Thursday , 30 March 2017

CRANS MONTANA – Paris of the Swiss Alps



VINCENT VAN GOGH WAS A GREAT ARTIST – this is a well-known fact – but where would he have been without the emotional and financial support of his younger brother Theo, a prominent Parisian art dealer? Possibly a complete unknown languishing on history’s ash heap of failed artists … but we’ll never know thanks to his brother’s unfailing faith and assistance.

Why are you reading about 19th-century art history in a ski story? Because, simply put, one sunny day in January, the ski gods decided to hand me over to Gregory Pages, a Crans Montana ski guide, who also just happens to be the beating heart of the local art community. And what was originally scheduled in my books as a open ski day, with a random Euro ski guide, quickly morphed into the most incredible art museum experience I’ve ever had … with the Theo Van Gogh of the Swiss Alps!

Crans Montana is somewhat akin to a Montmartre in the mountains. Like the famous Parisian art colony of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this mountain hamlet is a magnet for artists whether they paint with chocolate, food or spray cans. Some of the masters at work here include, David Pasquiet, Switzerland’s top chocolatier in 2013, and his young protege Jorge Cardoso who just won a bronze medal at the Pastry World Cup. Michelin-starred rockstar chefs Franck Reynaud (Restaurant L’Ours & Cabane des Violettes on the mountain) and Pierre Crepaud (Restaurant Le Mont Blanc) also call Crans Montana home, and celebrated urban-street painters like the U.K.‘s Fanakapan, Chicago’s Hebru Brantley and the fabulous Iranian duo Icy & Sot have also splashed some paint around in this town as well.

If you are reading something penned by me there is a high probability that, like me, you are a ski junkie, and everything you do seems to be that much better if you are doing it on two planks. So imagine, the utter euphoria of a trip to an art gallery, outdoors, on skis, among the snowy, mind-blowing peaks of the Swiss Alps, some 3000m above the clouds?

Art was never part of my original plan in Crans. My initial itinerary was a day of skiing and a day of golf at the inaugural Crans Montana Winter Golf Cup, a full-on golf tournament on snow. If you are a golfer, then you probably know Crans Montana IS and has been THE place to play golf on the European continent for eons. One of the European PGA’s most important golf tournament’s, The Omega European Masters is held here at the magnificent Seve Ballesteros designed Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club every summer. Unfortunately weather got in the way of this year’s Winter Golf Cup, so that story, at least from my vantage point, will be told some other time. Fortunately for me, I love art as much as I love golf, and this town is a gold mine for both!

My Crans Montana art odyssey begins, when I meet Pages in the cruise-ship sized glass and concrete lobby of the jaw-dropping Hotel Chetzeron 2112m, a luxury16-room former gondola station that’s been turned into an ultra-chic ski-in/ski-out establishment catering to the “I-wanna-sleep-in-a-James-Bond-movie-set-when-I-go-on-a-ski-trip” crowd. The snow-cat ride up to this magnificent hotel at sunset is worth the price of admission!

After exchanging pleasantries and discussing our mutual love of skiing, Pages quizzes me about my art style.

Turns out Pages is the founder and curator of Crans Montana’s Vision Art Festival, a vast outdoor gallery where urban and street artists turn blank walls (like the one’s on the sides of concrete gondola and ski lift stations) into canvases, or as what he describes as a “one-of-a-kind encounter between nature and art in the amazing setting of the Valais Alps between 1500-3000m above sea level.”

The son of an art collecting couple who opened up a traditional gallery in Baden Baden, Germany when Pages was seven, the scruffy, bearded, 30-something has been championing the cause of street artists for almost a quarter century … long before artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey became household names.

I had the idea of creating this festival about five years ago while skiing. I sat on the Nationale chairlift and looked at the old Cry d’Err site, which at one time was a huge cement block, and kind of an eyesore. What if it would be possible to invite some artists and let them paint these huge concrete walls to make them more appealing I thought. In the following weeks I created a concept and presented it to the presidents of the municipality, the cable car company and the tourism office, and not long after the Vision Art Festival was born.”

Back on the slopes, each spectacular bluebird run on this day, under the blazing golden rays of the Valais sun, is paired to perfection by the rainbow of colours used on the walls-turned-canvases across the entire resort. The art in Crans Montana is of the highest quality, we’re not talking amateurs running around at 4am spraying “tags” on brick walls with aerosol cans … although that’s probably how some of these street-masters got their start. These are the Van Goghs, Dalis, Rembrandts and Michelangelos of the today’s urban/street art scene, and basking in their creativity while ripping lines on and off piste, in this high altitude MOMA, is an experience every lover of art and skiing should experience first hand.

After a hearty mountain lunch of alpine roesti (eggs, bacon & shredded potatoes) done to perfection in the kitchen of Chef Franck Reynaud’s rustic Cabane des Violettes, Pages orders a special, homemade digestif. As we coif the magical green elixir made from pine needles, we toast truth, art, skiing and the beauty of nature high up in the mountains of Switzerland, Pages tells me he will reveal the secret to his happiness in Crans Montana when we get back on the slopes.

After exiting Cabane des Violettes, we click into our skis and make our way over to a breathtaking panoramic plateau overlooking the beautiful Rhone Valley. Directly in front of us, lined up like paintings on a wall in a museum, are some of the most famous mountain peaks in the Swiss Alps.

“This is the real art gallery here in Crans Montana,” Pages says, pointing his ski pole at the magnificent range of Valais Alps now backlit by the ethereal glow of a late afternoon winter sun. 

“And this view is why I choose to work outside as an instructor and guide as much as I can. I love art, but I could never be inside a gallery full-time. I’d miss this, what we are looking at here on skis, isn’t it the most impressive canvas you’ve ever seen?

In Crans Montana we have an otherworldly view of 37 peaks over 3000m in front of us. For a mountain/nature lover like me this is heaven, pure happiness and joy. The Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, the Grand Combin on display all day long. It’s nature’s art gallery, always changing in summer and winter, during sunrise or sunset, light and atmosphere changing every hour, every day. This is what inspired the Impressionists, the greats like Van Gogh, a constant feeling of liberty and inspiration outside in nature, and it’s what makes me smile every day I’m here, whether I’m skiing or bringing art to the mountains I love so much.”

– By Michael Mastarciyan.

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