Unmapped
Issue 4

Some place special

By Claudette Kulkarni

In Switzerland, tucked away in the Swiss Alps in the canton of Wallis – or Valais – at the edge of the Saas Valley at 1,800m, lies a village. It’s a particular favourite among tourists from all over the world, and famous for hiking in the summer and skiing and snowboarding in the winter; the surrounding slopes, mountains and glaciers take you up as high as 4545m, to the top of the Dom, the highest peak fully on Swiss territory. This little village has been dubbed ‘The Pearl of the Alps’, and it has always been a well-visited place, even if being there used to feel like you were part of a lovely, somewhat exclusive club of people fortunate enough to discover its existence.

And then Georgios Kyriacos Panagiòtou, a.k.a. George Michael, wrote a song for the holiday season that became an instant classic. It needed a video, and that video needed a setting that was intimate yet grand, recognisable yet ethereal.

So it was that 1984 marked the year that Saas-Fee suddenly found global fame, when it became the setting for Wham!’s Last Christmas. It’s the fact that the village wasn’t named anywhere at the time – its identity was something of a mystery in the beginning – that made people even more eager to figure out where this little slice of perfection was located. The secret came out soon enough, however, because Saas-Fee is eminently recognisable.

This article isn’t the first to compare fiction with reality when it comes to Last Christmas, and I imagine it won’t be the last, but as a regular visitor to Saas-Fee I wanted to give my view on how the geographical layout of Saas-Fee compares to the fictional village depicted in the video. There are differences, vast ones in fact, but the discrepancies in topography certainly do not detract from the real village’s beauty and charm.

On then, to the cableway where Wham!’s weekend away began.

      

The video that made Saas-Fee famous

THE OPENING SCENE

A comfortable four-wheel drive arrives at Felskinn’s base station, at the west edge of Saas-Fee, and out steps George Michael plus one.

In order to get to the cableway, you have to go through the village, so right off we have a slight problem. Committed to sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism, and in order to keep the air clear and the village calm, clean and quiet, the municipality does not allow cars anywhere in Saas-Fee: the village is completely car-free, and can only be entered from one direction, by a fairly steep mountain road leading to the enormous underground parking garage and an above ground parking lot where visitors can park their cars for the duration of their stay. To continue your journey to wherever you’ll be staying in the village, you can call for an electric taxi, or one of the electro-cars operated by the hotel of your choice. These cars make very little sound, and you can distinguish the local residents from the tourists by the way they clear a path for them without even realising it. It’s the tourists that often only realise too late that they should move out of the way, making a drive in the back of an electro-cab an interesting experience of fast-and-slow, stop-and-go; that, and the sometimes incredibly steep and narrow village roads that they seem to be able to negotiate with no problem whatsoever. 100kph they won’t go, but those engines are powerful!

Wham! needed special dispensation to be driven up to Felskinn by Philippe Zurbriggen, a Saas-Fee resident and these days the owner of souvenir shop Woodpecker in the centre of town.

If you should visit Saas-Fee, you’ll find that four names are prevalent while other last names are more or less incidental. The four families inextricably linked to Saas-Fee are Zurbriggen, Anthamatten, Bumann and Supersaxo. Saas-Fee’s current mayor is Roger Kalbermatten.

TREES. I’M SURE I SAW TREES…

Felskinn is the start of a popular hike across the Fee and Chessjen glaciers. After about an hour’s walk with some breathtaking views and adventurous bits of glacier path, you’re rewarded with the welcome sight of the hotel-restaurant Brittania Hütte: hot food and drink – never better than after that trek across the snow.

The ride on the Felskinn Bahn is exhilarating. It’s a steep climb up the side of the Pennine Alps to the rocky outcrop after which the cableway is named. Felskinn is located above the tree line. Once you’re up there, you’ll see nothing but rock and glacier. It’s beautiful, but bare – the face of alpine emptiness. What you won’t see is a lovely forest of pine trees with a path running through it leading you to an isolated, idyllically situated chalet. (You’ll find that in the village at the bottom of the mountainside.)

Felskinn has new and modern gondolas today, but at the time the video was shot, the Felskinn Bahn still had its old gondolas (to see the contrast, see the old, out-of-commission gondola underneath the new one on the cable). The gondola driver, Charles Schmidt, can be seen very clearly in the shots filmed at the base station. Today, he runs the Micro-Bowling Leisure Centre in Saas-Fee.

TWO-IN-ONE

So here we are, outside a beautiful chalet, which we know is not at the top of the cableway. It’s most definitely the perfect place to spend a wonderful holiday weekend with friends. But where is it? To begin with, the chalet is actually two chalets…

Chalet Schliechte, tucked away at the edge of Saas-Fee, was used for the external shots of the holiday location, and its garden with the distinctive fence was featured in the snowball fight scene. The house was perfectly isolated in 1984, but it has since become surrounded by new chalets constructed over time as Saas-Fee has expanded quite a bit since the 1980s. These days it would be difficult to recognise it at all, since it has been renovated and no longer has the deep brown finish to its outside walls that it did at the time of filming. The supremely recognisable fence is still there, and has not been painted over.

Chalet Schliechte as shown in the Last Christmas video (left) and as it looks today (right). Photography by Chantal Imseng.

           

For the interior scenes, Chalet Steinmatte was used. It is located a little to the east of the village centre, and is now part of the Steinmatte congress centre. Tobias Zurbriggen, today the owner of Hotel Allalin and the manager of Steinmatte, used to deliver groceries to the woman who owned the chalet in the 1970s (a baroness, no less!). In order to create a more intimate atmosphere for the entrance and living room, some changes were made for the purpose of filming, such as the placement of an additional beam next to the door leading into the living room. The alterations changed the face of the interior significantly, to the point where Mr Zurbriggen initially had trouble believing that Steinmatte had indeed served as the setting for the tree-trimming and party scenes.

BEEN THERE

During the filming of the video, the cast and crew stayed at four-star resort Walliserhof – now five-star resort Ferien Art – in the centre of Saas-Fee. At the time the video was shot, Stefan Zurbriggen worked at the resort.

From a brief but elucidating interview with Mr Zurbriggen, who was just a teenager when the video was shot but who has unique inside knowledge having worked on the project in various capacities, it quickly becomes clear that Last Christmas and its now famous setting still bring a great many visitors to Saas-Fee eager to seek out the various locations depicted in the video. Mr Zurbriggen considers Last Christmas a unique and wonderful promotion for the village, but was reluctant to talk much about the experience, as he didn’t want to pierce the veil of illusion. It seems he is asked about his experiences quite often, but what can you expect when you are the one person who is publicly known to have been involved from start to finish with arguably the most famous Christmas video ever shot?

These days, Mr Zurbriggen can be found running the Intersport sporting goods store in Saas-Fee's Obere Dorfstrasse, just across from gift shop Haus der Geschenken.

VIVE LA DIFFERENCE

So, there it is: celluloid versus topography. No, you can’t drive your car all the way up to the Felskinn cableway, ride up the side of the Pennine Alps to disembark at Felskinn and find a picturesque forest with an even more picturesque chalet there. That specific topography exists only on film. But you can drive up to Saas-Fee, park your car and spend a restful few days away from cars in a chalet at least as picturesque as the one in the video, in a village that breathes natural beauty and atmosphere (yes, I’m a little in love with this place).

Okay, just one last fun factoid: take a look at the chairs featured in the interior scenes.

           

These chairs with the motifs cut out in the seat backs can only be found in the Saas Valley: the result of local, traditional craftsmanship, they are unique to the Saas villages. So if you had any doubts that Wham!’s video really was filmed in Saas-Fee, the evidence is in the artistry.

I need to say a special thank you to Chantal Imseng of the Saas-Fee tourist office, without whose help this article would not have been possible. If you should find your way to Saas-Fee and into the tourist office, say ‘hi’ from me.

            

A copy-writer and editor with a law degree and a wandering mind, Claudette Kulkarni is happiest when telling stories and spilling words onto paper on pretty much any topic that interests her – and those are many. She is the co-author of Legal English for Bachelors, and a former lecturer of Legal English at the University of Leiden.

More from Issue 4

You may also enjoy