By Marc Atchison
ANDERMATT, SWITZERLAND — I don’t give the bartender a chance to finish pouring my midday glass of wine before asking: “Which chair did Elvis sit on?” The congenial Swiss-American named Kevin, who has been asked the question countless times, surveys the crowded aprés ski bar he runs in the boutique Di Alt Apothek (River House) Hotel and points to a nondescript wooden bar stool with the faded green cushion where someone has discarded a backpack.
“That’s one of the three he sat on — the other two are being repaired right now,” says Kevin as he finishes pouring the remarkably good Swiss wine.
I quickly snap a picture of the “living memorial” to legendary rock star Elvis Presley, who stopped by the charming River House Hotel and Bar when he visited this fairytale Alpine village on several occasions.
“He (Elvis) first came to Andermatt when he was serving a stint with the U.S. Army in Germany (between 1958 and 1960),” Miriam Schuler, an official with the Andermatt Tourism Board tells me later. “And then he came back here with his daughter Lisa Marie when she was learning how to ski.”
Elvis isn’t the only entertainer who has walked the neatly-kept streets of Andermatt’s historic Old Town.
“Sean Connery also stayed in Andermatt when he was filming the James Bond movie Goldfinger (circa 1964) in the (nearby) Furka Pass. The scene where 007 fills up his Aston Martin was shot at the former gas station (now the Aurora Hotel) just down the street (from the River House Hotel),” Schuler tells me.
This idyllic 13th-century village, which sits cradled in the breathtaking Urseren Valley surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks, is the perfect backdrop for a movie. It’s Hollywood good looks, Alpine charm and dramatic landscape make it one of the loveliest towns in Europe — a place of myths and magic — but it was off limits to tourists for many years.
“Andermatt was a Swiss Army base since World War II and the town relied heavily on the military for our survival,” says Schuler. “When they decided to close the base (around 2004), we all feared people would start moving away because there would be little work in the valley.”
That’s when an unlikely hero came to Andermatt’s rescue.
Enter Samih Sawiris. The Egyptian billionaire businessman, who developed the hugely successful El Gouna holiday resort on the Red Sea, was urged by a former Swiss ambassador to Egypt to fly over the Urseren Valley to see if he thought it had potential as a holiday resort.
It was love at first sight for Sawiris and he quickly committed his time, huge sums of money and his boundless energy to returning Andermatt to its tourist roots — from the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of World War II when the army arrived, the Urseren Valley was a hotspot for well-healed holidayers.
Andermatt is now a beehive of activity with workers hurriedly building six hotels, 42 apartment blocks and upwards of 30 luxury villas on the edge of the Old Town. When the new infrastructure is ready, Andermatt will become the largest ski resort in central Switzerland and a four-seasons destination thanks to its new 18-hole championship golf course, which was completed last year.
In all, the Egyptian businessman has invested 1.8 billion Swiss francs ($2.4 billion Cdn) and intends to spend another 130 million Swiss francs ($173 million Cdn) on connecting Andermatt’s world-class ski runs with neighbouring Sedrun, thus creating one of the most exciting venues for skiers in the world.
The crown jewel of Andermatt’s new hotels is the remarkable Chedi, a five-star wonder and member of the Swiss Deluxe Hotels group. The Chedi Andermatt, which opened in 2014, is situated within walking distance of the town’s lovely train station — it, too, will be updated as part of Andermatt’s renaissance — and lies just a few metres from the Gemsstock cable car.
The Alpine-style resort is a unique property with lots of Asian touches throughout its sleek interior. Those influences also flow into the oversized rooms and restaurants — the hotel’s Japanese dining room would not look out of place in Tokyo.
With 196 fireplaces and a world-class spa at the Chedi — the Thai word means temple or Buddhist stupa — there’s plenty of cozy places to warm up and relax after a day on the glorious ski slopes surrounding Andermatt. And Andermatt offers some of the most affordable skiing in Europe.
“A one-day ski pass in Andermatt costs about 51 Swiss francs (about $70 Cdn) and that’s a great value when compared to other popular ski resorts,” Schuler tells me as we pass the lovely Parish Church of St. Peter and Paul (circa 1602), whose steeple dominates the Old Town skyline. The tiny cemetery outside the church, which looks like it belongs in a Swiss fairytale, contains many of the original settlers of the Canton Uri, the county in which Andermatt is located.
Looking up into the mountains that surround Andermatt, I see the famed Swiss huts dotting the landscape. They are utilized during the summer months by the many hikers and climbers who invade the Urseren Valley. The handsome huts cling to the mountains and offer shelter and food to the hikers.
“We call the mountains here Swiss cheese because there are so many holes in them,” laughs Miriam. “When the army was here they dug tunnels in the mountains for security purposes.”
Being in the heart of the Alps, Andermatt is surrounded by famous mountain passes, which helped in the early development of the Urseren Valley. The roads that zig-zag through the passes are some of the most fun to drive in all of Europe. The Furka Pass, at 2,436 metres in elevation, was the one on which 007 (Sean Connery) raced the Mustang convertible, driven by a beautiful female lead, Tilly Masterson, in the Bond classic Goldfinger. Equally famous is the Gotthard Pass, which connects Italy with this amazing Swiss ski region.
“Milan is just a two-hour drive from Andermatt and many Italians come here to ski,” says my guide. “Andermatt was originally a trading post between Switzerland and Milan.”
The streets of the Old Town are lined with many handsome hotels and restaurants, all offering exceptional value and service. One of the loveliest on the cobbled main street is the Hotel zur Sonne, which, according to Miriam, “is owned and operated by an 80-year-old woman.”
The cozy Sonne is, like many of its neighbours, a timber-lined building whose peeked roof compliments the Alpine scenery surrounding this incredibly beautiful town of 1,300 permanent residents.
Everywhere you look in Andermatt, you see water.
Glacial streams cut through the Old Town and Miriam proudly tells me “Lake Toma, which sits above Andermatt, is the source of the Rhine,” Europe’s most important river.
“Andermatt is the water castle of Europe,” boasts the guide.
One of the most famous tourist spots in Andermatt is the remains of Devil’s Bridge, located a short drive from the centre of town. The legendary bridge, which hangs over the Schöllenen Gorge, has one of the region’s many mythical stories connected to it — it was reportedly built by Satan in just three days.
Devil’s Bridge was part of the original Gotthard coach road, which opened the region to the world. A famous battle between 40,000 French and Russian troops was apparently fought on the tiny bridge on Sept. 25 in 1799. Another myth?
One sure thing is that Andermatt’s future is as solid as the mountains that protect it. In the next few years, it will become a superstar of ski resorts. Elvis would be proud.
JUST THE FACTS
Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience and is editor-in-chief and senior writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and http://www.travelife.ca/