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The fools on the hill

The Villa Cassel, as seen by artist Elisabeth Fux

The Villa Cassel is typical of many 19th century luxury homes which line the shores of Lake Geneva. But the Villa Cassel is far removed from any of them. It sits on top of a mountain ridge overlooking the Alps' longest glacier.

First-time skiers to the Aletsch region in canton Valais have been known to freeze in their tracks when they first lay eyes upon the four-storey villa. With its copper roof, turrets and ornate façade, it's a striking image, but it seems somehow out of place, perched as it is on top of the Riederfurka, a narrow ridge more than 2,000 metres above sea level.

Built by a British banker as his summer home at the beginning of the 20th century, it now houses the Aletsch information centre of Pro Natura, one of Switzerland's leading nature protection organisations.

On a winter's day, visitors are asked to cover their ski boots with large stretchable socks supplied by the centre before entering the exhibition rooms so as not to damage the original hardwood floors.

Jacqueline Rossé Berchtold receives the visitors who've come to wander through the hands-on exhibition, which focuses on the 24-kilometre Aletsch glacier and the unique Arve forest found on its flanks.

When construction of the villa was completed nearly 100 years ago, it was millionaire Ernest Cassel who received the guests. They included some of the most exclusive members of Europe's high society.

But their titles and wealth failed to impress the local peasantry, who regarded them as "mountain fools". The alpine villagers were known to shake their heads in disbelief wondering why anyone in their right mind would choose to go to the top of a mountain to do nothing.

Nonetheless, the locals were thankful for the strangers' presence. Cassel set up a charity and financed the building of a school to persuade the poor communities which owned the land to let him build his summer residence there.

Many local men were also able to supplement their meagre incomes by working as builders. Once the villa was completed, they became willing porters, carrying everything from chandeliers and leather armchairs to a piano up the steep mountainside.

The furnishings, including the piano, are still on display in the "Salon" - just beyond the interactive nature exhibition. Beside the piano, a glass case protects some of Cassel's correspondence, which consists of a telegram book and a scorecard from one of the many bridge games the banker played with his illustrious guests.

The name of King Edward VII - written simply as "the King" - joins that of two women and Ernest Cassel on the scorecard.

Winston Churchill, who stayed at the villa on at least four occasions, also took part in the bridge games. But he used his time at Cassel's residence mainly to write, pounding out his thoughts on a typewriter, which like everything else, had been dragged up the mountainside on farmers' backs.

In one letter to his mother, Churchill wrote: "...I sleep like a log, and I've never felt so well or so good...[the villa has] bathrooms, a French cook, private grounds, and all the luxury you could expect in England, all this perched at 7,000 feet altitude and in the middle of a circle formed by the most beautiful snowy mountains of Switzerland."

His idyll was soon disturbed by the ringing of bells hanging from the necks of the cows brought to graze on the high pasture below the villa. Churchill responded by shouting insults down at the cowherds until Cassel stepped in to calm the excitable Briton.

He then agreed a compromise with the farmers by paying them to stuff hay in the cowbells.

The room where Churchill stayed and the other guest rooms are still furnished as they were at the beginning of the 20th century. In summer, it's possible to book a room and enjoy the views that Churchill raved about.

Most visitors come now on nature study tours, taking to the trails through the twisted and gnarled Arve trees above the glacier. Many make use of the villa library, sitting down to read at a felt-topped bridge table stored in the room.

Far from being a relic of a bygone age, the Villa Cassel is now an invaluable ecological resource centre. It's no longer described, as it once was by a village priest, as "a gold coin on top of a cow dung".

by Dale Bechtel


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