‘HAVE a pleasant day,’ said my hotelier. ‘I’d have to work quite hard not to have a pleasant day here,’ was my reply. The quip was light-hearted but led me to wonder at how much truth there was in it.
How exactly would I have a bad day in this remote alpine hideaway? Obviously, the first problem would be any baggage I brought with me. Cut off from the outside world, by a train from Geneva and two 1,000m cable car rides, in a village with no cars, that baggage started to feel pretty light. Hassle with other people? Well, the stress-free environment seems to make everyone pretty friendly. Discovering that it was normal to leave front doors unlocked, something I did myself from the first night, put me in a trusting, open mood. I wonder if I should try it in London? Yes, well…
Anyway, fresh air, clean water, almost no advertising apart from the odd discreet hotel or bar sign, in short an environment clean of all worries, even the pressure to buy something, rests the body, eyes and mind. Not that the eyes don’t have a lot to see: deep Alpine valleys, the longest glacier in the Alps, high peaks, wonderful scenery.
Bettmeralp is a high Alpine village of one main street, several hotels, restaurants and bars and lots of chalet apartments. In winter, it is a ski and snowboard destination, popular with families, mainly Swiss or German, lying as it does in a German part of Switzerland. Having no cars frees parents from a multitude of concerns about high-spirited offspring on skis and gives the resort a unique feel. In the evening, the families settle in for an early night while the teenagers and the rest of us hit a bar or one of the two small clubs for some dancing. And, of course, the clean mountain air and a spot of downhill skiing blows away any hangover in double-quick time.
In summer, Bettmeralp is a centre for high Alpine walks, mountain climbing and adventure in canyons and on lakes. In my February visit, that’s hard to imagine as fog closes in the view and makes the slopes dangerous for a novice skier such as myself. Instead, I take to the forests for a walk on paths cleared through chest-high virgin snow. Whenever I stop, the only thing I hear is the sound of absolute silence. Maybe someone should write a song about that.
‘Hear my words that I might teach you, Take my arms that I might reach you.’ Is that my ski instructor calling me? I’m sure you don’t need to read yet another description of someone having ski lessons, the whole falling down, being made to look foolish by a five-year-old thing. Two things did surprise me: how dry it is up where all the water turns to ice, and how warm it was above the clouds. I had to strip off several layers of clothing once I started and the whole being cold and damp thing I’d expected of a snow trip never came to pass. Until we started the snowballs fights, obviously. The most useful thing I learned from my instructor is that you have to take your gloves off to make a good snowball. Not just to keep your gloves dry – though that’s good – but because the heat of your hands helps melt the snow so it sticks together into a more effective missile.
Dominating the town is the Aletsch Glacier, the longest in the Alps at 23km. A short cable-car ride takes you to the viewing station where you can drink a hot chocolate while also taking in information that it covers 86 square kilometres and reaches a depth of almost a kilometre. Melt it, they tell you, and everyone on earth could drink a litre a day of its water for six years. Sadly, that’s not as far-fetched an idea as it should be; the leading edge of the glacier is retreating about 50m every year in recent times and global warming is blamed. Even here in the Alps, the concerns of the world can eventually find you out.