Zermatt: A will and his way
August Julen’s eyes are wise, kind and full of life. A whole 92 years of life. And they light up when he looks down upon his native Alpine village and proclaims that it is “fantastic.” Every day, he wakes up in front of a postcard-perfect panorama that contains one of the most impressive mountainscapes in the Alps. At his feet sprawls a village that without him would be scarcely what it is today: Zermatt.
Tradition and innovation
August Julen’s story begins like many others. His ancestors “grew up, just as people had done in the Zermatt valley for hundreds of years. People lived simply and self-sufficiently. They ate what the land and their animals provided, built houses with wood from the forest and wove clothes from sheep’s wool.”
August’s grandfather Josef Julen owned land in the centre of Zermatt, but gave it up as the advent of Alpine tourism made it difficult to farm. “People from the hotels always walked into the fields,” explains August Julen. The family of six moved to Randa, where Josef acquired new land.
He kept only his estate in Findeln, and in 1900 built a house there from the 20 square metres’ of wood that every inhabitant at that time was entitled to. Here, in the pastures above Zermatt, his son Severin met Veronica of Fluralp. Veronica was a Perren, daughter of the hotelier and businessman who wrote history in his role as mayor of Zermatt.
Using the power of his position, the progressive mayor first introduced a policy that would close Zermatt’s farms during the winter “so the men would spend their time helping the women rather than getting drunk.” Perren had noticed that during the colder months the men did virtually nothing but socialise, while the women looked after the livestock, cared for the children and did all the cooking and housework.
“At that time, only men were allowed to vote, so Perren was voted out straight after his first period of office,” chuckles August Julen. Pioneers are not always popular.
Perren’s daughter Veronica was no less “unusual.” And she certainly didn’t stray from her progressive nature either. She secretly wore her brother’s trousers and became the first woman from Zermatt to climb the Matterhorn. When she returned, she slipped back into her compulsory skirt and got on with her work as if nothing has happened.
Veronica and Severin, who had taken on the family home in Findeln, had 12 children. In 1922, the year her third child August was born, Veronica opened the tea hut ‘Findelbord’ in order to improve the family’s modest income.
“The little hut was blown away by the wind seven times,” recalls August Julen. But the couple continued to serve their guests milk, soup and tea, until the tea hut turned into a restaurant.
Off to see the world
At just four months old, August Julen made his first trip to Findeln, where his family lived between March and December each year. As a four-year-old, he began to herd sheep, going on to look after cows and help out in the tea hut. Life was modest, and based on the motto: “Two life supports never break – prayer and work” (from: Eine vergessene Welt (A forgotten world)). At that time, Zermatt was little more than a “small village.”
For six months of the year, the Julen children went to school. “When term started in November, our family was still up at Findeln. We had to walk down the mountain every morning, prepare lunch for ourselves and climb up the mountain again in the evening. That was hard. We were always so tired that we just wanted to go to bed when we got home,” remembers Julen.
As a teenager he realised that there were “easier ways to earn money than being a farmer.” It was a realisation that was to change the course of his life. During the war (when he worked as a mountain watchman for the Swiss Army) he completed his ski qualifications and took language classes, finally becoming a mountain guide.
With private guests he made inroads into different valleys. He saw how winter tourism was in full swing in St. Moritz, Davos and Klosters, and knew that “Zermatt could do that, too.” His vision of Zermatt as a “global spa resort” found favour with liberal mayor Othmar Julen, “who succeeded in making three geographic areas accessible for tourism before he could be voted out,” according to Julen.
August Julen saw for himself how difficult it was to convince people of new ideas, when he tried to change the image of his hometown. His vision to install a lift connecting Sunegga to Findeln was dismissed as “financially damaging.” The only investor was scared off, and the bank incited to withdraw its loan.
However, Severin Julen and his entire estate backed the proposal. “My father didn’t understand anything about tourism, but he said, ‘If you think that the lift will be good for the resort, then we will do everything to pull together the money’,” says Julen.
After the first day of business, when an employee brought CHF 800 to Severin Julen, he was convinced that something must have gone wrong. Even his best cow wasn’t worth so much money. “He thought that the employee had stolen money from the guests,” laughs August Julen.
The foundations had been laid. Zermatt was on course to become a classy winter destination. In 1958, there were more winter than summer guests for the first time. Julen taught celebrities such as Guccio Gucci and Ted Kennedy to ski, and as a member of the ski school became known as a pioneer in techniques.
In 1953, Julen was booked as a mountain guide by a certain Mr Schmid, a filmmaker. He noticed immediately that his guest felt very uncomfortable in exposed places. “He literally shivered with fear, so I had to take over the filming,” reveals Julen. When the Zermatter later saw the film in Winterthur, he noticed that the best scenes were those he had filmed himself. He immediately bought a camera and started to show his films in the village.
Enchanted by what he saw, Walt Disney approached the young filmmaker to film ‘The third man on the mountain’, which would portray the difficulties of filming on the mountainside. Julen produced 15,000 metres of film. His pictures were seen around the world and could have landed him a number of contracts, but the Zermatter later ruled out offers from film agencies, because he didn’t like “the amount of swindling that went on in the industry.” He preferred creating documentary films, such as ‘Das Matterhorndorf’ (The Matterhorn Village), ‘Whympers Weg auf Matterhorn’ (Whymper’s route up the Matterhorn) and ‘Menschen an Matterhorn’ (People on the Matterhorn). They showed what Zermatt was really like – and, in 2007, won Julen the Zermatter Kulturpreis.
In 1958, Julen married his childhood sweetheart Martina Perren. She had grown up in the small chalet next door. “As children, we went sledging together and I knew that she was the one I would marry. And she waited for me,” he smiles. “My biggest wish is to be with her for much longer.”
Four years after his marriage, Julen inherited the family home in Findeln. Nobody wanted the “old shack”, but the young couple had the right attitude. And with a lot of hard work, the mountain home found success. Soon, the couple’s children were running happily between the rooms serving satisfied guests.
Julen’s biggest legacies today are his four children – Vrony, Heinz, Leni and Moni – as well as his 13 grandchildren. “The most important thing for me was always that the children were helpful and there for each other. They are still close nowadays, and are like one big family. That is lovely,” he says. “I am proud of what they have achieved, that they have stayed here, and that they have shown such a great interest. I hope that this will all pass onto the next generation. But God will determine how things progress from here. For me, it is fantastic that 10,000 people now live so well in Zermatt, considering there once was a time that just 700 struggled to survive here.”
With a satisfied smile, his gaze wanders from his apartment balcony to the village beneath him. He wouldn’t swap it with anywhere else in the world.
Quote: For me, it is fantastic that 10,000 people now live so well in Zermatt, considering there once was a time that just 700 struggled to survive here. August Julen
Living histories: In the footsteps of the Julen Family
“I have always said to my children: ‘I will give you a piece of land and some money. Then you can do what you want.’ And each one of them has done something wonderful,” says August Julen proudly. His four children Vrony, Heinz, Leni and Moni have certainly inherited their father’s pioneering spirit and sense of family. He couldn’t have asked for anything more.
“Even as a child, Vrony was already very attentive. She always wanted to help, wanted to make the guests happy. We saw immediately that she was the right one to take on the mountain hut in Findeln,” says August Julen of his first-born. Today, her renowned Restaurant Chez Vrony is no longer an insider secret. Connoisseurs from every walk of life come here on skis, snowboards, sledges and hiking boots to take advantage of the friendly welcome, the view of the Matterhorn and the distinguished culinary offerings.
“Heinz was always the creative one. When he was a child, we could see that he had very skilled hands.” August Julen always pushed his children’s talents and now, as he looks around, he can see that of his son everywhere. Heinz’s creative spirit is not only evident here in his parents’ apartment, but also throughout Zermatt. At the heart of the village, Heinz runs Backstage Hotel Vernissage, which has its own cinema. His father’s films are regularly on the programme.
“All my children were good skiers, but Leni and Moni were especially talented – even when they were very young. I advised them to do their ski diploma,” remembers August Julen. But he also passed on his business acumen to his youngest daughters. Until Leni went into the hotel business with her husband Thomas, she ran the Leni Bar on the top floor of the mountain hut at Findeln for many years. Now, her hotel Coeur des Alpes has been voted ‘Best Unique Boutique Holiday Hotel’ by Bilanz magazine. The most charming aspect of the hotel is undoubtedly the host couple themselves. Their warmth and friendliness is just as impressive as Heinz’s conceptualised spot with view of the Matterhorn.
“We certainly inherited our parents’ love of tourism and their values: a spirit for hard work and helpfulness. Looking back, this is almost certainly why we are all so happy to work in the guest services industry,” says Moni. She and her husband Pirmin spent several years living in Saas-Almagell before moving back to Zermatt and renovating the Suitenhotel Zurbriggen. There, guest satisfaction is at the fore. The couple hope guests will feel at home while on holiday. “All of us children could really have done anything we wanted,” says Moni. “We could have gone out to see the world, or to study elsewhere. But we simply enjoyed being at home and around each other!”
August Julen’s children are now looking to the next generation – the influence of their grandfather apparent in all of them. Leni’s daughter Romaine wrote in her Matura-Arbeit (A-levels paper): “We grandchildren experienced a very strong sense of family, which really influenced us in our thoughts and actions. (…) August (…) is one of my role models. He spotted the right time to do business, grasped his ideas and dreams, and made them a reality.” August Julen’s hopes for the future certainly seem to be sprouting already.
MAP: Zermatt trail:
- Hotel Backstage Hotel Vernissage, Heinz Julen
- Restaurant Heimberg, conceptualised by Heinz Julen
- Coeur des Alpes, Leni Müller-Julen
- Suitenhotel Zurbriggen, Moni Zurbriggen-Julen
- Hotel Focus, conceptualised by Heinz Julen
- Snowboat, conceptualised by Heinz Julen
- Chez Vrony, Vrony Cotting-Julen