The Alps from the Hotel Ambassador in Brig

Winter has fallen on Brig. The smell of roasted chestnuts wafts up from the railway station, where trains from the west and north will soon begin to release heavily clothed snow revellers carrying skis and snowboards onto the cold dry streets.

In recent years the season has been late and after an inclement summer there are fears that it might be late again this year. Nevertheless spirits are high. The sight of visitors cheers the people of this small Alpine town because tourism is essential to their well being.

Ten million tourists, give or take a few, arrive in the Swiss Confederation each year. These welcome hordes contribute twenty billion francs to the Swiss economy. Brig’s 11,600 inhabitants expect to profit from a large slice of this revenue. With two in five employed directly or indirectly in tourist activity, the Brig region needs the 300,000 visitors it has been getting each year since the turn of the century.

This Swiss-German-speaking town sits under the high Alps at the south-east end of the canton astride the Rhône River. On the southern side of the mountains lies lake Maggiore, the sweep of the Po Valley and the Italian cities of Turin, Milan and Genoa. To get there travellers go over the Simplon Pass by road or take the train through the 100-year-old Simplon railway tunnel. It is the way it has always been.

Brig is a crossroads.

At the Hotel Ambassador, Zürich-born Stefan Welschen is content. He has a regular clientele who eat regularly in his Cheminots restaurant, and many of those who arrive at the stone steps of number three Saflischstrasse to stay are familiar with the hotel. ‘Don’t be slow coming back,’ he says. ‘I will always be here.’

So has Brig. The town’s name comes from the Latin Briva for bridge. ‘Brig is an historic town,’ he says in an accent that has lost some of its Zürich roots. ‘Since the Romans came, they stay in Brig because they can cross the mountains in one day. They rested here. Napoleon was here with his troops. Five battalions stayed here first, then crossed the Simplon Pass.’

Today it is possible to trace the footsteps of the Roman and Napoleonic soldiers. There is a hiking trail that follows an old path used for centuries by merchants and their mules. The trail begins in Brig at the 17th century Stockalper Palace. It was Kaspar Jodok von Stockalper, a Brig merchant, who developed the trail. Once, the merchants would have halted in an inn at the Simplon Pass. These days, the curious can learn the history of the trail by stopping at the old inn, now a museum.

Wallis in Winter

For most though it is the railway and the road that brings them to Brig. ‘When the Simplon tunnel was built,’ says Stefan, ‘the train system started getting faster, but people still stayed here overnight because when they came from England to Naples they needed a break here. When cars started, even then they stopped here, to cool down the cars because they could not get all the way from Germany to Italy.’

Throughout the 20th century Brig was the place to cross the mountains. ‘Even when the train system became global, more international trains stopped in Brig,’ he says, acknowledging that the location of the town on the Swiss-Italian border has worked in their favor when Italian train workers have gone on strike.

‘In the summertime, once a month you can say they are on strike and they don’t tell you a month in advance. They go on strike, say this weekend, but it is only for 24 hours, so,’ he says pausing for effect, ‘what happens?’

‘All the tourists who want to go to Venice, they sit in the train, they don’t know anything about this strike. They get off the train here. I mean, here is the end, and they need a room. And a lot of them we get in the summer, they go on to Venice but they come back here. So Brig is a changing point, a central point here in the Alps.’

It is the way it has always been, but … it wasn’t always easy. It used take a long time to reach and cross the mountains at Brig. The railways opened up the Alps.

In 1906, after eight years of construction, the first Simplon tunnel was ready. At 19.8 kilometers it was the world’s longest railway tunnel, and it opened a line through to Italy, the Italian lakes and the eastern Mediterranean.

In 1913 another tunnel, across the top of the Alps between Kandersteg and Goppenstein, was completed. This high Lötschberg tunnel linked Berne, the capital of Switzerland to the north, with Brig, the Simplon and Domodossola in the south.

Train emerging out of the high mountains between Brig and Bern

Eight years later a second Simplon railway tunnel was opened. A north-south transalpine rail link had been established, with Brig at its centre.

In 1982 a new Alpine axis was established when the 15.4 kilometer Furka Tunnel finally opened. Stretched across the top of the Alps, this tunnel allowed the Matterhorn-Gotthard company to operate trains daily throughout the year.

The tunnel replaced a railway line that reached into the heavens, 2160 meters high, under the Furka Pass. No more did the Matterhorn-Gotthard train cease to run in the winter months when the deep snow glistened in a winter wonderland of snow-white magnificence.

Travelers could board Glacier Express trains between the two ski resorts, Zermatt in the west – just above Brig and just below the Matterhorn peak – and Saint Moritz in the east.

The thick dots show the new Lötschberg basetunnel line at Frutigen

Then in 2006 a new Lötschberg tunnel was opened for passenger and freight trains. The Swiss call it a basetunnel, and that’s exactly what it is – a tunnel that starts at the valley floor at Raron and cuts 34.6 kilometers through the mountains where it comes out in the Kander valley at the small town of Frutigen in the Berner Oberland, south of Berne under the world cup ski resort of Adelboden.

This is a high speed transalpine link. Travelers can now go through Switzerland in two hours. After it opened Stefan was worried. ‘The Wallis a hundred years ago was closed up from the rest of the world, especially in the winter time,’ he says. ‘Now with all those tunnels and the international connections, people can work outside of the canton, in Berne, in Milan.’

Doubledecker trains leave Brig on the hour, taking commuters into the northern Swiss cities in less than 90 minutes. ‘It’s not only that people can leave quicker,’ he says, ‘a lot of people can come easier to Brig because of all those connections.’

Despite one hundred years of rail and road travellers through Brig, it is only in recent decades that the social impact has been felt. The people of the Brig region speak with a unique German dialect, a Schwyzerdeutsche that Stefan used find difficulty with.

‘The accent’s so strong here that Germans don’t understand what Brig people are talking about,’ he says. ‘When Brig people ordered something I had to find out what that meant. It’s more strong than Irish or Scottish accents.’

In recent years this accent, especially among the young, has become easier to understand.

Brig had been opened to the world and tourism had flourished.

Chefs’ meeting in Saflischstrasse

Stefan Welschen didn’t plan to come to Brig. His paternal grandparents Olfred and Anna Welschen had converted the late 19th century house in Saflischstrasse into a hotel in 1944. They made the old apartments into rooms, added a restaurant and tried to meet the demands of travellers and customers.

It was ideally located. Five minutes from the railway station, five minutes from the main road, five minutes from the old town of Brig. Giving their customers what they wanted, the Welschen hotel gained a reputation and for three decades it flourished.

Then there was a ‘generation problem,’ as Stefan puts it. ‘My Dad went off to school in Lausanne when he was 18, so did his brother and they didn’t come back, they left. They went out in the world, they went to work in London, in a five-star hotel. Since my grandparents retired in 1974, the hotel was rented out.’

Stefan’s family settled in Zürich, where he was born in 1975. Once he was of age, Stefan followed his father’s footsteps and went out into the world. Armed with chef skills, a hotel management degree and three languages – his native Swiss-German, French and English – he sought work in the hotel trade. ‘After I finished hotel management school I was lucky that I had influential parents in the hotel industry,’ he says. ‘I could go where I wanted, to which hotel I wanted to work.’

He decided to go to America. ‘I wanted to go somewhere that was a little bit familiar to Switzerland so I choose Colorado and the Grand Palace in Denver, probably the most expensive hotel from Chicago to Los Angeles.’

It was a hotel with a big history. Stefan reveled in it. ‘A guy who got so much money in the gold rush built the Grand Palace,’ he says. ‘If you remember the movie Titanic? Molly Brown? The old lady who showed the Di Caprio character how to eat correctly at the table, she owned the Grand Palace, so I worked for the Brown house, for two years.’

Stefan cut his managerial teeth at the Grand Palace, where he learned to deal with every culture under the sun and every manner of person. ‘You have to get on with every culture,’ is the way he puts it.

Returning to Switzerland in 1996 he found it hard to settle. He changed jobs five times in one year, then found himself in a rut after three years in a job that made him question his life. ‘I was the kind of guy who couldn’t work under another guy,’ he says.

At a crossroads in his life, Brig beckoned.

The Valais at Sion, west of Brig

THE mountains dominate Brig. They go straight up. At their peaks and on their slopes skiing is prevalent. Rosswald, immediately above the town, is the closest ski centre. Belalp, Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp are a skip and a jump away, while Zermatt, Saas-Fee, Leukerbad and Crans Montana require a little more effort to get to. Yet there is more to Brig, to the long and high valley canton than snow sports.

For a hotelier like Stefan Welschen, it is the whole tourist package. ‘I personally cannot financially keep up with the big chains,’ he says. ‘My only chance to be able to work in the market and make happy customers is to offer them a good service. A personal service. A personal touch.’

In his grandparents’ day, the restaurant was a big attraction. When Stefan decided to take his family’s hotel back from the last people who rented it, giving them a year’s notice in 2000, he had a concept in his mind. The new restaurant would be a crucial element in that concept. His chef would be top class. His menu wouldn’t be out of place in a five-star hotel. The decor would reflect the railway theme of his restaurant – Cheminots Brig.

In Stefan’s mind the Ambassador would be a little big hotel. In 2001 he employed a Zürich friend for a couple of weeks to help out, doing the cooking himself. Gradually he built up a clientele, but it was more important to establish standards and that meant finding the right people and paying good money. ‘If you haven’t got a good salary you cannot expect good people,’ he says, ‘so I hired really professional people.’

Among the first to join him was Maria Grazia Vincenzi. She came to work the front desk. ‘She’s Italian and she can do everything,’ he says of the woman who is now a fixture, like himself, in the hotel.

Maria-Grazia and Stefan are contrasts.

Always laid back, she operates the front desk like a lake boat pilot, ready to respond to any eventuality. Most of the time she is sat in front of the computer in the narrow room behind the counter of the front desk. When she is needed elsewhere in the hotel she quietly goes about her business.

Always on the go, he never sits still. His wiry frame floats like a ghost through the small hotel, always attentive, eager to please, with an answer to every enquiry, he is constantly available – to his employees, to his regular customers and to his guests.

Raclette cheese from the canton

‘Small hotels, family hotels depend on the personal touch,’ he insists. ‘Working with the guest, help with advice whatever, do this extra effort, it gonna help you become competitive in the market. Otherwise you go under.

‘It’s my belief that in the future it’s gonna be even more important, this personal touch. The guest searches more and more especially in the time of technology and computers and everything. Through the personal touch you can find out if the guest needs help, needs advice, and this is much more appreciated by the guests. They want to see something you know, especially in a hotel, and so that’s my success here. I have the best occupancy in Brig because I try to get in touch with everybody.’

Next year, 2015, the Valais/Wallis will mark its 200th anniversary as a canton in the Swiss Confederation. Since the mid-20th century the canton has reached out to the world and people have come to Brig, glanced up at its mountain peaks and marveled at their majesty.

They aren’t the first and they won’t be the last. It’s the way it has always been. Stefan Welschen hopes it stays that way.

Cholera Pie

This is the full version of the chapter The Hotelier of Brig from The Great European Food Adventure.

Another version appears in the pocket book, Blue Window: Food Travels in the Alps.