga into the last gondola while the Swiss après-ski hit of 2014 “Ein, zwei, drei…. bezoffen….”” echoes deep in the valley.
The future of Andermatt
We can hardly believe our eyes the next morning when we see a Dutch city bike parked in front of the bakery. The owner is none other than Marja, a Rotterdam native who has lived here for years. Soon we are sitting down with her for breakfast and a crash course in Andermatt’s colorful history.
Up until 10 years ago, the village served as a military base, with some 70,000 soldiers stationed here. Defense not only powered the entire economy, it also took a toll on the mountains: according to Marja, the dozens of bunkers turned them into Swiss cheese. After the Cold War ended, the barracks closed and Andermatt’s future was uncertain for many years. This all changed after the Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris saw the unused land from his airplane and proceeded to close a megadeal. Suddenly, sleepy little Andermatt’s future looked very different. According to Samih’s plans, it will be transformed into Switzerland’s ultimate new high-end ski destination, with an emphasis on preserving the village’s authentic charm. The skiing area, too, will undergo a complete metamorphosis. For starters, three new lifts will be built to connect the Sedrun ski resort located on the east side of the Oberalp Pass with Andermatt, creating 120 kilometers of extra pistes on accessible southern slopes, ideal for families. For now, the Gemsstock will be left untouched. What is really interesting is how everyone that we talk to in Andermatt, such as Marco and Marja, are extremely optimistic about Samih’s plans. In 2007, 96% of the local residents voted in favor of these investments. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the astronomical sums will ever be recovered, even with the advent of foreign buyers and the proximity to both Zurich (110 km) and Milan (180 km). However one thing is sure: Andermatt is a unique village that is no stranger to reinvention. Whether it is the snow, the landscape, or the renewed sense of hope, something is thriving in Andermatt, and we are sold!
[side bar]:Zen & alpine chique in the Chedi]
The majestic Chedi hotel opened in December 2013 and it is truly Andermatt’s showpiece. The five-star hotel’s atmosphere is both elegant and casual. Natural stone, leather, wooden facades, and 196 fireplaces alternate with the vast glass surfaces, creating an intimate and rustic yet also modern and uncluttered look. Asian elements are incorporated in the Alpine style, which is not surprising considering that ‘chedi’ means ‘temple complex’ in Thai. My jaw drops when I enter the Chedi Hotel’s luxurious ski lounge. It feels like a comfortable, spacious living room, complete with a crackling fire in the log fireplace. From my big leather chair I admire the Head skis signed by Bode Miller and Lyndsey Vonn, and I exchange my ski boots for a pair of cozy slippers. Our ski butler, dressed in a Norwegian wool sweater with a reindeer pattern, asks whether I would prefer a freshly ground cappuccino, or perhaps I would like to have a look at the cheese cellar next to the restaurant. The ceiling of the walk-in glass room is five meters high, and the walls are lined with shelves stocked with different cheeses and matching wines from the region. There is a cheese buffet in the middle of the room, and you are welcome to stop by any time during the day to help yourself to a slice of Alpental or Gruyère. As tempting as it is, we decide to wait until later to sample the cheese; right now, we want to enjoy the hotel’s glorious 2400 m2 spa! The wellness goes far beyond our wildest expectations, and we can only hope that time will stand still here for a while.
[side bar] Passion & craftsmanship: Zai
Simon Jacomet is the passionate and charismatic owner of Zai, a ski factory in the center of Disentis. The view of the mountain undeniably provides the necessary inspiration. The elegant skis are made from predominantly natural and sustainable materials that last for years. Appropriately, “zai” means “tough” in Rhaeto-Romanic, the dialect spoken in Disentis. The top sheets are made of leather, wood, natural rubber, treated felt, and even stone.
As beautiful as the skis are design-wise, Simon assures us that the functionality of the ski is really what it’s all about: “Zai is about reduction to the essential in the quest for natural balance. Form follows function. A zai ski is a quiet statement of individuality and control. It does not require bright logos and graphics. Good design speaks for itself.” Evidently he is the chief tester, which means he can be found on the piste on any given day, testing out his latest pair of Bentleys, for example. That would be a Bentley ski, not car. Working as partners, Zai and Bentley Motors have designed an entirely new prototype that uses a piece of stone from the Gotthard Massif. We are in no hurry to leave after the tour and as we are browsing around, I observe Simon re-greasing a leather top sheet for the “Bally” ski, which is made from the same leather as the famous Swiss footwear of the same name. The way he polishes each spot with such care and patience, it is obvious that this craftsman is clearly in his element.
Did you know that….
– it takes Zai 5,5 hours to make a pair of ski’s from scratch?
– last season more than 800 pairs have been produced?
– the Bentley ski is much cheaper than his 4 wheeled big brother, costing 8200 EUR?
– the cheapest model can be yours for 2700 EUR?
For more information on Switzerland, check www.MySwitzerland.com
Ski area of Disentis Sedrun: www.disentis-sedrun.ch
Hotel Baur: www.hotel-baur.ch
Buendnerstube, traditional restaurant in Disentis: www.buendnerstube-disentis.ch
Ski factory Zai: www.zai.ch
Wellness Spa Sedrun: www.bognsedrun.ch
Ski area of Andermatt: www.andermatt.ch
Ski school & guide: www.whiteemotion.ch
Boutique Hotel The River House: www.theriverhouse.ch
The Chedi Andermatt: www.chediandermatt.com
Development plans of Andermatt: www.andermatt-swissalps.ch