Verbier, Zermatt, Crans Montana, Davos, Klosters, Gstaad, Saint Moritz….. These are all famous Swiss alpine resorts, hangouts for the rich, the famous, and lots more. But Switzerland is littered with smaller resorts little known outside the country, or sometimes even their own Swiss canton.
These places have much to offer anyone contemplating a winter alpine vacation. They are usually free of the rampant and unsightly development that can plague big name resorts, not to mention the glitz and glamour that come with it. Long lift line-ups are rare too and so are busy runs.
These smaller villages cater to their local populations as well as a few others who happen to somehow be “in the know”. And as far as size goes, isn’t it the quality of your ski run that matters, not how many of them there are?
Many of these places, thanks to the wisdom of their local population, have in one way or another managed to protect themselves from over-development. As a consequence visitors experience the majestic splendor of the alps and also get a glimpse of a traditional mountain way of life that still exists. Especially if you choose a place like Belalp, located near a Unesco world heritage site and not accessible by car.
Belalp sits at 2100 meters above sea level, just above the tree line. Spread over a large plateau it overlooks the Rhone Valley and the Aletsch Glacier (the largest glacier in the Alps). We are in the German-speaking part of the Wallis (Valais to the French) canton and close to the source of the Rhone river. Belalp borders the Jungfrau-Aletsch protected area, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There no cars are allowed.
Michael and I spent a couple of blissful days in Belalp recently. Although it is high season right now, we were able to wait for a couple of sunny days and a full moon to light up the winter night before making our reservation. Another advantage of a smaller resort. A short cable car from the village of Blatten took us up to the south facing Belalp. The thing we both noticed upon arrival was the silence. Then the perfect white landscape set against deep blue skies that provided breathtaking views in every direction. Right away we relaxed, settled in and spent a couple of days exploring this truly magical spot.
Belalp has only a handful of small hotels, a traditional cafe a couple of small chapels and a scattering of mountain chalets and barns, many of which are available to rent by the week. There are several ski lifts and enough well groomed trails to keep even a expert skier like Michael happy. But this place is not just about skiing. The trails are pristinely groomed and wend their way amongst the chalets. They are also used by walkers, sledders, snowshoers and in the mornings, the odd ski-doo making a delivery to one of the hotels. All around Belalp is an organic ski-in, ski-out experience. And oddly enough we only saw two snow boarders the whole time we were there.
In the summer Belalp is a hiker’s paradise. Farmers lead their cows and sheep here from the valley to their high summer pastures to graze. The milk goes to make delicious alpage cheese and yogurt that can be purchased directly at alpage dairies. I’m planning to go back this summer to hike here and also to experience something called “Shepherds’ Sunday“, the day when sheep are divided into special stone pens to be assigned back to their rightful farmers after a long summer grazing in their high summer pastures.
Here are a few pictures of our visit as well as a traditional recipe for Alpen Magronen which is sure to cure any mountain appetite.
Or to watch the sunset on the first full moon of 2015……
- 8 medium potatoes
- 400 grams penne or other dry pasta
- 2 onions, thinly sliced
- 300 grams diced Speck (or smoked bacon)
- 400 grams Swiss Alpine cheese, grated (I used gruyere)
- 500 ml cream
- salt and pepper
- Peel the potatoes and dice them so they are the same size as the pasta you are using.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and cook the potatoes and pasta together until soft.
- While the pasta cooks, slice the onions thinly (use a mandolin if you own one) and sauté them in a heavy skillet with the speck until the onions are soft and the speck just starts to get a little bit crispy
- Drain the potatoes & macaroni and mix them with the onions and speck.
- Layer in a gratin dish in alternating layers with the cheese
- Heat the cream with the salt, pepper and nutmeg and pour it over the pasta.
- Bake in the oven for about 10-15 minutes minutes at 165 C, just until the cheese melts.
- Remove from the oven and stir well before serving with a dollop of apple-sauce on the side.
- Sometimes Magronen is served with crispy onion rings on top or bread crumbs. I served it with quince sauce instead of apple which was delicious.
Places to stay:
Be sure to visit the nearby village of Mund, the only place in Switzerland where saffron is still cultivated. If you go in the summer you can see it growing and visit the saffron museum. There are several cafes and restaurants in town where you can try the local saffron specialties.