Saas-Fee, a Swiss village nestled under a cluster of glaciers high in the Alps, is best-known for its kilometers of ski and snowboarding runs, popular with continental types of all stripes.
But it’s also a mecca for Europe’s ultra-Orthodox crowd during the summer.
“Every community in Switzerland has a larger Jewish community in the summer,” said Marnin Michaels, an American tax lawyer who lives in Zurich and recently purchased his own chalet in Saas-Fee. “It’s the largest growing segment in the mountains.”
This car-free town, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Zurich — about 3.5 hours of train and bus travel — is known for its 350 kilometers of hiking trails, as well as summer skiing, snowboarding and tobogganing. For those seeking cooler weather during Israel’s lengthy summer, with kosher food and a daily minyan, it’s an appealing choice.
“What’s great about Saas-Fee is that it’s less known,” said Michaels. “It’s not like being in Zurich or Zermatt.”
In fact, the town, a hamlet of some 200 buildings, mostly hotels and chalets, became known as a summer getaway in 1870. That’s when its first hotel was built, said Thomas Kalbermatten, a local who was raised in Saas-Fee and now runs the town’s Saaser Museum.
In those days, local kids would hike up to the glaciers to chip off chunks of ice they carried back in woven baskets strapped to their backs. The ice was used for refrigeration and for homemade ice cream.
Those days are long gone — the glacier is showing signs of deterioration — but some signs of those earlier times remain, such as the clusters of wooden huts on stilts throughout the town, once used for keeping crops away from mice, now slowly being turned into cozy chalets and, in one case, a fondue hut.
Other traditions remain, such as the summer’s Alpine processions, yodeling festivals and cow fights, which always bring out a mix of tourists, Kalbermatten said. Saas-Fee also happens to be the home of the European Graduate School, with a faculty that includes filmmaker Claude Lanzmann and Israeli artist and psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger. The school offers four-week summer seminars.
And it’s during the summer that the Jews come to town.
“It’s a shtetl with yidden,” wrote one anonymous tourist in a vacation thread about the Swiss village.
Or, in the words of another tourist writing on a different listserv, “There is what the yiddelach consider nice, such as St. Moritz, but you have the other places that have the more untampered look, places such as Saas-Fee are beautiful.”
The natural beauty of the area is a big draw, nestled as it is in a valley surrounded with snow-covered peaks, including the highest in Switzerland, the 14,900-foot Dom (or Dome).
This far-flung town in the Valais region is popular in the winter months, when the town’s split main street, each length lined with restaurants, bakeries, pubs, ski shops and some distinctly luxury boutiques, is filled with skiers of all ages, trudging to and from the nearby lifts. Apres-ski, skiers and snowboarders stop for fresh doughnuts sold at a table outside the historic Imseng bakery, or a beer, sitting on fur-lined seats under heat lamps at one of the outdoor beer gardens.
In the summer, however, the look and feel of the village is different. There is still snow up on the peaks, including 20 kilometers of the white stuff up on the 3,600-meter-high Allalin glacier. The skiing and snowboarding continues, but mostly for national ski and snowboard teams. There are also self-guided tours of the village’s famed ice grotto, reached by a funicular lift, with a revolving restaurant and cafe, and glorious views of the valley and mountain range.
But it’s also possible to avoid the snow and ice and just stick to walking Saas-Fee’s lush green hills and wide range of hiking trails.
“We have really great options for all kinds of hiking and mountaineering in our valley,” said Joas Pirmin, from Saas-Fee’s tourist office. “That’s what most people do here in the summer.”
There are guides available for alpine hiking, mountain biking and climbing — the heights require steel cable walkways, ladders, hooks and ropes. Visitors are encouraged to buy a Citizen pass, which then offers substantial discounts on many local activities and (mostly) free rides on the ski lifts and gondolas.
The ultra-Orthodox influx is helpful to those who keep kosher and want to attend synagogue three times a day, with a regular roster of daily services and a plentiful kosher food selection in the local supermarkets. The Swiss Chabad offers a list of certified kosher products that are available in local supermarkets Migros and Coop — useful for those cooking their own food in vacation chalets.
There is a wide range of chalets available for rent and more than a dozen family-run hotels, and many can be viewed at websites like Premium Switzerland or MySwitzerland. The chalets generally range in price from $600 a night during the low season (April, October) to $800 a night (January) and then up through $1,200 at other times during the year. These chalets often sleep up to seven adults and two children.
Michaels and his wife extensively renovated their duplex apartment with four bedrooms and two full baths, including a walk-in steam shower and jacuzzi for that apres-ski experience, as well as heated balconies overlooking the view. His kosher home sleeps seven, and like many others, is located in an apartment building in the center of town. Freestanding villas are available for rent too, but may be slightly farther away from the amenities of the village.
Some of the hotels sometimes offer kosher food when ordered in advance, but that option often means airplane meals wrapped in plastic, according to the hotel reservation desks.
Kosher visitors are best off relying on the supermarkets, said Reto Frenkel, who publishes a kosher guide for Switzerland. He also recommended reading the local Swiss Jewish newspaper, Die jüdische Zeitung, for information about minyan times and locations during the summer.