To ski Andermatt this season is to be in on the start of one of the most remarkable transformations in the world of winter sports.
The opening of a new gondola system has united two resorts, Andermatt and Sedrun, two Swiss cantons and two cultures. It has created the largest linked ski area in central Switzerland – and I’ve been among the first to ski the now fully-joined Ski Arena Andermatt-Sedrun.
It has been an aim for many years to link Andermatt, in the canton of Uri, and Sedrun, in Graubunden. Until now the two villages were joined just by mountain railway – or by a ski touring excursion on skins.
But astonishingly the union by lifts has all come to fruition because of a love affair between an Egyptian billionaire and the ancient village of Andermatt.
At the beginning of this century the village, despite having some excellent ski slopes, had fallen sadly behind other resorts in lift network and infrastructure. In short, it was going nowhere.
Samih Sawiris decided to take on the task of turning this charming and beautiful community into a major skiing destination, as well as an all-year round mountain resort. With his Swiss-based firm he has given heavy financial backing to the project.
At least £100million has been spent on new lifts and upgrading the ski area – but that was just the start because the redevelopment of Andermatt as a whole is said to have cost more than a billion pounds!
By the time the ambitious building project has been completed the village will have virtually doubled in size to keep pace with the skiing upgrade.
New ski-lifts were gradually installed as the link across the pass separating the two villages was put in place. And in Andermatt, the hugely impressive Hotel Chedi, setting new standards in Alpine hotels, was opened as Mr Sawiris’s vision started to become reality.
As well as the final piece in the skiing link, this season has seen the opening of the Piazza Gottardo, the central square of a new car-free holiday village on the far side of the railway station from the old village. I’ve been staying at the just-completed Radisson Blu Reussen, right on the Piazza.
More hotels are to follow, with shops, restaurants and private chalets – with no restrictions on purchase by foreigners, in case you’re interested.
Mr Sawiris embarked on this spectacular mission just before the financial crash of a decade ago. He admits he ‘wouldn’t have had the guts’ to do it if he’d known it was about to happen – ‘so I was lucky,’ he said.
He told me: ‘It’s now a highlight of the Swiss wintersports offering. It has something for everybody, for experienced skiers and freeriders as well as families and those who like to take their skiing easy.’
He added: ‘The good thing is, even if you’ve skied from Andermatt to Sedrun, you can still take the apres-ski train back if you’re too tired to do it on skis.’
Ah yes, the apres-ski train! Imagine a packed ski resort base area bar, happy skiers and boarders dancing to Euro-pop blaring loud – but in this case rocking along in a cog railway carriage through high-altitude ski terrain.
In the interests of research I thought I should try it after skiing to Sedrun. And I discovered there can be no more surreal way to end a ski day on these spectacular slopes.