Up on a Mountain High by Margit Kohl | 30th January, 2015 | Travel
Switch off, enjoy the silence, strap on your skis and set off down the slopes. An increasing number of people are attracted to the solitude of the mountains. Vacationing in a rented chalet is currently popular as never before. Travel writer Margit Kohl explores the latest travel trend, the changing face of Austrian chalets, and which ones you definitely should not miss.
Two Land Rovers make their way through a snowy winter landscape towards the mountains. Next, a dozen young people set up house in a stylish, vacation chalet. Freshly chopped wood is brought inside and soon a fire is roaring in the open fireplace. Then the group of friends decorate the Christmas tree together. No sooner do you hear the music that accompanies this video, than you know that “Last Christmas,” the popular Yuletide classic, will be going round and round in your head for the next couple of days. With that song, George Michael not only wrote music history in 1984, but also documented an enduring trend. Some of us still imagine a chalet vacation to be just like in the video, which was shot in a chalet in the Alps, in the Swiss canton of Valais: rustic, but with all the amenities of a five-star hotel.
And this, despite the humble origins of the alpine chalet. The word, which originated in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, simply refers to an alpine herdsman’s hut. The herdsmen would spend the summers in chalets in order to look after the livestock grazing on the alpine meadows of the high plateaus. The simple huts featured quite spartan furnishings, as they were solely designed to provide shelter. In Switzerland, where chalets are still a very common type of dwelling in the mountainous regions, there are – to this day – municipalities such as Lenk, Grindelwald, Saanen and Zermatt where building permits are only given for chalets, in order to prevent undesirable developments. The main criteria of the building typology are quickly summarized: a chalet is principally made of wood, has a flat roof with a wide overhang and is a detached building.
Only in the 19th century, when the Romantic Movement started equating Nature to the landscape of the soul, did the European aristocracy and bourgeoisie suddenly develop an interest in these traditional wooden dwellings and in spending time in the mountains. Even the gardens of many aristocratic homes were suddenly adorned with chalets. Due to the burgeoning tourist trade at the time, chalets were soon being used as vacation homes all over the Alps. In time, however, people became increasingly more demanding with regards to their lodgings. This is because a spartan hunting cottage, or herdsman’s hut could only be run as an actual residence with great difficulty. After all, hardly anyone was willing to live in a dwelling with low ceilings, small windows and steep flights of stairs for an extended period of time. Many found this special only on vacation, which is why chalets became the perfect holiday home. They are particularly appreciated by guests who place great value on privacy and who are not fans of large, anonymous hotels and bustling hotel lobbies. This coincides with a general trend in tourism, in which smaller, more distinctive accommodation is increasingly widespread.
Furthermore, it is rather convenient to have one’s own place, if possible right next to the ski run, with an unencumbered, panoramic view of the mountains, and situated in such a way that one cannot be observed by others. On the other hand, guests these days demand standards of service akin to those found in a hotel. After all, they often want to park their cars in an underground parking lot, enjoy a soothing massage or relax in the pool. They would rather not bother with fixed mealtimes. Or a dress code. Or suffer any interruptions. The word “chalet” has long been much more than an architectural term; it defines a new attitude to life.
In line with this, many owners have had their old chalets refurbished to the latest specifications in the last few years. A great example of this is the “Kitz Boutique Chalet” in the Alps near the Austrian city of Kitzbühel, which only opened a year ago. Natural materials were de rigueur for the refit: oak wood floor boards, solid natural stone floors, stone sinks, walls made of reclaimed wood, walls with a naturally pigmented pit lime plaster finish, high-end fabrics, exclusive leather upholstery and furs. The refurbishment also created a clever dual use of the accommodation: guests can choose between booking the whole property, which can accomodate a group of 14, or booking individual apartments.
Newly built chalets, on the other hand, are fitted out with everything to meet today’s requirements: for example the “Chalet N,” currently Austria’s most exclusive chalet. And what do oligarchs, showbiz celebrities and sports stars who prefer anonymity get for the price of 490,000 euros per week in peak season? Behind bulletproof windows, “Chalet N” has eight suites – the largest of which is 400 square meters – 22 beds, a 1,000-square meter spa, 20 service personnel, a 24-hour butler and limo service, a wine cellar, an office, a cinema and two restaurants. René Benko, one of Austria’s most affluent entrepreneurs, had the “Chalet N” – named after his wife Nathalie – built for nearly 40 million euros, two years ago. It can only be rented in its entirety.
So it is good that not everybody needs bulletproof windows in order to feel safe. What makes spending time in a chalet pure magic is being surrounded by your friends. Nobody knows this better than the great-great-grandson of Empress Elizabeth of Austria and Emperor Franz Joseph. Christian Count of Stolberg-Stolberg runs his ancestors’ grand hunting lodge in the city of Kühtai in the Alps near Stubai – situated at an altitude of over 2,000 meters.
As he also grew up there, the count runs the place like a private residence, and he is just as familiar with the family history of many of his guests as he is with that of his Habsburg ancestors. It is not surprising that the regulars appreciate things of a rustic nature, and do not mind occasionally banging their heads on the low wooden doorframes. They are simply happy to escape to the wintery resort of Kühtai, with guaranteed snow, and being able to enjoy their personal sanctuaries. Add to that, feasting in the evening: the kitchen of the hunting lodge almost comes up to Michelin-star standards, and serves the best Kaiserschmarrn, Austrian pancakes, far and wide. On Christmas Eve everyone sings carols in front of the tree – you cannot beat that for a family atmosphere. The hunting lodge has been booked out solidly over Christmas and New Year’s Eve for decades. Virtually the only way you can get yourself on the waiting list for those dates is by line of succession. MK