Saturday 1 December 2018

Hotel Belvédère: The Iconic Swiss Hotel on The Edge of The Rhone Glacier

Located in one of the snowiest regions in Switzerland, the Furka Pass, connecting the cantons of Uri and Valais in the country’s south-central region, is considered to be one of the “most iconic, exhilarating and exciting drives” through the Swiss Alps. The scenic road with its tight switchbacks curving up the picturesque mountainside attracts countless tourists. There is the Rhone Glacier with its ice grotto—a one hundred meter long tunnel drilled through the glacier every year that glows in an unearthly shade of blue—as well as attractive options for hiking, climbing and skiing. The Furka Pass even played a brief cameo in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger.

As the road switches back and forth hugging the side of the mountain, at one point near the top of the pass, it comes within 200 meters of the Rhone Glacier. It was here, in 1882, the young hotelier, Josef Seiler, built a hotel in one of the hairpin bends. Over the decades Hotel Belvédère became one of the most iconic hotels of the Swiss Alps. Nowhere else in the world could one drive a car so close to the edge of a glacier, check into a hotel room with balconies overlooking the massive river of ice, and then walk down a paved path to the glacier below located only a couple of hundred yards away.
The building of Hotel Belvédère belongs to the last major wave of development that began in the whole of Switzerland in the 1880s. During this time the number of hotels in Valais increased from 79 in 1880 to over 320 just before the First World War—a four time increase in just over three decades. The number of beds during the same period increased from just under 4,000 to over 15,000.
Hotel Belvédère’s panoramic location attracted a pampered clientele who took residence sometimes for several weeks at a stretch during the summers. At the turn of the 20th century, when the hotel industry boomed throughout Switzerland, Josef Seiler dared a new extension to the hotel—a gable roof with two additional floors, giving the hotel its current appearance. The number of beds in 1907 rose to ninety.
Hotel Belvédère at an elevation of 2,429 meters on the Furka Pass.  
The tongue of the Rhone Glacier. On the right corner is the car park of Hotel Belvédère. Photo credit: Diriye Amey/
Throughout the 20th century, visitors to the Rhone Glacier and the Hotel steadily increased thanks to the opening of two new railway lines—the Furka Oberalp Railway and the Glacier Express. With the rise in personal automobiles after the Second World War, more and more people could afford the pleasure of driving along the mountain pass with a stop at the Rhone Glacier and a stay at Hotel Belvédère.
Starting from the 1960s, however, the number of guests at Hotel Belvédère and elsewhere in the Alpine began to decrease sharply. Cars had become too powerful and fast, so what was previously a two- or three-day trip through the pass became a one-day round trip. Guests who previously stayed overnight now took a quick trip to the Rhone Glacier, had lunch or just a cup of tea at the hotel, and left. The number of hotel guests in Belvédère and in the village of Gletsch, located just below the Rhone Glacier's mouth, where the Seilers operated another hotel, sank rapidly. Hotel Belvédère has never been the same since.
A couple of years ago, the hotel closed—and although there has been so official announcement—it will probably never open again. Some speculate that the Rhone Glacier has retreated so much in the past hundred years that it’s no longer an attraction, and since the attraction itself is disappearing so is the business that kept the hotel’s doors open. 
While the Rhone Glacier is indeed disappearing fast (the glacier lost 1,300 meters during the last 120 years), it is still as close to Hotel Belvédère as it was a century ago. What the glacier has lost is its length. In 1850, the river of ice reached far down into the valley basin, but today the glacier tongue ends at just near Hotel Belvédère. Besides, one of the prime attraction, the grotto, is still being carved into the glacier every year. According to the hotel’s website, the grotto is scheduled to open next summer on time.
This two comparison photos, a century apart, shows how much the Rhone Glacier has retreated.  

The Grotto

For nearly two centuries, there has been a grotto in the Rhone Glacier. Earlier, there was a natural grotto at the mouth of the glacier where it reached the end of the valley. As the glacier retreated the lower grotto disappeared.
The present grotto near Hotel Belvédère dates back to at least 1894. It is carved out of one of the purest section of the Rhone Glacier where the ice is clear and there is hardly any piece of rock anywhere. The grotto runs for about 100 meters through the ice, and as the sunlight filters down through the semi-transparent ice, the entire tunnel is bathed in a serene blue light.
The ice in the grotto is 200 to 300 years old, and the layering of this ice can actually be observed in the grotto’s walls like rings within a tree trunk. The ice-layers are often separated by very thin bands of dust particles and pollen, which are deposited predominantly in summer and autumn, at the end of the ablation period, when the surrounding of the glacier is free of snow. Likewise individual ice-grains can be found, as spherical or teardrop shaped inclusions of air up to one or more millimeters in diameter.
Because the grotto is carved on a moving glacier, it doesn’t stay at the same spot nor does it retains its length and shape for long. By the end of October, when the Furka Pass and the hotel closes for the winter, the glacier will move by 20 meters down the hill, and the grotto, which is originally 100 meters long, will shorten to 60 meters. The glacier will also melt a great deal due to the heat of the summer months, and the grotto will no longer be passable. So a new grotto is carved every year at the exact same spot.
The hotel is currently operated by the Carlen family, who also oversees the digging of the grotto.
The ice grotto.  
Inside the ice grotto of the Rhone Glacier. 



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