From neglected alpine village to state-of-the-art ski resort, the transformation of Andermatt is nothing short of remarkable. Joe Mortimer dons his ski boots and heads for the hills to find out why the Ursern Valley is returning to form as one of Switzerland’s finest regions for discerning travellers.
Deep in the Swiss Alps, somewhere between the mountain towns of Andermatt and Sedrun, the sound of chinking glasses and exuberant conversation drifts through the air. It’s miles to the nearest hotel and there’s not a bar in sight, but the sound is unmistakable: après-ski. After a few hours on the slopes, the prospect of a glass of schnapps fills me with joy, but surely it’s an illusion; a trick on the senses caused by the rarefied air of the mountains?
Slowly, from behind a copse of pine trees, comes the bright red carriage of the Glacier Express – the magnificent electric train that winds its way through the Swiss Alps, ferrying locals, tourists and weary skiers around the 144-kilometre network of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn.
As the carriage pulls up, the source of the sound reveals itself. Through panoramic windows I see red-cheeked skiers sipping Laurent-Perrier and laughing, while a barman mixes a cocktail for eager customers. This is the Après Ski Bar – a four-times daily service running between Andermatt and Sedrun; part of the push to turn this once sleepy region into one of Switzerland’s foremost ski destinations. Or, I should say, return it to its former glory.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story of Andermatt is a story of geography, engineering and man’s battle to conquer the forces of nature.
First some context: Andermatt is situated in the Ursern Valley just over 20 kilometres from the Italian border, in the heart of the Swiss Alps. The Alps once formed an impenetrable border between Western Europe and Italy; a great wall of mountains arcing from southern France to western Austria, blocking travel by land between Italy and the rest of Europe.
The construction of the Gotthard Pass in 1830 allowed carriages to travel between Italy and Switzerland for the first time, albeit via an arduous route that climbed 2,106 metres into the mountains. For Italians, Andermatt was the first stop after conquering the pass, and a pleasant spot to rest before continuing north via the Devil’s Bridge over the Schöllenen Gorge to Lucerne and Zurich.
Enterprising Andermatter Sebastian Christen, who ran the town’s post office, saw the opportunity to capitalise on the town’s strategic location, and in 1872, opened the Grand Hotel Bellevue. The hotel became an important stop-off for affluent travellers, until the opening of the Gotthard railway tunnel in 1882 meant many travellers bypassed the village completely.
Christen went bankrupt, and in 1899, the Bellevue was bought by the Muller-Lombardi company and renovated from head to toe. It’s reopening on June 1, 1900 marked the beginning of a new era that captured the glamour and spirit of 20th century travel, with orchestral performances, glitzy parties and winter sports attracting Swiss and Italian tourists to Andermatt as a destination in its own right.
But like the mountains themselves, carved and shaped by the forces of time and nature, Andermatt’s fate was determined by events beyond its control. European tourism was decimated by the two world wars during the first half of the 20th century, and the hotel was forced to close. Andermatt became a military garrison for the next 50 years, and the Bellevue was demolished in 1986. When the Swiss Army pulled out of town in 2003, Andermatt’s future was hanging by a thread.
In 2005, a local councillor invited Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris, chairman and CEO of development company Orascom, to visit Andermatt. Known for its vast integrated resorts in Egypt, the UAE and Oman, Orascom has a history of transforming stretches of empty desert into thriving resort towns.
The results of the visit were better than anticipated. After a helicopter flight around the region, Sawiris had seen enough. He returned later that year with plans for a $1.8 billion mega-project that would turn Andermatt into a tourism hub, complete with hotels, residences, a golf course and new ski infrastructure that would open up 120 kilometres of slopes in an area now known as SkiArena Andermatt-Sedrun.
Ten years on, the project is approaching completion. As the après ski train pulls into town, Andermatt’s new crowning glory comes into view. Rather than saving the best until last, Sawiris elected to build Andermatt’s flagship luxury hotel first, knowing that putting a hospitality brand as prestigious as The Chedi on the site of the old Grand Hotel Bellevue would do wonders for the village’s profile.
Towering over the village like a Brobdingnagian chalet, The Chedi Andermatt is a fairy-tale resort of fantastical proportions (www.thechedi-andermatt.com). Architect Jean-Michel Gathy has created a triumphant cross-cultural aesthetic, with Asian accents that speak to the brand’s heritage, and contemporary European features that blend Scandi-chic with Swiss tradition. Elegant suites, Michelin-starred dining and a stunning swimming pool that looks out towards the mountains all conspire to keep guests within the hotel. But the slopes beckon.
Work on the SkiArena Andermatt-Sedrun is not yet complete, but this season sees the opening of five new restaurants and some sleek new chairlifts (www.skiarena.ch). When the pistes open on December 23rd, a brand new 10-person gondola will transport skiers from a terminal outside The Chedi to Gütsch, 900 metres above.
Halfway up, the gondola stops at Nätschen, where the new MATTI restaurant keeps families entertained with a snow playground, adventure piste and practice slope. Next door, Nätschen-Grill is a bit more grown up, with a sun terrace that implores diners to stay for a post-lunch digestif. At the top of the mountain, London’s Studio Seilern Architects start work on a high-end restaurant next year, which promises stylish dining and spectacular views.
From Gütsch onwards, two new six-seater chairlifts with leather seats and tinted windows will open up 30 kilometres of virgin slopes this season. A third chairlift – created by Porsche Design and featuring heated seats – connects the Oberalp Pass to Calmut, making it possible to ski all the way to Sedrun. By next year, when the final chairlifts are complete, determined skiers will be able to travel in the other direction (from Sedrun to Andermatt), but for now, they’ll have to settle for the après ski train.
On the other side of the valley, on Gemstock Mountain, three more new restaurants celebrating regional specialties open their doors for the first time this season: Gummel, which means potato in the local Uri dialect, specialises in rösti; Pasta-Keller serves pasta; and Fondue-Beizli serves decadent fondue, raclette and other local cheese dishes. It’s hearty fare for hard-working skiers, and I can attest that after a morning on the mountain, there is nothing better than a dish of cheese-topped rösti and a glass of crisp Swiss white to restore your energy.
A VILLAGE REBORN
When rumours of the project spread around the village in 2005, the population of just over 1,000 welcomed the news. In March 2007, 96% of residents voted in favour of the plans announced by Samih Sawiris, which included serious considerations for sustainable development and the impetus of more than 30 international architects. As well as facilities such as the 18-hole championship golf course (which opened in 2016) and the extensive ski infrastructure, locals were also won over by the promise of 1,200 new jobs and an influx of tourist cash.
Next year will see the opening of a Radisson Blu resort and adjoining Gotthard Residences, with 180 hotel rooms and 109 private apartments respectively. A 500-seat concert hall, also designed by Studio Seilern Architects, is in the pipeline for next year, opening up the destination for the lucrative meetings and conferences market. From this year, the Nordic House cross-country ski centre takes over the clubhouse at Andermatt Swiss Alps Golf Course in the summer months, further helping create a year-round tourist economy.
The roll-out of 42 new apartment buildings and plots for 25 exclusive chalets along the banks of the Reuss river will continue for the next few years, as cafes, and restaurants fill up the triangular piazza facing the Radisson Blu.
But for all the new construction, Andermatt has retained the atmosphere of a traditional Swiss village. Behind The Chedi, a handful of small hotels and restaurants showcase traditional Swiss architecture, with wooden facades and sloping eaves rising above narrow streets. Built in 1786, the magnificent Museum of the Ursen Valley (Talmuseum) tells the story of the region, with exhibits showing the construction of the narrow-gauge railway line and the legendary Devil’s Bridge.
There’s none of the in-your-face glitz of more ostentatious Swiss ski resorts: if you want to show off your new designer gear, then take the Glacier Express to St. Moritz and join the fur-clad masses. But for a below-the-radar ski escape in one of the most spectacular valleys in the Alps, where the air rings with the sound of merriment, you can’t do any better than Andermatt.