Travelling back to the Belle Époque
May 4, 2017
Photography Credits: Achim Fassbender
There are many five star hotels, indulgent resorts, private islands and luxury yachts, but there’s only one village that allows you to travel back to the “Golden Age” of the Belle Époque – the picturesque Swiss mountain town Kandersteg.
Founded by a group of like-minded romantics in Switzerland in 2010, including the manager of Hotel Victoria, the Belle Époque Week allows visitors to journey back in time to the late 1800’s. The week is packed with events that re-ignite the nostalgia of this era, from a classic steam train ride into the town to ski races (where full dresses, wooden skis and fur boots are donned), bobsledding (using traditional wooden bobsleds), ice-skating (where vintage ice-skates are available for hire), horse-drawn carriage rides and, of course, the Belle Époque Ball at Hotel Victoria.
Kandersteg is a popular tourist destination throughout the year. The village is a cable car away from the Oeschinensee, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is considered one of the most attractive lakes in Switzerland. It is also renowned for its 50km cross-country skiing tracks, its limitless alpine hikes, advanced rock-climbing spots and, of course, its spectacular scenery.
It is the natural and man-made scenery, which makes Kandersteg ideal for time travel. While the village is only a 1-hour drive from the capital Bern, the enormous mountains that surround it isolate it from the outside world, making 2017 feel an age away. To add to this, the town’s traditional architecture is an authentic set, with an old fairytale church and hand-carved wooden chalets.
During the Belle Époque week, the villagers go the extra mile to add authenticity to the time travelling experience. The teachers wear historical costumes on the way to school, shops have 19th century merchandising and the public transport options include horse-drawn carriages. What’s more, everyone – whether visiting or local – appear to take the traditions quite seriously and start adapting to how the others behave. By the end of my visit, for example, I found myself automatically greeting people who I knew in the street not with a wave, but by reaching for the rim of my top hat with my white gloves.
Hotel Victoria and The Ball
Hotel Victoria is in many ways the heart of the Belle Époque week. This is partly due to the fact that the grand ball takes place at the hotel towards the end of the week, that the hotel itself is at the centre of the town and that it is the favoured location for visitors during the week. But it is also due to the history – the owner of Hotel Victoria was one of the founders of this tradition and has embodied it permanently within his hotel since the Belle Époque Week’s inception eight years ago.
Many who attend the ball stay in the hotel and, having stayed there myself, I too can recommend it. It is a hotel with understated elegance, impeccable service (their concierge will organise your 19th century clothing upon request), the interiors complement the Belle Époque fashion, the food is fabulous (breakfast, for example is a full buffet with Swiss specialties such as alpine Bircher muesli and a large selection of unrivalled Swiss dairy products) and the room I stayed in (one of the suites with a balcony) had a splendid view of the village and mountains and more than enough space spread over its large bedroom, lounge and fully-equipped bathroom. But what makes the experience staying in the hotel particularly special is that the guests who visit during the week are also typically returning guests. As a result, a welcoming friendship circle has transpired – one, which is ever eager to include new members.
The ball itself is also a mandatory experience and the ideal grand finale to the week. Hotel Victoria offers a 4-course candlelit gala dinner inspired by the Belle Époque, coupled with live music and, of course, ballroom dancing. The menu items included Les Hors-d’oeuvres (wild fowl with local apple puree, parsnip cream with brie and truffles, a honey salad and a prawn with chickpea mousse), Le Roti (English-style roast beef, cognac sauce, pumpkin and potatoes and a winter vegetable garnish), Les Desserts (Blood orange and chili sorbet, white chocolate sauce, curried almonds on mango and a vanilla cream with fresh fruit). These fine plates were also complemented by equally fine wine and champagne, which flowed throughout the evening.
There were many notable experiences during this unique occasion, but perhaps what stood out most was the overall authenticity of the setting and events. The tourism office truly delivers above expectations here, organizing authentic Belle Époque events, including live music and traditional dances.
Another highlight was the commitment that the stores in the town had for the tradition. Grossensport ski shop, for example, which usually rents out high performance gear, also had a range of old-fashioned skis and boots available for hire. We went cross-country skiing with their boar-fur boots that slip into traditional wooden skis and this too, I would highly recommend as part of your Belle Époque experience.
In sum, this is an occasion not to be missed. The event is growing every year with participants and any year now it will likely become an international phenomenon. For the first time since inception, a full production company from Paris was covering the event this year, so while it still remains largely an intimate secret, I would recommend attending sooner rather than later.
See you back in the Belle Époque next year!