The Pearl of the Alps, Saas-Fee Revisited
It’s where I first learnt to ski, where I first appreciated the beauty of glaciers, where I first bought a man a drink (aged 9, encouraged by my father), where I first drank Fendant, the local name for white Chasselas wine, to excess (many years later, I promise), where I first lived (briefly) on my own, where I first truly appreciated that parents really could get things wrong and where I first did quite a few things that shouldn’t perhaps be mentioned here …. Saas Fee in Wallis or Valais in Switzerland at 1800 metres altitude, known in the brochures as ‘The Pearl of the Alps’.
It’s also where for the first and last time I climbed most of the way up a mountain on skis, was told off for walking down the street with a man’s arm around me and where for two days I was scared of being thrown onto the streets. Saas Fee is where I experienced quite shocking racism when I took my black boyfriend there back in 1981, but where I still return to share the traditional village, its dramatic glaciers, and my memories, with the important men in my life.
As a family, we were taken on ski holidays rather than summer holidays abroad. My father adored the mountains as an alpine skier and a ski mountaineer and he ‘discovered’ Saas Fee in the early 1960s only a decade after the road up from the village below, Saas Grund, was built – before that it was a mule track. Saas Fee has remained, like nearby Zermatt, car free though it buzzes with electric vehicles – you leave your car in the now huge underground car park, or arrive, as we did back in the 1960s by Swiss Post Bus up from Visp or Brig, having reached there by train from Geneva. Aged 4 1/2 my first trip was actually my 3rd ski holiday and I’d already had skis strapped on, but on this trip I was declared old enough to go to ski school each morning. By the 2nd or 3rd holiday I’d achieved my Swiss Bronze ski medal, though as I got older I began to positively hate ski school.
With a sister and brother much older than me, I was effectively on my own at ski school, with no-one to speak English to except the instructors who knew just a few essential words. The routine was first ski warm-up exercises, then the effort of putting on skis with cable bindings (no step-ins back then), a ski hike over to a T bar lift (and yes, for those of you used to skiing in French or US resorts – Saas Fee and other Swiss resorts still persist in having dreadful T bar tow lifts), up to the top … and then, we had to practice side-stepping up for half an hour. All this was murder for an asthmatic who only felt at ease downhill skiing. Once collected by my non-skiing mother, either we would queue for 1 – 2 hours for a cable car up the mountain to meet the rest of the family for lunch or worse, we might go for a walk UP the mountain (more breathing problems) to the so-called ‘North Pole’ or another exciting restaurant or picnic location.
After visits on and off, aged 18, it was arranged that I could spend half a season (from February – April) working there, first as a table-clearer at a self-service restaurant (my only memory is being bitten by the owner’s dog) and later, once they needed me, as a so-called ‘Hilfsskilehrerin’ a Helper Ski teacher – meaning, untrained (apart from 3 days following an instructor with class), unqualified but still allowed to take a class of up to 20 beginner children usually aged 4 – 5. Even though I have no children, in retrospect it fills me with horror that I was given that responsibility. Most of them were usually crying (in fact another teacher told me I wasn’t strict enough with the children and proceeded to threaten a four year old with all sorts of things if he didn’t shut up). At the end of the season in heavy, slushy snow a leggy, but stiff older-than-usual English girl broke her leg in my class, presumably partly because I didn’t choose to turn in a good place – her sister gave me comfort saying that the girl had broken her arm the previous year. Incidentally, it was whilst wearing my ski-teacher red jacket with the white stripe that I was told off by the boss of the ski school for walking down the main street with a man’s arm around me – the horror!
I spoke reasonable German though the little Swiss children in my ski classes didn’t understand it, a grandma sweetly explained. So, it was presumed by my parents that in the interest of language improvement I would socialize with the local young Swiss whilst there …. Well, I tried (once I think at the local dance place), but even those in their early 20s seemed like innocent teenagers to a worldly-wise English 18 year old in 1977. Boring was an understatement. But, I quickly discovered a whole other world, one that my parents never knew existed, the English chalet holiday scene.
At the time, a couple of UK ski chalet companies rented properties in Saas Fee and together with a few English ski-bums working on the lifts and other seasonal jobs it all added up to an English-speaking community of about 20 or 30, mainly older than me, but providing me with all the friendship and social life I could possibly have coped with. So by day, I was yelling to the line of children behind me “Schnell, vite, quick” and by night I was boogying the night away with plenty of Fendant (having never ever developed a taste for beer). I also learnt how to make a couple of (very) basic Cordon Bleu dishes from the chalet girl cooks and joined them in checking out the ‘punters’ who arrived as their guests each week, especially when they happened to be groups of males.
When my original employer in the restaurant who had accommodated me with a Yugoslav couple who also worked for him told me I would have to move out now that I was working for the ski school, he gave me 4 days notice with no suggestions of where to go. In my innocence I went to ask for help from the owners of the hotel my family had stayed in for several years – they were, after all, members of one of the eight families who were almost the only permanent residents of Saas Fee at that time. They had promised my Dad to keep an eye out for me, but once he wasn’t there and they realized I had no funding of my own, I was given the cold shoulder. Rescued in tears by one of the kind (and good-looking) male English chalet guests, the English community soon baled me out and found me a room somewhere.
Relating so many traumatic and difficult memories on my recent trip to Saas Fee with Brett and with my brother and his wife – my first visit for about 18 years and Brett’s first visit – made my sister-in-law ask me why on earth it was that I appeared to love Saas Fee and wanted to come back. I guess it must be on the one hand that so many important things happened to me there with so many learning experiences, and on the other hand the village and its beautiful glaciers simply draw me back.
The village of Saas Fee sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains, many including the highest mountain exclusively in Switzerland, the Dom, are above 4,000 metres. The main Fee glacier used to (a few generations back) almost reach the village, but has been receding for decades, most recently at an alarming rate of 9 metres per year. Last year, a huge chunk of ice broke off, equating to 200,000 cubic metres, fortunately not causing any damage to humans or property. The traditional small wooden houses of the region sit on mushroom-shaped stone ‘stilts’ to keep them off the ground. In larger farm-houses, still today you can find animals over-wintering in the ground floor – follow the smells as you walk around the village and you can soon find some new born lambs. With no cars allowed, it’s a huge pleasure to wander around Saas Fee on foot at any time of day (though rather a shock to my system between about 4 and 8pm was the arrival of outdoor après-ski bars with loud music near the bottom of the pistes). Happily this is not a fur-coat resort (you’ll see a few) and even today it remains a much more low-key ski village than, say, Zermatt or even Wengen.
The skiing is in three areas, two of which are linked to some extent – the only link when I was a child being by the somewhat mythical Feechatz (Fee cat from local dialect) – and they’ve named the replacement T-bar lift after it. The Feechatz was a type of piste machine with space for passengers and a rope trailing behind with T bars on it, to pull people up a long gentle linking slope between the Längfluh area and the Felskinn area. This is an area you indulge in long runs by the glaciers, sit in the Längfluh resataurant terrace right by the glacier and ski on wonderful glacier snow, being extremely cautious if you dare venture off piste (can hardly be advised!). And, the great addition since my day is of the world’s highest (they say) funicular underground railway, the Metro Alpin, which whizzes up from Felskinn at an already respectable 3,000 metres up to 3,500m just below the Allalin mountain.
One of the great things about the skiing for me in Saas Fee, compared to Chinaillon, my home in the Alps, is the possibility of really long runs, the longest being from the T Bar which arrives just above the Metro Alpin at around 3,600m down to the village – a descent of 1800m vertical. Even from the other rather isolated ski area, Plattjen, you can enjoy a good fast run from top to bottom giving a respectable 770m descent. But, it’s true that there is not huge variety and, interestingly, few really steep runs – the black runs were really quite tame, though there are a few marked itinerary routes which could be interesting. The altitude (and perhaps Swiss attitude) encourages everyone to ski slower too than in France, which I do like and of course the views are spectacular. The serious skiers go touring here, treking up on ‘skins’ as my father used to do. Back in the ’60s and ’70s he used our Easter family ski holiday as training for touring up on the 4,000m peaks in June – whilst my mother and I would queue for the cable car, he would go up on his touring skis.
They are very keen on ‘highest this’ and highest that’ in Switzerland as witness the Heida wine from Visperterminen’s wine cooperative we drank one lunchtime, shown in the picture on the left. Marketed as from the highest vineyard in Europe not only by the cooperative but by the Swiss wine promotion board too, this is simply not true. These are not the highest vineyards in Europe despite going up to around 1200 metres. Those in Morgex in Italy’s Aosta Valley go up to over 1250m, and higher than this are the vineyards in the Sierra Nevada foothills north of Granada in Spain’s Andalucia, where the winery Barranco Oscuro at 1248m has vineyards going up as high as 1368m. Down the valley from Saas Fee, Visperterminen is the location for steep vineyards that are in a side valley off the Rhône Valley near its source and the vineyards here grow a range of grapes, but Heida is its real speciality. Heida is the local name for Jura’s Savagnin grape, part of the Traminer family and actually this wine is more reminiscent of Traminer than Savagnin – off dry, floral, spicy and full-bodied, the 14% making it a little heavy for a ski lunch but we couldn’t resist a 50cl bottle with our Walliserteller (cold local meats and cheeses) in the sunshine.
We spent our few days in Saas Fee skiing of course, exploring old haunts and meeting the occasional old friend – I found the ski teacher who had ticked me off for being too soft on the crying kids, running a fashion shop – she’d given up teaching a few years ago … she always was the fashion conscious raver (relatively speaking for a Swiss). The village has become more open, that’s for sure (more than just the eight families now and racism not an issue, I presume) but it still retains its innate charm.
On our final night we ate in the well-known Schäferstube restaurant which my brother remembered being built, piece by piece by its owner, the village Schäfer (shepherd) himself. He was a larger-than-life, good looking man, a local character who was renowned for his opinions, voiced often after a large amount of drink, and he sadly died young. His cosy restaurant above the village centre has always continued, until very recently run by his widow. The current owners have given it a new lease of life and we enjoyed a really excellent Fondue Chinoise with beef, chicken and pork cooked in stock, served not only with the usual sauces, but with an original, varied selection of fresh fruit. Drunk with a Valais Syrah from Jacques Germanier, it was a convivial evening of good wine, food and reminiscences of the Pearl of the Alps.
It was a great pleasure to go down memory lane with you and your family, as well as whizzing down many of the black runs. I thought I was very daring till I read that 'the black runs were really quite tame'! Ah well, back to the Fendant…