Vals, Switzerland

Switzerland in December. Time does not exist here. It is a place where the sun rises at 8:30 but does not begin to peak over the rising mountains until after 10. You cannot be outside without squinting as the sun glairs at you until it sinks below the peaks four hours later. By 2:00 the sun disappears, by 4:00 it is dark.

08-10 December 2011: Thursday –Saturday

Thursday is a holy day of obligation: The Immaculate Conception. Meaning: state holiday and no school. JC and I have been waiting for this day; to begin our train journey from Florence, through the Alps, to Vals, Switzerland.

Vals is home to one of the most well hidden and beloved pieces of contemporary architecture. My teachers at Cal Poly rave about Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals. Built over a natural hot spring at the end of a small valley, it is quite a journey just to reach this beautiful architecture.

Our first train left Florence at 7:00 in the morning, we changed trains in Milano, and continued on to Zurich, Switzerland. The second train took us winding through the Alps, past snow covered towns, frozen lakes, and some amazing, up-close and personal views, of the Alps. It was so fabulous to watch the landscape wiz by as we munched on Italian cheese puffs. We arrived in Zurich at 1:30pm and changed to a third train heading to Chur. Leaving Chur, we passed the Lindt chocolate factory, yum! We changed to our fourth and last train that took us deep into the Alps to the town of Ilanz. From there we took a bus, winding around hair-pin turns to the town of Vals.

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Four trains and a bus later, we arrived at the Hotel Therme Vals!

The hotel itself was designed by a ship designer in the 1960s, therefore it was cleanly organized with lots of places to keep things. The beds neatly folded away into the walls, creating couches. The patio overlooked the trees, the small town, and the Alps beyond.

Almost immediately we were in our bathing suits and hiking up the hill “take part” in the vals. When I say “take part,” it is the only way I can express the unique ritual that bathing in the vals is. Once you pass the reception desk, the floor begins to slope downwards, taking you deep below ground level. The wall texture changes to smooth horizontal stone strips, drawing you past springs flowing from the walls and into the baths themselves. Steam is escaping from the baths and you begin to move more gracefully, floating from one bath to the next. It is wonderful.

There are many different pools, all heated to different temperatures. There is a large central pool at 32 C with many small pools around it. There is the “Sound Bath” that requires you swimming through a tunnel to a tall chamber. As you hum, the sound reverberates off the walls. The “Flower Bath” has small pedals of flowers in the water and a fragrance spritsed into the room every 10 minutes. I fell asleep in this bath for about 30 minutes, it was so relaxing and the perfect temperature. There is also the “Fire Bath” and the “Ice Bath” both of which are tinted to a corresponding color.

My favorite bath was the outdoor bath. You begin indoors and swim through a portal to the outdoor pool. Large columns frame amazing view of the Alps. At night, the snow glistens in the moonlight, creating mammoth silhouettes in the darkness. The entire time in the baths, you do not know what time it is until a gong sounds and you know that it is 8:00; the baths are closing for the night.

We stayed at the Vals for two nights, relaxing in the warm water, soaking in the views, and contemplating our studio projects that are due in just a few weeks. On Friday, we took a break, mid-day, to walk around the town of Vals. The town is picturesque. Nestled at the base of the mountains, the houses are the ideal, Swiss mountain house, with steeply pitched roofs and smoke stacks. There were cute, decrepit barns with Swiss cows munching the frozen grass that was still on the ground.

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Every day I looked forward to the morning and the chance to enjoy the most amazing breakfast buffet! Everything made locally, we ate swiss cheeses and meats, fresh pretzels, alpen butter, rosewater jam, yogurt with granola. We could drink as much, locally bottled, Valser water as we wanted. It was all so good. We could make our own tea in cast iron pots and enjoy the view. I glare at my breakfast now, hoping it will turn into the breakfast from the Therme Vals.

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And then, it was over. Saturday somehow arrived and we had to return to Italy. We took the same beautiful train ride back to Florence, back to school, back to life.

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