Boarding a train in Zurich, we began the slow climb into the alps, winding our way through green valleys and passing vast mirrored lakes. We met the river Rhine in the small town of Bad Ragaz and followed it upstream where it narrowed as our climb grew steeper. An hour and a half later the train pulled in to the small town of Chur where we disembarked and transferred to a bus, already parked and waiting for the morning train’s passengers to arrive. Setting off up steep narrow roads and tight bends, 42 minutes later we arrived at our destination, Vals.
This magical mountain village, at 1250 meters (4101 feet) above sea level, owes its terrain and diversity to the forces of water — millions of years of ice and rain carving out the valley and building up its famous, naturally heated water reserves. Dotted around the green slopes, alpine agriculture defines much of the landscape and virtually every patch of green is farmed for hay to feed the livestock that roam the steep inclines all summer long. In this particular community, the farmers decided a few years back to go fully organic with their hay farming. A wise choice for farmers who essentially live in their own fields.
By the bridge that forms the entrance to the village, not far from the bus stop, stands Brücke 49 (house number 49 by the bridge), a bed and breakfast carved out of a historic farmhouse dating back to 1902.
Here our story takes a brief detour north to Copenhagen. Wife and husband team Ruth Kramer and Thomas Schacht, with successful 20-year carers in design and communication, had an idea that their next move might be to a higher elevation. Without knowing exactly what they might do in Vals, they rented a house, moved in and proceeded to become part of the village’s daily life.
Thomas started working for a farmer in summer and in the winter he took a job on the ski lift. Farming was hard work and winters on the ski lift were long and quiet and provided Thomas with time to think about their options in this new location. With some time in residence behind them, they were approaching the coveted “locals” status. When the owner of house 49 by the bridge started to think about selling, he naturally preferred that the property go to someone already in the community. He was aware of Ruth and Thomas’ interest in purchasing a place of their own, and with the arrival of this new opportunity, a plan was hatched to develop Brücke 49, an alpine bed and breakfast of a quality and style only a collaboration between Ruth and Thomas could produce.
The original owner of the house, Franz Schmid, was inspired by his time in Paris to create a French-Alpine house. In comparison to a typical Alpine home, Brücke 49’s rooms are slightly larger, as are the windows, and the ceilings higher, making it the perfect starting point for Ruth and Thomas, with their Scandinavian design sensibilities.
The house is four stories tall. You enter at street level into the entry/mudroom. One floor up is the common area, living, kitchen and dining rooms. Above that are another two stories with four rooms and a bathroom on each floor.
We stayed in the Suite on the lower of the guest floors. It has darkly stained floorboards, white wood paneled walls and is outfitted with unique furniture pieces from Ruth and Thomas’ years of travel. An eclectic library of books left by guests shows the worldwide draw of Brücke 49.
Brücke 49, gets the design just right with a mixture of history, quirky details, and high-quality comfort. Ruth’s touch for textiles shows in the perfectly placed bright velvet covered seating. The crisp white color scheme in our adjacent bathroom, with lovely alpine touches, like a deer antler serving as a towel rack. With the windows open, I fell in love with the sound of the flowing Valser Rhein river, mixed with the clanging bells of nearby cows and goats on the meadow above the house. Such a relaxing mixture of sounds.
On our first night, at Thomas’ suggestion, we hiked about 35 minutes up the mountain, through goat pastures and over small streams, to a local Gasthaus. The small hut is run by a young local couple who, after living abroad for several years, returned to cook and serve local fare to Vals’ visitors. Notable was the hay soup, which is a common menu item at high elevation. This one was exceptional, and organic I presume from local farmer’s fields.
The next morning we experienced one of the highlights of a Brücke 49 stay, the breakfast. At a communal table, Thomas serves a selection of fresh, local and homemade dishes, including cheese, freshly baked bread, and jam, all served on fine Danish porcelain. A feast for both stomach and eye.
After enjoying the morning meal and a relaxing conversation with Thomas and our fellow guests, we took a walk through the village to pay a visit to the local water facilities. Even with the area’s outstanding beauty, it is Vals’ natural water source that is its most precious resource. It takes three years for the natural mineral water to travel through the rocks before it surfaces at a warm 86 degrees (30 degrees Celsius).
First recognized as a source for drinking water, it soon became a place for therapeutic bathing and a series of accommodations were developed on the site. None was very successful until the community took control of the water rights and surrounding property, hiring famed Swiss Architect Peter Zumthor, also a local resident, to design a modern, elegant Therme.
Zumthor’s Therme, built from local Quartzite stone, is breathtakingly beautiful and sits in a magical setting. While you relax in the 30-degree water, the mountains rise around you, creating a seamless indoor-outdoor experience. This is the first Zumthor building I have visited and I have to admit I was surprised at how inspiring it is, with its solid structures, the vistas to the surrounding hills, the integration of the site with the mountains, and his choices of materials.
The Therme is located behind, and accessed through, a hotel of very average design. That was the only disappointing aspect of the visit. The site was up for sale recently and Zumthor offered to buy it and add a hotel to the Therme, to create a truly great resort for the community. His offer was declined and it was sold to a large hotel chain. Without Zumthor, I think that entrance will remain a disappointment. But once inside, the Therme will always be an exhilarating experience.
After hours soaking in the therapeutic mineral waters, we headed back to Brücke 49 to continue our glorious Alpine stay in Vals. Many thanks to our new friends Ruth and Thomas for creating a beautiful alpine retreat and for being such amazing hosts.
One final note: Before you leave, Brücke 49 recently opened a shop just across the street which features a selection of wares from Danish designers. Don’t forget to pop in.
Planning a visit to Vals, Switzerland? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.