Alexandra Topping feels so snug and relaxed in this newly converted eco-barn in a tiny village in the Swiss Alps that it’s an effort to get out and enjoy the skiing
When you get up this high in the mountains, the quiet takes on a life of its own. It settles, like a light dusting of late winter snow on fields and timber-roofed chalets. Looking out on the Swiss section of the Massif du Mont Blanc, as the late afternoon sun turns the peaks rose and then dusty pink, the only thing I can hear is the crackle of dry timber licked by flames. My book abandoned, I sip on a glass of wine in front of a huge rectangle window, alternating between watching the mountains change colour and the flames grow higher in the hearth. I am conscious that, for once, I am perfectly still.
To experience this miracle, I have come to a tiny hamlet, Commeire, perched high in the Swiss Alps, a place with – until recently – only 11 remaining inhabitants. But now, for visitors looking for more than a few days skiing in Switzerland’s famous resorts, the hamlet is home to several luxury barns, converted with sensitively to the region’s architecture and heritage.
Staying in one of the five eco-barns that make up this “hotel-village” is like starring in a particularly pleasing episode of Grand Designs. In each of the centuries-old wooden structures – which in their former lives housed cattle and stored hay – original materials have been preserved and transformed, while solar panel and heat-capturing log fires add to the eco-friendly vibe. The wooden jigsaw slats that provided ventilation for the barn remain over some windows, giving glimpses of the mountains in the distance; in the kitchen, the ancient floor of the barn has been stripped of centuries worth of dung, polished and turned into sleek cabinets.
There is little adornment – with scenery this humbling, anything else would be a distraction – no television and little sign of ostentatious luxury, though every comfort is provided. Instead there are several vast, well-placed windows that perfectly frame the sweeping views of the valley, and oversized leather sofas on which to sprawl and take it all in. I am staying in Barbey, one of the largest barns, with five bedrooms that can be rented individually or together, and a vast living room and separate kitchen underneath the beamed roof.
Dinner is an informal affair, and a glance around the table gives an idea what people are looking for here. The Italian businesswoman who has arrived straight from a meeting in Zurich wants to stare out of the window and have a massage, an older French couple have come for snow-shoe hiking, while the Franco-German couple simply want to hang out with their new baby, who is rudely preventing them from skiing. At a vast Scandinavian-style dinner table we help ourselves to a feast of salad, pork belly, mashed celeriac and Swiss chard washed down with several glasses of eye-openingly crystal clear Swiss wine. Soon we are all off to bed in the cloud-like doubles, for a large dose of uninterrupted mountain sleep.
The Montagne Alternative team who run the barns insist there is more to Commeire than nearby skiing – we’re wooed with tales of hiking in summer, abundant wild flowers in spring and randy wildlife in autumn. But with Verbier only half an hour’s drive away, it seems beyond slothful not to venture out. Skis collected, passes bought, we are soon pulling our hats down tighter as we get higher. Like any classic ski resort, the slopes are fantastic fun. Boys in loud pants carve up the feeble skiers, girls in all-white ski suits check their make up on the chair lift, older couples descend with grace and ease, and children barely old enough to walk snake past in ski-school formation. Lunch is served au terrace, where we consume several tons of melted cheese that come in the local speciality croûte, a sort of bready, cheesy, egg and ham harbinger of joy. And like any big resort, when the ski lifts shut, the party starts. Eye-wateringly expensive bars with impossibly attractive bar staff fill up with clomping skiers and the drinks begin to flow, but as the amps are cranked up I suddenly want to be back in the calm of Commeire. When we pull up at the barn, it feels like coming home.
The next day’s skiing is an entirely different experience. Eduardo, my host at Montagne Alternative and one of four partners here, takes me to a small local station via a winding pine-lined road. La Fouly has just two lifts, one of them an old-school anchor that pulls you right to the top of the mountain. Up there I find that quiet again, empty pistes, huge skies and unforgiving mountains. There is not a huge variety of pistes – advanced skiers might get a little bored – but I love it, and two particularly malicious black runs are challenge enough for me. At lunch we are greeted by Maurice, of Maurice et Mauricette, who hands us a glass of sweetish local wine, while complaining about Verbier. “It’s catastrophe there,” he says. “There’s nothing of the real place left.”
Before the war Commeire was a thriving village, with its own school, bakery, cheese making and farming land. But like all valley communities it changed, its young people left to find work and only the old remained. Now its streets are mainly deserted, the only sound the roar of a thaw-swelled waterfall in the distance. Montagne Alternative is trying to buck that trend, stresses Eduardo. It’s a business, yes, but one that respects and preserves the heritage of the mountains. Care is taken to listen and work with residents and use only local produce, he says, unlike in a nearby village with four residents where traditional buildings have been bulldozed to make way for a luxury hotel.
Commeire resident Oliver Rosset, 42, tells me he’s happy there is a bit more life to the place, and that the local authorities notice the village a little more. By the end of 2014 the company will have 32 rooms, a spa, yoga facilities, restaurant and meeting rooms.
Some in the village are less content. I stop to chat with a local resident and the post man who are sharing a glass of red in the mid-morning sunshine. “It’s not simple. What they are doing is good here, but it’s no longer the same village,” says the older of the two men. “The tranquillity is gone. We’re not a village anymore, we’re a resort.” He shrugs and adds: “Mais, c’est la vie.”
Some visitors like to party, he complains, before telling me about sharing a bottle of wine and discussing his honey with a Dutch couple who came to stay. “We get on with it,” he says. In the final hour before I leave I go back to the barn, lay in a sunbeam and gaze, for the last time, at the mountains around this place and I understand why the residents here might be reticent about sharing it, but I feel guiltily pleased that they are.
• The trip was provided by Montagne Alternative (+41 27 783 21 34, montagne-alternative.com); doubles from €220 a night B&B, a week’s stay from €500 per person. Flights were provided by Swiss (0845 601 0956, swiss.com), which flies from Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Geneva (a 1½-hour drive or easy rail transfer) from £122 return. For further information on Switzerland visit myswitzerland.com or call 00800 100 200 30
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