Thursday 18 July 2019

Switzerland: A land of peak perfection, where they do things differently

A trip to Riffelalp proves restorative for award-winning travel writer, Gemma Fullam

Riffelalp Resort 2222m is located in an area of exceptional beauty, with an unimpeded view of the Matterhorn, the world's most photographed peak
Riffelalp Resort 2222m is located in an area of exceptional beauty, with an unimpeded view of the Matterhorn, the world's most photographed peak
A view of the glacier at Gornergrat
Gemma on her room's balcony with the Riffelalp tram below

Gemma Fullam

I have a proclivity for all things Swiss; it’s a land that delights me in diverse ways each time I visit.

The Swiss, democratic to a fault, are individual thinkers who embrace the collective good. Everything is voted on — famously, in 2012, the 450 residents of tiny villages in a remote Alpine valley vetoed a gold mining operation which would have seen them profit to the tune of €27m.

“The money would have been nice,” one woman said, “but what sort of future would we have if we ruined the environment?”

Indeed. And what an environment it is.

A view of the glacier at Gornergrat
A view of the glacier at Gornergrat

My mother had recently been unwell, so we hoped the restorative mountain air would restore her vigour. Having flown to Zurich, we caught a train to Zermatt, then boarded the famous Gornergrat Bahn, and finally a dinky tram, to reach our plush destination, the highest luxury hotel in Europe, Riffelalp Resort 2222m — it featured in the BBC’s lavish 2016 adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager. Our arrival was under cover of darkness, but the energy emanating from the peaks was palpable; Swiss mountains are famously full of crystals, particularly in Valais.

The land on which the hotel sits was bought in 1856 by Alexandre Seiler, brother to Joseph, the then chaplain of Zermatt. The hotel, which underwent an extensive renovation a few years ago, began life in 1884 as the Grand Hotel Riffelalp, a summer playground for Europe’s beau monde. Its great altitude means it often lies above the clouds, and gets over 300 days of sunshine a year.

Riffelalp charms from the get-go. The hotel is a combination of old and new; the old being the traditional chalet style of the original building, while the new additions are seamlessly integrated by way of interior decor. A flock of decorative sheep greet our entrance, and a gulp of 2,000 ceramic swallows swoop in elegant arcs beneath the timber-beamed lobby ceiling. Creaturely incarnations are around every corner, and iterations of the area’s flora and fauna are dotted throughout; the effect is enchanting. Check-in over, mother and I repair to the bar, to sink into leather armchairs and while away the evening sipping Brut du Valais, with the tinkling piano and crackling fire our soothing soundtrack. Heaven.

We wake to glorious sunshine, and, from our balcony, the jaw-dropping sight the night’s mist had hidden from view — the Matterhorn, the world’s most photographed mountain, its iconic outline the inspiration for Theodor Tobler’s famous prismatic chocolate bar.

In winter, Riffelalp Resort 2222m is perfectly placed for skiers to take maximum advantage of the area’s plentiful pistes, but in summer, it’s a hiker’s paradise, with trails ranging from easy strolls to all-day hikes. Sated by industrial quantities of sublime Bircher muesli from the vast breakfast buffet, we set off at a gentle pace, passing the hotel’s cows, noting several black Herens, an ancient Valais breed of fighting cow, among the herd. The bovines were reintroduced to the mountain meadows in 2017 and the hotel’s aim is to make cheese from their milk; the hotel’s pond brims with fat trout that also appear on the dinner menu.

We pass the hotel chapel — a most popular spot for weddings with Chinese brides, for whom a Swiss wedding is currently the height of sophistication. Our route, which is dotted with glockenblumen (bluebells), takes us down the valley, where we catch the cog railway — the world’s first fully electrified train — to Gornergrat, a rocky ridge at 3,089m in the Pennine Alps, with an observatory, Europe’s highest-altitude hotel, and a viewing platform. The journey is magical; it takes just over half an hour to climb the 1,469m to the summit, passing waterfalls, intrepid mountaineers, picture-postcard mountain huts, with the Matterhorn’s peak slipping in and out of the gorgeous vista.

This territory is the haunt of chamois, red deer, marmots, white hares, golden eagles and wild ibex (the last seek out salt stones to supplement their sodium-deficient vegetarian diets). We have lunch outside, overlooking the Monte Rosa massif, which is flanked by glaciers, and from the stupendous array of 4,000m-high peaks — there are 29 — I try to pick out the twin summits of Castor and Pollux, named for the stars of my birthsign.

Back at Riffelalp, we dine at Ristorante Al Bosco, its Italian restaurant which is set apart from the main hotel. The ravioli is divine, and post-prandial coffee comes with a perfect moment: a tiny Toblerone, a chocolate iteration of the ‘meadow peak’ mountain ever present in our eyeline. Exhausted from the morning’s activity, my mother retires for a nap, while I investigate the host of pampering delights of the St Trop Alp spa, including a Finnish sauna, a grotto with saline baths and waterfalls, a whirlpool, steam room, and the jewel in the crown, the outdoor pool. I relax on the pool’s inbuilt recliners, with the mighty Matterhorn’s snowy aspect at 12 o’clock, awaiting my Power of the Alps treatment, during which I’m coated in marmot oil and submerged to float in a ‘dry’ waterbed, emerging soft-skinned and blissful.

Rejuvenated after our respective time-outs, my mother and I opt to train it down to Zermatt for dinner. On the advice of genial general manager Hans-Jorg Walther, aka the “keeper of the hut”, we plump to dine at the Riffelalp’s sister hotel, the five-star Mont Cervin Palace. Opened in 1852, it was developed by the Seilers when Zermatt was a tiny village with a population of 400 (it is now 6,000) and virtually no tourist industry — Alexander Seiler II was instrumental in the building of the Gornergrat Bahn and the red tram linking it to Riffelalp.

Car-free Zermatt is undeniably posh, with possibly the highest concentration of luxury timepiece outlets in the world. It’s a foodie’s delight, with over 100 restaurants in the village, several holding Michelin stars. Mont Cervin Palace’s Le Cervain Grill is traditional in decor, but the food is spectacular, and pricey — think truffle on everything — but worth every single Swiss franc.

There is a wealth of activities in the area, and a plethora of facilities in house (a billiard room, two bowling alleys, and a games room with table football and consoles) but the gorgeousness of Riffelalp made a treat of just lounging in our sumptuous oak-panelled room, which abounded with delightful details, not least the stone and wood bathroom, complete with whirlpool bath.

A lazy morning led to lunch on the terrace of the nearby Restaurant Alphitta, owned by Dave from Dublin  and his wife Tanja. Again, the fare was fab, and Dave regaled us with tales of past Swiss Paddy’s Day celebrations, involving him paragliding on to the terrace dressed as a leprechaun. And occasionally missing.

My mother adores her food, so we stuck with our dawdle and dine combo, whiling away the afternoon with a book (me) and a nap (her) until it was time for dinner. We ate in the hotel’s Restaurant Alexandre, where the charming maitre d’, Alcindo, guided us through the gorgeous menu — does it get better than venison with chocolate?

All the while, out the window, we could see the Matterhorn glowing in the moon’s pale light; the view as magnificent as our meal.

The next day, on the train to Zurich, and home, a tiny woman with a pink gerbera in her hair passes through our carriage selling ice cream. My mother inquires about the whereabouts of the tea trolley, and despite it being outside her remit, the ice cream lady fetches tea, in a proper cup, for my delighted mum. It was the kindest of gestures. But we were, after all, in Switzerland. A land of peak perfection, where they do things differently.

Getting there

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Gemma on her room's balcony with the Riffelalp tram below
 

* Riffelalp Resort 2222m, built in 1884, has the distinction of being Europe's highest luxury hotel. Its unique location, in the heart of the spectacular Gornergrat hiking area, has stunning views of the iconic Matterhorn. Leisure facilities include the St Trop Spa, two pools, a billiard room, indoor bowling, table tennis, table football, outdoor playground, smoking lounge and bar. Riffelalp Resort 2222m,  CH-3920 Zermatt, Switzerland,  Tel: +41 27 966 05 55,  Email: reservation@riffelalp.com, or see riffelalp.com

* The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Travel Pass is the all-in-one ticket to travel by train, bus and boat on an all-inclusive basis from 3-15 days. Prices from €211 in second class. Each ticket offers free admission to over 500 museums. For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist, see SwitzerlandTravel Centre, swisstravelsystem.co.uk

* Aer Lingus operates up to two flights from Dublin to Zurich, with fares starting from €55.99 one-way including taxes and charges. See aerlingus.com

This feature originally ran in The Sunday Independent.

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