Alpine aerie SAAS-FEE

If it could be sold, the air of Saas-Fee would be found in gourmet stores. It's a kind of ambrosia for the lungs. I tumbled off the bus after the ride up the mountain, taking in great gulps, feeling as if I'd been breathing secondhand -- perhaps tenth-hand -- air all my life until then.

The ride in itself was enough to take the breath away --past trees hurtling upward on the right, gorges shooting downward on the left, waterfalls across the way, an occasional scuttle between a small huddle of chalets, up the mountain -- its height seeming to come from another planet; a ride during which concentrating on the scenery absorbed the whole of our attention.

Saas-Fee is a resort town on the highest mountain in Switzerland, Mt. Dom (Mt. Rosa is higher but is shared with Italy). Until about 15 years ago the only way to get here was by donkey. They still have interesting transportation here; you can drive up or take the bus from Brig (there's a road now), but you must leave your car in a parking lot outside of town. Electrical cars, something like a railroad luggage cart, move luggage about the village. People mostly travel on their own two feet -- the village is only a mile in circumference -- though in the winter you can hire a horse-drawn sleigh.

Saas-Fee has 1,028 permament residents; all of them make their living from tourism. "Maybe 10 people could live here on what the earth gives you," Amade Perrig, the town's tourist director, commented. The yearly total of visitors outnumbers the number of residents by more than 7 to 1. The residents are immediately distinguishable -- they all look athletic: blue eyes and rough winter tans (which look different, somehow, from the indolently acquired tropical tan).

Until 1963 Saas-Fee was a summer resort. Now it's a skiing mecca for Swiss and Germans (Americans haven't found it yet). High season for skiing is February through April, but you can ski there all year round. In the summer you have to ski before noon; as compensation, you can schuss down the high Alpine powder in shorts and a T-shirt. Mr. Perrig says that your face is in the sun, your skis in the shade.

The town of Saas-Fee is set in a kind of bowl, high on the mountain; you have to crane your neck to see the sky. This flatlander felt a constant awareness of the mountain -- a bit like suspecting someone is reading the paper over your shoulder on the subway. It seems to go straight up into the air, but Mr. Perrig says that skiers find that the slopes look much steeper than they are. And beginning skiers need not look up and despair: There are seven slopes here just for them.

There's a little stream and a bridge at the lowest point in the town; from there you can see the chalets, charming little stores, trees, and behind them all the mountains, black against the small circle of blue night sky, lit by thousands of stars (strange for the city-dweller used to starless, sullen-pink firmament punctuated by buildings). Because there are no cars, the small winding streets are intimate, like an outdoor room.

Raclette comes from this part of Switzerland. A strong cheese is toasted on a special grill (the old way was to set it by the fire). As the cheese melts, it is scrapped off onto a plate, to be eaten with pickles and onions. Our group of eight had one very busy raclette maker. As each person was served the others strove to look polite rather than hungry while waiting for theirs. A most savory, satisfying meal, taken with extremely chewy, freshly made dark rolls.

The town of Saas-Fee spends thousands of francs maintaining its superb cross-country ski trails, which are free. "Sometimes you have to spend on things that don't bring you money," Mr. Perrig comments.

All of the cozy chalets are hooked up to a computer; you write to the Saas-Fee tourist board (CH-3906 Saas-Fee, Switzerland) and they send you the name of the owner with the number of the available apartment. I visited a new inn called the Condor; charming and excellent. By the way, condors --big birds immediately distinguishable by their separated wing feathers, rather like spread fingers -- are common here; it's appropriate, as Saas-Fee is something of an aerie.

The tourist board claims there are tame marmots here, too, and to back this up we were given a picture showing a man holding a child, the child looking on dubiously as what looks delightfully like a small furry seal accepts a bit of bread.

"Alps and warmingpans taken j'intly are delicious," a character in a travel book by Louisa May Alcott once remarked. The Swiss still manage that combination of magnificent beauty and coziness -- at any time of year.

It's a hard combination to leave. As I got on the bus, I took one last big breath of that pre-Industrial Revolution air, cold from the heart of the Alps.

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