The ultimate escape: a pilgrimage to Europe's highest hotel
Italy's Capanna Margherita sits among the clouds almost three vertical miles above sea level - but has a bar, restaurant, beds for 70 and even a small library. The FT Travel Editor Tom Robbins makes the long journey to a remarkable hotel
Shot by Damiano Levati. Produced by AlphaGrid and Natalie Whittle. Edited by Oliver McGuirk
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
TOM ROBBINS: Of all the thousands of hotels in Europe, one stands head and shoulders above the rest. It isn't luxurious. It doesn't have a pool, but it's the ultimate retreat. The Capanna Margherita, the Margherita Hut in English, sits on a mountain top surrounded by glaciers at an altitude of 4,554 metres, almost 3 vertical miles above sea level. Apart from a tiny emergency shelter on Russia's Mount Elbrus, it is Europe's highest building, and no other hotel comes close.
It's the end of a sweltering week in Europe, but we're going up somewhere where it's always snowy-- we're going up to Europe's highest hotel.
[DEEP MELLOW MUSIC]
The Margherita Hut sleeps 70, and is open to all, but getting there isn't exactly straightforward. You start in one of two Italian villages-- Alagnia or [INAUDIBLE]-- and ride their cable cars as high as they will go, to 3,275 metres.
[HIKERS CHATTING, BOOTS SCRAPING]
From there, it's an hour's walk to a climber's refuge, where you spend the night, and at dawn the next day, you don crampons and a rope for a five-hour glacier hike to the hotel.
You've made it up to the Capanna Gnifetti, a pit stop for the night before we go up early tomorrow morning, up to the Margherita Hut. They were both built in the middle of the 19th century, when alpinism was just starting to take off across this area as an upper class pursuit.
NICK PARKS: We're going on a glacier all the way, so we've got a problem of dealing with crevasses. It will be demanding mainly because of the altitude.
[MELLOW TECHNO MUSIC]
TOM ROBBINS: So it's 5:45, and we're just about to set off up towards the Margherita Hut. We've got about 900 metres of vertical ascent to go, so I better get on with it. No one would build a hotel so high today. The Margherita Hut is a relic of an earlier golden age of mountaineering. In the late 19th century, little Italian villages at the foot of Monte Rosa were booming as climbing became an increasingly popular pastime.
Even the king and queen, Umberto and Margherita, were regular guests. The Italian Alpine Club ordered the construction of the Hut in 1889. It was opened by Queen Margherita and named in her honour, as later was a certain type of pizza. The world wars saw an end to all that. Tourism collapsed, and the villages retreated to obscurity-- but up on the frozen summit, the hotel endured.
So we've been going for a couple of hours. We're just at the Col du Lys, which is where we cross over into Switzerland to cross the final glacier up to the Margherita Hut.
The big unseen danger is the altitude. Up here, there is 40% less oxygen than at sea level, which makes altitude sickness a real possibility. Guests at the hotel sometimes have to be rescued by helicopter and taken back down the valley. Most mountain huts in the Alps are halfway up the mountain, to be pit stops for climbers on their way up to the summit. Crazy thing about this place is they built the refuge right on the summit itself.
[HELICOPTER BLADES WHIRRING]
Thanks, mate. We made it.
NICK PARKS: Fantastic.
TOM ROBBINS: So it's 10:45. We made it up to the Margherita Hut. It's a long way to come for lunch. Just look at that view.
[MELLOW TECHNO MUSIC]
We're at 4,554 metres. There's only two peaks in all of the Alps and the Pyrenees that are higher than us, and yet this isn't some gnarly climber's bivouac-- there's a full restaurant, a bar. They've even got Wi-Fi. Claudio Bonetta is one of the team of five who run the hotel, typically working for a fortnight before descending for a break at lower altitude. I asked him what it was like to work up among the clouds.
CLAUDIO BONETTA: Maybe the first days when you are just arriving, you can feel the altitude [INAUDIBLE] a little bit sick. But-- [INAUDIBLE] then no problem. [INAUDIBLE] and work at the same time.
TOM ROBBINS: When you finish your season here, where do you go?
CLAUDIO BONETTA: I'm going to holidays.
TOM ROBBINS: On the beach?
CLAUDIO BONETTA: Yeah, on the beach.
With my girlfriend, yes, yes.
TOM ROBBINS: The most popular dish here is Pizza Margherita, what else? There's also a small bar with a real espresso machine, a tiny library, and a big sun terrace. But the hut has always also been used as a base for high-altitude scientific research. I've been to thousands of hotels, but this has to be the most spectacular. Now, though, it's time to start the long walk down.