Swiss Mist

By Seth Hamblin
Sunday, December 10, 2000

To bask in the tony thermal baths of Vals, a remote ski town in southern Switzerland, denizens of Zurich and Bern must traverse up progressively narrow, landslide-ridden roads and through passes often choked with snow. As a reward, they can lie in a warm outdoor pool while snowflakes coat their eyelashes. And when the mist parts, a towering mountain zigzagged with goat paths is revealed.

Mystical, therapeutic and chic, the baths reflect the sensibility of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who is also known for designing Berlin's "Topography of Terror," a Holocaust archive and exhibition hall built on the former Gestapo headquarters. In 1998, Zumthor won the Carlsberg Prize--one of the highest architecture awards--for his work in the field.

Zumthor harnessed the spring waters of Vals in 1997 within stone from a nearby quarry. The slabs were cut into narrow "boards" and stacked like rows of lumber to form the walls. Recessed lights in the ceiling set the pool aglow in the central indoor grotto and cast layered shadows into the passages and streams that radiate out irregularly like the spokes of a broken wheel. The interplay of light, stone and water is so striking that last year Helmut Newton used the spas as a backdrop for a Vogue magazine fashion spread.

While the spa has become a pilgrimage for urban aesthetes, packs of worn-out downhill racers mingle in bathing suits with their less athletic countrymen. The German language pervades.

Outside of the grotto, brass rails, leather cushions and dark, steam-drenched wooden benches punctuate the labyrinth of green granite. Beside archways, tiny Celsius temperature signs warn of impending heat but do little to help you get your bearings. Instead, the baths invite you to explore.

Descend a water-filled stairway and wade around a bend to find a pool of chamomile steeping in lukewarm water. The sweet vapors linger on your skin after you've left, until, in your wanderings, you push aside a curtain and pine-laced steam gushes from a sauna, scrubbing away the petals' perfume.

Escape the merciless heat and dive into a nearby sluice. Then dog paddle until you reach a chamber with a ceiling so high that the slightest whisper resonates into a monastic chant. At first, you think the acoustics are a lucky coincidence of the visually dramatic dome. Further exploration proves that every tweak to your ears, eyes, nose and skin was in the structure's blueprints.

The distant sound of hammer striking anvil leads you down a dry corridor to a dark doorway. A plaque reads "Klangstein," which, it explains, is a minimalist musical composition. Step inside and you'll find benches in a cell just large enough for two people to lie down, head to foot, and stare at bare bulbs the size of Christmas tree lights while listening to the hammer fall.

Why? Hypnosis is the only possible answer.

--Seth Hamblin

The Vals thermal baths are a two- to three-hour drive from Zurich; snow tires and chains are advisable during part of the year. Trains run from Zurich to the nearby town of Chur, where you can catch a bus to Vals.

The Hotel Terme (telephone 011-41-81-926-8080) adjoins the baths; rooms cost about $120 per person for one night, including breakfast and a six-course dinner; expect nouvelle German cuisine. Between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m., access to the baths is limited to hotel guests. If you're not staying in the hotel, admission is about $14.

The town of Vals has a Web site (in German) at

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