Escapism in Vals
Cradled in the Alps, Vals provides a retreat from reality. But here, amidst soaring summits, lie one of Switzerland’s most renowned thermal baths and a successful industrial network.
At the end of the Valser Valley in Canton Graubünden lies a hamlet-like village. A German-speaking enclave in a Romansch territory, Vals has a transcendent quality that charms all those who venture off the beaten track to find it. It looks particularly charming shrouded in autumnal gold. High above, the Zerfreila reservoir gleams turquoise. On the valley slopes – the ancient landscape of the Adula mountain range – 19th-century log stables are hewn into fields of sienna and ochre. They are but flecks beneath the summits of Piz Aul (3,121 metres above sea-level) and Piz Horn (2,369 metres above sea-level).
“That is my favourite mountain,” says local Pia Truffer, of the latter. “Vals people call it Hörnli, but I remember when we took an American group of architects up there for a hike. They called the mountain chain that it is part of the ‘Four Crowns’. Since then, that is also how we have referred to them.”
Pia and her husband founded Truffer AG, the first quarry in the valley to extract Valser quartzite commercially, about 30 years ago. The local rock has a high compressive strength (Vals’ rooftops with hand-cut tiles are two to three hundred years old) – and the Truffers have created advanced finishing and cutting techniques to make best use of it.
This is telling no more so than in Therme Vals, the CHF 26 million mineral baths designed in Valser quartzite by Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Between the four accommodation buildings that constitute the complex, the mineral baths occupy a grey rectangular structure that opened in 1996.
It is easy to see why the building has won two awards: Bündner Kulturpreis Graubünden 1998 and Daylight Award 2010. Its outdoor 36-degrees-Celsius pool has smooth, high walls that meet at sharp angles. Mountain summits peep over the cubic perimeter, encouraging guests to focus on the interplay between the baths and nature.
Inside, Therme Vals has six thermal pools, including the fire and ice baths (42 and 14 degrees Celcius respectively), the flower bath (where fragrance is infused into the chamber) and the sound bath (where the sound of chiming stones is projected). In one chamber you can sample Vals’ mineral water from the St. Peter source, the only thermal spring in Canton Graubünden.
As well as being used within the Hotel Therme Vals complex, the mineral water is bottled by Valser Mineralquellen. Alongside Truffer AG, the water company is one of the largest employers in the valley. This economic drive and Vals’ sustainable development (farming here is organically certified and the village’s power supply is renewable) were marked with the European Prize of Village Innovation 2012.
Vals also has unassuming charm. Among its alleyways, you will find a Sennerei (Alpine dairy) and a handful of cafés and restaurants. Look out for the four hundred-year-old houses around the village square, each of which has an engraved symbol to mark ownership. Most of all, enjoy the innate harmony between civilisation and mountains – because that is what Vals is all about.
Where to stay
In its four buildings Hotel Therme Vals has 140 rooms in three categories. Stay stylishly in one of the 40 ‘Temporaries’ renovated by Peter Zumthor. The rooms are a wash of white, with no TV – only a window onto the world. Prices start at CHF 135 per person per night with breakfast and access to Therme Vals.
Where to eat
The Red Restaurant at Hotel Therme Vals was renovated by Peter Zumthor and has 15 Gault Millau points. Meanwhile, the complex’s Restaurant Chessi offers traditional, hearty fare. Delightful restaurants in the village include Gasthof Edelweiss and Restaurant Alpenrose.