“The great majority of tourists visit Switzerland between the middle of July and the end of September,” observed Baedeker’s Guide to Switzerland in 1895, adding that if one were of a botanical bent and wished to “see the scenery, the vegetation, and particularly the Alpine flowers in perfection, June is recommended as the most charming month in the year”.
The quaint tone of voice evokes the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton, men in tweed knickerbockers and Norfolk jackets, and women sensibly attired in bonnets and walking skirts, their corseted waists in inverse proportion to their billowing leg o’ mutton sleeves, striding across sunlit alpine meadows taking lungfuls of crisp Swiss air and surveying distant snow-capped peaks. Baedeker’s 1895 guide to Switzerland ran to 500 densely printed pages of advice, pull-out maps, hotel prices, itineraries, railway timetables, and so forth: in short, everything the late Victorian traveller could have wanted… unless they happened to be planning a trip to Gstaad.
For a start, Baedeker spelled it Gstad, and gave it a mention for which the word ‘fleeting’ implies way too much detail. Skip a line on page 250 and you would have never known the place existed; it is mentioned only once, and only then inasmuch as it found itself “at the mouth of the Lauenen-Thal”. That is it. And so, guided by Baedeker, those Henry James and Edith Wharton characters would have passed unheeding through what would become one of the world’s most famous resorts, heading instead for the picturesque Lauenensee, there to pick and press alpine flowers or sketch the lakeside landscape. If anything, the “finely situated” and almost homonymous village of Gsteig was the local tourist hub.
To be fair to Baedeker there was not much to detain its readers in Gstaad. A photograph from around 1895 shows a scattering of wood-sided houses and farm buildings, along with huge, geometrically exact (this was Switzerland, after all) stacks of logs. Along with rearing cattle, the chief economic activity of Gstaad was timber production. And thus things might have remained, but on the night of July 18 and 19, 1898, those wood-sided houses, farm buildings and piles of logs went up in flames that razed most of the modest settlement. It was almost as if Gstaad had never existed, and but for the lobbying of the local sawmill owner, the railway would have passed by the blackened ruins. But thanks to his persistence, on December 20, 1904 the railway reached Gstaad and the village began its phoenix-like rise to greatness.
During the first years of the last century, the fad for winter sports was beginning to catch on. Sleepy Gstaad became a bona fide resort boomtown. Within a few years of the railway arriving, there were 1,000 hotel beds, and even then demand exceeded supply, with disappointed would-be guests being fobbed off with accommodation in the now less glamorous Gsteig.
By 1913 even Baedeker was obliged to admit that “the advantages of the alpine climate are not limited to the summer months, but the benefits of spending the winter in the Alps have only recently been widely acknowledged”. Gstaad was already several steps ahead: the winter season of 1913-14, from December 8 to March 5, saw the opening of the Gstaad Royal Hotel and Winter Palace. Executed in an architectural style best described as Walt Disney baronial, for more than a century the benign silhouette of the Gstaad Palace has watched over the village, as Gstaad gradually turned its cowsheds and timber yards into apartment buildings and luxury boutiques.
As the Gstaad Palace is one of my top five hotels on this or any other planet, I might be exaggerating a little, but those 88 days of its first season changed the world, for if you were rich and social, you now had to add Gstaad to Monte Carlo on your list of destinations. In fact, Gstaad did its best to bring the Riviera experience to the mountains: when the Palace opened a pool in 1928 it imported sand so that guests could feel like they were on the Côte d’Azur.
As well as the opening of the legendary Palace hotel, the other seismic social event to shape modern Gstaad took place in 1917, when pupils and teachers of Le Rosey — think Euro-trash Eton (but for rich people) — spent their first winter season in Gstaad, a tradition that persists to this day; it has bred generation after generation of return visitors, scions of the world’s leading royal, imperial, industrial, financial and oligarchic dynasties. It must be one of the few educational establishments of which the director also occupied a seat on the board of the local Palace hotel — as happened during the 1980s and 1990s.
But part of the charm of Gstaad is that progress treads carefully here: well into the 1950s guests at the Palace were collected at the railway station in a horse-drawn sledge. And Gstaad was still recognisable as what the American economist, diplomat and intellectual J.K. Galbraith, who came to live here in the mid 1950s, described as a “peasant village, where small lumber mills [which still survive] sawed the huge straight logs that are brought down from the surrounding mountain forests”. Still, as peasant villages go, it was the sort in which Marie Antoinette would have felt right at home.
A black-and-white film of life in the resort in the early 1950s shows dignified men in tweeds and plus fours enjoying the sport of curling; in another sequence, some daredevil sportsmen attach themselves to horses and race through the snow on skis, acting out a sort of invernal version of the Roman chariot race. But skiing aside, life was leisurely. Guests booked into the Palace not just for a week or a month but the entire season, arriving before Christmas and staying until the end of March. They had their own tables in the hotel grill room and would get plenty of use out of their dinner jackets.