January 26, 2021

Les Avants: after Hemingway

“Switzerland is a small steep country, much more up and down than sideways, and is all stuck over with large brown hotels built on the cuckoo clock style of architecture,” wrote Ernest Hemingway.

If this is not an accurate description of the country, it is a chiseled portrait of the alpine villages perched above Montreux, in the canton of Vaud, especially the once-famous holiday place, Les Avants, near which the young Hemingways stayed for a couple of winter holidays.

Les Avants, one of the first ski resorts in Switzerland and home to the first Ice Hockey European Championship in 1910, still evokes the fragile magic of a special time and place. Situated at around 1000 meters, vertically 3.5 kilometers above the town of Montreux, the village is the gateway to the Pays d’Enhaut, the High Country, which joins up with the Oberland Bernois. It may be reached in twenty minutes by car from the centre of Montreux, but the easiest way to arrive there is with the MOB, the mountain railway company that links the many facets of the region with its Golden Pass Line.

With a population of only 380 inhabitants, Les Avants has gone from being one of the most famous Swiss resorts of the first half of the 20th century to a tranquil haven for those who have retreated from the busy towns along the edges of Lake Geneva. The skating rink is only a memory, and the Grand Hotel is now a finishing school, Le Châtelard, where South American girls are educated.

In the centre of the village, the oldest European flower clock continues to tell the time even if the famous and fashionable have abandoned the village. Nature’s beauty remains. Many hiking trails exist, the most popular being La Tour du Cubly, where generations, during the month of May, continue to walk through fields of narcissus, with alternating views of the towering alps and the wide horizon of Lake Geneva.  Les Avants is also a stop on the cultural hiking track, indicated with yellow signposts, that crosses Switzerland.

In winter, sledding takes over from hiking. In 1910, a funicular opened from Les Avants MOB train station to Sonloup, a pass above the village. The nature of the landscape demanded the audacious creation of a viaduct with eleven arches and two bridges. With the advent of the funicular, bobsleigh races were invented. When young Hemingway stayed in the region with his first wife Hadley in 1921/22, he wrote to his father; “The bob is only big enough for two … and goes all the way down the mountain through the wildest country you ever saw. Black forests of pine trees and gorges and the big mountain La Dent de Jaman….You ought to see us come down with Hash steering. She thinks it is a sign of cowardice to ever put on the brake. I use it every once in a while on account of the fine way it makes the slivers of ice fly up… It is the healthiest and nicest place you ever clapped a dead light on.”

Sledding remains Les Avants’ winter pastime. Every day, from 9am to 8pm, the funicular takes people up to the beginning of the run where they then slide down 2,100 meters, to the centre of the village. Three evenings a week, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, the funicular stays open until 10pm. for night runs.

Les Avants has only one hotel, and it is difficult to rent holiday apartments, but the village is a great place for a day excursion. While visitors sip hot chocolate on a café terrace, they may feel a spirit that is easily disregarded in today’s world. In Les Avants, the young Hemingways’ enthusiasm for simple fun and joy has never really gone away.

For more information and schedules go to: www.lesavants.ch, www.goldenpass.ch, and www.montreux.ch.


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