By Bob Bestor
At the headwaters of the Rhône river is a high Swiss valley of wooden farm buildings blackened by weather, breathtaking vistas, simple little hotels and a time-honored cuisine.
Here is an absolute antidote to the traffic and noise of European cities crowded with tourists. Starting at the east end of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) the auto (or train) traveler can follow the Rhône river to its source, the Rhône Glacier, high in the mountains between the Furka and Grimsel Passes.
At Brig, the road begins to rise and passes through—and by—a number of interesting mountain villages including Fiesch, Ernen, Niederwald and Münster (all accessible by rail as well as car). This section of the upper Rhône Valley is known as the Goms (Conches Valley).
One could easily conclude it is a place that looks much as it did a couple of hundred years ago. The area is characterized by spectacular mountain scenery and rough wooden buildings which weather to a deep brown that makes them appear almost charred.
After about 24 hours in the Goms, big-city culture hounds will probably be bored stiff. But the connoisseur of peace and quiet, awesome vistas, hearty country food, and outdoor activities, will relish every minute of his or her stay in this unspoiled corner of Switzerland.
This is not to say the area is bereft of culture. There are some 70 Baroque churches with great altars and works of art, and the area's long traditions of arts and craft are very much alive. The village church at Münster, for example, which contains an elaborate altarpiece from 1509, is certainly worth a look and the Baroque Church at Reckingen is also noteworthy. The village of Ernen is internationally renowned for its annual piano and chamber music masters classes.
But it is the outdoor stuff that attracts most visitors; walking, climbing, rafting and, of course, skiing. In fact, the Goms is reputed to have Switzerland's best cross-country skiing and had the 2006 Winter Olympic Games been awarded to Sion, the cross-country events would have been held here.
The regional tourist office at Fiesch says no holiday in the Goms is complete without a breakfast outing on the Fiesch-Eggishorn cable car. As the car slowly ascends the mountain, riders enjoy a generous buffet breakfast (CHF 38). Another tourist office suggestion, witnessing the dawn from the Eggishorn, is one we'll leave to earlier risers.
Auto travelers will find one of Switzerland's great views from Gletsch at the valley's end. From the bend in the road to the Furka Pass, at the Belvedere Hotel, one can see not only the Rhône Glacier but views of the Bernese and Valais Alps.
If you plan a short stay, there are many hotels from which to choose, most of them simple but charming in the way that is unique to small Swiss mountain hotels. For longer visits, you might want to pick from among the hundreds of private chalet and apartment rentals available in every village. Prices for these range from CHF 30 to CHF 130 per day depending upon season and the number of persons accommodated. Some have a minimum stay requirement of only three days.
The Goms Hotels
Typical Swiss mountain hotel; unpretentious but tidy and comfortable. The four story building is chalet style in the characteristic dark wood with red shutters and flower bedecked balconies. Framing the rock-edged entrance is a canopy of climbing roses and at one side of the building is a covered terrace for fine weather dining when the restaurant moves outdoors.
Guestrooms are plain, assuming you ascribe that term to wood paneled walls and ceilings, and most are furnished with a small couch, a table, a couple of chairs and a tiny TV. Many offer terraces with fine mountain views. Bathrooms in some cases are cramped but adequate and have heated towel bars. Room Number 6 is a pleasant corner double and Number 3 is also on a corner but has a very small bathroom.
We received a warm and gracious welcome at the Alpenblick.
With the recent strength in the dollar, one can now find some true bargains in Switzerland. This is one of them.
- Daily Rates: Singles CHF 60 to 66, doubles CHF 116-136. Half board CHF 28, per day, minimum three days.
- Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 15/20
Restaurant-Pension Drei Tannen
Allow your stomach to choose a place to stay in the Goms and it will likely be the Drei Tannen in Niederwald. While huge snow flakes silently drifted down outside, we stoked up on a lunch of air-dried meats, fondue and red wine in this rustic little pub.
For Americans, fondue has almost become a travel cliché. If you find it served during the summer months, you're probably in a heavily touristed part of the country. For the Swiss, fondue is a cold weather dish and they're not comfortable eating it or serving it out of season. Don't ask for it during that time of year at the Drei Tannen.
Cliché or not, on a cold day in a cozy mountain restaurant, done the right way with the best ingredients, it's heaven.
Ours was served with bread cubes and small potatoes boiled in their jackets. Sour gherkins, marble-sized onions and quartered cherry tomatoes came with the air-dried meat. A Rhône Valley Pinot Noir, 1997 Uvrier from near Sion, completed an uncomplicated but delicious and memorable meal.
We weren't alone in our assessment, the place was full of locals. Our server knew everyone but us.
Upstairs are three or four very pleasant sleeping rooms with private toilet and shower.
Niederwald is a delightful little hamlet, birthplace of Csar Ritz of Ritz hotel fame, and the Drei Tannen is another outstanding value.
• Daily Rates: Singles CHF 55, doubles CHF 110
• Contact: Restaurant-Pension Drei Tannen, CH-3981 Niederwald, tel./fax +41/027/9711173. Web: www.dreitannen.ch/, Proprietor: Fam. H. Wirthner-Volken
• Hotel Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 15/20
• Rest. Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Hotel Croix d'Or & Poste
Münster (pop. 417) is considered the main village of the Upper Rhône Valley and is thought to be named after a medieval Benedictine monastery. It is home to a hotel of considerable charm, the Croix d'Or & Poste, whose rooms are crowded with objet d'art and antiques.
The hotel was built in 1620 for the local bishop, and its current owner, Simon Aellig, can show you a guest register with such names as Goethe (1779), the German writer and philosopher; Edward Whymper (1865-1870), the first to climb the Matterhorn; and Pope Pius XI, a guest in 1897.
The hotel's interior is a complex mix of styles from mountain rustic to Louis -the-whatever. One dining room has dark wood wainscoting and chandeliers fashioned from a wagon wheel, while another has striped wallpaper, thick burgundy draperies and high-backed white wood frame chairs with flowery red velvet upholstery.
The public rooms seem to be a series of snug, antique-furnished little nooks. In one, a fire burns throughout the day.
Guestrooms are like the public spaces—varied; no two are alike. Number 24, for example, is decorated in the French Provincial style. On the other hand, Number 35, is typically Swiss with lots of wood.
The rooms are consistently comfortable and well-equipped.
Travelers with no more than a passing interest in antiques will want to browse the hotel's public rooms - or ask Herr Aellig for a guided tour. Among the items we noted was a bible from 1634 and a cabinet containing Rosenthal china from 1890.
Given its price, location, facilities, charm and warmth of welcome, the Poste gets our unqualified recommendation.
• Daily Rates: Singles CHF 62 to 68, doubles CHF 124 to 170
• Contact: Croix d'Or et Poste, CH-3985 Münster VS, tel. +41/027/974-1515, fax 9741516, Web: www.hotel-postmuenster.ch/, Proprietor: Simon and Ruth Aellig-Bumann.
• Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
More modern accommodations are available at the nine-year-old Hotel Restaurant Castle high above the main road in Blitzingen with commanding views of the valley.
Though it calls itself a hotel, the Castle is mostly privately-owned condominiums that can be rented by the night or on a weekly basis. We reported on the property (June, 1992) shortly after it was built.
Unlike the other accommodations reviewed here, the Castle has the facilities of a four-star resort hotel; pool, spa, steam bath and an exercise room. Since all quarters were built as apartments, they are more spacious and homey than most hotel rooms.
A Gemütlichkeit subscriber and veteran of 30 consecutive Oktoberfests, Jeff Durkota, owns one of the apartments, B-21. It has two bedrooms, two baths, a living room, kitchen and both front and rear balconies with outstanding mountain and valley views.
This four-person "King Suite" rents for from CHF 960 to 1600 per week, depending on the season. Interested parties can rent through the hotel or, for perhaps a slightly better price, contact Mr. Durkota directly at 717-299-6541 or 717-656-6517 (evenings).
• Daily Rates: Junior Suite CHF 128 to 175 single and CHF 204 to 276 double; Castle Suite CHF 145 to 150 single and CHF 230 to 290 double; King Suite for four persons CHF 500 to 640. There are substantial discounts to these rates for stays of seven days.
• Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 12/20
The Goms region tourist office in Fiesch maintains a list and booking service for dozens of holiday accommodations. A government agency rates them in four categories: first class, medium class, standard class and basic class. The top category is required to have furnishings "as good as new," bath facilities for every four persons; dishwasher; separate laundry room; reserved parking; balcony, terrace or lawn with furniture; radio; TV; telephone; no bunk beds; kitchen with dining table; living room that does not double as a sleeping accommodation; and a swimming pool on the property. The remaining categories have correspondingly fewer of these amenities.
Information current as of March 2000