Can you think of a good reason for going skiing in Andermatt? Probably not. First, because the Swiss resort fell off the British ski radar many years ago, despite being highly regarded by expert skiers; and second, because what one reads about it includes many good reasons for steering clear of the place. True, most writers agree that the original village centre is full of charm and cobbles, and that the skiing on Gemsstock mountain, which looms above the town, is awesome. But somehow, in context, that seems like faint praise.
There is no doubt when Andermatt enjoyed its golden age. Until the late 19th century it was one of the great traffic hubs of Europe. The gateway to the St Gotthard valley, the direct route to Italy from northern Europe, it was also flanked by major mountain passes to the east and west. In 1882, however, the Gotthard railway tunnel opened, and Andermatt was underpassed (a process repeated in 1980 when a road tunnel was completed). Once a busy thoroughfare, it became a dead end.
What saved the place, at least economically, was the arrival of the Swiss army. Andermatt became a garrison town in 1885, to serve as the command centre in the event of war. A barracks was built to house soldiers – up to 1,000 of them at a time – undergoing mountain warfare training.
Does that sound good? No. There is no historic town so charming that it wouldn't be affected by the presence of an army. And I haven't even mentioned the heavy-arms firing range.
At the end of the Cold War, army operations were wound down, and by that time Andermatt was an established ski destination. But a century of military occupation had left its mark. The authors of the 1994 Good Skiing Guide admitted that Andermatt didn't really warrant an entry since so few Britons – and just one small tour operator – went there, and noted that "on arrival the visitor's first sight is of a bleak barracks".
Why am I exposing you to this gloom? For dramatic effect. Because Andermatt has a saviour set on reinventing it as an upmarket resort by spending Sfr1.8bn (£1.2bn) on creating six new four- and five-star hotels, 490 apartments, 25 chalets and an 18-hole golf course. He is an Egyptian-born property developer named Samih Sawiris.
Andermatt's natural setting is exquisite, the surrounding mountains jostling in so tightly that it's a wonder the town's small stream can pick a way through them. And up on the face of Nätschen, the less demanding of the two main ski areas, the scene is so textbook Swiss that one might be in the life-size model ski village of a SwitzerlandLand theme park: little trains pop in and out of tunnels, whistling to each other like marmots; cows shuffle and steam in the sun outside beautifully maintained mountain huts; people ski, hike, snowshoe, sledge and walk their dogs, but they are dotted so sparsely on the slopes in late January that they couldn't constitute a crowd even if they tried; the sky is entirely blue and the snow so high at the lift base that skiers have to kneel down to pass money through the ticket-booth window.
The centrepiece of the renovation project is the Chedi Andermatt hotel and its residences. I was shown into one of its most basic hotel rooms, a sumptuous oriental-style cabin with walls clad in dark wood. It had an animal skin thrown on the bed, a native-art-style rug on the floor, an in-and-out fireplace (to heat not just the room but also the balcony), plus the full panoply of mod cons. But I didn't stay there, because of a problem with the plumbing: it wasn't connected. This Chedi – the first property in Europe for what is a benchmark luxury brand in Asia – will not open until December.
The hotel will be the first fruit of a project which has already taken eight years and cost Sfr300m (£208m). It was set in motion by the Swiss army's decision to close the firing range and scale back other operations, releasing land suitable for development on the valley floor. When the elected leader of the local canton became aware of this opportunity, he mentioned it to a friend who is the Swiss consul in Egypt. The latter, in turn, mentioned it to his friend, Samih Sawiris. When Sawiris visited Andermatt in February 2005, his intention was simply to advise on the site. But having seen it he decided that his company Orascom – largely Egypt-based but also active elsewhere, including in Cornwall – should take it on the project.
On completion the development, called Andermatt Swiss Alps (ASA), will virtually double the size of the town. But since ASA has resolved that its residential properties will be built only after they have been sold, the completion date is uncertain. Instability in Egypt, the strength of the Swiss franc and the effect of recession on the property market have all had an impact on progress.
Recently, though, sales have stepped up, and in September, a Swiss real-estate fund bought 73 apartments in the Chedi, at a price reported in The New York Times to be $130m (£85m). The same newspaper floated the idea that ASA needed a figurehead celebrity to endorse the development: Andermatt has, after all, attracted many celebrated visitors in the past, among them J M W Turner, Charles Dickens and Elvis Presley. But Robert Fellermeier, the 47-year-old Bavarian who is ASA's managing director, says the company is not targeting celebrities. "We are selling properties to quite ordinary people – doctors, lawyers and so on – rather than to the rich and famous," he insists, despite prices that start at Sfr1.8m (£1.3m) for the Chedi's cheapest apartments. "But once the Chedi opens we will get that association, thanks to the celebrity magazines."
For mere skiers, the biggest news is that ASA, having taken a controlling interest in the local lift companies, is to remodel the ski areas in partnership with the Scandinavian resort operator SkiStar. The two Andermatt areas will have improved lifts, and the Sedrun area – further along the valley – will be linked to Nätschen by a pair of new lifts.
The jewel of its skiing, however, will remain the majestic, north-facing Gemsstock, the biggest of the mountains around the town, whose cable car delivers skiers to its 2,963m peak. The top station is one of the great Alpine viewpoints, but it is an alarming place, too. Just the sight of the steel-rope bridge running along the tooth-like peaks of the top ridge is enough to induce vertigo and the platform alongside the cable car seems a place made for thicker-skinned species than human beings.
This is a mountain for adventurous skiers – which means almost everyone heads off to the right, towards the forked Bernhard-Russi-Run (named after the local ski-racing hero) and the famous off-piste routes such as Giraffe and Geissberg. Only aesthetes turn left, where they can expect to have the beautiful St Anna Gletscher red run almost to themselves. (On the 3.5km descent I encountered just eight other skiers.)
The Chedi show bedroom being unplumbed, my accommodation in Andermatt was in a plain but very well managed three-star hotel, the Alpenhotel Schlüssel. When we first spoke, the manager told me – referring primarily to a lack of ski-lift investment – that the town had "fallen asleep for 30 years". I asked him later whether it had now woken up. "Yes," he answered, with a smile. Now there's a good reason for going skiing in Andermatt.
The nearest international airport is Zurich, served by Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com); Helvetic Airways (00 41 44 270 85 00; helvetic.com); BMI Regional (0844 417 2600; bmiregional.com); Blue Islands (08456 20 21 22; blueislands.com); British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com); and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from a range of UK airports.
No major tour operator offers packages to Andermatt, but trips can be arranged by specialists such as PowderBeds.com (0845 004 4485; powderbeds.com) and Alpine Answers (020-7801 1080; alpineanswers.co.uk).
Alpenhotel Schlüssel at Gotthardstrasse 30 (00 41 888 7088; hotelschluessel.com) has doubles from Sfr150 (£107) per night, including breakfast.
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