Der Zauber from Zermatt.
Stories from dem Wallis. Tourist destinations often only become interesting through the stories and lives of charismatic people. In the Valais mountain village of Zermatt, it's not just the Matterhorn with its bold shapes that is the subject of conversation. But also the artist and hotelier Heinz Julen with seiner außergewöhnlichen family history.
If you want to find out more about Zermatt's soul, you must visit the mountaineer cemetery in the old village centre behind the church. The "Tomb of the Unknown Mountaineer" commemorates the more than 500 deaths that have occurred since the first ascent in 1865 to the most famous peaks in the world. Local mountain guides are also among them. They are called Perren, Lauber, Biner, Furrer, Kronig, Aufdenblatten. And howling.
Above all, the family line of August Julen (1922-2015) shapes the past, present and future of the village like no other. August Julen, who had eleven siblings, was a mountain guide and ski instructor. There were few ways to make money back then. You were a farmer. Or one led guests to the four-thousand-metre peaks of the Valais Alps. In winter you were unemployed. Unless you left home to work for ski schools in St. Moritz or Davos, where there was already winter tourism.
Julen chooses this path. He is lucky to be approached by an American shortly after the Second World War on his way to the family's mountain pasture - he was not yet 20.
Mister Denner hires Julen as his personal ski instructor and takes him with him to "Ausserschweiz", as the people of Zermatt tend to call the (big) rest of the country. Julen can thus look beyond the edge of the canton and get to know influential people. Denner recommends the Bauernbuschen to Paul Getty, the richest man in the world at the time, to Jack Heinz, the ketchup king after whom August Julen will later name his son, and to Ted Kennedy, whom he leads up the Matterhorn on a short rope.
August Julen quickly realizes that Zermatt is surrounded by much more spectacular mountains than Davos, for example. After all, the village is surrounded by 37 four-thousand-metre peaks. Isn't there a huge winter playground here for skiers? The first lift had already been built in 1942 from Zermatt to Sunnegga. But the connection across to Findeln, where the Julens run their small inn, the community does not want to finance - only the innkeepers would profit from it. August therefore auditions his father Severin. He is not completely convinced, but scrapes together all his savings and gives them to his son for the construction of a single chair lift. Two francs a ride is supposed to cost.
When on the evening of the premiere day the lift boy puts a bag of coins on the table, an almost four-figure sum, Severin does not want to take the money. He's convinced it can only be stolen. "He couldn't understand that one day he could earn more with the thing than a cow was worth," says Heinz Julen, one of August's four children. Now the other long-established families in Zermatt are also falling for the pennies - or rather: the centime. Soon the number of winter guests will exceed the number of summer guests.
Thanks to winter tourism, which he himself initiated, the properties acquired by August Julen experienced high increases in value over the following decades. He signs them over to his four children Vrony, Heinz, Leni and Moni. When August Julen dies in 2015 at the age of 93, half the village comes together and gives the equally respected and down-to-earth mountain guide, ski school operator and mountain railway shareholder his final convoy.
"We got a lot from our father. But that also put us under pressure - we wanted to make something out of our heritage," recalls Heinz Julen. The father always made sure that it was fair. No one should miss out. "Familyness" met "Swissness", the typical Swiss consensus culture.
The eldest daughter Vrony receives the "Alpenheim", the former home and inn of the family high above Zermatt in the hamlet of Findeln, where the family's first ski lift stood nearby. Today "Chez Vrony" is regarded by many as one of the best ski huts in the Alps and is a well-known gourmet address. In the "Gault-Millau" guide, the restaurant scores 14 out of 20. It doesn't need any more, Vrony emphasises - her kitchen team should continue to cook regionally and down to earth.
Father Julen transfers a large plot of land to his daughter Leni, on which she has the hotel "Cœur des Alpes" built. The third daughter, Moni, gets the area for the "Suitenhotel Zurbriggen", which she runs together with her husband, the Swiss skiing legend Pirmin Zurbriggen. For many Swiss ski tourists, this alone is a reason to check in here - Zurbriggen has the status of a national icon in the Alpine republic.
Heinz Julen inherits the property in the middle of the village, where his parents' house once stood, which burnt down completely in 1990. In 2011 he opened his extravagant "Backstage" hotel there, whose gourmet restaurant "After Seven" is the only one in the village with two Michelin stars.
As different as the four siblings and their tourist business models may be, there are still many similarities.
One: If you marry a Julen, you marry the whole family at the same time. This also applies to Vronys husband Max Cotting. The founder of the asset management company Aquila manages capital in Zurich during the week and certainly doesn't suffer from boredom - but on weekends he waits at his wife's house in Zermatt. Meanwhile Pirmin Zurbriggen writes autographs on the ski helmet for the children among the guests in the "Suitenhotel".
Second: All hotels and restaurants (also leased to non-family members like the restaurant "Snow Boat") show the typical Heinz-Julen style. It is always modern, sometimes playful, relies on natural materials such as leather, metal and wood. These are alternative designs to the Grandhotels with their livrerten gatekeepers, which of course still exist in Zermatt. But they are also counter-designs to what is often presented today under the label "Designhotel": bad interior design, just modern packaging. Julen, on the other hand, has personally designed each room in his "backstage" and furnished it with furniture and accessories designed by him - thought through down to the smallest detail, without always paying strict attention to costs. He enjoys planning a room with the bathroom in the middle and the bed above it, which can only be reached via a handmade metal staircase. A little crazy, a little extravagant - this handwriting can also be found among the sisters, albeit less pronounced than in "Backstage". Heinz also equipped their hotels.
Today Heinz Julen is the head of the family of the clan. He never wanted to be a mountain guide. He's an artist first and foremost. And he's the one that's gonna get aroused. In his studio on the mountain he once created "house altars" for which he combined Jesus sculptures with everyday objects. The people of Zermatt were terribly upset about the "sacrilege", the village well "Überfluss" designed by him was demolished. His own works of art and installations hang in the "backstage", huge chandeliers on the ceilings. When the music festival "Zermatt Unplugged" takes place in the village, artists and other VIPs get off here. And concerts take place in his cinema and cultural centre called "Vernissage", which is located in the basement of the hotel.
Heinz Julen leases real estate to landlords and has bought an old goods store in the Winkelmatten district, which he wants to convert into a new, exciting hotel project. The plans have earned him no less than 16 (!) objections from local residents. He employs ten people in his studio and is a sought-after architect without ever having attended a university. Already as a teenager he paints the Matterhorn and sells the pictures to the tourists in his parents' restaurant. Later he builds the first furniture in the cellar. Julen has talent and ambition. Above all, however, he has received a generous portion of self-confidence and trust in God from his father. "Dad always gave us the feeling that we were going the right way, that we were doing well."
But for some locals, that's too much. Too much pop art, too much avant-garde, above all: too much Heinz Julen. In a village that doesn't get much sun anyway because of the high mountains in turn, the Julen clan obviously casts additional shadows.
And so the Schadenfreude in the place is quite large, when then nevertheless once something goes quite wrong in the life of Heinz Julen. In the mid-1990s he met Alexander Schärer, whose father Paul owns the internationally renowned furniture company USM in Münsingen near Bern. Among other things, the Schärers have made a fortune with their USM Haller modular furniture system. Today, the furniture system is considered a design classic and was even admitted to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 2001.
That's what Julen likes, art connects. The two mid-thirties get along splendidly, go on holiday together in Aspen, even tell each other their women's stories. Julen has crazy ideas, Schärer the capital to implement them. And so together they brood out a plan for a hotel like Zermatt, indeed the whole of Switzerland has never seen before: a habitable sculpture with rotating bathtubs, Julen art, Julen furniture, 40 million francs expensive.
For the artist it should be the climax of his work. Finally, he gets the rare opportunity to realize himself completely freely. In February 2000 the "Into the Hotel" starts. But only seven weeks later Investor Schärer collects the keys and closes the store. It is said that severe construction defects are the reason. Heinz Julen is banned from the house and is covered with lawsuits by a whole armada of Schärer lawyers. Father Schärer blames him for the disaster. The artist is threatened with ruin and is to pay 15 million francs in damages. In the end it comes to an out-of-court settlement, Julen barely escapes bankruptcy, but loses the property on which the super hotel stands. Swiss media report nationwide. The Zermatt people are annoyed. He discredited the famous village, accused them of the artist. They are fed up with the equation Julen = Zermatt.
Heinz Julen needed many years to recover from his personal Waterloo, the "nightmare house" - both financially and mentally. Instead of renovating the hotel and eliminating the building defects, the Schärer family let the building rot. Julen's designer furniture they throw in the trash.
In the following period the parties will argue about the height of trees, about nullities. Only years later the house, which had fallen into a concrete torso, was rebuilt and is today a flourishing five-star house under the name "The Omnia". Heinz Julen sees it every day. He may have made his peace with it, but he cannot and does not want to forget what happened then. It hit him deeply and was a great human disappointment: "Where there is no more love, there is only hate, jealousy and ruin left".
The main accusation made by the Schärer family is that Heinz Julen had pushed himself too far into the foreground in the media and did not mention USM equally. Paul Schärer once called this "unforgivable". Maybe, says Julen, it was indeed so, and he had not noticed it or had noticed it too late. In the end, it always took two when something went wrong. What is noticeable, however, is that even today Julen does not say a bad word about his former partners. Alexander grew up quite differently from himself: "A chauffeur took him to school, at home the food was served by servants with white gloves". Probably at the same time as Heinz ran up to his sister Vrony in mountain boots to Findeln to dust off a cheese sandwich.
Meanwhile Heinz Julen is quite happy that the story ended like this. He was even a bit proud of it: "She gave me the greatest moments of my life in terms of depth and emotions." And: "With the 'backstage' I was able to realize my own ideas in the end, even if on a smaller scale."
Today Julen also sells his furniture, which is actually more of an object of art, for good money. They are his third economic pillar alongside backstage and leased or rented real estate.
I guess he needs that, too. Because with a gourmet restaurant, Julen admits, it is difficult to earn money in the high-wage country of Switzerland. But he enjoys running such a flagship with experimental chefs, which is praised by gourmets from all over Switzerland.
He takes time for his regular guests, time for his wife and small children, time for designing furniture, time for working in his studio up in Findeln, where he paints or sketches new chandeliers. He enjoys his cinema in the basement of the "Backstage" because it reminds him of his dad. He once had one installed in the winter house of the family that burned down in the early 1990s. In the "Vernissage Bar Club Cinema" he shows international blockbusters as well as August Julen's films such as "Menschen am Matterhorn" or "Whympers Weg aufs Matterhorn".
Meanwhile the next generation of the Julen-Clan is already at the start, the sibling quartet comes together on a two-digit child crowd. All are firmly rooted in Zermatt. If August Julen were still alive, he would be very happy. "It was always important to him that the children stay together like an extended family. And he was proud that we all stayed here," says Heinz Julen. Shortly before his death, Mr Papa finally said in an interview: "Isn't it fantastic that today 10000 people can live well in a place like Zermatt, where in former times not even 700 people had a dignified livelihood? ®
Author: Dr. Günter Kast