Why pick a favorite village in Switzerland? It’s a bit of an exercise in futility. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. And as soon as you justify your choice, it’s hard not to second guess yourself when faced with the myriad attributes of places like Stechelberg, St. Luc, Bettmeralp and, well, probably dozens more.
Still, I’m going out into perilous territory, and casting a vote for Champéry. If Run the Alps has a Swiss home, it’s Champéry. At the risk of tipping my hand when I’m next faced with the Swiss Alps edition of a “Tastes Great/Less Filling” showdown (explainer for readers younger than a certain age or outside of the U.S.) during dinner at Le Nord some night, I’ll plunge forward and show my cards.
Everyone—and I mean literally everyone— says hello to each other in Champéry. That’s true in Swiss villages generally, but in Champéry it seems taken to amusing extremes. I have been “Bonjour’d” while running to catch a train in the darkness of 5:30 am, during a winter blizzard when I could barely hear the greeting over the howl of the storm, and another time while running along Rue du Village in a torrential downpour. If there is a Swiss Chamber of Commerce Politeness Research Center, it must be based in a mountain hideout in Champéry. (And I bet they’re training dogs and cows to bark and moo, “Bonjour!” as I type these words.)
In French, there’s a perfect word for this—chaleureuse—and it means warm, friendly, inviting. That’s Champéry. Just arrived in town five minutes ago, and don’t know the Dents Blanches from the Dents du Midi? Be prepared to be treated like everyone else, and greeted with a bonjour. There have to be at least fifty ways to say Bonjour, by the way, but for the moment, you’re spared that blog post.
2. Art.Boutique.Hotel Beau-Séjour
Champéry is fortunate in many regards, and high on the list are Phillipe and Sofie and their Art Boutique.Hotel Beau-Séjour, one of the most inviting hotels in the entire country. (With the awards to prove it, too.) Friendly, supportive, calm under pressure, energetic and active in the community, Philippe and Sophie are simply great people. If you stay at the Beau-Sejour—and you will if you’re with Run the Alps in Champéry—you’ll see what I mean. For me, the Beau-Séjour captures what everyone would want in a hotel, anywhere: low-key, friendly, charming, historic, inviting. New added bonus? They’ve recently purchased the adjacent restaurant Le Vieux Chalet, too, so look for good things to start happening there as well. Keep an eye out for the future master of the two enterprises, too, as he toddles around the property. He goes by the name of Louis.
One thing is (happily) missing from Champéry: lots and lots of visitors. It’s just a bit off the beaten track. Sure, you’ll hear English accents and the occasional American voice, but it’s the exception, not the rule. (Unfortunately, my presence isn’t helping. I’m working on my French, so I can go fully undercover.) Put another way: Champéry is where Swiss from the nearby cantons of Valais and Vaud go to vacation.
4. Les Dents du Midi
It would take a lifetime to explore all the peaks in the Swiss Alps. Certainly, some are more remote than the famous Dents du Midi. Many are far busier, too, with lifts to every summit. But, residents and businesses have struck a balance here—the Dents du Midi and nearby Dents Blanches are largely serene, with occasional mountain huts and herds of livestock. I’ve seen chamois in nearby high passes, spent long alpine evenings visiting with other guests at the stone Susanfe Swiss Alpine Club hut, and spent countless hours taking in the alpine details of the range, unmarred by the sight of criss-crossing high-speed quads. For more than a century, painters have felt a special affinity for the Dents du Midi range, too–the range is featured in the background of the famous Chateau De Chillon painting by Gustave Courbet.
5. Café Nord
Café Nord is the place to hang out. I’ve spent hours over dinner in the below-ground pub, enjoying a simple, authentic, tasty Valais meal. Hadrian, one of the hosts, remembered my name long before I recalled his, and—okay, it’s out—I think Aurélie has the quickest smile of anyone I’ve ever met.
6. Les Petits Train
Champéry, high at the end of the Val D’Illiez, has been served by the Aigle-Ollon-Monthey-Champéry cog railway since 1908. Arrive early in the morning or late at night and there’ll be just one car. You’ll need to step past the driver to get to the well-worn wooden seats. Fun fact: If you see someone dashing wildly through town at :32 past the hour, they’re headed down the hill to catch the :34 train to the Rhone Valley.
Beyond Champéry, at the foot of the Dents Blanche mountains that define the border with France, is the little outpost of Barme. Buried in snow in winter, come summer the several auberges there are alive with hikers, climbers and local walkers. Herds of cows wander from here to the Col de Cou, an old border outpost that was active when the area was popular with smugglers. When I’m trail running, Barme comes as a welcome outpost: a place for some tarte aux myrtilles, and—if I’ve had enough running for the day—a spot to hop on the shuttle back down 11 kilometers to the village.
8. Bon Avue, Antheme, Mex, Salafe et Susanfe
Four in one? Okay, I’m cheating. But, the huts, auberges and the high, ancient village of Mex that dot the perimeter of the Dents du Midi provide perfectly spaced stopping points for a long trail run or hike. Multiday walkers will spend three night among these locations hiking around the range. Each one is different, and each has its own charm.
9. Rue du Village
Flags flying above the narrow village road. Geraniums spilling from windowsills. Above the rooftop of weatherbeaten chalets, the summits of the Dents du Midi. A town square with one of the best views of any I’ve ever seen. An occasional Portes du Soleil tram zipping by overhead. Rue Village is pretty incredible. On the night of August 1st, Fete Nationale, it is alive with Swiss flags, hundreds of torches and a parade that’s not to be missed. (Hint: Miss Champéry weighs in at 1,400 pounds and wears quite a headdress!)
10. Trail DM
Champéry is home to one of my favorite trail races in all of Switzerland, the Trail Dents du Midi ultramarathon. (Full details, here.) Free of the circus atmosphere and business mentality that comes with bigger-name races, Trail DM is a home-grown mountain ultra around one of the most beautiful ranges in all of Switzerland.
There are reasons, too. Col de Cou, Le Tour des Dents Blanches the tour around the Dents Blanches, restaurant at Sur Cou, Gallerie Defago, the (almost) vertical kilometer run to Croix de Culet, the entire Val D’illiez and the neighboring towns of Val D’illiez proper and Troistorrents, the warm waters of the nearby therms parc.
There’s always room for improvement, right? So, let me share a few things on my dream list for Champéry:
1. A dairy shop on a par with Lenk Milch.
2. A pastry shop on a par with Bäckerei Konditorei Confiserie un Café Hauteter in Adelboden.
3. Complimentary masseuse for all trail runners. (Hey, a guy can always dream, right?)
In the end, I’ll confess, I feel more like a parent, perhaps—unable and unwilling to make a choice between the kids, each of whom is admirable in his or her own way. Still, I have to put some address on my business card, right? So, Champéry it is.
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