VILLARS, Switzerland — Show up in this pretty Vaud Mountains village at the height of winter season and you'll find the slopes comfortably sprinkled with chic skiers who probably spent the last summer hoping their friends would opt for Zermatt, Zurs and Val d'Isere, leaving their own favorite undiscovered and uncrowded.
We arrived on a day celebrated since 1291 throughout the country to commemorate Swiss defiance of Austria's Hapsburgs and birth of their confederation into a nation.
Start with a wagonload of local bigwigs dressed to the nines in regional attire; now a herd of goats and another of ribbon-bedecked cows, followed closely by half a dozen young men laughing as they perform their sanitation-engineer chores; add a procession of farm women in their best Sunday costumes, proudly carrying huge loaves of homemade bread and award-winning garden vegetables.
There were 32 groups, farmers' bands, jerry-built floats and flatbed trucks, with the most eclectic makeup imaginable, including an aerobics class and colorful gaggles from nearby villages.
Winter or summer, Villars is one of those idyllic village resorts the Swiss seem to have tucked in every valley, clinging to every mountain.
Here to there: TWA, Air Canada and Pan Am fly to Geneva with stops, a number of European carriers with changes in their home countries. Use your Swiss Holiday Card for the scenic train ride of about 1 1/2 hours on to Villars.
Getting around town: Walk anywhere in the village, but a couple of hillside hotels can do you in getting to and from. Some hotels have vans to the slopes, none are needed at those recommended below.
How long/how much? At least a week for skiing, a few days should suffice for the low-key but extensive activities of summer. Hotel prices are definitely moderate for ski resorts, and 10 hotels have seven-night packages that begin at $206 per person and include room, half-pension, lift tickets and a welcoming fondue- raclette party. The three we mention are included. Dining prices are moderate, surely if you go the full- or half-pension route.
A few fast facts: The Swiss franc was recently valued at .43, or 2.3 to the dollar. Villars is truly year-round, 62 miles of alpine-skiing runs for beginner to expert, 18-hole golf course, tennis, 185 miles of flower-rimmed trails for walking in summer.
Moderate-cost hotels: Small and homey are the perfect words for 50-bed Hotel Curling-Bellevue ($30-$52 double B&B, depending upon season). Modest traditional interior and rooms, small bar, the friendliest of owners, he teaching ski bobbing as a pastime, a dining room listed in Gault-Millau. Their Briard sheep dog is huge and great with kids, having passed his "test of character" exam. Half-pension rate here is $27.50 per person summers, up a notch in winter.
Alpe Fleurie ($47-$56), opposite the station, bowls you over with its rustic-Swiss interiors: hand-hewn beams, great stone fireplace and hanging cowbells in the bar, flower arrangements adding color here and there. A bright and cheerful place with small front-lawn cafe for taking the sun with your coffee.
Marie-Louise ($35-$69) is crammed with antique furnishings, old spinning wheels and the like. Most of the rooms have balconies and face south toward the mountains, a little library with books in English, cellar bar all beams, copper, candles and old hunting rifles. English is spoken here and in most of the other hotels in town, thanks to several British boarding schools in Villars.
The ski-week package is $294 per person here at today's exchange rate, $329 at the Alpe Fleurie, $206 at Curling-Bellevue. It's called "Ski a Go-Go" and the Swiss Ski School tosses in six half-days of lessons for $30 a head.
Regional food and drink: This is the Vaud and that means lots of marvelous sausage, including the old standby choux , the pork stuffing laced with shredded cabbage. It's also a French canton, so many of the dishes have a Gallic flair and wine is treated with respect.
Here's a fast rundown on some of the more popular Swiss offerings, most of which are available in any part of the country. Emince de veau is a Zurich specialty much favored here, scallops of veal in a cream sauce with Fendant or Neuchatel white wine; zurcher leberspiessli is another from the same town, bacon-wrapped calf's liver skewered and served on a bed of spinach; rosti is made of shredded potatoes formed into a small cake and pan-fried until golden crisp, then eaten by the ton with the fanciest or simplest Swiss dish.
New to us was fotselschnitten , bread dipped in egg, sugar and cinnamon, then fried and dusted with more sugar. And we always curb our craving for hot chocolate until we reach Swiss soil, only because it's a pale copy anywhere else.