Last week we were in Verbier. Not that there’s any snow, but that’s as it should be in August. Most people don’t realise or truly appreciate the glory of the Alps that’s revealed when the snow melts, the cows leave their winter quarters and chew the cud in meadows and high pastures sprinkled with flowers.
There are so many different things you can do while you’re here. In winter you can ski, snowboard and take part in other activities like tobogganing. In summer you can mountain bike, you can road bike, you can swim, and then of course there’s hiking and golf.
In the late afternoon on arrival, we met up with Rico, the golf pro on the driving range just above the town. Verbier Golf Club has 600 members and there’s roughly 200 who play on a regular basis. In high season it’s busy every day and when it’s hot people want to come up here to the higher altitude. Water shortage obviously is a bit of an issue everywhere, but not so much here because Verbier gets a lot of water from dams. It’s 18 holes, a fairly short and quite narrow course with small greens with obstacles and blind shots. Most people that start playing here find it difficult, but if it’s dry and warm, the ball goes further.
To get a handicap here you’ve got to go through a pro who can decide when you’re ready to do a test, and see if you can make the score to do that. Then you’ve got to have a test for the rules and etiquette. The big book with all the rules is in St Andrew’s, but there are small versions of it. There are a lot of basic rules you have to know. Your handicap may change through your results in tournaments, or the pro or the captain can say, ‘Ok, this person plays so much better than this actual handicap. We can adjust that.’
Everybody who has clubs or balls (you can get them from the clubhouse) can hit balls. Anybody can get the balls out of the machine as long as they stay on the carpets. Then there’s a little course, the Moulin, which is the pitch and putt. Anybody can play, handicap or no handicap, because you go out from 30 yards to about 70 yards.
The most difficult hole on the course is 11 on the card, which is a par 4, but for most people it’s not reachable. The second shot is blind on a dog-leg. But golf here is from small children up to any age of person that can still walk.
On our first morning we went e-biking. We started by going down in the gondola to Le Châble, which is the small town in the valley where we rented e-bikes and met our guide. One improvement in Verbier in recent years is that the gondola is now deemed to be a form of public transport. This means that it runs all day and right through the evening until just before midnight. So you can stay down in Le Châble and come and go from Verbier with considerable ease. The gondola’s free for pedestrians with the Verbier VIP card, and the card also gives people with mountain bikes 50% off the gondola.
The bike shop is called Montagne Show, and it has a wonderful selection of different e-bikes, mainly Haibike, which is a German manufacturer. Our guide, Jan took us to Le Chemin de 700 Ans, the route of 700 years – so called because it marks the 700th anniversary of the founding of the Swiss Confederation. It’s quite steep in places – in all, it’s about 25k and it takes around two and a half hours to complete. We started from Le Châble, then we went to Voleges and crossed back to Montagnier and Versegères Champsec.
Guided e-bike tours take place mainly between June and September, and guides like Jan spend half their time coaching in the bike park or on the trails, teaching people how to master bike technique to get better at downhill and to have more fun.
About half of the people on these courses are adults and half are children. Children are mostly on normal bikes because they are not allowed to use e-bikes under a certain age, but e-bikes are getting smaller and smaller, so maybe in a few years’ time children are going to use them. Another solution is to put a rope behind the e-bike – and drag your children behind. The great thing is that with a modern battery you can go a long way, maybe 50 or 60 kilometres, and there’s no risk of running out of juice.
We rode up the cable-car to the top of Mont-Fort at 3300 meters then climbed down the steps to what is the beginning of the front face of Mont-Fort ski run in winter. And right now, all it is a sheer strip of glacier that is not looking in very good shape – like most glaciers in Switzerland and the rest of the Alps, with a lot of water runoff from it this year. But in front of us, once we’d clambered over a few rocks, was the start of the zip-wire.
This fiendish ride operates in winter as well as in summer and it’s a very, very quick way of getting down this otherwise extremely steep ski run. The youngest person to do it was aged eight years and the oldest 92. It takes a lot of courage, whether you’re young or whether you’re old.
What an experience! You could feel the wind – very, very strong coming down over the glacier. 1400 meters of descent at 130 kilometres an hour – it’s the most incredible sensation. It’s the longest zip-wire in the Alps and the highest in the world.
Hiking with cows
We stood in front of some 60 cows, fighting cows – where the queens fight for who is to be head of the herd. They’ve certainly got some big tough horns on them, and each one has a bell. In theory, you could tell one cow from another, but that takes a lifetime of being a herdsman to have that skill.
During the long winter months indoors the cows remember who is their queen and when they come out into the pastures each spring, a handful of pretenders will try to grab the throne – and the cows lock horns and do some pretty spectacular fighting to decide who the next queen will be. If a stranger comes into the herd, the cows will immediately know because the bell will be different – each herd has its own bell sound – and they will turn on it and the new cow will have to fight the pretenders.
To see the cows you can stay the night in the Brunet Mountain Hut, which has dormitories and a shared shower, or stay below in the peaceful little village of Lourtier before catching a little bus up a hair-raising single-track road to the hut. We walked up a track to where farmer Marc Maret’s cows grazed happily. Incredibly, a herdsman comes up each morning to milk them by hand – it takes four hours. As soon as he’s finished, it’s almost time to start all over again. The milk, of course, is made into cheese, which you can sample along with dried meat and other delicacies in a little hut still further up the mountain and run by Marc’s wife.The hut is called La Buvette de Pindin, and it’s way above La Barmasse and it’s about an hour’s walk up from the bus stop at the Bruner Refuge.
Where to eat
Yes, lots of cheese. And we started off with going to Chez Dany the first night after the golf, where we walked up for about 45 minutes to Chez Dany, which is a familiar mountain restaurant in winter, and it’s beautiful in summer. It’s a really traditional old chalet set in the corner of a meadow, the edge of woodland at Clambin. I got going on the cheese straight away with a croute complete, which is a mixture of bread and melted cheese and ham with an egg on top. It’s a great Swiss delicacy.
Then we walked down again, which is probably about an hour down to the village. It was in the dark, so a couple of people got lost, but we managed to keep to the path and we had head torches, so it wasn’t too bad – a really nice walk down. And we walked past the chalet that the Duke of York used to own, because of course he sold it. Then we came down into the village and walked back to our hotel.
Other highlights of eating here were the Raclette’house in Bruson, which is run by Eddy, a famous local personality.The interesting thing about this is normally raclette is a Swiss cows’ cheese, but for this one you could choose goat’s cheese raclette and sheep’s cheese raclette, which were both completely different and delicious. We had a lunch in La Dahu, which is another famous mountain restaurant way above Verbier. I haven’t seen it in summer before, but it’s got great views and delicious food.
On our last evening we went to La Grenier, which is one of the restaurants of the five-star Chalet d’Adrien in the centre of Verbier, presided over by chef, Sebastiano Lombardi. Fantastic sea bream and probably the best mashed potato I’ve ever eaten in my life – I don’t know how you achieve a taste like that.
You certainly eat well in Verbier and there’s a huge diversity of restaurants. There’s now an Indian restaurant, Gunpowder Verbier, which is truly outstanding. And then there’s also Sushi Aiseki in the place Centrale. It’s not all cheese; there’s lots of other good things to eat as well in Verbier.
Where to stay
We stayed in the Experimental Chalet, which used to be the Hotel Nevai, and indeed the Experimental Chalet is still home to the Farm Club, which is Verbier’s most famous nightclub, much frequented many years ago by Fergie and others. There are 39 rooms and it’s very convenient – just a few metres on foot to the nearest ski lift and during the summer you can walk everywhere in the village. The winter is very busy, so you need to book the sooner the better. There’s a spa, a cocktail bar during the winter, and the Frenchie Verbier which is the restaurant with chef Gregory Macron.
So overall, a visit in August to Verbier – was it worthwhile? Definitely. It’s just as good fun in summer as in winter and actually almost more to do for different age groups than in winter. It’s very easy to get here, so you can go for a weekend – fly to Geneva, for example, with Swiss, and you then take the train, an easy train journey from Geneva Airport to Verbier. And for more on that, you go to SBB.
For information on Verbier, go to www.verbier.ch We rented our e-bikes and helmets from the Mountain Show shop in Le Châble; you can find out prices by visiting Montagne Show.