We all know Switzerland is a place where you can count on everything to work. If the train is due at platform 11 at 9.04 that is precisely when and where it will turn up. Other preconceptions, though, are soon confounded. For instance, if you think the place is all kitsch and cuckoo clocks, take a look at Vals Therme, achingly modernist in every respect with minimalism coursing through its very veins. If there were ever a spa created to tempt architects, this is it.
So, my room is almost entirely black and white. It features a black leather and steel Mies van der Rohe lounger. The walls and floor are all white and there is only one very tiny black and white photograph on the wall as decoration. The bathroom is so bafflingly contemporary it takes a while to work out how to flush the loo (looks like a lever but works like a button). And the black corridors on the ground floor next to the Red Restaurant are so dark that you have to feel your way to the lift. There is no compromise here – design is king. And if you ever doubted it, the Therme (Spa) was declared a National Monument two years after it opened.
The hotel itself is shaped like a banana (honest) and the rooms are continually updated by new architects with new concepts. Kuma Kengo from Japan, another star architect, has most recently created wonderfully peaceful rooms in pale wood and those in the know ask for a room by their favourite designer when they book. This building is known both as the Temple and also the 7132 Hotel, both before being simply Therme Vals. The number is the postcode of the village of Vals and the whole enterprise is owned by the local community. And this place has an almost tangible sense of community.
Vals feels just about in the middle of nowhere, real Heidi country with steep mountain sides covered in sheep, dotted with little shepherds’ huts. There are a thousand residents, room for a thousand visitors – and a thousand sheep. And that, I was told, was how they plan to keep it. There is no desire here for mass tourism, but quality tourism, they believe, is the way to go.
Many spas and hotels have a “philosophy” but in Vals they really mean it. They offer “the true luxury of our time: deceleration” and indeed in the spa, the architect decreed that there should be no clocks (two tiny ones have sneaked in) and it should be a place that people enter without directions and simply explore and discover on their own. Time becomes meaningless. The architect described this feeling as a “meander”, something akin to walking in the woods. The idea is that visitors “allow stone and water, the key elements of the Vals landscape to work their magic”.
The Vals stone and water are both pretty special. The stone is a grey quartzite, locally quarried and made into everything from floor tiles to highly polished and very expensive plates. In the spa, the stacked walls are made from 60,000 of these quartzite slabs and the floors, walkways, pools, ceilings, stairs, benches and door frames are the same. The aim (it succeeded) was to create the impression of a monolith or a cave. The water is from the only thermal spring in the canton of Graubunden and comes out of the ground at 30C. Its high iron content leaves a red stain even on the quartzite as it sputters out untreated from pipes high on the corridor walls as you enter into the twilight of the spa deep in the mountainside down a long ramp. This, though, is just to give you an idea of what it looks like in its untreated state.
The first part of the spa is very dark. There are saunas and steam rooms alongside some changing rooms, though many people miss them as they gravitate naturally towards the light. To get there, it’s down another ramp and then the spa opens up with a series of pools some inside the now light building, and a further one outside in the open air past a chain curtain that feels icy cold to the touch. The water, though, isn’t. This pool is 32C in summer, 36C in winter. There are so many more pools too. The ice bath is 14C, the sound bath 35c, the flower bath 33C and fire bath 42C. The waters are full of healing minerals (calcium, sulphate, hydrogen-carbonate, magnesium as well as the iron) and were thought to have been first discovered thousands of years ago. The water is processed to lose some of its colour (and definitely its smell as sulphur is just a little bit like rotten eggs) for the spa. In an even more purified state, it becomes Valser mineral water, bottled and sold throughout Switzerland.
The Therme is open to the public but guests staying at the hotel have a three-hour private window in the morning and, three nights a week, it is their private domain from 11pm to half past midnight – “where bathing becomes an experience sensibility is growing” as one aficionado put it. The darkness certainly does add to the effect, though, with the red fire bath and the blue ice bath adding colour and the rising steam creating a kind of fog to find your way through. It is very, very quiet.
There are all sorts of massage available from aromatherapy using local herbs to lymphatic drainage. But this place is all about water, so I had to try the under-water massage. This is a kind of Shiatsu where the therapist is in the pleasantly warm (35C) water with you and moves you around using the water as an aid. A little hard to picture? Let me fill in the details…
I was slightly ambivalent about just floating on my back for the best part of an hour but Arthur seemed a sturdy, sensible sort of chap so surely I was in safe hands. Just to be certain, he kitted me out with a variety of floats – two tied to my legs, one under my knees and a sort of pillow float under my head. From then on, only my face and the tops of my knees broke the surface, the rest of me was under the warm, mineral rich water.
“You do nothing from now on,” Arthur says, “I do everything.” And I relax into passivity as you do in any massage. But this is no ordinary massage. I am twirled and glided, my limbs are manipulated, waved and trailed like a piece of seaweed, then rotated, gently stretched, circled in a kind of waltz (vals?). Arthur massages my back, neck, the tops of my shoulders in the water and the muscles just dissolve, in its warmth. At times I am cradled like a baby, at others twisted around myself (like a conch? No escaping those watery images) or there again hoisted on to Arthur’s shoulder. You effectively lose two senses (closing your eyes and with the water covering your ears). As a result, you become super-aware of the sense of your body in the water. At times you feel as if you are dissolving yourself. The only sound is water.
All massage is passive but in this one the movements initiated by the therapist set up reactions in the water that trigger further reactions in your limbs, even in your hair (it’s all very Ophelia). You set up your own waves and become weightless, a reed moved by the water in a kind of dance in the water with your therapist. Extraordinary.
For more information and bookings, visit the website. Standard double room from CHF 590 per night (CHF 390 for single occupancy room only but includes admission to therme). Flights from London to Zurich with Swiss from £128 return.