Bringing the hills to life in Verbier

A music festival in stunning countryside makes the Swiss resort a great summer destination

Martin T:son Engstroem has been coming to Verbier for 25 years, regular as clockwork – Swiss or otherwise. “I had been here skiing in the winter and in 1991 decided with the kids to try it out in the summer. It was pretty boring. The restaurants and hotels were open, but there was no… animation,” he explains. “We went horseback riding, mini golf, swimming, hiking, outdoor activities but, in the long run, there wasn’t enough on offer.”

And so the Stockholm-born Engstroem embarked on an endeavour that would do more than any other to transform Verbier’s summer fortunes. He started a classical music festival. As you do.

This year, its 23rd, the Verbier Festival – which runs for two weeks straddling the end of July and the beginning of August – attracted 42,500 visitors to 57 concerts. While previous years featured talents as diverse as Rufus Wainwright, Anoushka Shankar and Julian Lloyd Webber, this year’s festival had performances by the likes of Bryn Terfel, the Gipsy Kings and Nina Stemme, the world’s most sought-after Wagner soprano. Yodelling, however apposite that would have been in the Alps, it was not.

For when the hills are alive with the sound of music, Verbier is buzzing. The festival includes 51 hours of free music events from 200 musicians crowd that add a welcome diversity that the town otherwise lacks. (Even with musicians from all over the world, Verbier can feel overwhelmingly white).

Ring my bell: the Combat des Reines or cow fight – a traditional Swiss event. These are rare Herens cattle.
Ring my bell: the Combat des Reines or cow fight – a traditional Swiss event. These are rare Herens cattle. Photograph: Getty Images

If you don’t ski and aren’t a millionaire, you may have scored Verbier off your go-to list – it is most famous for its winter sports, when the price of accommodation sky-rockets. But the place is worth a visit now because of the variety of activities on offer, as well as the sheer beauty of the countryside that otherwise would be blanketed in snow.

“In winter, there’s skiing and snowboarding, and there’s drinking,” explains Adam Brook, who moved to Verbier from London after losing his job in the 2008 crash. “But, before then, there’s so much more, from hiking to mountain biking.” He now runs Les Elfes, a kids’ camp. “On my day off last week, I drove out of town and up a mountain, had a great hike, and ended up watching some Swiss cow fighting.” It is a tradition, apparently.

You don’t even need to drive to discover the lush, verdant joys of Switzerland’s second largest nature reserve: the Haut Val de Bagnes. With eagles, ibex, marmosets and awesome views, the place is magical. There’s also the Mauvoisin Dam, the eighth highest dam in the world and an amazing feat of engineering. It’s a must-see that ranks alongside the Hoover Dam in the US.

Sarina Papadopoulos, a 26-year-old from Liverpool who made Verbier her home eight years ago, prefers her pastimes altogether less geeky than dam-spotting. She advises taking the cable car up Mont Fort and stopping off for a picnic before you reach the glacier at 3,300m, where it feels like a cross between deep winter and another planet entirely. (From the top of Mont Fort, you can see Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn – one of the few spots from which you can see both.)

Hitting the high notes: a fiddler on the roof, complete with piano and hound, as part of the Verbier Festival.
Hitting the high notes: a fiddler on the roof, complete with piano and hound, as part of the Verbier Festival. Photograph: Getty Images

After training as a skiing instructor, Papadopoulos now owns a business and is Brook’s fiancée. “They say that if you go three seasons here, you stay for ever,” Papadopoulos says. “And now Verbier is definitely home for us.”

Brook agrees: “Quietly and slowly we fell in love with the place – and each other – and that we’re bringing up our children here tells you how much we love it, whatever the season.”

Among their favourite hang-outs are The Shed, an upmarket burger restaurant where it’s best to eat before 6pm as they make their burgers fresh daily and often run out, and Pub Mont Fort. The latter hosts as close as Verbier gets to a cool crowd, and a great burger and chips is £20, which counts as relatively affordable here.

Which brings us to perhaps the biggest stumbling block that stands in Switzerland’s way to being a great tourist destination – the expense. It’s got even more expensive recently: following the Brexit vote, there’s practically parity between sterling and the Swiss Franc. So at the perfectly average Fer a Cheval restaurant, a meal for two – pizzas, green salads and a bottle of one of the cheaper wines – will set you back £80.Though if you’ve recently spent £7 on a ham and cheese baguette at Geneva Airport, this can suddenly seem like good value.

Musical passions: Bryn Terfel and Annette Dasch in Don Giovanni.
Musical passions: Bryn Terfel and Annette Dasch in Don Giovanni. Photograph: No credit

But, says Papadopoulos, you can do Verbier on a budget – if you’re clever. Hiring a chalet with a group of friends, for example, cuts accommodation costs, and Airbnb has more than 150 listings in the town. “While there’s no getting away from the high cost of living in Switzerland, it’s worth it.”

For Engstroem, the location trumps all other considerations. “It’s on a plateau, 1,500m up, and it faces south – so there are many more hours of sunshine here than in a village at the bottom of a valley. No one passes through Verbier by chance: people who come here really want to be here. It’s a destination. That makes it exceptionally special.”

And riding in the cable car, ascending to the heavens above hushed regiments of pine trees that line the mountainside, you understand Engstroem’s point. Verbier is special. But at that height, it isn’t the views that are the most striking thing – it’s the quiet. So by all means visit Verbier for the music – or the vistas, or the hiking or the biking, or indeed the raclette, which is delicious– but stay for the silence. It’s breathtaking.

Essentials

British Airways (britishairways.com) flights from Heathrow to Geneva start at £60 single. Hotels range from Hotel Les Touristes (hoteltouristes-verbier.ch) at ₤100 per night for a double to the W (wverbier.com) at ₤350 a night for a double. Search airbnb.co.uk for more affordable options. For details of the Verbier Festival, go to verbierfestival.com.

To find discount codes for TUI, Thomas Cook and other leading travel providers, visit discountcode.theguardian.com

Contributor

Gareth McLean

The GuardianTramp

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