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Stone and water temple delights the senses

The spa is built into the mountain slope. Therme Vals

The spring of eternal life may never be found, but a remote mountain village in canton Graubünden has come close.

This content was published on April 13, 2004 - 10:11

The people in the village of Vals make their living from thermal waters and the rock from which it springs.

The narrow road leading to the valley of Vals was blasted out of the hard granite mountainside, and snakes high above a river gorge.

Water and stone are the only natural resources in this primeval alpine landscape, yet a thriving economy has sprung from it.

More than 400 litres of thermal water a minute flow from Vals’s two springs. Half of it is conducted to the “Valser” mineral water bottling plant, and the rest to the Vals spa.

There has been a health resort here for about 40 years, but it was not until 1996 when the village opened a new spa that Vals began attracting attention.

Precious stone

Built from local quartz by star Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor, the spa brings together the champagne of Swiss mineral waters with the precious stone from which it gushes.

Zumthor used about 40,000 stone tiles and piled them on top of one another to form walls around a catacomb of chambers of varying sizes, much like the inner spaces of a temple devoted to the senses.

“At first, he wanted to build a spa inside the mountain,” says Annalisa Zumthor, resort director and wife of the architect.

“Another idea was to carve out giant boulders and to bathe inside, but these plans were not really feasible.

“Finally, he thought about disassembling the mountain and building it up again, layer by layer. So his idea to have a spa inside a mountain was successful in the end.”

Historic landmark

The spa was declared a historic landmark only two years after it opened, and people have been flocking to it ever since to marvel at the architecture and relax in its curative waters.

The design was “motivated by the wish to establish a special relationship between the baths and the primal energy and geology of the mountain landscape”, explains the architect in a foreword to a booklet on the spa.

“It’s a fascination with the mystical properties of the stone world inside mountains… with light reflected on water or radiating in steam-filled air… [with] the singular acoustics of bubbling water in a world of stone.”

The Zumthor creation has also contributed greatly to the village’s wellbeing, providing it with a badly needed economic boost.

When the town purchased the old spa and hotel, the initiators of the project decided to steer clear of the trend of turning health resorts into fun parks complete with water gadgets and slides.

Instead, they built something that suited the valley’s character.

Geological highlights

When Zumthor arrived on the scene, he realised the need to highlight the local geology and took advantage of what was available from the Truffer quarry.

“It’s the varied colours of the quartzite in the rock that makes it so precious,” says Pius Truffer, who runs the family business.

“It resembles marble so it can be used inside buildings and yet has a very high resistance to frost, so it’s ideal for outside applications as well,” he continues.

Truffer’s latest high-profile contract is with the Swiss government. He is supplying the stone tiles which will cover the surface of the remodelled square in front of the parliament building in Bern.

Alpine cross-section

“The intention is to display a cross-section of the Swiss Alps,” says Truffer.

“The geology of our mountains can be seen in the mixture of the different colours of quartz that appear in our stone.”

When the new square is unveiled on August 1, Swiss national day, Vals will have another first-class calling card besides its well-known mineral water and acclaimed spa.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Vals

Key facts

Vals has a population of about 1,000.
It is best known for its spa and Valser mineral water.
The resort is most popular in winter when tourists combine a visit to the spa with skiing on Vals’ slopes.

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In brief

The Vals spa was built by star Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor. Vals has the only thermal springs in canton Graubünden. The water comes out of the ground at 25 degrees Celsius at one source, and 29.8 degrees at the other.

The spa was built using quartz from a local quarry.

Vals also has a mineral water bottling plant, Valser, which was purchased by Coca-Cola two years ago.

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