Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter Felice and I are finally back on skis again in the Swiss resort of Andermatt, a mountain village with a long and intriguing history. At its heart it’s a classic chocolate box village with cobbled streets, old coaching inns, ornate church and a handful of shops. It’s a 90-minute drive from Zurich and it lies at the foot of the Gotthard Pass. Now, since the Middle Ages, this has been one of the main north-south routes through the Swiss Alps. But right now, on a damp and cloudy morning, our focus is not on history but on muscles.
Felice We’re now in the gym of the hotel Radisson Blu and it’s 8:30 in the morning and it feels quite early after our time change and yesterday’s journey here. Our instructor, Pascale, who’s a Swiss-New Zealander, has suggested that before we hit the snow we should do some essential warmup exercises.
Peter So Pascale what do we need to do to get fit to go skiing?
Pascale Well, I would say core and legs are the biggest ones that you need for skiing. So core, and I would put emphasis on the back just because most people sort of forget about their back when they think about core, that’s a lot of people have back trouble with skiing, especially off-piste skiing. So that’s the big one you really need to strengthen. And having a strong core of your abs, basically front side also helps support the back. It’s almost, I would say it’s almost bigger than the legs…that works together with the legs, but it’s one that really goes forgotten a lot.
Peter People who spend most of the year sitting in an office they need to really get fit before they go skiing. Or there’s a risk of injury, right?
Pascale Yes, for sure. I would say the strength one is a big one that because there’s a lot of jolts and and hard hits in skiing. So having your strength ready and a reaction type of strength, sort of explosive, they call it plyometrics. That’s definitely the best to be prepared for skiing.
Peter So Pascale, two tips. I haven’t skied for two years; you couldn’t for obvious reasons. So two tips on what I should be looking for today to make sure I’m safe and enjoy myself on the mountain?
Pascale Well, I would say the biggest one is patience. So start slow; don’t overdo it; think about having more than one coffee. Maybe have your breaks; take your time. And the next one is have fun. Because even if you’re especially if you’re going with kids and things like that, the more fun you have on your first day’s skiing, the more you’re going to want to go skiing for the rest of the season.
Peter No doubt about that. Looking forward to it. Andermatt’s heyday, in more modern times was in the mid-19th century, when inquisitive European tourists, including Queen Victoria herself, crossed the Gotthard Pass. They were drawn to this classic village surrounded by soaring peaks, that held such a fascination for travellers during the romantic era.
Felice But the stream of visitors came to a sudden end one day in May 1882, with the opening of the Gotthard Rail Tunnel. In just one day Andermatt, once an essential halt on a 2,000-year-old trading route, found itself bypassed and forgotten. For nearly the whole of the 20th century, the once popular tourist destination found itself depending on the Swiss army for its survival. It became a rather grim garrison town where much of the country’s adult male population turned up for their National Service training each year.
Peter And then after the end of the Cold War, military priorities changed and the army too pulled out, leaving Andermatt, like so many mountain communities, nearly destitute as the younger generation moved away to the cities in search of employment. But hey, there’s still skiing isn’t there?
For at least the past 70 years, the Gemstock, which towers over the village, has attracted expert skiers to its steep slopes. A two-stage cable-car takes you up to the top of the glacier, and the runs down from the top are truly formidable, challenging pistes and superb powder opportunities. But this is advanced terrain, meaning that the upper section of the Gemstock is really not suitable for 97% of skiers overall.
Felice But there’s a silver – or rather a white – lining to this tale. Enter the Egyptian billionaire behind a giant Red Sea resort. He put forward the idea of turning Andermatt into a year-round luxury destination with extensive skiing and an 18-hole championship golf course.
Peter Well, in a place where the inhabitants of the village of Disentis, just up the valley, are considered foreigners – let alone visitors from Zurich, the overall idea of an Egyptian determining their fates was beyond all reason. Nevertheless, he convened a meeting of all the villagers to explain his ideas and to their utter astonishment, he addressed them in fluent German. The rest, as they say, is history.
Felice So Andermatt is currently the largest ski resort development in the Alps. Halfway through the master plan to transform it into a world-class destination investment has reached one billion Swiss – that’s more than a billion US dollars, and a lot more of the same is scheduled to follow.
Peter We caught up with Russell from the developers as we looked at the 3D model of the rapidly-expanding village. So Russell, we’re now 10 years into the project. What is it going to look like in another 10 years’ time?
Russell When in 10 years’ time it will be a fully functioning alpine town, which is in use all year round by people who are staying here on holiday, also living here and hopefully enjoying the facilities around them.
Peter At the moment, we’re still a mountain village with a few traditional retail outlets. Now I gather you’re building some form of a main street, right?
Russell That’s right. Yes. So over the next few years, we will build our main shopping promenade. We’ve got around 35 retail units that are going in and a series of restaurants as well, and we will build that out with essential shops, supermarkets and pharmacies and so on, and then also some other retail, which would be fitting to an alpine destination.
Felice What sort of people are you hoping to attract? Families or couples or groups?
Russell It differs a bit depending on what time of year we’re in. But of course, in the winter Andermatt’s long been been a ski destination, so we have families that come skiing here. Also, it’s known as a bit of a Mecca for off-piste, so we’ve always been a place that attracts really keen, adventurous skiers.
Peter Is there a danger of it becoming another Zermatt, another St Moritz?
Russell Well, I think Andermatt by comparison, size-wise, is quite small so we have only a quite limited amount of real estate that we’re building here. So in terms of the number of beds that we have here versus the size of the skiing area, the ratio works really well for Andermatt compared to, say, some out or St Moritz or Courchevel, where the number of people that use the skiing area each day versus the availability of beds, the ratio is not quite as good. So I think here in the future, in years to come, I think people can still expect good uncrowded skiing.
Peter But you also want it to be an all year-round resort?
Russell Yes, I think you know, also with the facilities that we’re doing for outside of the ski season, I think we are, I suppose, probably in a unique position where we are in control of the master plan of the development. So whenever we’re looking at new elements of the project, so let’s say facilities, we’re always considering how many people might use it and that’s that’s quite unique to Andermatt.
Felice Are there any more five-star hotels planned?
Russell Yes, in the pipeline, in terms of what we’re doing now, we’ve built The Chedi, which I think has now become quite well known, hopefully, as being one of the most luxurious properties in the Alps. The Radisson has followed as our second one.
Coming in our development pipeline after that is this development here, which is going to be what we would describe as a lifestyle hotel, so it will sit somewhere between The Chedi and the Radisson. The idea is to create a hotel which is probably going to attract a slightly younger audience to Andermatt. And we’ve got some really nice facilities there and where we’re deeply in the planning phase of that at the moment. But it’s going to be a very nice property. It will be a four- or five-star; it’s got around 250 rooms.
Then after the last hotel, there’ll be two more hotels that will follow, which are in the longer-term pipeline, which are this one over here which we broadly describe as our family hotel. The concept for that is still under development. And then we also have a hotel in the far corner, which we describe as our golf hotel on the basis that’s very close to the golf course – and that will also be another luxury hotel.
Felice It’s amazing. Unfortunately, the weather isn’t great, so we can’t see around very well, but it’s lovely being on the snow again – two-year-old snow, which sounds a bit odd.
Peter We actually get a few more flakes now, quite a lot more flakes now, but mainly we’re skiing on snow that is two years old because they’ve farmed it and kept it under wrap. By ‘under wraps’ I mean wrapped in a giant fleece, great haystacks of it. And then they spread it out for the start of the season and, because they had a fairly dismal summer here, the snow hasn’t evaporated and it’s in remarkably good condition. Ok, you’re clipped in. Let’s go.
Peter Well, that was just the most amazing feeling to be back on skis again. I’ve really enjoyed this morning and it’s not exactly brilliant skiing, but it’s snow…hey, it’s snow, and that’s all we’ve been missing for the last couple of years. It’s a truly amazing feeling to be back on it; I really hadn’t realised how much I missed it.
Felice Yes, it was incredible and I thought I would be unfit. But in fact, it’s fine for glacier skiing; you don’t have to be very fit.
Peter Yes, I mean, the glacier itself is a long way up and it’s pretty steep at the top for a glacier, it is pretty steep…and icy at the moment and you really need some sharp edges to get a grip today. But there’s a long run down and it’s a glorious feeling to be back on snow again.
Felice It was busy, but not terrible because it was mainly locals who were there, so they’re all pretty good skiers and could avoid each other.
Peter Of course, we’re only seeing a small fraction of the skiing in Andermatt because it now stretches on through Sedrun and Disentis for really quite a long way. But that’s more intermediate, the new ski area, and this is more advanced. But both are pretty good.
Well, now it’s time for a bit of lunch. We’re in German-speaking Switzerland, so it’s got to be Rosti, mit Ei – that’s hash browns with a fried egg on top – a traditional mountain dish around here and pretty welcome after a morning like that.
Felice You can sleep and eat amazingly well in Andermatt. Of course, it’s home to The Chedi, the original five-star here that’s recognised as one of the truly great ski hotels in the world. It’s an east-west fusion of design and food that sits surprisingly well in the heart of Switzerland. Never miss an opportunity for hot chocolate after skiing or an exotic cocktail before dinner!
Peter So we’re back in The Chedi.
Felice We were here three years ago, I think, and we had one of the most amazing meals we’ve ever had here in the Japanese restaurant. The Chedi is inspired by the East, so there are big gongs, and the colour scheme is wood and black and bronze.
Peter It’s very high; double-height ceilings and amazing pillars. Fireplaces everywhere, all very sleek. It’s possibly the finest hotel in the Alps.
Felice …certainly one of. But what’s lovely about this is on the ground floor, the sort of lobby area/living space…it has lots of little nooks and crannies so you can be private or don’t need to see anyone else if you don’t want to. And so you can sit really comfortably, have a drink, have coffee…
Peter And have some of the best cocktails I’ve ever seen.
Felice Yes, the cocktails are wonderful and they’ll make them specially for you – all sorts of different concoctions.
Peter It’s got a beautiful, beautiful swimming-pool on the ground floor with views out across the Alps, and it’s very long – an Olympic sized pool. It’s a place where you can truly, truly relax in mountain surroundings and there’s an overwhelming sense of peace as you walk through the door.
Felice A lot of people here during the day, they don’t seem to be skiing,
Peter It’s also a typical wet and damp day when the clouds come down over the valley and I’m sure up the mountain will be snowing and perhaps might even be the odd bit of sunlight, because that’s often what happens when you have a cloud ceiling.
Felice I really like the slices of wood, the logs that look like they might go in a fire, but they use it as a decoration up to the ceiling.
Peter Yes, you often see neatly-piled logs on shelves, but here they take it to a new level. Yes, it’s a very, very special place, one that I like to come back to again and again. It’s probably a really important reason for coming to Andermatt in the first place, isn’t it?
Felice Definitely. If you can come to Andermatt and stay here, you’ll be in heaven. The different materials range from wood to beaten bronze, leather, fur rugs, fur cushions, leather cushions, and they really make use of the height with floor-to-ceiling shelves with things displayed on them. Marble – that’s another material, stone floors, wood floors, everything all mixed up together, but very successfully.
Peter Yes, you feel you might be in some wonderful Tibetan temple.
Felice A new hotel has opened in Andermatt this year. It’s called the Berg Idyll, or La Vache. It’s run by South African based hotelier, Rob Sawyer, who used to own the Farinet in Verbier. This hotel in Andermatt is the sister establishment of the mountain restaurant of the same name in Verbier.
Peter It’s got the same trio of celebrity shareholders: singer James Blunt, rugby star Lawrence Dallaglio and Carl Fogarty. Carl, of course, was one of the most successful world superbike champions of all time. So we’re going to see another celebrity hotspot in the Alps developing, I guess.
Felice The restaurant’s called the Pot Luck Club, which is also in Cape Town, so you can take your choice – you can stay in the Radisson Blu like we are…very modern, has everything you need, a bit out of town, a bit of a walk…ten minutes, but there is a ski bus. Or you can stay, if you’ve got deep pockets you can stay at The Chedi or more reasonable and across the road the Berg Idyll.
Peter Now it’s almost time to head back up the hill again for a gourmet dinner from where we’re sitting right now. The Japanese By The Chedi at 2500 metres, has a Michelin star and might well be the obvious choice. We love Japanese food, but for starters it’s closed tonight. So too is Swiss chef Markus Neff’s Gütsch, which shares a balcony with The Chedi. Incredibly, the Gütsch also has a Michelin star; I tell you, you’re spoilt for choice up here. However, Markus is opening up just for us this evening. He’d hoped to have the gondola running, but that’s not to be. So we’re about to make our way, with special army permission, up the mountain, all 1000 vertical metres of it from the village on an old military road.
Felice I think road is quite a strong word for it. It’s a track with sheer drop-offs to the valley, bit of a stomach churn, a relief for passengers. I just hope that our taxi driver is not going to be tempted by a glass of wine or anything, because he’s going to need all his wits about him to get us safely back down again. I think I prefer the gondola ride that normally brings guests up here.
Peter Markus, thank you very much. It’s was the most amazing meal up the mountain in Andermatt at 2500 metres and Gütsch is the most remarkable restaurant. You’ve got a Michelin star now – how did this come about? How do you manage to create such extraordinary cuisine at 2500 metres up the mountain?
Markus Because we did it already before in the valley. We had a restaurant and hotel with 18 points and one star, and then we came here and we tried to make the same thing here. If you can see this restaurant – it’s not a hut, it’s a restaurant on the mountain. That’s a difference.
Felice I think this evening we had about seven courses, something like that?
Markus Yes, appetiser, three starters, main course.
Felice People can come up here every evening?
Markus No, not every evening, we do that special. Maybe we will make some events like we had a full moon dinner or whatever. Also, we will do something on New Year.
Peter Mainly it’s a lunchtime destination for skiers?
Markus Normally it’s for lunch time.
Peter And you have sort of simple courses? We’ve had a taster menu, a gourmet feast, tonight but you have quite simple lunches as well?
Markus It’s simple for sure, but we don’t want to serve Bratwurst and French fries and whatever. It’s not the place to serve this. You can also have a plate of pasta with lobster, with mushrooms. In winter we will do it with mushrooms and saffron. You can also have normal things, but good.
Peter Are there problems in cooking at this altitude?
Markus No, no, really.
Peter Because I always find – in my simple way trying to cook at this altitude – it takes about ten minutes to boil an egg, but you are used to all this?
Markus Yes, for sure. The only difference is between here or even then in the valley is you get really tired in the evening because of the altitude, but that’s OK. We start at eight at morning and we finish at five in the evening, and that’s OK.
Felice And you’re doing something special here with the waste food?
Markus Yes, I always have had a problem about throwing things away. I’m growing up like this, like today sometimes you buy a bread and if they don’t sell it they have to throw it away in the evening. Where I grew up, we bought bread in Monday, Tuesday and it had to be good until the weekend. And so I hate to throw things away. So we try…like when we make vegetables we have to peel them, you have to wash them, you have to cut them. All these cuts we can use for vegetable stock, you don’t throw it away. It’s very important.
Felice And you’re unique in doing this, I think. You’re the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Switzerland who’s doing this?
Markus On the mountain, yes. I think it’s unique now in Switzerland at this altitude to have a Michelin star and we have this restaurant and also the Japanese, and it’s unique for Andermatt to have on one mountain two Michelin stars.
Peter That’s amazing. Are you the highest-altitude Michelin-starred restaurant?
Markus In Switzerland yes, but I think there is one more in France. They have maybe one star also, but maybe a little bit higher, but for sure it’s unique for Switzerland.
Felice It’s a reason in itself just to come to Andermatt.
Markus Yes, for sure.
Peter For a final word on the Renaissance of Andermatt, we met up with village walking guide, Bänz Simmen. No one knows more about the long history of the resort, and I started by asking Bänz if there had been much resistance from the locals when Egyptian, Samih Sawiris, first proposed his plans way back in 2005.
Bänz No, actually not because, you know, nobody believed it that anybody would invest a franc in Andermatt. If you looked at the votes, you know he could not come here and say: ‘I have 400 millions and I buy you all.’ He had to win votes in all the villages, in the canton, and it even took a countrywide change of law, and all these were surprisingly positive. More than 90%, yes.
Peter Do you think there’s a big future for Andermatt as a major international ski resort and an all-round resort?
Bänz I think it’s not Andermatt – the project is Central Alps, with all the side valleys like Goms Valley, Lake Ticino and parts of Graubunden. All these areas have their speciality – naturally or in adventurous sports like skiing, mountaineering, whatever – but we really have to start to think over this mountain.
Peter Do you think there is a boom time coming for this part of Switzerland?
Bänz There’s a big, big chance. It’s always hard to say if it’s booming or not, or if a boom is warranted or not, if boom is positive, but at least we have to realise we are part of the game and we are in charge…not only Samih Sawiris but his millions. We have a chance to be part of our future.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. And by the way, we just like to mention that if you take up our special offer to buy Water To Go bottles, we do earn a small commission; this helps with the production costs of the podcast. Until next week, stay safe.
Also see our episode Saving Snowsports With Ecoski.
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