Gstaad is my kind of ski resort – quite charming, quite quiet, quite folklorique and best of all it is quite unnecessary to ski. It is one of those places that I visit far too infrequently and on re-acquaintance I lie to myself that I will visit more often.
I must be one of the few people to visit Gstaad on business; watch business, of course. I came here years ago when Breitling was launching its round-the-world ballooning attempts from nearby Château-d’Oex. I was back again a few years later to mark the opening of the Girard-Perregaux boutique and then most recently to see the inauguration of Jean-Claude Biver’s new Hublot watch made in honour of the 40th anniversary of the GreenGo nightclub in the bowels of the Palace Hotel.
I have to say that I like a good palace hotel – I leave authentic inns and all that agriturismo nonsense to the travel snob. I am a simple man, and find that I am perfectly content with a suite, or at a pinch a junior suite, in the nearest palace hotel. Besides, the local palace hotel is often just as, if not more, authentic than its boutique rivals. Take the Palace in Gstaad: it is coming up for its centenary and is still family owned. Andrea Scherz, the third generation of the owning family, explained that his grandfather came to the village as part of a group of carol singers one year and while giving a moving rendition of Stille Nacht allowed his gaze to wander to the palace overlooking the town. He was smitten, and the Swiss hotel saga that unfolded in the manner of Dick Whittington is now in its third generation.
What I like about the family ownership is that the experience is not standardised. I understand that some things do eventually wind up shareholder-owned or nationalised, but some things, like the Gstaad Palace, don’t, and I am glad of it; they have character and they have quirks, they give confusing names to nightclubs and call restaurants after long-time employees: there is a sense of continuity and not a carousel of eager young stagiaires who ask you as if taught by rote whether you had a pleasant flight.
I know that my mania for character in luxury is getting perilously close to becoming a campaign, so I will leave it at that and move on to an interesting fact. Beneath the Palace Hotel is the location of the first nightclub that existed before the GreenGo and being led through this subterranean warren by Andrea Scherz I came to a strongroom hewn from the living rock (I am not sure if rock lives but I like the dramatic ring to it) and reinforced by concrete. Apparently during the second world war Switzerland feared invasion by Germany and decided to hide its gold reserves in the mountains.
I must say that I salute the genius who thought that the best place to keep their gold out of sight was underneath one of the country’s top hotels. It reminded me a bit of Andrew Sinclair’s 1959 novel The Breaking of Bumbo, the eponym of which is a young officer in a smart Guards Battalion.
One of the more amusing “gigs”, as I am sure The Brigade of Guards did not call them, was the Bank Picquet, which would march from Horseguards to the Bank of England every afternoon and stay overnight. If you happened to be the Officer of the Guard, you, and a male guest, were given dinner plus a bottle of wine and port, with, says Sinclair, sherry and whisky thrown in (and while this might seem a good ration, they had been more generous in the past; according to one source, the late-19th-century officer and guest would have been expected to work their way through three bottles of wine). I have to admit that this always struck me as one of the cushiest of military assignments. However, following my recent discovery I fell compelled to say that standing guard over the Swiss gold reserves at the Palace Hotel in Gstaad might have been even better.