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The Telegraph: How an Egyptian billionaire put Andermatt on the map

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

This article was originally published on The Telegraph. Read it here

Andermatt's new Schneehüenerstock Express gondola makes the Swiss resort more appealing to intermediate skiers

I’m standing at 2,600m in the Swiss resort of Andermatt on a blue-sky day in mid-January. Schneehüenerstock is one of the resort’s recommended viewpoints, and the conditions are so clear I can easily admire the surrounding ring of 3,000m peaks.

However, I’m focused on the top of the new two-stage Schneehüenerstock Express gondola. An impressively sleek black beast, its 10-person cars ascend nearly 600m in around six minutes from the direction of Andermatt’s neighbouring resort, Sedrun.

Until massive investment over the past few seasons, the two resorts were linked only by a long road or shorter train journey, but this gondola means they are now completely linked by lift and piste in both directions.

It’s a final piece in the jigsaw of a £1.2 billion redevelopment plan for Andermatt set in motion by billionaire Egyptian investor Samih Sawiris in 2005.

Since I last visited in the early Noughties, his vision has also brought fast chairlifts, snowmaking guns and snow-farming, high-end hotels and a car-free satellite village of luxury apartments, Andermatt Reuss, just outside the still reassuringly picturesque original Andermatt.

Apartments in the car-free Andermatt Reuss village are both varied and luxurious CREDIT: Martin Wabel/Andermatt Swiss Alps

The resorts’ shared Ski Arena area has increased from 89km to 120km, and as well as the gondola there’s a new red piste from Schneehüenerstock. I head left from my viewpoint to swoop through a huge and otherwise empty valley on the new run, which undulates and twists the full drop of the gondola to Oberalppass in the valley.

Myriad off-piste opportunities surround me, but there’s no need to leave the piste for fresh tracks; it’s ungroomed today after a half-metre snowfall, and the white stuff billows all the way to a small clutch of buildings and the connecting lift - a fast six-seater chairlift installed last season – towards Sedrun’s wide and open intermediate pistes.

Combining views, length and variety, I’m not surprised to find this run is a favourite of Andermatt local Bernhard Russi, one-time James Bond stunt skier, and downhill gold medal winner at the Sapporo Winter Olympics in 1972 when he was 22. “For the first 15 years I skied here, there was just the train, the luxury option, otherwise walking,” he tells me.

Russi was born in Andermatt’s railway station where his father worked, and is now instrumental in the design of downhill courses for the Winter Olympics – Beijing 2022 is the current project. He is also on the board of directors of Andermatt Swiss Alps, the company formed to drive Sawiris’s masterplan, which was overwhelmingly approved by the local community in 2007.

Set at over 1,400m at the meeting point of high-mountain passes linking four Swiss cantons, Andermatt itself has two separate ski areas, Nätschen-Gütsch, now linked to Sedrun, and Gemsstock. However, even though it’s only 90-minutes drive from Zurich airport, it was a slow developer as a ski resort.

In 1885 the Swiss military chose it for a base - perhaps because the building of the Gotthard railway tunnel in 1882 effectively took it off the map as a stop for traders and tourists using the mountain passes. While Nätschen-Gütsch had a recognisable ski lift in 1937 it wasn’t until the 1960s that a lift was installed to serve the 3,000m challenges of steep and shady Gemsstock, and that was mainly intended for summer use.

The original village of Andermatt remains as picturesque as ever CREDIT: Tommy Picone

“When the military were here we weren’t a skiing area,” explains Russi.”We didn’t have to develop, but when they left [during the early Noughties], we lost a third of the town’s jobs and the population went down. It was a critical time, ski hills losing money. But for a long time, the only investment we did was hope. That Samih Sawiris discovered us, this is a really lucky thing.”

Russi wasn’t drafted in to design new runs, but he did give advice, believing Andermatt needed to attract a different kind of skier to the adventurers drawn to Gemsstock. “I said ‘Samih, you need families, easy slopes, sunshine, so the development should be on the sunny side’. We still have high altitude there, over 2,000m, so the snow stays in good condition.”

As I learn on a town tour with local guide Bänz Simmen, this welcome to outsiders with useful skills has long been the way in Andermatt. Simmen has made it his mission to discover and share the valley’s history, and waxes lyrical about an exchange of knowledge with incomers and passers-through that has driven development here over centuries.

Tales abound for how Sawiris first became involved – I hear tell of a chance meeting in a nightclub, locals exchanging rumours that a sheikh had bought the valley as long ago as 2000. But the story really starts in 2005, when he was asked to advise Andermatt on how to survive after the military had left, because of his expertise in building holiday resorts, via a Swiss diplomat from Andermatt’s Uri canton who worked in Cairo.

On a helicopter flight over the valley, Sawiris felt a connection to the place, its wild scenery, the passes marking the source of major rivers including the Rhine and the Rhone. And decided to go further than advice, with his far-reaching investment plan to preserve Andermatt’s nature while making it into a year-round tourist destination.

Andermatt Swiss Alps opened the five-star Chedi in 2013 on the site of the 18th-century Grand Hotel Bellevue in the old town. It has also opened a golf course for summer, united restaurants focusing on locally-sourced produce on and off mountain under the umbrella Mountain Food, and opened the four-star Radisson Blu Reussen in Andermatt Reuss in December 2018.

Andermatt's Gemsstock mountain is famed for challenging off-piste CREDIT: PETER LIENERT/Andermatt Guides

The new village is a 10-minute walk or short bus ride from the low-key shops, restaurants and hotels of the original Andermatt, and the Radisson and its associated hotel-service Gotthard apartments just two of the buildings here. The company enlisted 30 architects to design 42 varied blocks that reflect regional culture and architecture around a central piazza. The apartments have attracted buyers from abroad as well as locally, not least because the Swiss government has exempted Andermatt from strict rules restricting foreign purchases.

There’s underground parking, a swimming pool and spa open to all in the Gotthard residences, a concert hall in the hotel, and shops and restaurants are starting to arrive. These include the well-equipped Mammut Imholz ski shop, and the Biselli restaurant and bakery (a Mountain Food restaurant), the best place in town for breakfast.

The village suits the sophisticated holidaymakers and families Andermatt wants to attract, perhaps coming for the sleek lifts, intermediate/advanced pistes, terrain park and beginner areas of Naschen-Gutchen and Sedrun, rather than the steep, adventurous powder challenges of Gemsstock. But this is no Disneyland – Gemsstock’s challenges have not been ironed out. As I discovered on a day out with Andermatt Guides, it still has all its rugged appeal.

When I asked Bernhard Russi for his favourite run in Andermatt, I expected a black on Gemsstock – maybe even the run named after him there. But instead he chose that new red down from the Schneehüenerstock gondola. “My favourite often changes, but today it must be this one, first of all because with sunshine and blue sky the view up there is incredible, and because it’s new for me.”

The trip from Andermatt to Sedrun and back is easily achieved in a day, but for those who prefer to rest their legs, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn train of Russi’s youth still runs along the valley hourly, linking Andermatt with Sedrun and next-door Disentis resort. Disentis and the train are also covered by the lift pass, and there’s the added incentive of an après-ski carriage with a bar and sometimes a DJ.

The latest developments have put Andermatt well and truly on the map this winter, but the investment is not over yet. As well as more new apartments and a new mountain restaurant above Andermatt, for 2019/20 a new cable-car lift will connect Sedrun to Disentis, making it easier to take advantage of its 50km of pistes.

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