The Russian Invasion of the Alps

Anybody skiing in the Alps in the last twenty years can’t but help notice the large number of Russian tourists. Whether it is hearing Russian spoken in the resorts or Cyrillic estate agent listings, the Russians had clearly taken to the Alps in a big way since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But this was a popular invasion.

The Russian influx was welcomed in particular by the ski resorts. Wealthy Russians weren’t shy about buying chalets and luxury items. Russians also filled the quieter ski period in January because it coincided with the Russian Orthodox Christmas vacation season. Courchevel in January, in particular, is usually awash with Russian billionaires, their entourages and their dosh.

Resorts saw a downturn in the number of middle-class Russians after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. However it did not affect the oligarchs who continued to flood in to the Alps, even though the resorts were sometimes less welcoming to the oligarchs than hitherto. In 2018 Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, applied for, but was denied, residency in Verbier. Swiss police arrested Russian businessman Vladislav Klyushin on his way to Zermatt in 2021, and extradited him to the USA on charges of commercial espionage.

None the less, in the winter season 2018/19 Russians spent 140,000 night stays in hotels in the French Three Valleys resorts alone. Switzerland had 195,000 Russian night stays in the same season, with the main destinations being Verbier, Zermatt, St Moritz and Davos. Resorts in the Tyrol such as St Anton and Ischgl were particularly popular with a segment of the Russian market who liked the extensive pistes and hard core apres ski. Despite a small dip in 2014/15, luxury chalets in the main ski resorts continue to be purchased by wealthy Russians, or on behalf of wealthy Russians.

And it is not only wealthy and middle class Russians who enjoy the Alps. Le Monde established that Russian spooks have long favoured the Haute Savoie as a base for targeted assassinations around Europe, including that by the agents who planned the UK poisoning of ex Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March 2018.

Outside the Alps the Bulgarian ski resorts, such as Borovets and Bansko, have always been popular winter destinations for Russians. Before the Iron Curtain came down, I met many Russians in my ski trips to the country. There is a strong cultural bond between the people of Russia and the people of Bulgaria, and skiing in Bulgaria is significantly cheaper than Alpine ski resorts. Consequently Russian tourists have continued to flock to Bulgaria for winter sports even after the Iron Curtain came down and opened up the Alps as a ski destination. In the 2021/22 season Russian tourists came in even larger numbers because Bulgaria recognises Russian-made COVID vaccines.

The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military in February 2022 has changed everything for Russian winter tourists. For the foreseeable future, it is going to be impractical for Russians to get to the Alps, and – in any case – not affordable for many of them as the rouble plunges against the Euro and the Russian economy goes into recession. For Russian tourists on holiday in Europe and caught unaware by the invasion, the sanctions from the EU and Switzerland have left tens of thousands stranded in European ski resorts. Middle class Russians face an expensive trip home since all flights out of the EU to Russia have been grounded. Additionally many ATMs and  establishments will no longer approve Russian debit and credit cards.

Switzerland has long been a popular destination for the wealthy, but their presence is no longer as welcome as it once was. The 2022 Verbier Festival has cancelled all Russian artists and the Music Director, Valery Gergiev, a prominent Putin apologist, has been asked to resign. Aligning with EU restrictions, eight Russian oligarchs resident in Switzerland with close ties to Putin have received travel bans. Many oligarchs will see their chalets sequestrated. At least a dozen private planes owned by wealthy Russians are stranded at Basel airport. Billions of dollars worth of assets managed or held by Swiss banks on behalf of wealthy Russians have been frozen.

Still, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea remain friendly to the Russian regime and will no doubt welcome winter tourists from Russia – although the skiing options are limited. But there’s always Sochi, where the biggest ski resort, Krasnaya Polyana, has 102 km of piste and still serves Russian vodka.

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Best Ski Resorts in Switzerland

I recently revisited my Swiss Winter Resorts web site to update it with what I have learned skiing and talking to people these last two months. I also revamped one of the landing pages, largely because I have come up with a few recommendations framed in terms of the ‘best five’ for various criteria. What do you think?

View over the Pennine Alps

Resorts you could spend a whole season in – good altitude, good attitude:
1. Zermatt, 2. Verbier, 3. St Moritz, 4. Davos, 5. Saas-Fee

Best for boarders and parkers:
1. LAAX, 2. Saas-Fee, 3. Adelboden, 4. Arosa/Lenzerheide, 5. Grindelwald

Intermediate heaven:
1. Champéry – Portes du Soleil, 2. Saas-Fee, 3. LAAX, 4. Samnaun, 5. Wengen

Cute car-free ski-in, ski-out resorts:
1. Wengen, 2. Mürren, 3. Aletsch Arena, 4. Stoos, 5. Lauchernalp

Resorts with a great hostel – good for budget breaks and singles:
1. St Moritz, 2. Scuol, 3. Saas-Fee, 4. Grindelwald, 5. LAAX

Villars is a family-friendly resort

Resorts young families and beginners like:
1. Saas-Fee, 2. Villars, 3. Wengen, 4. Thyon, 5. Grächen

Best for backcountry:
1. Verbier, 2. Val d’Anniviers – St-Luc/Chandolin, 3. Davos, 4. Arolla, 5. Disentis

Good snow record, long season:
1. Zermatt, 2. Saas-Fee, 3. St Moritz, 4. Verbier, 5. Andermatt

Good for spa and ski:
1. Leukerbad, 2. Arosa, 3. Scuol, 4. Lenk i.S., 5. Saas-Fee
Other resorts with spas include ValsSt MoritzBad RagazOvronnaz and Villars.

Eating out at the Olympique, Attelas, Verbier

Foodies delight:
1. Zermatt, 2. St Moritz, 3. Gstaad, 4. Arosa, 5. Crans-Montana

Most highly rated hotels:
1. Zermatt, 2. St Moritz, 3. Lenzerheide, 4. Pontresina, 5. Flims
If you include all the hotels in the Gstaad area, it would have been on the list.

Shier above Les Diablerets

Best resorts from Geneva, Geneva Airport and Lausanne for short or long breaks:
1. Champéry – Portes du Soleil, 2. Villars, 3. Verbier, 4. Leysin, 5. Zermatt
Geneva has an inter-regional railway station within the airport building.

Best resorts from Zürich or Zürich Airport for short or long breaks:
1. Engelberg, 2. Andermatt, 3. Arosa, 4. Davos/Klosters, 5. Jungfrau(Wengen/Grindelwald)
Zürich has an inter-regional railway station within the airport building.

Smaller resorts you can get to quickly from Zürich for day trips:
1. Hoch-Ybrig, 2. Flumserberg, 3. Braunwald, 4. Toggenberg, 5. Stoos

Best resorts from Basel for short or longer breaks:
1. Jungfrau(Wengen/Grindelwald), 2. Engelberg, 3. Adelboden, 4. Gstaad Mountain Rides, 5. Meiringen-Hasliberg

Smaller resorts you can get to quickly from Basel for day trips:
1. Feldberg (DE), 2. Engelberg, 3. Sörenberg 4. Klewenalp, 5. Melchsee-Frutt
With the exception of the first in the list, these are also the most convenient for Luzern.

Rhein Valley gems:
1. Flims/Laax/Falera, 2. Obersaxen, 3. Disentis, 4. Sedrun, 5. Brigels/Breil

Rhône Valley gems:
1. Crans-Montana, 2. Nendaz, 3. Aletsch Arena, 4. Anzère, 5. Belalp

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Winter holidays for non-skiers

For a lot of people winter is something to be endured, a long season of cold, short days and stark skylines. The only escape seems to be a long haul flight to somewhere sunny and warm.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

In 1864 four English visitors to the Swiss Alps were due to return home for the winter. Their hotelier, Johannes Badrutt, said that they should come back at Christmas and stay until Easter, and if they didn’t find St Moritz as sunny in winter as it was in summer, he would pay their fares and hotel bills.

Badrutt won the bet, and winter tourism was born.

But what was there to do? Alpine skiing was yet to take off – Conan Doyle in nearby Davos was to have a large part to play in that story. With a well-developed summer tourist industry, St Moritz, Davos and many other resorts quickly developed a significant infrastructure to enable winter visitors to while away their days, and nights, and the longest established resorts still have a huge variety of non-Downhill activities on offer.

A recent article I read in the BA Leisure magazine, recommended a handful of resorts that suited both skiers and non-skiers. Megève, St Christoph, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Zermatt and Lake Tahoe make their shortlist, and it’s a good list. For the Americas, however, there are a number of resorts I would add to the list (see my ski USA page), and I think there are at least a couple of dozen other Alpine resorts as good for skiers as for non-skiers, particularly in Switzerland.

But what to actually do? Innsbruck, Montreux and Basel have wonderful winter markets, although they close before Christmas. Many resorts and Alpine towns have wonderful outdoor and indoor ice rinks, and professional ice hockey teams play throughout the Alpine nations, with a major hockey festival in Davos known as the Spengler Cup. Bob sleigh also features at a few resorts, and at Celerina adrenalin junkies can actually take part in a four man bob team!

More sedate winter sports available in the Alpine resorts include snowshoe trekking, cross-country skiing, curling and tobogganing. A town called Bergün is a mecca for tobogganing, with people visiting from all over Europe to take advantage of the runs there (and enjoy the breathtaking UNESCO listed railway you need to take to get to the start of the runs). My Swiss Winter Sports web site covers other winter sports you can participate in Switzerland in addition to skiing and snowboarding.

There is a network of well maintained winter walks throughout the Alps, the reward mid-way along the walk often being a charming mountain restaurant. There are even Michelin listed resorts in the Alps! Zermatt is particularly renowned for its mountain restaurants.

We love visiting resorts with spas, the best of which is probably Leukerbad, but there is plenty of choice. Villars opened a new spa this year.

Switzerland and Austria have a highly reliable and extensive transport network which makes it very easy to choose a destination suited primarily to non-skiers, but which skiers can also use as a base for day trips to a variety of different destinations. Lucerne and Innsbruck are particularly good choices.

Often the best time to go is March. The days are getting longer and the days warmer, but the snow base is usually still good. If you are prepared to leave it late to see how the snow conditions are developing, a lot of resorts provide particularly good deals before Christmas.

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Andermatt

An article in the UK Metro newspaper claims Andermatt in the Swiss Alps should be your next weekend break. I’m not going to disagree, it’s a beautiful little resort with some great off-piste on the Gemsstock, and it gets some of the largest dumps of snow anywhere in the Alps. You can also get there easily by train.

Andermatt Village

I’m not so sure it would be my first choice for a weekend break though. Flims/Laax and Engelberg are about the same distance from Zurich Airport. The Jungfrau is feasible for a weekend break via Basel’s Euroairport, and Chamonix, Verbier, Portes du Soleil, Leysin, Les Diablerets and Villars are about the same distance from Geneva Airport. Plus there are a handful of smaller resorts much closer to the airports – Feldberg from Basel or Flumserberg, Pizol, Hoch-Ybrig and Braunwald from Zurich.

Things might change, however. Andermatt is going through a massive expansion. The resort is currently in the midst of a huge redevelopment by Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris. Probably the most obvious sign is the new builds in the village, including the impressive 5-star Hotel Chedi. However a number of new and replacement lifts are in place as the Nätschen-Gütsch area gets upgraded in advance of being linked up with the resort of Sedrun, in the Rhine valley. Expansion and upgrades to the Gemsstock area are also planned. The “masterplan” is due to complete for the 2018/9 season.

Andermatt is also billing itself as a year-round resort with a number of scenic viewpoints, varied mountain walks and an 18 hole golf course to lure summer visitors. Hopefully all this development will not diminish the charm of the old village. The schedule of new lifts can be seen here.

Gemsstock Cable car in Andermatt

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