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 Wow! What an experience. This week, we’re in the ski resort of Verbier in the Swiss Alps. Not that there’s any snow, but that’s as it should be, I guess, in August. Most people don’t realise or truly appreciate the glory of the Alps that’s revealed when the snow melts, the cows leave their winter quarters and chew the cud in meadows and high pastures sprinkled with flowers. I’ve spent much of my life on skis in the mountains in winter. I hardly dare admit that I think I actually prefer, these days the summer here. What about you, Felice?
Felice Well, I think the Alps are almost more beautiful in summer. The beautiful green meadows and the flowers, and there are so many different things you can do. In winter you can ski, which we love, and you can do things like tobogganing. But in summer you can mountain bike, you can road bike, you can swim outside and inside, obviously.
Peter And then of course, there’s hiking and golf. They have a wonderful golf course here and zip-wiring. But more on that later. And as well, of course, also there’s fine dining and plenty of apres-ski. Well, apres-hike. So, Felice, we’ve got the best part of three days here to action pack in as much as we can. Where shall we begin?
Felice Well, we start with golf, which I haven’t played much in years and years and years because I’m actually a golf orphan. So a golf widow or, of course, a widower is someone whose partner leaves them for hours on end, usually at the weekend while they go off and play golf. And a golf orphan is someone whose parents go and leave them for hours at a time over weekends or drag them around golf courses in the school holidays. And all of that turned me against golf, as you can imagine. But now, this was my first time having a lesson. I actually had one lesson many years ago when I was a child and I didn’t take to it, but this was quite fun.
Peter In the late afternoon on arrival, we met up with Rico, the golf pro on the driving range just above the town of Verbier, and we had a go. I have to say, I’ve played a bit of golf when I was a teenager, which is a very long time ago, and I’d sort of given it up because I find it took so long to play and there just wasn’t enough time in my life… thinking that maybe one day I’d take it up again. Well, after a session here in this glorious setting with marmots playing in the grass in front of us, I think I might just do that. Rico began by telling us about Verbier’s rather unique high alpine golf course.
Rico Well, we’ve got good 600 members and there’s, I’d say, 200 that play on a regular basis. And then high season we’re quite busy every day this year. When it’s hot everywhere people want to come up on altitude a little bit and they said, ‘Oh, this is great, we’re not steaming hot,’ and all that. And it’s still greener than most courses down in the valley. This water shortage obviously is a bit of an issue as well, but here not so much. We’re very lucky because we’ve got a lot of water from the dams. So that helps. But we’re not just putting out water and water and water – you’ve got to be sensible about things.
Peter So it’s 18 holes? Quite a difficult course?
Rico Yes, it’s fairly short and quite narrow; small greens with obstacles and blind shots. So most people that start playing here find it difficult.
Peter And does the ball moves faster at this altitude?
Rico Not faster but if it’s dry and warm, it goes further, so you may gain one club.
Peter Well, we better have a go.
Rico Let’s try.
Peter Of course, neither of us has an official handicap and Rico explained how you go about getting one.
Rico You’ve still got to go through a pro who can decide, ok, you’re actually ready to do a test, see if you can make the score to do that. Then you’ve got to have your test for the rules and etiquette. The big book with all the rules is in St Andrew’s, and it’s huge, but there are small versions of it. There are a lot of basic rules you have to know because otherwise you stand there and think: ‘What am I going to do now?’ And then the others says ‘Well, come on, keep playing even if I don’t know what to do.’ It doesn’t work that way. So you’ve got to go through that, and then your handicap may change through your results in tournaments. Or the pro or the captain in discussion can say, ‘Ok, this person plays so much better than this actual handicap. We can adjust that.’
Everybody who has clubs or balls or can get it from the clubhouse or anywhere, can hit balls. Anybody can get the balls out of the machine as long as they stay on the carpets. But then we have the little course, the Moulin, which is the pitch and putt. Anybody can play, handicap or no handicap, because you go out from 30 yards to about 70 yards: the holes and that’s it.
Peter That sounds about my level.
Rico We all started there. I started there many years ago. First two years, I started playing on the Moulin. And from there on you go on and you go further.
Felice And what’s the most difficult hole on the course?
Rico 11 on the card is a par 4, but for most people, not reachable. Again, don’t forget, there’s a lot of people that have a certain age or started playing later and they don’t have always the length to get to a put. Plus, the second shot is blind on a dog-leg.
Peter I think I may have left it a bit late.
Rico My father started late when he was retired and he enjoyed it. It got him outside and moving. So, you know, perfect.
Felice My grandfather played till he was 92.
Rico See? There you go. It’s fantastic. Yes, absolutely. So it’s from small children up to the people that can still walk and all that ,and move. So that’s fantastic thing.
Peter As we pull back the curtains of our bedroom the following morning, we’re greeted by the most fantastic sight. The view is incredible across the valley, the mountains in stark relief and a perfect blue sky overhead. We’re staying this week in the Experimental Chalet, which used to be the Hotel Nevai, which may be familiar to lots of skiers. And indeed, the Experimental Chalet is still home to the Farm Club, which is probably Verbier’s most famous nightclub, much frequented many years ago by Fergie and others, I have to say that in daylight, the club looks like it’s in need of a bit of a facelift. It hasn’t really changed in something like 30 years, but hey, that’s show business. It probably looks very different by night. Not that we’ll be going there; it’s not open in summer and anyway, we’d be far too tired after all the activities to think about going out drinking into the early hours.
Over an early breakfast, I caught up with Helene, who is manager of the hotel. Helene, I’ve known this hotel in various incarnations over many years and now it’s the Experimental Chalet. What’s experimental about it?
Helene Experimental Chalet is part of Experimental Group, and what we like in the experience is because we want the guests to enjoy every moment. It’s part of the accommodation when we pay attention to details and each service we have.
Peter And how many rooms have you got?
Peter That’s quite a good size for what is essentially a chalet hotel, a very smart boutique hotel. As you come into Verbier, it’s on your left hand side and very convenient for the village centre.
Helene Yes, it’s very convenient. It’s just a few metres by feet to the ski lift and during the summer you can walk around and be part of every event of the summer.
Peter And do you have to book a long time in advance is it must get very busy with that number of rooms?
Helene Yes, it’s very busy. The winter is very busy and the sooner the better to book.
Peter What sort of facilities you have, you have a little spa, I believe?
Helene Yes, we’ve got a spa with the brand Biologique Recherche. It’s famous for facial treatments. We also have a cocktail bar during the winter and the Frenchie Verbier, which is our restaurant with Gregory Macron, the chef signing the menu.
Peter We find it very comfortable, I have to say.
Helene Thank you so much.
Peter So we’re on our way to go e-biking this morning. We’re going down in the gondola, down to Le Châble, which is the small town at the bottom of the gondola in the valley where we’re going to rent our e-bikes and off we go with a guide. One really good improvement in Verbier in recent years is that the gondola is now deemed to be a form of public transport. This probably came about because of COVID, and this means that it runs all day and right through the evening until just before midnight. So you really can stay down in Le Châble and come and go from Verbier with considerable ease.
Felice The gondola’s actually free for pedestrians…if you’ve got a VIP card and you get the Verbier VIP card if you’re a holidaymaker here, and that gives people with their mountain bikes 50% off the gondola and it gives you money off all sorts of different activities here, so it’s really worth having.
Peter Now as we get to the bottom of the gondola. We reached the bike shop, Montagne Show, which I have said has the most wonderful selection of different e-bikes, mainly Haibike, which is a German manufacturer that actually we have the same ones at home. But these are rather smarter and a more sophisticated version of them. So, Felice, are you ready for the off?
Felice I am. I haven’t ridden one for a while. We’ve done a lot of biking in the mountains before, but not for a few years because of COVID, and it’s lovely weather so I’m really looking forward to it.
Peter So we just met up with our guide, Jan, who looks like he knows one end of a bike from the other, to put it mildly. And off we go. We’re heading for Le Chemin de 700 ans, the route of 700 years – so called because it marks the 700th anniversary of the founding of the Swiss Confederation. I think it’s quite steep in places – we are in the mountains – so we’ll be gaining quite a lot of altitude and losing quite a lot of altitude as well. In all, it’s about 25k and it should take us around two and a half hours, but I think we’ll be a bit slower than that because we’ve tagged along with a group of beginner e-bikers and our progress may be a bit slower, but the route should take us on dirt tracks through meadows and little villages on the mountainside. It should be great.
Peter So Jan, a great morning on a bike.
Jan Yes, we started from Le Châble, then we went to Voleges and we crossed back to Montagnier and Versegères Champsec. And here we are now in Bruson at the Raclett’House for lunch.
Peter Quite hard work up the hills, but mostly with an e-bike it’s a lot easier, isn’t it?
Felice It certainly is, but it’s very hot today.
Peter Yes, that doesn’t help sometimes. Do you do guiding here all the time?
Jan Yes. So we guide here quite a lot, either around Verbier or down the valley. We take out groups like you guys and e-bikes are really useful for that.
Felice Which months do you do this? Summer only?
Jan Only mainly between June and September, and depends on the seasons. But these are the main times.
Peter In the winter you’re a ski instructor?
Jan I’m a professional skier in the winter, actually. So I have sponsors, I do films and competition.
Peter Today we were in a very much a beginner group of e-bikers, but presumably you do quite a lot of downhill biking and things like that.
Jan Yes, exactly. We spend half of our time coaching in the bike park or on the trails, teaching people how to master technique on the bike to get better at downhill and to have more fun.
Felice Is that just adults or children as well?
Jan I would say half of them are adults and half of them are children. So we do camps for both. Yes, it’s a big trend now to take courses for biking.
Felice E-bike as well, or just for normal bikes?
Jan Children are mostly on normal bikes because they are not allowed under a certain age, but it seems like e-bikes are getting smaller and smaller, so maybe in a few years’ time children are going to use them.
Peter Yes, certainly in in some countries, in Austria in particular, it’s very much a family sport now. It means that if you are a good cyclist, yourself and your partner, the children can join in as well because they can they can keep up.
Jan Yes, exactly. That’s super useful for them, too, to keep the family together. Another solution is to put a rope behind the e-bike – that works as well – and you can drag your two children behind.
Felice I haven’t seen that before…someone towing a child.
Peter Yes, that sounds like really hard work.
Jan Yes, that’s quite hard work. But you know, you have the boost mode on the bikes, which makes it super powerful. So no problem to drag someone.
Jan That’s great, isn’t it? Well, you know, thank you very much indeed. It’s been a great morning. You couldn’t have a better day for it.
Jan Yes, for sure. My pleasure, thank you.
Peter So, what do you think of the ride, Felice? You actually fell off. at one stage, didn’t you?
Felice Well, I had a bad start. I had to make an emergency stop and then put my foot down, miscalculated the distance and yes, fell off. And luckily I’m okay. But it does make me realise that the bike shop will lend you the bike and a helmet, but you do need to bring your own first aid kit and probably gloves…cycling gloves. I was wearing those and that prevented any gravel going into my hands. You can get fingerless ones which are not too hot in summer.
Apart from my injury, it was lovely. The scenery was gorgeous. We went through lots of little villages up and down the mountain. It wasn’t hard. You don’t have to be very fit at all to do that. It was 25 kilometres in all, but didn’t seem that long.
Peter The great thing is that with a modern battery you can go for miles, maybe 50 or 60 kilometres like that. There’s no risk of running out of juice. And in fact, looking at my battery at the end, we were sort of barely a quarter used, maybe less.
Felice That depends how much you want to use it. Of course, someone might have it in turbo mode the whole way and then you’d use up…probably half.
Peter Yes, maybe. Anyway, it was good fun.
So we’ve come up the cable car to the top of Mont-Fort 3300 meters and now I’m climbing down the steps to what is the beginning of the front face of Mont-Fort ski run in winter. And right now, all it is a sheer strip of glacier that is not looking in very good shape – like most glaciers in Switzerland and the rest of the Alps, with a lot of water runoff from it this year. But in front of us now, once you clambered over a few rocks, is the start of the zip-wire.
This fiendish ride operates in winter as well as in summer and it’s a very, very quick way of getting down this otherwise extremely steep ski run. The youngest person to do it was aged eight years and the oldest 92. It takes a lot of courage, whether you’re young or whether you’re old. So here we are, ready for the off. Quite a scary moment. Pretty scared. See you at the bottom. Here we go. I’m ready. Whoa! Three, two, one.
Wow! What an experience! Absolutely amazing. Absolutely incredible. You could feel the wind – very, very strong coming down over the glacier. And I have to say the glacier in worse shape than I am. 1400 meters of descent at 130 kilometres an hour. It’s the most incredible sensation. Pretty cold. Now we’re coming into land, I just hope we’re going is to slow down. Maybe we slow down to maybe 100 kilometers, now maybe 75 kilometers.
Safely down and off the scaffold. I must say that was a very quick way of getting down to the bottom of Mont-Fort. So, Felice, how was that for you?
Peter Well, certainly that’s the highest and the longest in the Alps.
Felice I think it’s the highest in the world, actually.
Peter Is it?
Felice And when I saw the speed of it, because I wasn’t the first to go, I was absolutely terrified. I was strapped in and everyone checked it was all ok and safe…and off I went. But actually I kept my eyes closed the whole way, almost to the bottom. But I arrived there safely and in one piece.
Peter Well, now we’ve done that and we’ve heard the cowbells. We’d better go find the cows.
Now I’m standing in front of some 60 cows, fighting cows – where the queens fight for who is to be head of the herd. They’ve certainly got some big tough horns on them. Quite sharp. Each one’s got a bell. In theory, you could tell one cow from another, but I think that takes away a lifetime of being a herdsman to have that skill.
During the long winter months indoors the cows remember who is their queen and when they come out into the pastures each spring, a handful of pretenders will try to grab the throne – and the cows lock horns and do some pretty spectacular fighting to decide who the next queen will be. If a stranger comes into the herd, the cows will immediately know because the bell will be different – each herd has its own bell sound – and they will turn on it and the new cow will have to fight the pretenders.
Peter We’re right up here at about 2500 meters in the Alps. Very, very beautiful scenery. It looks very different in summer up here than it does in winter, I can tell you. What is almost frightening is the way in which the glaciers are shrinking. What were once long, beautiful white glaciers, even in summer, are now short grey areas of rock and ice.
We could have stayed last night up here at the Brunet Mountain Hut, which has dormitories and a shared shower, but we chose instead to stay the night down lower down the mountain beside a fast-flowing stream in the peaceful little village of Lourtier. Then, early this morning, we caught a little bus that took us up a hair-raising single-track road to the hut.
We walked up a track to where farmer Marc Maret’s cows are happily grazing. Incredibly, a herdsman comes up each morning to milk them by hand – it takes four hours. As soon as he’s finished, it’s almost time to start all over again. The milk, of course, is made into cheese, which you can sample along with dried meat and other delicacies in a little hut still further up the mountain and run by Marc’s wife.
Felice A word of warning: when someone local tells you that it’s half an hour’s walk, you need to double that – because they live up in the mountains but we, most of us, live at sea level. So hiking at 2500 meters is much harder work than you’d imagine.
Normally, I can’t eat any sort of cheese made from cow’s milk. I’m fine with goat and sheep’s cheese, but there wasn’t any of that here…it’s all cows, wherever you look. So I was expecting to have to make do with bread and dried meat and maybe some jam. But Marc assured me that one of his more mature cheeses was naturally free of lactose. I was assured that I could tuck into it with no ill effect. One of the cheeses looked just like feta, which I love, but I was warned that this one had actually more lactose than any of the others.
Peter The farmer’s hut, by the way, is called La Buvette de Pindin, and it’s way above La Barmasse and it’s about an hour’s walk up from the bus stop at the Bruner Refuge. Food is, of course, very much a part of this trip, Felice.
Felice It certainly has, and being Switzerland it’s very cheesy.
Peter Yes, lots of cheese. And we started off with going to Chez Dany the first night after the golf, where we walked up for about 45 minutes up to Chez Dany, which is a familiar mountain restaurant in winter, and it’s actually beautiful in summer. It’s a really traditional old chalet set in the corner of a meadow, the edge of woodland at Clambin. And yes, I got going on the cheese straight away with a croute complete, which is a mixture of bread and melted cheese and ham with an egg on top. It’s a great Swiss delicacy.
Felice I had a salad. The best thing was watching the sunset from there, which was lovely.
Peter Then we walked down again, which is probably about an hour down to the village, that sort of thing.
Felice I think so. And it was in the dark, so a couple of people got lost, but we managed to keep to the path and…
Peter We had head torches, so it wasn’t too bad, but really nice walk down actually. And we walked past the chalet that the Duke of York used to own, because of course he sold it. And then we came down into the village and walked back to our hotel. And then other highlights of eating here were the Raclette’house in Bruson, which is run by Eddy, a very famous local personality.
Felice And the interesting thing about that…normally Raclette is a Swiss cows ‘cheese, but for this one you could choose goat’s cheese raclette and sheep’s cheese raclette, which were both completely different and delicious.
Peter Of course, if you if you don’t know what Raclette is, it’s melted cheese with potatoes and with dried meats. And it is really one of those great delicacies of Switzerland. You wash it down with white wine from the Valais region. Never red, white is much better for the digestion. And then we had a lunch in La Dahu, which is another famous mountain restaurant way above Verbier. I haven’t seen it in summer before, but it’s got great views and really quite delicious food.
Then on our last evening we went to La Grenier, which is one of the restaurants of the five-star Chalet d’Adrien in the centre of Verbier, presided over by chef, Sebastiano Lombardi. Fantastic sea bream and probably the best mashed potato I’ve ever eaten in my life – I don’t know how you achieve a taste like that.
You certainly eat well in Verbier and there’s a huge diversity of restaurants. There’s now an Indian restaurant, Gunpowder Verbier which is truly outstanding. And then there’s also Sushi Aiseki in the place Centrale and really popular. It’s not all cheese; there’s lots of other good things to eat as well in Verbier. So overall, a visit in August to Verbier: was it worthwhile?
Felice Definitely. It’s just as good fun in summer as in winter and actually almost more to do for different age groups than in winter. Very easy to get there, so you can go for a weekend – fly to Geneva, for example, with Swiss, and you then take the train, a very easy train journey from Geneva Airport to Verbier. And for more on that, you go to SBB.
Peter For information on Verbier, you can find all the details about what we’ve talked about on the podcast. We rented our e-bikes and helmets from the Mountain Show shop in Le Châble. You can find out prices by visiting Montagne Show.
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]. Until next week, stay safe.
See also our other Verbier episodes: Geraldine Fasnacht: On a Wing and a Prayer, Warren Smith: Ski Instructor to the Stars and Royals, and Explorer Tom Avery: North Pole, South Pole and Verbier.
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