The Bella Tola, grande dame of the region’s historical hotels, looks back on 160 years of history – and towards a sparkling future.
Time travel and trips to the stars are already possible: no need to wait for Elon Musk’s private rocket or the next Einstein. You can set off now, and the launch pad is not far away: up in the Val d’Anniviers, 1,655 metres above sea level and 27 hairpin bends above the valley floor, in Saint-Luc. The village of 340 souls has given its heart to the heavens. Visitors can explore the solar system on a scenic walking trail; along the winding alleys, information panels reveal fascinating facts about the universe; E.T. greets passers-by at a house corner. High above the village stands the François-Xavier Bagnoud astronomical observatory, an ultra-modern institution that also welcomes lay star-gazers.
No need to look up to the sky to enjoy Saint-Luc’s finest four stars, however. These shine right at the entrance to the village, on the impressive façade of the Bella Tola grand hotel. Beneath these four proud stars, the hotel invites guests on an enchanting trip in time. With a history dating back 160 years, this journey leads naturally to the past, first of all: to the pioneering days of alpine tourism and grand hotels full of luxury, fine fabrics and local colour. At the Bella Tola, each salon, each room and each corner furnished with original pieces tells of these glamorous times. Looking back to the past is certainly an enjoyable option at this member of Swiss Historic Hotels, but looking to the future is even more exciting. The prospect is so promising mainly because of the long-standing presence of two kindly spirits, for decades the heart and soul of the hotel: Anne-Françoise and Claude Buchs-Favre. They have been here as owners, masterminds and hosts for 23 years now: long enough for them to turn the hotel into a real gem and create their own personal world. Today, every tiny detail, as well as the overall feel of the property, carries the stamp of the couple, who have an elegance and charisma that comes as a surprise so far from glamorous city life. “I lost my heart to the Bella Tola long before we moved in,” says Anne-Françoise Buchs. “I already knew the hotel as a child, my mother is from Saint-Luc. I worked here for the first time when I was 20 – and fell totally in love with it.” The next time she fell in love was when she met Claude, from Sion, who was studying at the same hotel school in Lausanne. The feeling was mutual. After graduating, both toured the hotel world: first separately, then together. They married in 1990 and decided to settle down and run their own hotel – as soon as the opportunity arose. That happened in 1996. The Pont family, which had owned the Bella Tola for four generations, had decided to put the former grand hotel up for sale. The Buchs approached a bank for a loan, moved in and got to work. Day after day, room after room, step by step. The work they put in, the ideas, the love, the touch of stardust – all are obvious to anyone who visits.
“After we moved in, I sometimes had the feeling we had checked in to the Titanic,” Anne-Françoise recalls. This exquisite hotel may share the luxury liner’s elegance, but not its tragic destiny. Far from it: the hotel soon enjoyed great success. In 2001, the property won Switzerland’s award for “Historical Hotel of the Year”: a fitting reward for the Buchs’ efforts. “That quickly got us known far and wide, bringing a new clientele,” the proud owner says. “Then things really took off.” Today, the hotel employs a good three dozen staff and is open for summer and winter alike, with 70 per cent repeat guests. And because the Bella Tola is a work in progress, returning guests always find something new: a spa; renovated rooms; a second hotel; mountain chalets; a boutique; new armchairs; new fabrics… And every day there are flowers everywhere, with candles and an open fire all adding to the cosy charm: little rituals that Anne-Françoise looks after personally.
She also takes care of the daily activities, such as outings into nature and cultural events. In summer, the multilingual hostess takes guests into the woods and pastures to discover mushrooms, birds and trees in the company of experts (detailed programme on the website). Visitors who have come to unwind can enjoy mindfulness and anti-stress events; music-lovers appreciate the Wednesday concerts at the hotel. Highlight of the week is a guided tour of the hotel at twilight by Anne-Françoise, during which she leads guests along corridors, up staircases, through salons and backstage, throwing light on the curiosities, antiques and new features that make the Bella Tola so special: invariably a star attraction!
Behind the elegant scenes, deep down in the hotel, lies the realm of Goulven Tourmel, head chef, originally from Brittany. Supported by a team of four, he charms guests’ taste buds at the hotel’s two restaurants. The country-style Le Tzambron – “small room” in the local dialect – serves Valais specialities; at Chez Ida, awarded 13 GaultMillau points two years ago, guests dine à la carte. Previously, he gained experience abroad – including at the famous London restaurant Le Gavroche. “Two tough years,” the chef recalls, “but an experience I wouldn’t want to have missed.” There, he acquired his precision, and learned the importance of insisting on top-quality ingredients. After a big trip across Australia, he ended up in the Val d’Anniviers: with its high mountains and steep slopes, the complete opposite to his home region. “I was charmed by the landscape, and I still am after all these years,” Goulven says. “And all the outstanding products we have here in Valais – it’s paradise for a cook!” The perch from Raron particularly impressed this chef who grew up by the sea. “They’re a real gift of nature. The Valperca fish farm is an eco-friendly project that uses pure, natural mountain water – which gives the perch their incomparable flavour and wonderful texture.” The perch are always on the menu at the Bella Tola. Goulven dips the fillets in flour, fries them first in olive oil and then butter, and serves them with a seafood sauce: “They go together well,” says the chef. We think so, too.
Another of the hotel’s signature dishes is juniper-smoked fillet of beef, served with a wine sauce. Over the course of his eight years here, the diligent chef has built up a network of local suppliers who he trusts and who guarantee the traceability of his ingredients. For example, “a retired couple who keep sheep as a hobby provide us with lamb of superb quality,” Goulven says. Raclette is another popular fixture on the menu at the Bella Tola. The chef offers two different Valais cheeses, including one from the Roi alpine pastures, to show guests the diversity on offer. “I love cheese, even if I came to it late,” he says. “A day without cheese? Unthinkable!”
Text : Anita Lehmeier
Photographs : Sedrik Nemeth
Published : October 2019