Verbier - Melting Your Heart In Summer
When you spot Welsh Bass baritone, Bryn Terfel queuing his way through Geneva customs en-route to one of Switzerland’s most famous ski resorts, with little more than sheet music and a robust overnight bag, questions must be asked!
And, when no other than Harry and Megan’s wedding day cellist and Young Musician of the Year, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, poles up to improvise Herbie Hancock at a resort nightclub, you know that something is afoot: welcome to the Alpine village of Verbier, world class ski resort but, in the middle of July, probably one of the culturally hottest places on the planet with not a snowflake in sight!
However, before ski diehards collectively shake their heads in horror, it is time to take a look at Verbier from a slightly different perspective: a la carte ‘summer’.
Traditionally known as one of the grade A celeb and ‘Royal’ ski resorts – Fergie, Prince Andrew and their two offspring, Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, have been known to don their salopettes here – Verbier, which sits in the shadow of the imposing Combins Massif mountains, is now actively promoting itself as an all-year-round resort.
And it is using music, art, culture and sculpture, at no little expense, to advise the world that it has another string to its bow: several in fact. Maybe even a full orchestra’s worth!
The Verbier Festival first shook its baton in anger in 1994 and is now regarded as one of the major classical music festivals on the international calendar, this year attracting such names as Swedish violin prodigy, Daniel Lozakovich, Russian concert pianist Evgeny Kissin, Greek violinist and conductor Leonida Kavakos and Hungarian violinist Gabor Takacs-Nagy, to name a mere handful from a list that would put many rival equivalents to shame!
Founder and Director, Martin T:son Engstroem makes no apology:
“One of the Festival’s many strengths is the unique level of music-making that Verbier has achieved. It is not just any artist who performs (here), it is the best of the best. The greatest artists of our time together with the greatest young talents of today.”
It exists to build a community of exchange between great masters and young artists from all over the world, providing music education and an intoxicating blend of events, both large-scale and intimate, for public consumption.
However, it would be wrong to exclusively wax lyrical on just the classical aspects of Verbier, situated in the Swiss Municipality of Val de Bagnes, because, as a little research quickly proves, it was always T;son Engstroem’s intention to create ‘something more inclusive’ and, some might argue, attempts are now being made to drive that original 90’s agenda with more vigour.
After all, there probably needs to be more than just classical violins and après ski when you consider that the likes of chalet owner and songwriter, James Blunt, can often be seen in Verbier, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood A listers like Jude Law & Leonardo Di Caprio or TV chef, Jamie Oliver; even the King in waiting, William Prince of Wales, is said to have had one of his ‘lads’ trips to the resort in 2017!
But beyond the strings and vocal arias of the Salle des Combins – a huge temporary concert hall that rises like a cloud from the mountains every July – there is a softer, cultural underbelly that Verbier uses to enhance its all-encompassing classical music experience.
There’s cheese making classes...
...life-drawing and eating – lots of eating! - through to mountain sculpture, yoga and, of course, death – no, not the Verdi’s Requiem variety (although he did feature heavily!) – but the Palp Festival’s unique take on the Grim Reaper.
This ‘festival within a festival’ takes place in various locations throughout the canton of Valais from May to September, and has done for 12 years, allowing the main festival to piggyback on its thought-provoking offering, which has an annual theme and finds unique venues in which to exhibit its works, be it an empty house, vacant barn, cellar or a voluminous space that happily doubles as a temporary gallery.
‘The Passage’ in Bruson village - a short ride from Verbier main town – was this year’s Covid-inspired theme and took a unique look at all things Heaven (or Hell!) bound: old funeral rites, newer traditions, images of deadly nightshade plants, perspectives by the living of their dead relatives and yes, you could even write your own epitaph!
How to get there?
Use your VIP Pass of course! The Verbier Infinite Playground Pass offers discounts and privileged access to the entire area throughout the summer season and is provided free of charge, to every guest who stays a minimum of one night in the region and pays the tourist tax.
It gives pedestrians free ski lift access, 50% reduction for cyclists (there are more than 800kms of mountain bike trails), unlimited access to postbuses in the municipality of Val de Bagnes and preferential rates on a number of activities, as well as 50% discounts on entertainment provided by Verbier, Le Chable and La Tzoumaz tourist offices.
The Pass is your gateway to the area.
We were billeted at the spacious Experimental Chalet on Route de Verbier Station 55, where Milanese architect Fabrizio Casiraghi has left his minimalist stamp and Italian panache in spades.
However, a quick walk up the road – or Free e-bus – and you are at the mountain gondola, your aerial transport to The Verbier 3-D Foundation, high up in the mountains.
Founded in 2010 by New-York artist Madeleine Paternot and Verbier-based artist Kiki Thompson, it is, by any other name a wonderful, outdoor sculpture park which you can enjoy as you meander back down the mountain path to lower climes.
The Foundation creates educational and cultural artist residencies inspired by the stunning Alpine environment, at an altitude of 2300 metres between La Chaux and Ruinettes. Entry to the mountains is free!
However, cheese making will cost you a few francs.
Nevertheless you can enjoy this fun pastime at Laiterie de Verbier under the auspices of Marc Dubosson, who will reveal the secrets of how Tomme cheese is traditionally crafted in Bagnes. A one-of-a-kind local experience and so much fun….especially the wine and cheese at the end!
The same is probably true of the Sunday morning yoga that is available to enthusiasts as part of the Festival offering, at the Ancient School of Medieres: quiet contemplation before the rigours of another classical programme.
I am not sure that I was an ‘enthusiast’ but stretching to the melodic tones of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in the dim distance, was pleasantly surreal and most relaxing!
We sampled some fantastic cuisine and Verbier has some superb restaurants, each running at the level of an Ascot winner, and every one always poised and ready to meet the high expectations of well-heeled visitors.
There is the traditional French cuisine of L’Ecurie
which promises to take you on a passionate journey through the beautiful Val De Bagnes with its Swiss wines and local products.
, will transport you to Italy whilst Restaurant La Cordée
says it will ‘surprise you everyday’ with its ever moving menu changes. But what better way to complete a morning’s life drawing in the mountains than a spot of lunch at the Café Restaurant La Marlénaz
with its amazing views.
Later, room permitting, you can have a light gourmet dinner at La Grange
, if such a thing actually exists! Needless to say, Verbier will feed you well!
Stuffed to capacity, and presuming you still have the ability to waddle, be sure to make a fleeting visit to the Taratata Club, just up ‘main street’.
That’s where many of the festival’s big names can, occasionally, be spotted tinkling the ivories or plucking their strings. Buy ‘em a drink and it probably won’t cost you a penny to listen to some of the best buskers on the planet!
I have never skied so that makes me one of the few people who gets to judge Verbier as a Summer destination.
Indeed, it was sunny, dignified, culturally enriching and this region of Switzerland has certainly cultivated all the necessary accoutrements that will enable it to become a 12-month resort and not just a place to visit in the winter with a pair of skis.
I set off home with a cheesy grin, courtesy of Mr Dubosson at Laiterie de Verbier, I had listened to Brahms and Liszt and, for a whole moment, I may have been a little worse for wear myself!
However, in the same way that I always kept my clear vision, it is apparent that Verbier tourism has done the same and, with its eye on the future, it too has a vision of its own that can only serve to enhance this beautiful resort.
Get out the suntan oil, summer’s arrived in Verbier!
A three-night stay at 4* Experimental Chalet, is priced from £240 pp/ €281 pp, based on two people sharing a room. Breakfast is included. Details: Experimental Group | Experimental Chalet, Boutique Hotel in Verbier
Return direct flights from Manchester to Geneva cost from £53 with easyJet. Details: www.easyjet.com
Swiss Travel System provides a range of exclusive travel passes and tickets for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the Swiss Travel System rail, bus and boat network.
This pass also covers scenic routes and local trams and buses in around 90 towns and cities, and includes the Swiss Museum Pass, which allows you free entrance to 500 museums and exhibitions. Prices start from £186/ €218 for a three-day second-class ticket. A first-class, return train ticket from Geneva Airport to Verbier costs from £69/€81
Activities – Give them a Go!
The Verbier Festival. More information here
Passage exhibition. More information here
/ Palp Festival click here
3D Sculpture Park. More information here
Yoga & Music. More information here
Sculpture Park guided tour. More information here
Cheese-making workshop. More information here
Concerts – Have a Read!
VFCO / TAKÁCS-NAGY / KANNEH=MASON
For more Information here
Kavakos, Ma and Ax For more information click here
Sheku-Kanneh Mason + Harry baker For more information click here
Verdi Requiem More information click here
Giardini / The Wheel. For more information click here
The Verbier Infinite Playground Pass (VIP PASS). More information click here