The Villa Cassel is nestled in the idyllic mountains of the Valais.
The Villa Cassel is nestled in the idyllic mountains of the Valais. Wikimedia

Beautiful living in the Valais

If you’re on the Riederfurka, you can’t miss the Villa Cassel. Visible from far and wide, the distinctive structure dates from 1902 and was once the holiday home of an ill and overworked Englishman.

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

“Hotel impossible, suggest something else.” Ernest Cassel wrote this brief message to his doctor, Sir William Broadbent, in England in 1895. Sir William had sent the 43-year-old to the Swiss mountains under threat of refusing to treat him any longer. So Ernest Cassel and his entourage checked in at the then quite basic Hotel Riederfurka, and Cassel was anything but enthusiastic about his living quarters. Much as the English banker and financial adviser was unimpressed with the rustic charm of his accommodation, though, he was captivated by the nature on the fringes of the great Aletsch Glacier.
Painting of Ernest Cassel, 1907.
Painting of Ernest Cassel, 1907. Wikimedia
Ernest Cassel seems to have been very much a “townie”. Born and raised in Cologne, he began his banking apprenticeship there at the age of 14. Two years later he left Germany to live in England. After a short stint in Paris Cassell returned to England, where he married Englishwoman Annette Maxwell in 1878, receiving English citizenship in the process. Ernst became Ernest. His banking business and the related advisory services he provided, which brought him into the orbit of, among others, the British royal family, were profitable, but they began to take a toll on his health. All his life, Ernest Cassel suffered from cardiovascular problems and stomach ailments. The idea of a restorative trip to the Valais came from Sir William Broadbent, who was already familiar with the area, thanks to Switzerland’s burgeoning tourism industry. Despite the arduous journey, Ernest Cassel returned to the Valais on many occasions. He even seemed to have “made friends” with the accommodation facilities of the Hotel Riederfurka which had initially struck him as so primitive. He stayed there every time.
The Hotel Riederfurka (left) and the Villa Cassel in one photograph, early 20th century.
The Hotel Riederfurka (left) and the Villa Cassel in one photograph, early 20th century. ETH Bibliothek Zurich
In 1901, Ernest Cassel met with representatives of the municipalities of Ried and Betten to discuss the possibility of buying some land. In the preceding few years he had made himself popular in the region with generous donations. So it was soon agreed, and the “eccentric” Englishman was allocated a piece of land that seemed unsuitable for livestock farming. With its eye-catching half-timbered frame, turrets and peaked roof, the Victorian-style Villa Cassel looked a little out of place. That’s what the neighbours and the villagers thought, anyway. It wasn’t long before the rumour mill starting churning. All kinds of building materials, and exotic paraphernalia such as pianos and bathtubs, were being transported on mules to the site at around 2,000 metres above sea level. For instance, what was going on with the typewriter that people claimed to have seen? Was he printing books up there, or even banknotes?
A glimpse inside the opulent Villa Cassel. Katrin Brunner and Pro Natura Aletsch Centre
The interior decoration was one thing, the crowd of illustrious guests another. Members of the European aristocracy, politicians and decision-makers from the world of high finance mixed and mingled up on the Riederfurka. They enjoyed the scenery, the company, and the tranquillity. Rumour has it that a young Winston Churchill, who spent time working on his father’s biography at Villa Cassel between 1904 and 1913, had too little peace and quiet. The tinkling of cowbells really grated on his nerves. It must have annoyed him even more when the farmers refused to take the bells off the cows. Ernest Cassel solved the problem with a small financial donation. The cowherds quickly stuffed some straw into the bells.
The young Winston Churchill was irritated by the sound of cowbells.
The young Winston Churchill was irritated by the sound of cowbells. Library of Congress
The outbreak of World War I brought an end to the cheerful social whirl in and around the Villa. Ernest Cassel was never to return to the Valais. He died in London in 1921, still in poor health. Three years after that, his Villa and the associated chalet were converted into a hotel, and continued as a business until 1969. After that, the picturesque house on the mountainside sank into a deep slumber from which it threatened never to awaken. But in 1976 the Pro Natura Aletsch Centre took up residence, and the villa and its chalet are once again welcoming guests.

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