A Place in the Clouds

Written by | Travel

This quaint Swiss destination known for its ski slopes and wine making has a few other cultural tricks up its sleeve during the off-season.

The air just tastes better in the Alps. There is a distinct crispness that lingers on the tongue and awakens the nose. Each bite is a bit more savory. Every scent’s a bit sweeter. Surely elevation plays a role in that sterling quality – a few days spent among the jagged vistas are invigorating in ways that feel foreign to city folk like ourselves. A few hours after we’ve touched down in Europe and it’s clear: we’re far too accustomed to trudging down bustling avenues packed with taxi cabs and freight trucks. Why do we accept that the smog we inhale is simply an accessory to the metropolitan lifestyle? Really, that’s just how it is? Maybe it doesn’t have to be.

In Valais, a municipality located two hours outside of Geneva, Switzerland by train, these gas-guzzling vehicles are few and far between. In the bucolic resort town of Crans-Montana, commuting is as simple as popping into a bubble lift and hopping off at a designated plateau along the tree-lined gradient that overlooks rows of quaint, low-rise structures below. Make sure to watch your step – these globe-shaped transporters never make complete stops, but some would say that’s half the fun of riding (the other half is peering upon frosty peaks that pierce clear, blue skies.)

Lovers of snow sports, French-inspired gastronomy and designer shopping will be hard pressed to find a better vacation spot than this lake set village, which also happens to be just a short journey away from the sustainable pastures of Colombier. In this preserved society, tourists can stay over in traditional chalets and watch Swiss farmers herd the very livestock that produce the creamy foundations of the region’s signature raclette. On these grounds, massive wheels age patiently in humble cheese caves until hungry visitors come back to indulge in a hearty, post-hike meal.

We do eventually embark on one of those outings, and don’t worry, we’ll revel in that lactose-laced experience later. But to start, Metrosource descends upon the lesser-known Swiss hideaway Crans-Montana for louder reasons.

Caprices

For the past 18 years, music lovers have traveled across the globe to experience Caprices Festival, and even as the planet fights its way out of a lengthy pandemic, that tradition lives on. And now, we’re a part of it.

This one-of-a-kind gathering started as a haven for live music nearly two decades ago, and as tastes and trends transformed, so did the beloved event’s sonic offerings. Today, Caprices is for the house heads of the world – fans of all things deep, soulful, minimal, and disco-tinged. Techno’s a vibe, too. Audiophiles who enjoy the opposite side of that stylistic spectrum are the same beat-seekers who spend long weekends losing themselves in the queer parties and hedonistic halls of the hallowed Berghain nightclub. In fact, many of the artists on this year’s lineup – among them Ben Klock, Apollonia and Marco Bailey – grace the decks at the salacious Berlin nightlife monolith.

This week the surroundings are a bit softer, but don’t be fooled. The drilling claps and lighting fast BPMs are still mercilessly satisfying.

Playing tunes geared toward the former ilk is Modernity Events resident Giorgio Maulini, an artist and Crans-Montana transport known for his vinyl-only sets and dreamy lounge-house productions.

“After so much time [spent] not seeing our music industry buddies, it felt great to all be together joking, having a couple of drinks, and listening to some of the finest artists in the game,” he shares with enthusiasm in his voice. He’s feeling optimistic after emerging from a lengthy lockdown that left many large-scale events cancelled or limited the year prior. “It is awesome also to share this experience with fans, the public and everyone attending the festival because they charge the whole place with this beautiful energy demonstrating why electronic music events are so important in our culture.”

The Yellow Heads – Caprices

The festival’s three unique stages brim with the free-spirited folks Maulini mentions. Compared to those at other European bashes, this bunch possesses a certain lighthearted nature that we find irresistible. Caprices offers a welcome contrast to the sometimes moody, intense themes that permeate packed underground haunts in spots like Amsterdam and Paris – in other words, we feel amongst our silly flock here in the hills.

Perhaps, they’re driven by the unbridled joy that fellow festival goers emanate as they shimmy their way toward their first dancefloor back? Or maybe the Swiss locals are an inherently effervescent crew, dawning two-piece suits plastered in colorful all-over prints, tiny purple sombreros, and mile-wide smiles. We must say these are some of the most accepting new friends we’ve met as of late. We are in our zone.

“People from all around the world, no matter their sexual orientation, color, class, religion, culture, origin, political thoughts are just getting together to dance under the same roof united by love,” Maulini says with pride as he describes the type of crowd one might find at the annual celebration. “Sincerely, the world needs way more of this. That’s what makes me have faith in the future of humanity and in a healthy, tolerant and inclusive society.”

Caprice runs for two consecutive weekends, and for the more than 2,500 attendees who make the tune-fueled pilgrimage it proves to be an airy, COVID-safe bash. Attendees must provide full proof of vaccination or take a rapid test before soaring 2,200 meters upwards toward the transparent Modernity Stage where internationally renowned artists like Lee Burridge, DJ Tennis and WhoMadeWho dazzle crowds with their unique discographies which range in style from party-ready breakbeats to playa-tinged live sets. A quick excursion beyond the tent’s see-through walls offers unforgettable scenes of the range’s most famous summits, which kiss the clouds in plain view. Words simply cannot do this place justice, but Maulini gives it a shot.

Columbire

“From our Modernity Stage you can see Zermatt, Mont-Blanc, Weisshorn and the glacier of The Plaine-Mort just to name a few,” he shares passionately. “We are so deep into nature that it makes it hard to believe that there is actually a music festival happening at this spot.” He’s not lying – tucked far above the pedestrian-filled sidewalks, only ticket holders can feel the telltale vibrations of bass beneath their boots. “I always believed that being surrounded by nature is how humans find their true selves,” Maulini goes on. “For artists and fans, it really becomes a one-of-a-kind experience because the connection you feel among nature has a direct impact on how you feel towards others and yourself. It is a positive energy recharging experience, and the music is the universal language through which we can all understand and communicate with each other.”

Maulini gives the impression that he’s a product of the mountains, but he spent his youth in his native country of Venezuela. His first visit to Crans-Montana 10 years ago proved to be a life-changing one, and he now serves as a ski guide during the high holiday season when Caprices typically takes place (in 2021 it took place in September due to COVID-19.) “Every year I still get surprised by the wonders of these snowy mountains,” he shares wistfully. “Don’t miss the April edition of Caprices if you want to witness this for yourself.” We second that recommendation.

Though we’re tempted to push ourselves at the Signal or Forest Stages which run until 5am and feature stage partners from festivals around the world such as Detroit Movement, TechnoV and Sunwaves, we make the reasonable choice to call it an early night on Friday.

When morning comes, we take breakfast at the awe-inspiring Hotel Royale. The intricate wooden facade makes the outside of these luxury accommodations look almost like a toy model, like something that was painstakingly whittled in a worker’s shop. There are only a few minutes to admire the supreme craftsmanship before we start a winding drive that brings us to the town of Sion where we meet our tour guide Nathalie who gives us a lesson on the area’s present, past, and future.

We watch a herd of huge black cows and bulls scale the hillside with a grace unexpected of such large beasts. Massive bells on their necks rattle and echo across the landscape, generating an enchanting symphony that rings like a tribute to simpler times.

“They can recognize the sound of their own bells,” Nathalie explains. “And if they get lost, the bells help the farmers find them, and bring them home.” A cacophony builds as the animals enter trailers that will be used to transport them to lusher lowlands. “It’s the end of the season,” Nathalie continues. “So now, they must go somewhere else to eat.”

We’ll also be going somewhere else before we can eat. Nathalie, who reveals with some reluctance that she serves as a police officer by day (“I never like to say,” she says with a laugh) reveals that this is her first time giving an English-speaking tour, and that this side hustle is one she pursues out of pure passion for the outdoors, and history as well.

Bisse Du Ro (photo by David Carlier)

Our trek follows an intricate path of man-made waterways, or “bisses” as they’ve been called for hundreds of years. Since the 14th century, these stone structures have served as valuable vehicles for irrigation. To this day, they play a role in the agricultural practices in Valais and are an attraction for those who prefer sustainable tourism attractions.

The bisses contribute to a verdant natural landscape which is good news for us – Nathalie also happens to be an expert forager, and that skill will make our lunch even more lovely. “The herbs on the trail are no good,” she warns. Shortly after she lends words of caution, we see a dog lift its leg in a familiar gesture. She points in its direction before adding, “See, that’s what I mean!” Good call, Nathalie.

We make our way down a less-traveled road. Not long after we pass a flowing waterfall, Nathalie spots some fresh thyme and a patch of Lady’s Mantle, a wild green that has therapeutic benefits and is known as a homeopathic remedy for cramps and other ailments. And bonus: it’s delicious!

We discover this for ourselves when we sit down for lunch at Le Relais, a critically acclaimed restaurant with a terrace that overlooks the nearby valley. It’s a perfect spot to take down a plate (or three) of freshly melted raclette, warmed by the wood-fired stove that sits outside of the main dining room.

We eagerly watch our server use a knife to coax the viscous cheese out of the wax wheel and onto our plates. It stretches, steams and lands before us – in that moment we achieve unadulterated, dairy-induced nirvana.

Raclette boasts a richer flavor than the standard Swiss one might remember from their childhood ham toasties. Each bite is perfectly salty, pungent, and subtly sweet on the backend and with a bit of a bite that makes it a perfect companion to all things crunchy and chewy.

And so, we enjoy our gooey lunch with our wild finds, as well as with fresh vegetables, cornichons, cured prosciutto, capicola, salami and freshly baked breads. “I promise Swiss people do not eat like this all the time,” Nathalie assures us. But what we’re really thinking is, “Why the hell not? This is fantastic!”

We partake in another serving of the hot cheese, not sure of when we’ll get to experience another experience quite as divine as this one (spoiler alert: we do fondue on Sunday, and it’s a close second). We take down a chilled bottle of Fendant – a Chasselas wine from the Valais region – as the raclette reappears before us. The vin, too, is so clean we manage to escape without the hint of a hangover. Now we know we must be dreaming.

Hameau de Colombire

“The Rhone River flowing down the valley gives this region a special soil perfect for vineyards,” explains Pierre-Henri Mainetti, Sales Manager for Crans-Montana Tourism & Congress. “You have seen how it is organized – with so many walls built with local stones assembled without cement, terraces all along the valley. Crans-Montana is south-facing, giving a lot of sun and heat to the fruits, and therefore, sugar.”

Ah, that makes good sense. A healthy earth produces healthier grapes! So that must be why we feel near invincible even after a couple of bottles? That’s what we tell ourselves anyway. The fendant is pleasing on the palate – this white variety is bright and fruity with an immaculate finish. Why yes, we will have another glass! Pierre lets us know, however, that there are other sips to explore in this part of the countryside.

“Château de Vaas in Flanthey or Chateau de Villa are places to visit to learn all about the history of winemaking in our region,” he suggests. “Of course, a stop at wine cellars is a must to taste cornalin, amigne, petite arvine, heida, humagne rouge or the more common pinot noir or syrah.” If only we had more time…

Back in Crans-Montana we nap off our lunch and venture up to the late-night stages where we dance off our raclette reserves to the booming sounds of hard-techno. Inside this packed, warehouse room, it feels a bit more like a weekend we might have in our native New York.

We step outside to catch our breath and are quickly reminded of how nice it feels to be far away from those busy city streets. As the air hits our lungs with a nourishing infusion of vitality, we look around and see people laughing, connecting, and exuding a rare authenticity that only presents itself after dark. If we could, we’d bottle this unusual hint of clarity. But we can’t, so instead we’ll just attempt to carry the remnants of this feeling forever.

Last modified: January 5, 2022