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Hollywood, the West End and royalty come to Gstaad

Julie Andrews and French composer Michel Legrand are two of the stars that come out at night in Gstaad

(Keystone)

The mountain village of Gstaad and the eight surrounding towns are not only home to 9,000 people and 7,000 cows, but oddly enough, the international jet set as well.

The stars of stage and screen alike come to Gstaad to soak up the tranquil atmosphere and get away from the limelight. Top events which attract the high-profile visitors include the classical music festival honouring the late Yehudi Menuhin (July 21 until September 2) and the ATP tennis tournament, the UBS Open Gstaad (July 8-16).

The resort is tucked away in the Bernese Oberland and lies on the border between French and German-speaking Switzerland. It's easily accessible by train or car as its one-hour away from Berne and about two hours from Geneva or Zurich airport.

But many of the rich and famous who have made the resort their second home make use of the local airstrip. Screen legends such as Julie Andrews, Roger Moore, Roman Polanski and Elizabeth Taylor have chalets in Gstaad. Peter Sellers and David Niven also lived there.

Over the years, beautiful people such as Brigitte Bardot and the designer, Valentino, have returned again and again to the Saanenland valley to spend their holiday breaks.

The Swiss singer, Hedi Donizetti, along with her husband, ran the Hotel Olden on Gstaad's fashionable parade. Together, for 37 years, they entertained the stars who came to Gstaad (see "Off Peak" on swissinfo)

My self-appointed mission was to take a drive around the town to see if I could find any celebrity chalets. Armed with hot tip-offs from Hedi, I combed the area.

High-tech front gates, security cameras, heavy wooden front doors and ornate chalet eves were telltale signs. A glass roof extending into the garden of a particularly striking chalet must have been the one above the underground pool featured in an article on Valentino's alpine retreat.

At night, the village is illuminated by a cord of little lights attached to the eves of every chalet. Stage and screen star, Julie Andrews and her husband, Blake Edwards, came up with the idea.

Andrews apparently bought 10 kilometres of the little bulbs and put up the funds for their installation as well as for the electricity costs.

It wasn't long before I identified Andrews' chalet, which overlooks the UBS Open tennis courts.

A private property sign was the only thing that stopped me from jumping the fence to take a closer look at a chalet which I thought must belong to the Greek royal family. It's called Chalet Serena, and is located high above Gstaad.

Royalty is no stranger to this part of the Bernese Oberland. The Greeks have been joined by the Belgian and British royal families on the region's ski slopes. The Romanovs also have chalets here.

The late King Hussein of Jordan went to school near Gstaad and often returned with his family.

The charm of Gstaad and the Saanenland lies in the quaint countryside and villages. Strict zoning and planning regulations have safeguarded the area from becoming overwhelmed by hotel complexes and mass tourism.

Instead, fortified chalets, designer boutiques and trendy cafés dominate Gstaad. In 1996 a road around the town was completed, and now diverts traffic, freeing up the main thoroughfare for those wishing to sashay down the parade in haute couture ski suits or casual wear.

The region is also a paradise for mere mortals who would otherwise be confined to window-shopping. 150 kilometres of cycling trails and twice as many hiking paths wind high into the surrounding hills and mountains, affording birdseye views of the celebrity village.

The majority of Gstaad's population is now engaged in the tourism industry, but farming and cheese production are still important to the economy of the Saanenland.

"The farming population has, over the years, learnt to live with tourism and the region's guests of many different languages," explains Roger Seifritz, director of Gstaad's tourism board.

Many of the local people become ski instructors in the winter season, and this helps to break down some of the barriers, if not the imposing gates, between the locals and the celebrity guests.

by Samantha Tonkin

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