Overlooking Lucerne, Chateau Gütsch is a belle-epoque retreat with a horological secret.
As a writer with a particular penchant for Swiss watchmaking, I probably use the term “chocolate box” far too frequently. Hard not to when describing a springtime visit to an atelier nestled in the verdant Jura foothills, surrounded by cows and their clanking bells. However, drawing back the lush, brocade-trimmed curtains of my suite at Chateau Gütsch in mid-December, the particular pocket of Switzerland that greets me, for once, is far from “chocolate box”. Unless Lindt has decided to collaborate with Tim Burton on a special-edition tray of liqueurs.
The hotel is perched, like an eagle’s nest, high above Lucerne, and the picture-postcard city below is shrouded by a frozen veil of mist. Grey, dank and decidedly Gothic, the notion of a polarised blue sky and mosaic roof tiles are many months away. Goodness knows how spooky this Bavarian-style castle of a place seems, looking back from the streets down there.
But chocolate boxes are far from one’s mind, staying here. Since the London-based custodian of The Evening Standard and Independent, Russian mogul Evgeny Lebedev purchased the 19th-century former private residence in 2012 and ploughed CHF70m into refurbishing its 27 rooms and restaurant, the four-star chateau has offered discerning weekenders a reassuringly old-school bolthole. The interiors are by another Brit, Martyn Lawrence Bullard; all plush and unapologetically Belle Epoque, with a contemporary sheen. If you enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, then you’ll enjoy your stay with rigor-mortis grin firmly affixed – especially every time you ride the tiny, doorless elevator.
And aside from the simple joy of pottering for the sake of pottering, Chateau Gütsch does offer a menu of mildly paced activities, should one be bothered. I, naturally, chose the rather unique opportunity to visit the workshop of top Swiss watchmaker, Chronoswiss. And a tasting of local wines in the catacomb-like cellars (I figured it can’t all be a busman’s holiday). If you have always wondered why on earth luxury watches cost so much, here’s a rare chance to understand why. Since being bought out by a certifiably watch-mad Zurich banker, Oliver Ebstein and his wife Eva, Chronoswiss made the unprecedented decision to combine its new workshop with its flagship boutique, slap-bang in the centre of Lucerne – only open since autumn 2014, like the new-look Gütsch.
Here, Ebstein himself will talk you through the history of the brand using interactive displays, with lab-coated watchmakers beavering away behind you, tweezering together tiny mechanical movements. On every visit, you even get to meet Chronoswiss’s engraver, who uses a rare-as-hen’s-teeth antique lathe to carve intricate patterns into the dials. And there’s an enameller, too – another artisan who doesn’t seem to mind me ogling his painstaking toil, or asking stupid questions. If you go, make sure you go sober, without a big swooshy scarf; there are tiny works of art dotted about everywhere.
The cab ride back to the Chateau is a tortuous, ear-popping ascent through a forest, but I was assured it won’t be long before the hotel’s dedicated funicular railway will be back in action (the wonderfully Teutonic “Gütschbahn”) just to round out that Grand Budapest experience. Just as well, because short of getting my cabby to hang around while 1 dumped my shopping and grabbed a quick shower, the inclination to hike back into town for dinner was sorely lacking, despite there being plenty of great places to eat in Lucerne.
Just as well the restaurant is first class, then. World class, even, thanks to chef Andreas Haseloh’s lightness of touch with both Mediterranean-inspired dishes and normally heavy-going Swiss winter fare. His venison ragu with red cabbage looked like a plate of ominous stodge in the dim lighting, but on the palate it was an eye-widening medley of gamey and tangy textures, which I wished I’d left room to polish off.
The menu’s array of brasserie, tasting, or “for-two”, options are far too confusing, and the service could have been a lot pacier, but the setting, food and sweeping views of a twinkling Lucerne more than made up for these minor niggles. It ain’t cheap either, by the way, but find me a Swiss restaurant without gingham tablecloths that isn’t.
But the main reason you come to Chateau Gütsch? It’s the room that’s waiting for you, back up that chintzy wallpapered lift. Every one of them is unique, combining modern-day luxury – Carrara marble bathrooms, monsoon showers, HD telly, the lot – with old-world charm. I could have gazed out of the window all night from my Louis XVI carved sleigh bed, radiator unashamedly turned up to 11.
For the whole experience is that of opulent cosiness. Which is why you need to visit on this grey and drizzly winter rather than wait till spring. Chocolate boxes be damned.
NEED TO KNOW
Stay at Château Gütsch from £216 per room per night including breakfast, wi-fi, service, VAT, excluding city tax of £2.20 per person per night. To book Chateau Gütsch, call +41 41 289 14 14 or visit chateau-guetsch.ch. The closest airport is Zurich International (ZRH) with regular, direct rail connections from the airport to Lucerne taking around 1 hour. Swiss flights from London City to Zurich are from £115 return.