Going round the mountain in Verbier

The resort offers more than just spectacular views. Switzerland Tourism

It's the most popular mountain resort in French-speaking Switzerland, famed for its endless kilometres of ski slopes. But Verbier's unrivalled beauty and proximity to the really big peaks makes it just as interesting in summer.

This content was published on July 29, 2000 - 09:43

"I'm biased of course, but we really are at the top of the hit-parade," says Patrick Meseiller, head of the Verbier Tourism Office.

Verbier is the very model of a modern alpine resort. It has the required chalet-style architecture, lots of hotels, bars and restaurants, and plenty of places to hire skis and mountain bikes.

All that goes without saying. But what makes Verbier so special in summer?

"We claim to have 400 kilometres of slopes in winter, and we have 400 kilometres of marked hiking trails in the summer," Meseiller says.

Those 400 kilometres of trails criss-cross the whole local region, known as the Val de Bagnes. Once you're out of Verbier, it often feels as through you have the place, give or take the odd cow, virtually to yourself.

You can hear the cowbells and see the mountain flowers as soon as you set foot out of the village. There are all kinds of walks: easy paths for those who have overindulged on raclette, the local cheesy speciality, or challenging six-day hikes through the mountains.

Every alpine resort lays claim to at least one local mountain. In Verbier, it's the Montfort. At 3,330 metres, it might only be an also-ran in the altitude stakes, but a hike and cable car up to its summit affords magnificent views of its mighty neighbours - the 4,000-plus Grand-Combin, Matterhorn and Dent Blanche.

One of the most popular trails is the Sentier du Chamois - or the Chamois path. It's aptly named, because anyone taking this route will be rewarded with sightings of chamois, as well as ibex, marmots, eagles and even the recently reintroduced bearded vulture.

The hike starts at a mountain hut 2,500 metres up the Montfort and goes through two passes on a cool west-facing slope.

The hotter the day, the earlier you have to set out. Those in the know hit the trail at six o'clock. Meseiller describes it as a "nice comfortable five or six hour walk", which to some might seem a contradiction in terms.

Along the way you will come across the Lac de Louvie, where you can fish for trout or simply dip your aching toes.

Many of the walks take you through the narrow streets of the local villages, which are dotted with historical monuments: an old forge in Villette, which made cowbells until the 1940s; a museum in Lourtier which explains how glaciers have sculpted the Valais landscape; rare dry-stone cowsheds; the Mauvoisin hydroelectric dam - the second-biggest arch dam in the world.

The area around Verbier is also superb mountain-biking country. It's the starting point for one of Switzerland's best-known races - the Cristalp Grand Raid, which takes competitors 131 km to the resort of Grimentz.

There are 200 km of marked biking trails, from an easy family route to a terrifying downhill hurtle from the peak of the Attelas (2726m) to Le Chable, a drop of almost 2,000 metres. I'm told some people find this kind of thing fun.

Just so you don't find yourself on one of these more interesting trails by mistake, the tourism office has colour-coded them. Take my advice; stay on the blue routes.

Whatever you are riding, you can take it free of charge onto the cable cars - including the aptly-named Jumbo, which, the tourism office is proud to claim, was once the biggest cable car in Europe.

Meseiller says "it was the biggest in Europe when it was built in 1988".

You see, I told you.

But since those heady days, the spoilsports in the French resort of Courchevel and in the Graubünden resort of Samnaun have out-Jumboed the Jumbo.

"The Samnaun cable car is a double-decker. The Courchevel one carries 175 people - it's the same size as ours, they just cram people in a little more than we do," Meseiller says, with not a hint of bitterness.

Those familiar with German-speaking Swiss resorts, might be taken aback by Verbier.

"We are in a French-speaking area here, so we have a more Latin way of acting. If you go to Zermatt, or Grindelwald or St Moritz, you'll find a completely different way of thinking. We are Swiss, but perhaps we're a bit more relaxed," Patrick Meseiller.

In the village, there is also a nice mix between people from German-speaking Switzerland, from France, Italy and the English-speaking world.

One of the reasons for Verbier's popularity with foreign travellers is its proximity to Geneva airport, meaning the resort gets more short-stay tourists that resorts like St Moritz and Zermatt, which are less accessible.

Meseiller says there's a lot to do even for those only staying a couple of days. "Verbier won't nanny you. We're proud that we allow all kinds of fun sports to develop."

There's skiing on the Montfort glacier, and for thrill seekers there are all the extreme sports you'd expect - paragliding, river-rafting, canyoning, and mountaineering, as well as rap-jumping and speleology, whatever they are.

I'm in no hurry to find out. You could always stick to pony-trekking or golf.

One of Verbier's biggest summer attractions is its world-famous classical music festival (Verbier Festival and Academy, until August 6) where you can hear some of the biggest names in classical music.

What better after paragliding or a long hike than to tuck into a raclette, drain a bottle of Valais wine and then soak up a little Dvoràk?

Just remember to set your alarm for the following morning. The chamois are waiting.

by Roy Probert

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