Duet of Water and Stone

travel-i.jpgBy Susan Spano
Los Angeles Times
VALS, Switzerland ~ Rain pelted the windshield as I drove up the Vals Valley. Waterfalls coursed over cliff faces, and the peaks of the Alps were lost in fog.

Not the kind of weather that walkers who come to Vals in the summer long for. But the rain suited me. I was headed for a spa about 120 miles southeast of Zurich, where I planned to spend the next 24 hours.

I admit it: I like fancy spas and will go out of my way for a Brittany seaweed wrap or a four-handed ayurvedic massage.

But I didn’t come to Vals for that – at least, not strictly so. I came to see the stunning, contemporary bathhouse designed by Peter Zumthor.

The Swiss architect is much admired in professional circles but is not as well known to the public as Frank Gehry or Norman Foster. Most of Zumthor’s completed projects are outside the United States, and the architect, who declined to be interviewed for this article, isn’t interested in media coverage.

But Zumthor has written this about Therme Vals: “Our spa is no fun fair with the latest technical gadgets, water games, jets, sprays and slides but focuses on the quiet, primary experience of bathing, cleansing, relaxing … the feeling of water and physical contact with primordial stone.”

The story of how Zumthor came to create a modern architectural landmark in a lost little Swiss valley traditionally devoted to dairy farming (and now all organic) is a happy one.

Blessed with a hot spring rich in calcium sulfate and hydrogen carbonate, Vals has long attracted health seekers. The community, which owns the spring, got its first spa hotel in 1893. It catered to people plagued by rheumatism and migraines who came here to drink or bathe in the water.

A new spa complex and affiliated bottling plant were built around 1970. (Two-thirds of the water that comes from the spring is used by the plant, purchased in 2002 by Coca-Cola.) Therme Vals never got the traffic of St.-Moritz and Zermatt, so it fell into debt and was taken over by a bank.

That would have been the end of it, but Vals community members wanted their bathhouse. Fortunately, they had the money to keep it going, thanks to revenue from the generation of electricity.

When they decided to redo the spa, there were grand plans for a whole new complex, replacing the dated hotel buildings constructed in the 1960s. But financial concerns meant the plan would have to be scaled back. Ultimately, Zumthor redesigned the bathhouse and simply modified existing hotel facilities adjacent to it.

The choice of Zumthor as architect was inspired. He developed his design by exploring the materials at hand, chiefly gneiss, a metamorphic rock that ranges in color from grayish blue to green, with occasional streaks of feldspar, quartz and mica. The gneiss is quarried nearby and used, roughly hewn, on village rooftops.

Zumthor experimented with different ways of cutting the stone and ultimately used 60,000 slabs of it, including massive ceiling blocks with skylights and polished planks for flooring.

I tried to photograph the spa, but it eluded me. Only its 20-foot front wall is clearly visible from the outside, although I climbed around the building and finally got a shot of the outdoor pool from the winding lane above.

I put my camera away and proceeded inside. Then I donned my robe and entered a long, narrow, black corridor where drinking water spews from brass pipes on one side, staining the wall with rust-red Rorschachs. The other side is lined with changing rooms for the many non-hotel guests who come in from walks or for a bath after work. Men and women bathe together, so bathing suits are obligatory.

The corridor turns a corner and yields to a cantilevered platform above what looks like a postmodern cave complex, all smooth stone and sharp angles. From there, I could see only the main indoor pool below, at that moment full of kissing couples, gossiping women and frolicking kids, their voices amplified in the stone echo chamber of the spa.

At first disappointed by the crowd, I gradually came to appreciate how well-used the facility is.

Instead of building big pools, Zumthor created a network of small, variously shaped baths with water at different temperatures and surprising features you get to know only by exploring.

Hidden around the corner from the main pool is the small, 91-degree Fahrenheit flower bath, illuminated from below and scattered with marigold petals. Nearby, I stepped down into another pool, this one 95 degrees, connected by a tunnel to the high-ceilinged sound bath where you have only to hum to produce music as resonant as that of a church organ.

Another staircase leads to a water channel connected by a curtain to the outdoor pool, 97 degrees in winter and 86 to 91 degrees in summer. People relieve tense shoulder and back muscles by standing under water gushing from a row of curving brass pipes.

There are terraces lined with Zumthor-designed chaise longues, sweat chambers, a quizzical drinking stone with brass cups hanging from a chain that encircles it, a 108-degree fire bath and a cold bath for the brave that, at 57 degrees F, feels positively icy.

With so much to discover and enjoy, I could have spent many more hours in the spa. When I finally dried off, I booked a massage for the next morning, after which I planned to stay in the spa until my fingers and toes wrinkled.

That night I had dinner in the Red Room – a sumptuous, three-course meal that started with sea scallops in wasabi foam and cucumber dill soup. My entree was a veal filet, accompanied by a local red wine.

In a book about the spa, I read that taking the water in ancient times was a ritualized affair. It included washing in a spring, drinking the water and sleeping, a phase the Romans called incubatio, which I quite like. I think I incubated that night, burrowed under a dreamy white Swiss duvet and with the window cracked open.

It wasn’t just raining the next morning; there was thunder and lightning, too, the noise muffled by the stone-walled bathhouse room where I had an excellent massage.

In the end, Zumthor’s beautifully realized vision of water and stone is what I’ll remember most keenly about Vals, and how I sat that morning in the outdoor pool while it rained on my head and thunder cracked.

If You Go

It’s about 120 miles from Zurich to Vals, but the last part of the trip is on narrow mountain roads, so the drive can take up to three hours. You can take a train from Zurich to Chur and then change to a local train for Ilanz, where bus service is available up the Vals Valley.


Hotel Therme, Vals, Switzerland, 011-41-81-9268961, www.therme-vals.ch, is open except from March 30 to June 13 next year. It has accommodations in several buildings, all near the spa. Rooms, called “temporaries,” are connected to the bathhouse by an elevator, doubles US$225; other doubles from $133 to $187. Rates include admission to the spa, which is reserved for hotel guests every day from 7 to 11 a.m. Night bathing is available to hotel guests from 10:30 to midnight on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.


Therme Vals is open through April 13 and reopens June 13. Non-hotel guests can go to the spa from 11am to 8pm.for $40. A variety of treatments are available, including a 50-minute full-body massage for $95.


– The hotel’s Red Restaurant serves healthful, gourmet cuisine in a chic room with picture windows; the six-course meal costs $65, excluding wine. – The less formal Restaurant Chessi, in a building below the spa, offers moderately priced pasta dishes and local fare. There also is a bar in the main building that serves sandwiches and salads.


Set in a narrow Alpine valley, with five chairlifts, Vals attracts skiers in winter and walkers in summer. For information about where to stay and what to do in Vals, contact Switzerland Tourism, www.myswitzerland.com.

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