Switzerland is a country which I visit as often as time (and finances) permit, and my most recent winter short break in the beautiful town (and ski resort) of Champery did not disappoint.
My journey started from the centre of London with a delayed train and packed shuttle bus, followed by the delights of Luton airport and its seemingly endless renovation works. Arriving into Geneva is a sheer pleasure by comparison, and the train station located within the building (unlike Luton!) ensured a prompt departure on a rail network which, of course, runs like clockwork.
We are fortunate that Dr Beeching never managed railway restructuring overseas, and it is wonderful that Swiss trains reach tiny villages in far flung corners of the country, as was once enjoyed in Britain. These include the Swiss villages of the Portes du Soleil ski region, and it is a marvel that within the same amount of time that it takes to get to Swindon from London, you can travel from Geneva along the shore of the lake and up into the mountains with each breath taking view eclipsed by the next.
The French ski resorts of the Portes du Soleil, such as Avoriaz and Morzine, may be better known, but silver skiers will greatly appreciate the charm and tradition of the resorts on the Swiss side of the same huge ski area with 600km of pistes, 286 runs, and 280km of cross country trails. This collection of Swiss resorts are known as Les Dents du Midi– the teeth of the south – after the stunning mountain range, and they comprise Morgins, Champoussin, Les Crosets and, by far the largest and most attractive chocolate in the box, Champery.
Champery is one of the oldest tourist destinations in Switzerland and has a traditional high street with wooden chalets, shops (for that essential cuckoo clock or army knife) and restaurants, as well as a year-round appeal with balconies of red geraniums in abundance in summer. A wide range of hotels can be found, but to be recommended is the Bed & Breakfast at Le Dzy chalet, close to the centre, warm and comfortable, and with a beautiful basket of fresh breakfast goodies delivered to the door each morning by the charming owner, Sidonie.
When it comes to skiing, in the centre of Champery is a fast cable car which gives access to the full ski area, and within a few lifts and easy blue or red runs, you cross into France. There’s a border of course but – take note Brexiteers – it’s not a hard border, simply a change of flag and a welcome message. One of the routes back to Switzerland after lunch in France (slightly easier on the purse) is down the fearsome Swiss Wall, a steep mogul field which will challenge even advanced skiers. But there’s no cause for concern as a gentle chairlift down is the alternative, and you can watch other toil their way down the slope from the comfort of a seat!
And whilst on the subject of borders, I was introduced to Michel Chesaux, a fit and dynamic 71 year old who has lived in the area all his life, and had the great fortune to ski for his job until his retirement at the age of 58. He was not a ski instructor, but a border guard for the Swiss customs authority, patrolling the frontier between France and Switzerland high on the mountains of the Portes du Soleil, and also spending a few years in Zermatt patrolling between Switzerland and Italy.
Dressed in ‘civilian’ ski gear, his job was to observe and apprehend anyone who looked like they might be skiing with more than a sandwich and an avalanche transceiver in their backpack. His biggest haul? That was 1.9kg of marijuana when he stopped a solo skier who looked a little too determined in a blizzard to get across into Switzerland from France one morning.
Since retiring, Michel skis every day in winter: “What else would I do?” he laughs. “I would not want to sit at home”, and he cycles in the summer, although he did confess to the recent discovery of an electric bike which just makes those mountain ascents a little easier.
Following Michel down the street after our coffee and cake, he walked with the speed and agility of a man in his twenties, and I marvelled at the benefits of fresh mountain air and exercise as the recipe for longevity.
Champery has a warm welcome for older visitors: there’s a ‘Passeport Seniors’ for both locals and tourists with a range of gentle activities each week which include mountain walks on ‘raquettes’ – these are literally like tennis rackets without the handle which allow you to glide easily along the top of the snow. And seniors enjoy the same prices for lift passes as youths which is around a 10% reduction on the adult pass (currently CHF 275 for 6 days skiing which compares very favourably with other large resorts).
For non-skiers or if you just want a day off, there’s a fantastic sports centre with indoor and outdoor pool, ice skating rink and a range of activities. Or for a little more luxury, a 10 minute drive or train ride takes you to the thermal baths at Val d’Iliez with indoor and outdoor pools and wonderful jacuzzi with mountain views. A fountain of health and relaxation, the water is rich in calcium, sulphur and magnesium, and it was heaven to soak those tired limbs in a steaming thermal pool, followed by a sauna and hammam.
What I loved about Champery is that it’s not just a ski resort, it’s a proper town with a community of year-round residents who are justifiably proud of the place they call home. If you love Switzerland (as I do), then Champery is a perfect place to tick the boxes: stunning views, traditional charm, a wealth of outdoor activities, easy access by train, and, the icing on the cake, some of the best skiing in the world. I’ll be back again soon!