It is risky going back to somewhere you really loved. Nostalgia plays tricks and raises expectations, erasing the traffic noise, the clouds from the sky, and the seaweed from the beach. And what if the place itself has been unfaithful to the memory, growing apart from the cherished ideal? By Tom Robbins
Andermatt is a ski lover’s paradise
Twelve years ago, I spent a week on a group ski trip in the Swiss village of Andermatt, and I have held it on a pedestal ever since. We arrived in the dark on a little red train from Zurich that cut through the Alps, and found a place half-buried in snow and seemingly deserted, all sounds muffled by the rising drifts. The ancient houses were topped with huge mounds of snow, rising from the eaves like out-of-control soufflés. Modern life seemed erased by a white tide — road signs obscured, cars turned into amorphous blobs.
It kept snowing much of the week. Upon the Gemsstock, the north-facing peak that looms above the village, the skiing was incredible. One day, my fellow skiers and I made a long descent across snowfields and through forests to emerge in the hamlet of Hospental, where we ate cake in a hotel built in 1722. Late another afternoon, on an exposed shoulder of the mountain that was covered in bottomless powder and lit by shafts of sunlight, I made two turns that — and I know this is going to sound ridiculous — I’ve thought about countless times in the intervening years.
Our group seemed to be the only one in town; the handful of lifts and the couple of bars were empty, as was the dining room of our cosy, creaky, 150-year-old hotel, the Sonne, where we lingered after dinner playing cards or planning the next day’s adventures. It was low-key and unsophisticated: the highlight of the après-ski entertainment was when our group leader pinched her nose, leaned forward, and demonstrated how to inhale a crème brûlée in one gulp.
At that time, Andermatt was a secret among European ski bums — a place with phenomenal snow and no one to share it with. It was an escape from the crowded slopes of Chamonix or Verbier, and a world away from the pomp of Courchevel or Zermatt. The village itself was not quite a ghost town, but the Swiss army base that had been its lifeblood for 125 years was closing down, rendered obsolete by the end of the Cold War, and the local population was dwindling.
And then, everything began to change. Almost by accident, humble little Andermatt, with its farmers, barracks, and basic guesthouses, found itself in the centre of a USD 1.9 billion (INR 1,43,62,38,50,000) development project, the biggest in the Alps. I watched from afar with growing disbelief as the milestones began to pass: the opening of the first five-star hotel (improbably, a sister property of the lavish Chedi Muscat, in Oman), the first Michelin star, the first apartment complex, the first millionaire’s villa, the first golf course, and the first state-of-the-art lifts. In June of 2019, the completion of the initial phase was celebrated in the brand-new, 650-seat concert hall with a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic. Après-ski had changed; perhaps everything had. It was time to go back.
I handed my car keys to a valet and was ushered towards the Chedi Andermatt‘s 90-foot-long polished granite check-in desk, where a receptionist poured me a cup of steaming black tea scented with lemongrass and peppermint, then took me on a tour. Despite the soaring ceilings, the aesthetic was cosseting, low-lit, and intimate. There was a 115-foot indoor pool lined with Belgian blue limestone, a courtyard ice rink, countless chandeliers, and, in one of the four restaurants, a 16-foot-high, glass-walled, climate-controlled “cheese tower” in which diners can sample 43 types of Swiss cheese. Actually, the 115-foot pool is one of several — there’s another outside, where I later swam looking up to the mountains before heading into the 25,800-square-foot spa to soak in a succession of hot plunge pools and steam rooms. Hard to imagine that, before the Chedi opened, Andermatt didn’t have a single swimming pool.
In the morning, I headed straight back to the Gemsstock, joining a day’s off-piste skiing led by a guide, Dan Loutrel. “So has anyone been here before?” he asked as our newly formed group made slightly awkward introductions. I piped up. “Ah-ha!” Loutrel said with a smile. “The golden age.”
This was not a good sign, but I warmed to him for veering so magnificently from the tourist-board line. It was snowing hard, with clouds of fog billowing around the Gemsstock, but he seemed in his element. After a couple of warm-up laps, we shouldered our skis and hiked up to the Monkey, a steep, narrow couloir. Unable to see much, we pushed off one by one and followed the steep slope down into the mist, trusting that the deep, soft snow would limit our speed. The tight ravine opened into a wide field of powder, and a few heartbeats later we broke through the thick layer of cloud into clear sparkling light. “I think I could hear the angels singing,” Loutrel said when I pulled up beside him.
We stopped for lunch at the Gadäbar, a restaurant in an old cattle shed halfway up the mountain. Inside, sheepskin-covered chairs had been arranged around a fire. The ceiling, floor, walls, and even the menus were made of wood. Each table occupied what had been a cattle stall, with a sign that still showed the name of the former occupant and three dates: the day she was born, the last time she calved, and one preceded by the word geführt. “It means the date the bull came to pay a visit,” said the waitress, blushing.
As we ate hearty goulash, barley stew, and Rösti (the Swiss speciality — a pan filled with hash browns, smoked bacon, mountain cheese, and a fried egg), Loutrel told us his story. Though he spoke English with a distinct Swiss-German accent, he said he was in fact from Carlisle, Massachusetts, and had arrived in Andermatt in 2003, at the age of 23, after hearing a rumour about the epic snowfalls. “I went up to ski on the Gemsstock and it was clear that I wasn’t going to leave,” he said. He moved into a two-bedroom apartment with seven Swedes and started making skis, before training to become a guide and starting a family.
So was he really mourning the golden age? “Well, it was sort of a utopia: low living costs, a cable car, lots of terrains, not a lot of people skiing it,” he said. “It was definitely a special time but it was not sustainable.” The ski area was losing money every winter, and there were concerns that the ageing Gemsstock cable car might close for good. “And to be honest, it really hasn’t changed that much up here on the mountain.”
On our last run of the day, Loutrel led us into an empty valley. We had been poling and skating along beside a frozen stream for half an hour, back in the direction of the village, when I saw a wooden barn and what I took to be a particularly furry breed of cow. Getting closer, it became clear this was no cow, but a yak — big and stocky, with a glossy black coat and matching horns. A proud farmer told me they had been brought from the Himalayas to produce meat and milk and were now thriving, outdoing cows at handling steep terrain and extreme temperatures. The village itself may be edging upmarket, but on the mountain, things still felt very wild.
Andermatt sits on a high plateau at the heart of the Alps, the Rhône starting from one end, the Rhine from the other. It’s also the meeting point of three key passes: the Furka, the Gotthard, and the Oberalp. The central position partly explains its snow record — it catches storms from the north, south, and west — as well as its strategic importance as an army base. In the 18th and 19th centuries, those passes brought a parade of the great and good, including William Wordsworth, JMW Turner, even Queen Victoria. “The highest sublimation of all you can imagine in the way of Swiss scenery,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1845. “Oh God! What a beautiful country it is! How poor and shrunken, besides it, is Italy in its brightest aspect.” Arriving in Andermatt in 1775, the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe noted more simply, “Splendid cheese. Feel damn fine.”
The second half of the 19th century saw the building of a string of grand hotels until, in 1882, a railway tunnel opened beneath the Gotthard pass, meaning travelling between the north and south no longer involved passing through Andermatt. By the time DH Lawrence arrived, in 1912, the Swiss Army had replaced the tourists: “Everywhere were soldiers moving about the livid, desolate waste of this upper world.” He tried to make himself stay, “but I could not. The whole place was so terribly raw.” In the 1940s Andermatt was deemed so unimportant that it was almost drowned beneath a huge hydroelectric-plant reservoir — until furious villagers smashed up the electricity company’s office and ran the project engineer out of town.
One of the most important visitors of all arrived in 2005, on what was to have been a one-off day trip. “I had never heard of the place — I had to look it up on the map,” Samih Sawiris told me on the phone from Cairo. The Egyptian billionaire had successfully built El Gouna, a resort on the Red Sea, so a friend in the Swiss defence ministry asked him to visit and give an opinion on what could be done with Andermatt. “My price was dinner. I chose the wine and he paid the bill,” Sawiris said. But flying over the valley in an army helicopter, he was amazed at the opportunity — so much undeveloped land, so close to Zurich and Milan. He made his report and thought nothing more of it until months later. “They came back and said, ‘If you think your plan is so good, why don’t you come and do it yourself?'”
Sawiris agreed, on the proviso that the authorities would grant permission to sell apartments to foreigners, something unusual in Switzerland, and offer almost 250 acres for development. In a referendum, 96 percent of locals backed the plan. “I told them you need a critical mass to make it viable — this is one time small isn’t beautiful.”
The following day I set off from the Chedi’s ski room, where smiling young men help you on with your boots and the walls are lined with a gallery of skis belonging to former champions. I wanted to check out the expanded ski area on the opposite side of the village from the Gemsstock. Andermatt’s appeal to serious skiers was never in doubt; what it lacked was something for beginners and intermediates. A USD 164 million (INR 12,39,32,34,000) investment and 10 new lifts have corrected that: the Andermatt resort now connects with the neighbouring mountains above the villages of Sedrun and Disentis, creating an all-abilities mega-resort with 110 miles (177 km) of trails and 33 lifts (two more than Vail).
Above Andermatt is a family-friendly stretch of the mountain called the Gütsch, with gentle, winding runs that face south and west and catch the sun. There’s a good selection of pit stops, too, from a slick Japanese restaurant to a bar in an old railway carriage where skiers stop for sundowners on the last run home.
As I explored the new trail system, it soon became clear that this was no generic ski area. The lifts and runs stretch up over the Oberalp Pass, just above the route of the railway (the rack-and-pinion trains move so slowly you can just about race them on skis). The journey to Disentis is 13 miles (21 kilometres) as the crow flies, far more if you work out the ups and downs of ski runs and lifts. And though it’s all on-piste, intermediate skiing, it feels like a trans-Alpine expedition, with a few surprises along the way. At the summit of the pass, with clouds swirling around, I saw what is said to be the world’s highest lighthouse — built there to remind people this is the source of the Rhine. Beyond that, more lifts and descents took me past the wooden chalets and pretty, mellow slopes of Milez, through the hamlet of Dieni, around the farms of Sedrun and then, finally, up over a forest and around a rocky escarpment into the Disentis ski area. The Chedi ski room felt a long way away — this area is so far from the hotel that people even speak another language, Romansch. I’ve never done a day’s skiing quite like it.
I took the easy way home, catching the train for one of Europe’s most spectacular rail journeys. This, after all, is the route of the famed Glacier Express. Travel between Disentis and Andermatt is included in lift passes, and, better still, in winter the trains have an “après-ski carriage” with a bar. As the steward poured me a white wine, the carriages rattled and swayed around the switchbacks. The ornamental bottles behind the bar, he assured me, were glued down.
In Andermatt that night I took a stroll through the cobblestoned streets. I could smell woodsmoke and hear the sounds of a rushing stream and someone practising a trumpet in an upstairs bedroom. Gentrification can sometimes smooth away the idiosyncrasies in favour of a luxurious monotony. There are concerns about rising property prices, which could displace locals, and about the scale of expansion. To date, the enclave of development on the northern edge of the village has 10 apartment buildings, but the master plan shows 32 more, to be built over the next three decades.
For now, though, the influx of investment seems to be bringing new life without stifling the authentic, slightly alternative soul of the place. The most visible difference from my last visit was the people. Every bar was full, and the dining room at the Hotel Sonne was humming with cheerful family groups. Rather than international brands and souvenirs, the main street has a rather endearing blend of the quotidian and the quirky. At the door of one shop was a huge collection of snow shovels, while the window of another offered a display of potato peelers. A bit farther down is the Sockenfenster, the “sock window”: ring the bell and the owner of the house opens the ground-floor window to sell hand-knitted socks and gloves. And rather than a jeweller who sells gold watches and diamonds, there is Christoph Betschart’s shop, where he sells crystals he has collected himself, spending up to three weeks at a time living in a bivouac as he searches the mountainside for mineral treasures.
Busiest of all, though, is the butcher shop — founded in 1900 — where Ferdi Muheim put down his cleaver to enthuse about Andermatt’s renaissance. “A lot of young people used to leave the village and never come back, but now we have jobs for everybody, interesting jobs,” he said, beaming, before thrusting a package into my hand for the journey home: cheese, mountain honey, and air-dried yak prosciutto.
Driving north back to Zurich, I felt something like relief. For all the changes, Andermatt was safe on its pedestal, unique as it ever was. Perhaps, if you head there before too long, you might even see the start of a new golden age.
Where to Stay
Andermatt Chalet: This six-person rental was artfully refurbished by the British architect Jonathan Tuckey. From USD 2,100 (INR 1,58,519) per week.
Chedi Andermatt: This contemporary, high-style property put Andermatt back on the map. Doubles from USD 625 (INR 47,178).
Hotel Sonne: A simple, classic stay that’s full of history. Doubles from USD 185 (INR 13,964).
Where to Eat & Drink
Alt Apothek: Known for its single malts, the bar of the River House hotel should not be missed.
Gadäbar: Next to the Lutersee ski lift on the Gemsstock, this is the place to hunker down on a stormy day.
Metzgerei Muheim: Stop for local wines and charcuterie to take on a picnic lunch up the mountain.
Vinothek 1620: Get cosy in this funky wine bar, set in a house built in 1620.
What to Do
Andermatt Guides: Serious skiers should head out with Dan Loutrel’s company.
Oxford Ski: Set up a weeklong ski package with this trusted outfitter.
Sport Imholz: Head here for the latest backcountry and on-piste skis.
Swiss Snowsport School: Individual lessons for all ages and abilities.