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This article first appeared in TRAVEL IDEAS MAGAZINE, Autumn 2008
Switzerland's Historic Hotels

Jaded business travellers are fond of complaining that, inside and out, one hotel is just the same as another.

Indeed, although accommodation is an important consideration for most people when they’re planning a holiday, once they’ve decided on a destination and a budget, the only criteria they apply are a clean, comfortable room (a hearty breakfast is a bonus) and a not-too-inconvenient location. Certainly, it’s unusual for someone to look for a special hotel first and only afterwards to plan their itinerary. But then the Swiss have always been a bit different. And, as the members of the Swiss Historic Hotels association are keen to show, exploring the history, culture, food, architecture and natural beauty of a particular region needn’t end when you step inside your hotel. In fact, it can begin there.

Martin Küttel, president of the association, points out that “tourism started in Switzerland” insofar as it was one of the first countries – back in the nineteenth century – to formally recognise the benefits of tourism and to promote itself as a tourist destination.

People came from all over Europe to breathe its fresh air and bathe in the restorative waters of its springs. English gentlemen with adventurous souls couldn’t resist the mountaineering challenges posed by the Alps. Moreover, since the Napoleonic and then civil wars in the first half of the eighteen-hundreds, Switzerland has enjoyed a protracted and unrivalled period of peace. So tourism has been a major feature of Swiss life for a long time. As a result, the historic hotels of Switzerland have a surprisingly significant place in the tale of events that have shaped the country over the last 150 years.

Küttel’s own establishment, the Hotel Paxmontana, is a prime example. High on a hill above the small hamlet of Flüeli-Ranft – not so much a town as a vague collection of buildings set amidst the rolling green hills of central Switzerland – the Paxmontana has its origins as a kurhaus (literally “cure house”). There were many such places in Switzerland at the turn of the twentieth century, where ailing Europeans could escape the threat of tuberculosis in the urban centres and spend the summer months walking and bathing during the day, and smoking and gambling at night (go figure).

Flüeli-Ranft is also a site of spiritual pilgrimage; it boasts a local saint, Niklaus von Flüe, who was variously a lawyer, farmer, soldier, visionary and hermit, and was “spoken holy” by the Catholic Church in the fifteenth century. The Pope even came to give his blessing in 1984 – one wonders what he made of the Paxmontana, with its curious combination of neoclassical/Baroque exterior, art nouveau interior and wooden furniture carved with fertility symbols. Be warned, though: in the spirit of historicism, the only TV you’ll find in a room at the Paxmontana is a pair of binoculars, and the radio is a Moleskin diary for “listening in” on the experiences of past guests.

Altogether different is the renowned Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in glossy St Moritz, where the rooms are high-tech and luxurious. St Moritz is a must for those who want to “see and be seen” in the winter skiing season, and the Palace’s five-star credentials match the most glamorous elements in town. It wasn’t always like that. Until the 1860s, St Moritz was a small village that drew a few summer visitors. Then, one year, it so happened that a group of English hikers were sitting by a fire in Johannes Badrutt’s Kulm Hotel on the eve of their departure and expressing their reluctance to leave as the hiking season ended. The proprietor overheard them and, to their disbelief, related how winters were actually sunny and warm in St Moritz, with short-sleeves and sunglasses the order of the day. To prove his point, he made a bet with them: they would return at Christmastime, and if the weather was as he described it, they would stay with him for free; if not, he would cover their travel costs. He was right, of course, and the English guests were duly wowed – thus, legend has it, alpine winter tourism was born.

Badrutt’s progeny went on to found the Palace, and the rest is, well, a long catalogue of the rich and famous: Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Brigitte Bardot, Alfred Hitchcock, John Lennon ... the list includes many current glitterati but, disappointingly for gossip-mongers, the staff at Badrutt’s are far too discrete to reveal any names.

Fortunately, not all of the Swiss Historic Hotels are prohibitively expensive or exclusive to VIPs; many of them are small, unpretentious, family-run affairs. In Klosters, another of Switzerland’s premiere skiing resort towns, there is the Chesa Grischuna, which has also been graced by the “who’s who” of film stars and royalty but wears its star-studded history with humility.

Owner-manager Barbara Rios-Guler, who inherited the hotel from her parents, grew up in the post-war years when Klosters was known as “little Hollywood on the rocks”. She will relate, in an off-hand way, how Greta Garbo took her shopping for a black dress; or, when asked about the town’s connection with the House of Windsor, she will shrug her shoulders and say that Prince Charles is a very nice man and perfectly down-to-earth. Other well-known names in the guest book at Chesa Grischuna are Audrey Hepburn, Gene Kelly, David Niven, Julie Andews, Irving Walsh and Bing Crosby; even the Aga Khan makes an appearance!

If you want to follow in the footsteps of more intellectual luminaries, try the old-world charm of the Hotel Schweizerhof in Flims, with its belle epoque façade, ornate fountain, broad stairs and grand reception area. Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie are among those who are associated with its story, having visited Flims to take the mountain air and admire the emerald-turquoise waters of the pristine Caumasee lake.

Flims, St Moritz and Klosters are all part of the Engadine valley in the canton of Graubünden (historically known as the Grisons), which borders Italy. Although the best-known Italian region in Switzerland is Ticino in the south-east, where a balmy climate meets Mediterranean culture in the lakeside towns of Lugano and Locarno, the Italian-Swiss border stretches along Graubünden in the north as well. Twists and turns in the history of the Grisons – many of them, unsurprisingly, linked to the Napoleonic conquest – have produced small “fingers” of land that belong geographically to Italy (they are on the other side of the Alps) but belong politically to Switzerland.

One of these is Poschiavo, which shares much of the language, culture, architecture and food of Italy even though it has been Swiss since the fourteenth century. The Hotel Abrici, which overlooks Poschiavo’s quiet town square or piazza comunale, hasn’t been around quite that long, but in its three-hundred-plus years it has seen plenty of action: witch hunts in the 1600s, invasion by the French in the 1800s, and interdenominational friction throughout. To the south and the north of the Abrici, at opposite ends of the piazza, sit the gothic-style San Vittore Catholic church (with the Vecchio Monastero, a nunnery, attached) and the Protestant church of Sant’Ignazio. Religious tensions in Poschiavo, minor compared to the broad scale of post-Reformation conflict in Europe, nevertheless contributed in no small way to what became a staple of the continent and, subsequently, the world: coffee and pastries.

The bakers of the Engadine were the first, it seems, to latch onto the addictive combination of sweet cream and bitter coffee. Many of them, however, left their homeland because of the Catholic-Protestant rivalry; they travelled far and wide, settling in other countries and taking with them their trade secrets. By the nineteenth century they were renowned, as a contemporary American traveller in Europe wrote, “as confectioners, sugar-bakers, and coffee-house-keepers, and they acquired fortunes in the great continental cities at these crafts.”

They and their families didn’t forget their Swiss roots and, once successful, often returned to Switzerland, building grand houses to demonstrate their wealth. Amongst these nouveaux riches were the Von Salis family. In 1877, they bought a couple of old farmhouses in the little village of Bever (population 700) and commissioned architects and builders to expand, renovate and decorate them in the sgraffito style made famous by the churches and palaces of Florence. Chesa Salis, the “Salis house”, is now also one of the Historic Hotels.

Jokes about Swiss banking notwithstanding, the Swiss certainly do seem to have a long tradition of financial nous and entrepreneurial flair, and the tourism sector is no exception. To the names of Badrutt and Von Salis, one must also add that of Joseph Seiler. If Seiler was alive today, he would doubtless have written a book with a title like From Soapmaker to Hotel Magnate: My Story. For that is, precisely, what he achieved. If St Moritz would not have become such a prized spot without Badrutt, the same could be said of Seiler in Zermatt – the pedestrians-only, skiing and hiking jewel of the Valais region in the very south of Switzerland.

Of course, Zermatt had lots going for it from the start, given its location at the foot of one of the world’s most distinctive natural formations, the Matterhorn. But, in the days before Swiss engineers developed their remarkable system of tunnels-and-bridges (providing rail transport to almost any destination in the country), it was isolated and not easily accessible. Although the Matterhorn and surrounding mountains offered the ultimate test to the British climbing gentry, with picture-postcard views for those more prudent travellers who were happy to admire it from afar, the accommodation options were limited. Seiler and his children saw a gap in the market and, having scrounged together a bit of capital, built and developed numerous hotels in Zermatt and surrounds.

In 1853, the Seiler family purchased the Hotel Monte Rosa, a humble village inn boasting three hostel-style rooms that had been opened ten years previously by the local doctor. Today, there are plenty of hotels in Zermatt, but the venerable Monte Rosa – somewhat expanded, so that it now has 47 rooms – remains the most gracious of them all. With views down onto Zermatt’s only church and up to the Matterhorn itself, the hotel has seen a lot of human traffic over the years and easily merits its “Historic” status.

It is named after the Monte Rosa massif that looms over the eastern edge of the town; the summit, Dufourspitze, is the highest point in Switzerland at 4,634m. Yet these mighty peaks take second place to the much lower Matterhorn simply because it is so visually striking, its steep ridges rising to meet at an improbably sharp point. So there is an element of irony in the fact that, in 1865, it was from a hotel called Monte Rosa that Edmund Whymper set out on his successful quest to become the first man to conquer the Matterhorn: his achievement fixed the “small” 4,478m peak in the global imagination as Switzerland’s most celebrated mountain.

It’s a tiny historical detail, of course – but if that’s what piques your interest when travelling, you could do worse than to find some historical accommodation when you’re next in Switzerland.

Chris Thurman