February 22, 2013 7:19 pm

Switzerland without skis

Two decades after her last – disastrous – ski holiday, the FT columnist returns to the Alps to visit a remote hamlet reinvented as a luxurious retreat for those who love mountains, but not falling over
Lucy Kellaway admires the alpine view©Sébastien Albert

Lucy Kellaway, in borrowed ski jacket and snow shoes, admires the alpine view

When I was 25, I went to Saas-Fee for the first and last skiing holiday of my life. I hated the happy, shouting crowds and the garish clothes they wore. I liked neither the overpriced hot chocolate nor the sickly glühwein, in which all traces of alcohol had long gone. But, above all, I loathed the skiing: the endless falling over on the way down the slope and the terror of the button lift on the way up. Even now, the sight of a ski boot with its unnatural, forward sloping angle makes me feel very unhappy indeed.

The first thing Montagne Alternative has going for it is that it’s not a ski resort. Instead, it’s a collection of four converted barns that used to house cows with alpine bells but now house affluent humans, seeking a few days’ peace in the mountains.

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Lucy Kellaway

The second good thing is that for a remote place it is remarkably easy to get to. The train to Martigny obligingly waits at Geneva airport and whisks you along by the lake, past some of the most ludicrously beautiful scenery in the world. At the station is Eduardo Ramos, a Mexican who lived most of his life in Belgium, who drives you up a mountain in his jeep. From noisy, grubby London to silent, Persil-white Commeire, the journey takes less than six hours – about the same at it takes to get to my usual remote spot in north Cornwall.

Commeire is a tiny hamlet close to the point where France, Italy and Switzerland meet. It has a permanent population of 12 elderly locals who don’t wander around shouting in bright anoraks but prefer to stay quietly indoors. Eduardo explains how a Belgian friend of his came here eight years ago, fleeing both wife and corporate life, bought a barn for a song and converted it for himself. Before long, another friend came and did the same. Now there are four of them, each with plenty of experience of midlife crises but with none of tourism, and together they own and run this glamorously eccentric business venture.

Outside our barn, firewood was stacked impossibly neatly; inside, the big space was filled with the warm dry smell of wood. Apart from a bunch of dried flowers and some minimalist modern furniture, there was little to detract from the main event: walls of glass giving out on to mountains.

The look was austere and luxurious all at once. The towels in the bathroom were not fluffy and white but smooth and slate grey. There were no pictures on the walls; the only adornment was antique quilts on the beds. At first I felt as if I was a guest in someone’s vastly tasteful holiday house, only with the advantage that there was no social obligation to the host, who showed up occasionally to lend waterproof boots or offer advice. But after a bit I realised it was better than this – this wasn’t his place, it was surely mine, only I had miraculously acquired style and attention to detail somewhere along the way.

The Montagne Alternative’s converted barns©Sébastien Albert

The Montagne Alternative’s converted barns

There are several small ski resorts nearby (and Verbier is less than half an hour away) but there’s also plenty to occupy non-skiers: photography, cooking or various sporty things. However, as my daughter and I sunk on to our beds to relax after our most untiring journey, it was instantly clear that the main attraction of Montagne Alternative is doing nothing at all.

It’s not quite Eat, Pray, Love. It’s more eat, sleep, vegetate while staring out of the window down the Val d’Entremont towards Italy or, for variety, gazing into the gaily dancing flames of the fire. We had been there nearly 24 hours before we stirred ourselves to go for a proper walk. Martin Vanderborght, the nephew of one of the founders, showed us the little shed where the snow shoes were kept, and helped us put them on.

We clipped the plastic paddles on to our walking boots and set off, crunch, crunch, crunch. Within the first three steps I knew I had found my thing. The trouble with skis is that they encourage you to fall over, whereas snow shoes are designed to keep you upright. Trudging along in them is a bit tiring but you feel so secure that you can look around you, which is surely the whole point.

The snow, which had fallen in vast quantity just before our arrival and again overnight, was fresh and deep. The temperature was minus 13C but the sun, on our south-facing stretch of mountainside, was hot. Within 100 steps we had left the village behind us and seemed to have the entire mountain range to ourselves. I flung my arms out wide and started to sing, “The hills fill my heart with the sound of music.” The twirl was hard to execute in snow shoes and in any case my daughter pointed out that The Sound of Music is set in the summer. The right text for our trip, she said, was Frankenstein.

Although we were in the middle of nowhere, a touch of the iPhone reminded us how Victor Frankenstein feels about the view: “The sublime ecstasy that gives wings to the soul” – which seemed to do nicely.

Victor, like me, preferred to have the place to himself and writes: “I was well acquainted with the path, and the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene.”

Only in my case I wasn’t remotely acquainted with the path and, fancying a clever shortcut down a precipitous slope, fell into deep snow. However, this was not the freezing, impacted ice of Saas-Fee’s beginners’ slopes. This snow was soft and almost warm, and were it not for the quantity that got down the back of my jeans, falling into it would have been an entirely pleasant experience.

After our walk there was a yoga class before supper. Here was another austere, sweet-smelling barn with heart-stopping views that doubles as a meeting room for corporate retreats. In it we swapped the posture of upward facing human for downward facing dog, which was OK, though seemed a bit pointless when a superior form of relaxation was also on offer back in our own barn: sitting by the fire being offered a glass of local wine.

A dining room at one of the barns of Montagne Alternative

A dining room at one of the barns

That Saturday night our barn was full – we were sharing with four other couples and were 10 around the table. Such a crowd might have spoiled the whole thing but turned out to be my sort of dinner party. Partly it was the laid-back style of Eduardo and Martin, who drifted in and out in an agreeable way, dispensing wine.

But it was also because you didn’t have to discuss schools or house prices. You didn’t have to talk at all. You could just concentrate on the food. This had been prepared by Jamie Anderson, a chef from Dundee who now lives nearby, and consisted of tender slabs of lamb, ratatouille and quite the best lemon tart I have had.

At my favourite hour for going to bed – 9pm – we said goodnight and fell into the sort of deep sleep that follows a satisfying encounter with nature. I would have slept through till morning were it not for noise from a neighbouring bedroom suggesting that two fellow guests were having a satisfying encounter with one another.

By breakfast all was forgiven. Indeed, this breakfast would have made me forgive anything. Bread and apricot jam is a perfect start to the day, and the Swiss baguette is vastly superior to the French. And with the apricot jam, made by someone nearby, it made me want to eat nothing else for the rest of my days.

On Sunday night, after another rich day spent doing not much, we had the place to ourselves again, and ordered a takeaway. This was no Domino's Pizza, it was duck à l’orange with salad served like a bunch of spring flowers, driven up the mountain from Les Alpes, a famous restaurant nearby.

By the end of the weekend I was well-eaten, well-slept (mainly) and well-walked. I had bonded with my daughter, with strangers but mostly with myself. In a place such as this, one might even bond with colleagues. The only thing I had not bonded with was the book on office politics I was meant to be reviewing. In the majestic silence of this corner of the Alps, it was hard to credit that such a thing as office politics even existed.

As a PS, sharp-eyed readers may have spotted a discrepancy between the words of this article and the picture that goes with it. I appear to be wearing the very sort of garish ski jacket I’m most scornful of.

The truth is that it belonged to the photographer who made me wear it as, otherwise, I would have disappeared into the mountains behind. Thus my silhouette is visible in the picture. But what the photo doesn’t show is that my soul is not there: it flew off into the mountains, just as Victor Frankenstein’s did, and I still haven’t got it back.

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Details

Lucy Kellaway was a guest of Swiss, Switzerland Tourism and Montagne Alternative. Doubles cost from €200, a week’s stay from €500 per person. Swiss has 11 departures a day from London to Geneva, from £113 return. Swiss transfer tickets allow one return trip from the airport or border to any destination, from £92.

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More mountain retreats – skis optional

Almdorf Seinerzeit, Austria

Perched on a hillside high above the valley floor, Almdorf consists of 28 wooden chalets clustered around an inn and a pond. Oil lamps light the footpaths, wood smoke puffs from the chimneys. It looks like nothing has changed for centuries but in fact it’s an illusion – Almdorf was built less than 20 years ago as an idealised recreation of the Alpine hamlet. In practice this means that the chalets look ancient (down to their stone roof tiles and wooden gutters) but inside are spacious and well equipped. Most have wood-fired outdoor hot tubs and many have ingeniously concealed mod-cons: tug on an antique pulley and a flatscreen television rises from a wooden dresser, lift a wooden step in the bathroom to reveal a chilled cabinet full of champagne bottles. The tiny ski area of Falkert is a couple of miles up the road, while larger Bad Kleinkirchheim is 10 minutes’ drive away. Numerous other activities on offer include snowshoeing, visiting thermal baths, cross-country skiing, walking and curling. Chalets for two from €380; www.almdorf.com

Breakfast at Almdorf Seinerzeit

Breakfast at Almdorf Seinerzeit

Whitepod, Switzerland

An encampment of 15 dome tents pitched amid the snow at 1400m, Whitepod offers a unique mountain experience. Camping here is not roughing it – the tents have sheepskin rugs, wood-burning stoves, fully-equipped bathrooms and large windows giving far-reaching views over the Rhone valley. There are two chalets nearby, one housing a breakfast room and bar, the other the restaurant and a sauna, both beautifully decorated and full of books on the area. There is some skiing here – two private lifts are at guest’s disposal – but also snowshoeing, dog-sledding, walking, wine and chocolate tasting. Pods for two from SFr360 (£255); www.whitepod.com

Sextantio Santo Stefano, Italy

Not in the Alps, but in the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga national park in the Apennines, Santo Stefano is a fortified medieval hilltop village at 1,250m. After years of depopulation, during the past decade it has been brought back to life as an “albergo diffuso” – a hotel in which the 28 rooms are in restored original houses, scattered around the village. The ski lifts at Campo Imperatore are about 20 miles away but guests can also walk, go wolf-watching, tour the area’s numerous historic villages, churches, castles and craft and food shops, or just relax in the spa. Doubles from €75; www.sextantio.it

Tom Robbins

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