A back door to beauty: Sion offers a surprising approach to some splendid Swiss skiing
The recorded welcome and safety-instruction message on National Express airport coaches ends with the invitation to "sit back and enjoy the ride". It occurred to me as the 7.05am service left Golders Green Tube station for Stansted that nobody wanting an enjoyable ride would head off around the eastern part of the North Circular Road, with its grim monoculture of retail-park architecture. Certainly it became evident on this trip that the only passengers having a good time were those whose eyes were closed and mouths open.
The very idea of enjoying a ride on public transport is hopelessly out of time, of course. Probably some revived rail services and luxury cruises are the exception. But the rule – now that travel has become so commonplace and banal – is that the "ride" is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Or so I thought, until the Snowjet aircraft on which I was flying to Switzerland began its descent into Sion airport.
Having flown the length of Lake Geneva, the aircraft headed east along the Rhône valley, passing beyond Sion before returning for a west-facing final approach. Above Visp the valley is quite narrow and when the pilot pitched the four-engined BAe 146 jet into a sharp U-turn it suddenly seemed a lot narrower, thanks to the stunning mountain ranges rearing up 4,000 metres on either side. Just as it became clear that the manoeuvre would succeed, the Matterhorn stood to attention on the port side. The turn completed, the aircraft dropped toward the remarkable twin hill-top castles of Sion.
Flying into Sion remains an unusual way of accessing the ski destinations of Switzerland's Valais canton. Swissair flew there from the UK for a while, but gave up the route because of recurrent bad weather at Sion. (A mischievous Swiss tourism official suggested to me that the real reason why pilots so frequently diverted to Geneva was that most of them lived in that city.) Although Snowjet's flight is now in its third year of operation, it still has only three flights to Sion each week.
The part of the Rhône Valley around Sion and Sierre is also an unusual place to ski, at least for the British. There is a major stronghold of British skiing at Verbier, just south-east of Lake Geneva above Martigny; there is another above Visp at Zermatt, a destination we have favoured since before the Matterhorn was climbed. But the 80km stretch between those two places is largely unfamiliar territory for us, even though Crans-Montana – on the other, south-facing side – is a reference point in the early history of British skiing.
Recent developments, however, have highlighted this area. They include the local presence of a couple premium tour operators (Swiss Ski Safari, based in Anzère, and Best Snow in the Alps, which frequently operates from Martigny); the launch for the coming season of a weekly Ski Train from Geneva Airport which will stop three times between Martigny and Visp; and the advent of Crystal's small programme in Nendaz and Veysonnaz.
The continuing popularity of Verbier, plus its unattractively high prices, have encouraged the quest for "back-door" resorts that give access to its highly regarded Four Valleys ski domain. Finally, British skiers have had their attention drawn to the Val d'Anniviers, a little further to the east: the regrettably now-defunct Great Skiing Guide championed the Hotel Bella Tola in St-Luc, one of four resorts in a valley favoured mainly by Swiss skiers.
What prompted my visit in February was not these recent developments, but ancient history. Having passed this way on many ski trips I had resolved, one day, to visit Sion's castles. When I discovered that the church in one of them, the Chateau de Valère, has the world's oldest working church organ, my resolution to visit became firm and urgent.
Set on the west wall of the church of Valère, the organ is believed to date from 1435, a period when Sion prospered as a stop on the trading route between Paris and Venice (and hence to the east). The loft, which resembles the stern of a miniature galleon, has a keyboard with 45 keys and a pedalboard with nine. Above, partly covered by frescoed screens, are the pipes, made primarily of wood and lead.
Obviously, I wanted to hear the organ play, but I could barely see it: the church was undergoing renovation. And anyway, one could hardly expect such an instrument to be played at the whim of a visiting journalist, especially when only a handful of organists are allowed near its keyboard. But thankfully the church sells a recording of a recital in 2009, which reveals that the organ's mechanism is a little breathless and rattly, only to be expected when it was made 250 years before the birth of JS Bach.
But the notes are true and the definition sharp – so much so that one wonders whether the last two restorations, in 1954 and 2004, were not a little too good. The organ is clearly at ease with the one composition on the CD from its own era, a plainsong-like piece by Conrad Paumann (1410-1473).
By comparison, the Hotel Bella Tola is relatively modern, having opened as recently as 1859. It remained in the ownership of the same family for 136 years, but was then sold and taken over by hoteliers Anne-Françoise and Claude Buchs-Favre. In their hands it has become an extraordinary place, made comfortable but stylish by the odd expedient of stuffing it with enough furniture and bric-a-brac to fill a hundred eccentric antique shops. When the Buchs-Favres (and their buyers) do something, they do it seriously: one evening in the hotel's ample lounge, which has seating for 32 people, I noted 11 standard- and table-lamps, some discreet spotlights and wall-fittings, and no less than 47 candles.
In the upstairs dining room for weekly guests, the style takes shabby-chic to a new realm. The ceiling, decorated with simple but charming frescoes, is so cracked that most hoteliers would have it condemned before Health and Safety could do so; the diamond-pattern parquet floor looks even older, and the walls are hung with old black-and-white photographs showing the grim realities of hill-farming life. The young, female staff (blessed with natural charm rather than the service-manual version) dressed in a Swiss version of Victorian-maid style add a finishing touch to the Gothic fantasy scene. Despite its occasional "designer" elements, I loved the place.
The St-Luc/Chandolin ski area, accessed by a lift a few minutes' walk from the hotel, is also fantastic – not because of its scale or difficulty but because you could not organise a lift-queue there if you tried. For languid intermediates it is terrific; more intrepid skiers have to go to the Four Valleys to find satisfaction.
With its charmless village and Fulham-on-ice social scene, Verbier has never appealed to me, so the idea of a "back-door" to the Four Valleys gets my vote. Although its proximity to Verbier is no accident, the new Hidden Dragon chalet in Veysonnaz is nobody's back door. One of the most expensive chalets in the Alps, it is also – according to those who frequent such places – among the very best. Certainly, the food and hospitality are excellent, the design (inspired by eastern philosophy and spirituality) and surface finishes have a flawless sheen.
For guests reluctant to tackle the longish haul to the most demanding parts of the Four Valleys, Veysonnaz's own ski area is pleasant enough. Nendaz is closer to Verbier and David Merrifield, who owns the Nendaz-based chalet company Ted Bentley, is more than happy to exploit the close association. "The thinking-man's Verbier" is how he describes Nendaz. "Verbier is overrated, crowded and hilariously overpriced: for the same chalet you'd pay three times as much as in Nendaz," he says. And if the back door isn't close to the best intermediate skiing of the Four Valleys, the nearby slopes do offer "what local instructors say is the best terrain anywhere for progressing beginners," adds Merrifield, plus "great stuff for experts".
Veysonnaz and Nendaz, very much Swiss resorts, are worth the detour from the very British Verbier – and are considerably nearer to Sion airport. Should you choose to fly there on Snowjet, my advice is to "sit back and enjoy the ride".
Travel essentials: Sion and Four Valleys
* Snowjet (0845 070 4458; snowjet.co.uk) flies from Stansted to Sion; one-way flights start at £79.
* The Snow Train from Geneva Airport launches on 29 January and departs for resorts in the Valais region on Saturdays until 19 March (020-7420 4934; stc.co.uk).
* Hotel Bella Tola, St-Luc (00 41 27 475 14 44; bellatola.ch). Doubles start at Sfr180 (£114), half-board.
* Hidden Dragon, Veysonnaz (0845 505 0251; hidden-dragon.com). Weekly rental starts at Sfr30,000 (£18,970), fully catered; sleeps 12.
* Ted Bentley (01934 820854; tedbentley.co.uk) rents chalets in Nendaz from £525 per person per week.
* Swiss Ski Safari, Anzère (00 41 27 398 2194; swisskisafari.com).
* Crystal (0871 231 5655; crystalski.co.uk).
* Four Valleys ( 4vallees.ch).
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