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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Zermatt and Verbier Compared

Verbier

Switzerland is fortunate to have some of the very best ski resorts in the world, and Zermatt and Verbier are amongst the very best. But how do they compare?

The Matterhorn, above Zermatt

Location
Both resorts are in the Pennine Alps in the Swiss canton of Valais, and both are high, particularly Zermatt. The most obvious difference between them is that Zermatt is in the part of Switzerland where a uniquely Swiss form of German is spoken, whereas Verbier is French-speaking. Verbier rests on a sunny plateau above the valley of Bagnes, whereas Zermatt lies right at the head of a long steep valley. The nearest international airport to Verbier is Geneva, whilst Zermatt is equally served by Geneva and Zurich airports.
Both relatively convenient for international visitors.

Pistes
Zermatt has 360km of piste spread over four highly integrated ski areas in Switzerland and two across the border in Italy. Although Verbier is part of the extensive Four Valleys, with 412km of piste, the valleys are less well connected than Zermatt, and you will probably not get round to visiting some of the more remote slopes beyond Siviez. Honours even.

Skiing under the Matterhorn

Season
Pretty much nowhere in the world can beat Zermatt for year-round skiing. Granted that summer skiing is something of a novelty, Zermatt nonetheless offers extensive glacier skiing from the beginning of November right through to the end of May, with the full extent of the resort available from the beginning of December until the end of April.
Verbier normally opens up one piste in November, and the resort progressively opens up in the following weeks. Normally the season finishes in mid-April.
For early and late season skiing, nothing beats Zermatt, but it can get very cold in the heart of the winter.
Zermatt for early and late season, Verbier edges it for mid-season.

Beginners
Neither resort is especially good for beginners, but Verbier does have a nursery area in the village. Unless you are coming with a mixed ability party which includes experts, or you just want to party, neither resort is recommended for beginners. You pay a premium in these resorts because of challenging slopes a beginner will never get to experience.
Beginners should look elsewhere but, if you had to choose, Verbier is better.

Intermediates
I think both resorts are excellent for intermediates. If you come for a week or two you will never want for more variety or challenge, or for nice cruisy runs when you have a hangover to shake off.
Even Stevens.

Expert
Both resorts have good skiing for experts, but if you want to stick to ungroomed trails and challenging lift-served off-piste, Verbier has more to offer. For back-country ski touring they both make excellent bases, and both lie on the famous Haute Route (Verbier only on a variation of the classic route).
Verbier is my recommendation.

Apres-ski
Apres-ski in Switzerland is generally more subdued than in other Alpine nations, but Verbier and Zermatt are exceptions to the rule. They both rock, but I prefer…
Zermatt.

Mountain Restaurants
Both resorts have a mix of cafeteria restaurants with sunny balconies and charming restaurants in the mountains. However Zermatt is something of an epicurean’s delight with some of the most outstanding mountain restaurants in the world. Not really a contest if you want haute cuisine for lunch. But it comes at a price. In the resorts themselves there is a wide range of options from street food to Michelin-starred restaurants.
The Blue Ribbon goes to Zermatt.

Lunch above Verbier
Lunch above Verbier

Resort Charm
Lying beneath the Matterhorn, nowhere quite matches Zermatt for chocolate box pretty. It is car-free, although not traffic-free as the electric taxis and service vehicles mean some streets are quite busy. It has a fabulous Alpine tradition stretching back many centuries, and was well-established as a tourist destination by the middle of the 19th Century. Verbier, conversely, is largely a post-war resort, but it’s ubiquitous chalet-style architecture is not without its charm.
Zermatt has it all.

Access – Car
You can’t drive to Zermatt, you have to pay to leave your car in a car park in a neighbouring town and take a train for the last section. Verbier does have full car access, but you generally need to pay for parking unless it comes with your chalet. There is free parking at the bottom station of the gondola that passes through Verbier at Le Châble .
Assuming you are driving from the Lake Geneva Region, it will take you about 3 hours to get to Täsch, the end of the road, and then 10 minutes by train to Zermatt.
Verbier is one of the easiest resorts to get to from Geneva, 2 hours of mainly motorway to Le Châble, and about another 10 minutes drive from there up to Verbier.
Verbier is the easier to get to from almost anywhere.

Access – Train
Zermatt is very easy to get to from either Zurich or Geneva airport by train – both airports actually have railway stations in the airports themselves and you can get to the resort with as few as one change (in Visp). Journey time from Zurich Airport is just under 4 hours, from Geneva Airport just over 4 hours.
For Verbier, Le Châble is just over 2 hours from Geneva Airport with a change at Martigny. From Le Châble you can either take the gondola or the local bus service into Verbier.
The train to Zermatt is a joy even if the journey time is longer.

Verbier

Cost
You would struggle to find two more expensive resorts in the Alps than Zermatt and Verbier, but it is possible to enjoy them both on a budget. First of all the lift passes are probably cheaper than in comparable French and Austrian resorts – a typical day pass for Verbier is SFr 71, and SFr 92 for Zermatt, and longer stays are substantially cheper per diem. For accommodation, there are affordable hostels and basic accommodation in Zermatt itself and in Le Châble for Verbier. You can also ski the slopes of Zermatt from Cervinia in Italy. Although eating and drinking out is expensive in Switzerland, supermarket prices for alcohol and, to a lesser extent, food staples are not expensive by European standards so self-catering will certainly make your francs go further.
Neither resort is cheap, but there aren’t many resorts that come close to being this good.

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Ski Movies – Part One

With most people unable to go skiing this season, what is there better to do than curl up with a good ski movie. Or a bad one. Or even one that features a few scenes in a ski resort.

Here are some suggestions:

Slalom (2021) – French

The Guardian film critic asks “Is this a tale of abuse, or forbidden love? Or is there something insidious in asking that question, suggesting an ambiguity that will err leniently on the side of love?” Well, that’s for you to find out in this well regarded French movie from Charlène Favier, who drew on her own experiences in Val-d’Isère in the making of her debut feature.

Nordwand (2008) – German

This film is about mountaineering rather than skiing, but it all takes place on the North face of the Eiger in 1936, above Grindelwald, and is compelling viewing – which is more than can be said for some of the movies I’m going to review that feature a lot more slope-side action.

Chalet Girl (2011)

This story of a working class girl becoming a snowboard champion in St Anton is entertainingly watchable dross. It has Bill Nighy in it. Do you need to know anything more?

Claim (2008)

Full movie

The press release says: “CLAIM, The Greatest Ski Movie… EVER!” A truly epic film shot in the most amazing locations, featuring the best and boldest skiers in the world today: Mark Abma, Jon Olsson, Shane McConkey, Eric Hjorleifson and more. I would add it only takes an astonishingly awesome 2 minutes before the film features “The Final Countdown”.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Trailer

This is one of my favourite Bond films, despite starring the relatively unpopular George Lazenby. A whole bunch of the action takes place on the Schilthorn, above Mürren in Switzerland, including a memorable ski chase.

There’s five to start with. If nothing takes your fancy here, I will be adding a couple of dozen more in upcoming posts.

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Verbier in renewed Covid scare

Verbier seen from the gondola to Les Ruinettes 8th December 2020.
Verbier today.

Verbier, along with Ischgl, is widely cited as one of the super-spreader centres from the early stages of the Covid pandemic. And it is getting bad press again. Tages Anzeiger published this picture of a melee at the Le Châble valley station on Saturday.

Pandemonium at Le Châble, 5th December 2020.
Melee on Saturday. Photo: Twitter

Verbier has been open at the weekend for most of November but with very limited skiing. Half of the town was still closed when I visited a few weeks ago. Moving into December, a lot of terrain was opened up for the first weekend of the month, and the resort kept open 30km of piste on weekdays ahead of the full opening of the resort next weekend. I think the resort was simply unprepared for the demand, and I’m pleased to say that on my visit today, there was an orderly, fast-moving and relatively well social-distanced queue.

Much improved Covid control at Le Châble, 8th December 2020.
More orderly queues today with stewards reminding people of the 1.5m distance rule.

Normally I would expect mid-week skiing this time of the year to be relatively light, but I think two things are contributing to the high volumes, based on conversations I have had in the queues and on the lifts.

Firstly, French and Italian visitors are significantly up. There are a number of high altitude French and Italian resorts that would normally be open, so I guess that is part of why there is this increase. All trains between Italy and Switzerland are due to be cancelled indefinitely, but the people I spoke to had all driven.

The Tages Anzeiger article is in German and behind a paywall, but it says that there were over 20,000 tourists in town at the weekend with traffic jams normally only associated with high season. As many as half of the total of 50,000 guest beds in town are likely to have been occupied, an unheard of situation at this time of the year. The paper quotes Ami Oreiller from Hotel Les Chamois who says: “Last Thursday our hotel was still half empty, on Friday the phone rang non-stop , and on Saturday the house was full. It is mainly French who come.”

The second major reason for the uptick is that there is a fear that resorts will get closed down sooner or later, and some people are making the most of the opportunity to ski while they can. This is true of both locals from the Lake Geneva and Rhone valley regions, and foreigners, particularly those with chalets in Verbier.

The British make up a large proportion of the tourist trade in Verbier – at least one in five skiers is likely to be British in peak season. Tages Anzeiger estimates that the resident Brits have virtually doubled from the 8,000 who would normally be in Verbier at this time of year. Christmas and New Year bookings are as vibrant as ever. I spoke to some Brits over for a ski instructor training course and they were keen to get the training in while they could.

What hangs over everything is the uncertainty around how the season will develop. Germany, Italy and France had hoped Switzerland would fall in line with their approach and close their resorts until next year, but the Swiss resisted. In theory, the Swiss resorts are supposed to be open only to Swiss residents over the holiday season, but that is unlikely to be policed. Switzerland is also a federal republic and cantons are following different rules. Although Valais and Vaud have closed restaurants, the Bernese Oberland hasn’t. Graubünden is planning to perform mass testing of its residents to protect the ski industry in places like St Moritz and Davos, but to date other cantons only test people who show Covid symptoms.

The run from Attelas down to Les Ruinettes.
The run from Attelas down to Les Ruinettes.

As for the skiing at this time, it is pretty good. On the slopes there are no appreciable queues and the slopes are busy but not excessively so. Today is Immaculate Conception Day in Valais, a public holiday, so that certainly made it busier than it will be tomorrow. Runs were open below Chassure, Attelas and Fontalet down to Les Ruinettes, and although runs below Les Ruinettes to Verbier weren’t technically open, there was sufficient snow cover for people to ski back down to Verbier. The snow depth was good on piste and, following recent snowfall, off-piste wasn’t too tracked out. The Lac des Vaux runs are a lot nicer than they were when they were the only runs open a month ago. Being December, much of the skiing is in shadow. Some mountain restaurants and bars are open for take-away, including alcoholic beverages, but there is no seating. That is due to change next week when Valais relaxes its rules for bars and restaurants.

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