It was the Brits who first invented the concept of winter sports, taking with them to Switzerland such outlandish concepts as skiing, curling and ice skating. But this came only after they had been visiting the mountains for decades in the summer months to rejoice in the benefits of the pure air, the sunshine, the mineral waters, the lakes and the hiking. So, why do we only go nowadays in the winter? Somehow, those summer delights have been forgotten. Until now.
Saas-Fee is often called “the pearl of the Alps”. This is partly due to its position, in a valley surrounded by dizzyingly high peaks – Allalinhorn, Alphubel, Taschhorn, Dom, all well over 4000metres – and glaciers with a blue sparkle to rival any mother-of-pearl. The village itself is a bit of a pearl, too. Wooden chalets, deep balconies with tumbling geraniums, gardens full of flowers, timber grain stores built on mushroom-shaped columns (to keep the rodents out in the winter) and views all around of mountains, waterfalls and glaciers. The air is clear, there is minimal pollution and the cars are left behind at the bus station – electric vehicles only in the village.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Saas-Fee has added a new enticement – its Culinary Mile, now in its eleventh year. Part street party, part foodie fair, part oompah-band, this is not quite like any food festival I’ve ever visited. You get an idea at the start of the show where, leaning against the welcome banner, is a hunter’s leather bag and a rifle. (I wouldn’t try this in Manchester.) Stalls are set out the length of the main road in the village with tables alongside them. Think of it like a Swiss tapas walk, taking a bite here and a drink there as you wend your way.
But this is big tapas. In the mountains, food is robust, so plenty of salted pork, cabbage, venison, hams and sausages and, of course, potatoes. The Swiss do wondrous things with potatoes but the two best are surely raclette (with local melted cheese) and rosti (fried and buttery). They also appear in the unfortunately named “cholera.” This turns out in the Valais region to mean something completely different – a baked pie crammed with potatoes, cheese, vegetables and fruit (no bacterial diseases included).
There is plenty of sweet stuff, too, none of which, of course, passed my lips. Apple strudel, obviously, and sacher torte as well as an awful lot of chocolate.
And then there are the drinks. Obviously the Swiss are good at white wines – and their version of Champagne, sekt. But who knew they produced red wines, including my favourite, Pinot Noir? The Culinary Mile is awash with the stuff together with various kinds of schnapps. Peter Welti had a stall decorated with a variety of local taxidermy and a copper still. He offered us “genepi noir des Alpes” explaining that it was made with a local plant he picks in the mountains for the purpose, Artemisia or wormwood. This is also used in absinthe but, with a higher sugar content, is not so bitter or indeed depressing.
There is, too, the unforgettable fondue – we had this in our hotel, the Allalin named after one of the nearby peaks, which every night offered us a six-course dinner (I’m seeing a pattern here). We had the meat version – fish was available, too, but the Swiss don’t seem to bother with plain old cheese fondue. Just not rich enough, maybe?
Perhaps to counteract all this gastronomic excess, the village, inspired by all the natural possibilities, has created two outdoor hydrotherapy spas using the local streams, waterfalls and stones to create natural outdoor spas with hammocks slung in the trees if you fancy a snooze in the sun. The mountain streams cleverly provide a natural Kneipp footbath – but they’re icy. You have been warned. Fancy more of a challenge? I know this isn’t the jungle but you can try out your inner Tarzan at the Rope Park where you’ll find Europe’s longest zip wires, rope bridges in the trees and a four-hour course that will at times require something of a leap of faith.
And there are plenty more ways to work off the effects of all this hearty fare. You can hike through the mountains, go Nordic walking, mountain biking, do a spot of summer skiing up on the glacier where there is also a revolving restaurant and, if you’re lucky, a passing ibex. And they’re not the only wildlife. The local marmots are so used to visitors they’ll take food from your hand. And they are guaranteed to be there every day – they are, after all, groundhogs just like the ones in the film.
Experience this summer’s Culinary Mile event in Saas Fee! Inghams is offering a seven-night stay on a half board basis at the four-star Hotel Allalin in Saas Fee, Switzerland, from £1,049 per person, based on two sharing. Price is valid for travel departing on 5th September 2018. Price includes return flights and airport transfers by rail. To book, visit www.inghams.co.uk or call 01483 791 116.
For more information about Saas Fee and Switzerland in the summertime, visit www.MySwitzerland.com.