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Saas-Fee, Pearl of the Swiss Alps

Saas-Fee, Pearl of the Swiss Alps

Anne-Laure Murier - 2011-11-15

In order to discover the Saas Valley you have to venture out to the confines of the Upper Valais area, otherwise known as Saastaal, a name that rings with the Germanic dialect used in this part of the Swiss Canton. After 3 hours 40 minutes on the Lyria TGV from Paris to Lausanne, there’s a 40 minute rail journey to Visp before the final stretch in a Postbus for another 50 minutes of scenic drive. Welcome to Switzerland where the intricate network of public transport with its precision timekeeping is as staggering as the hairpin bends and mountain peaks along the journey.

 
A jewel box of mountain peaks 4000 metres high
With eighteen peaks over 4000 metres high surrounding the villages of Saas-Fee  and its three neighbours of Saas-Grund, Saas-Almagell and Saas-Balen are always in good company. They are set out in a shell-shaped constellation which has earned the glacier villages the nickname of "the Pearl of the Alps." When you raise your gaze upwards Switzerland’s highest peak, the Dom, standing proud at 4545 meters, dominates the panorama. Then when you take the cable car up to a height of 3000 meters you find the Felskinn  glacier displaying its pearly whiteness. After 500 metres of further ascent, which are rapid via an unusual Alpine underground funicular system, the Mittelallalin summit multiplies the perspectives even further. Here the world’s largest ice pavilion plunges into the blue veins of the Mischabel mountain range and a revolving restaurant, that embraces the Bernese Alps and the Grisons canton, winks at and is seen by the Milan metropolis below.
A cable car departs from Saas-Grund that takes you uphill to the resort of Hohsaas where you can wander around this gigantic natural theatre on foot. At 3142 meters, this site has 18 circuits of paths equal to the number of the surrounding peaks that reach over 4000 metres high. Each stop along the trails features a small cairn or a sculpture of each mountain that tells the story of the mountain’s history or its first ascent.

A Champion’s Ski Jump
With ski areas over 3600 metres altitude and one hundred snow canons lining the slopes outside of the glacier slopes, snow is guaranteed almost all year round. So much so that enthusiasts can enjoy summer skiing along twenty miles of slopes. This is one reason why the multiple world skiing champion Pirmin Zurbriggen, a native of the valley, has had every chance on his side since his childhood. Following his tracks, numerous international athletes make Saas-Fee and its valley their base camp where they train for the winter competitions. Whilst in the summer, you’ll see snowboarders at the Super Pipe in the Allalin Snowpark.

The 100 km of pistesare not just for champions, they also welcome beginners of every age. The ski pass is free for children up to 9 years of age and a seal of quality for the resort guarantees that families are well catered for. From hockey to carving, cross-country skiing to skating, every kind of winter sport is available here. It even has the longest toboggan run in Europe which starts at Kreuzboden and descends through an 11km course of thrills and fun. Another must in this valley is the via ferrata, a secured route up the rocks which bridges Saas-Fee and Saas-Grund. You can even cross the Alpine gorge by night making it a doubly thrilling adventure!

An authentically sustainable resort
Fresh mountain air can be expected, but here you also have fresh village air as Saas-Fee is a no-car zone which one can only cross using the electric shuttles. Passengers take their luggage and sports equipment with them and they are transported free of charge from the station to the ski lifts, via the hotels. This pioneering municipality also has all the chimneys fitted with anti-pollution filters and the processing of the local rubbish has been optimised. On top of this there are solar panels that receive plenty of sunshine and the latest hydraulic dams provide renewable energy which meets nearly half of the area’s electricity needs and possibly more in the future.

"A comprehensive management of environmental issues is required and, if necessary, a carbon offsetting too. ​​It takes discipline to save the planet," says a smiling Beat Anthamatten, the owner of the Hotel Ferien Art.  This establishment awarded with the Minergie ecology label and winner of the Swiss sustainable development award is the first five-star green hotel in Europe. But just as the village has been able to conserve its traditional architecture there has been no economising on comfort levels. While the après-ski bars provide the contemporary touch, the resort has closed the door on intensive concrete edifices and plush cottages juxtapose typical Valais barns. As well as the pasture for livestock, (which is the respective etymology of Saas and Fee) the local farmers required these habitable lofts, mounted on stone wheels to provide shelter from rodents. Now in the hands of private owners, they are still listed and thus remain preserved.
 
A taste of the Valais
With 74 grape varieties, including 22 native ones, 5,000 hectares of vineyards and a third of the country's production, the Valais is the Swiss Confederation’s number one wine producing canton. In the cellar of Fletschhorn Waldhotel,  awarded in 2008 and 2009 with the "Best Award of Excellence" by the Wine Spectator magazine, the sommelier Jerome Hinterman speaks with intoxicating eloquence of wines such as Humagne, Petite Arvine, Amigne,  not to mention the Chasselas, cuvee blanche: "Noch ein Schluck? "(" Another drink? "). He offers in a French that’s just as quaffable as his German and his Appelation labelled wines as he pulls out one of the 45,000 bottles in this cellar, disinhibiting those who feel less of a connaisseur faced with the 1150 varieties on the menu. What’s more the fare produced on the restaurant’s stoves is equally delightful! In complete simplicity, the chef Markus Neff has scaled the heights of Valais cuisine, which is as generous as it is refined. He shares his recipes as well as his love of the local products and producers in his latest book: Haute montagne et haute cuisine (AT Verlag.) Furthermore the setting for this Relais & Chateau establishment amongst the host of 4000 metre high peaks is the cosiest of Alpine scenes that’s either padded with snow or lined with a carpet of needles from the highest larch forest in the Alps.

USEFUL INFORMATION
Art Hotel Ferien
www.ferienart.ch
Waldhotel Fletschhorn
http://www.fletschhorn.ch/
Tourist Office Saas-Fee / Saastaal: www.saas-fee.ch; to@saas-fee.com tel:  +41 27 958 18 58      

See also: www.valais.ch; www.myswitzerland.com
 
 

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