This is the fourth in a series of four articles where GstaadLife interviews “New Highlanders” – individuals from various professions who have come to live in the Saanenland and Pays-d’Enhaut.
Coming from diverse backgrounds and bringing a wealth of experience, they add to the rich mosaic of our multicultural life. In this article we sit down with Leopoldine Serra di Cassano, Laurence de Bournet and Sophie Labarraque, three dynamic women running businesses in Château-d’Oex.
Part one: Interview with Leopoldine Serra di Cassano
Leopoldine, you went to school at the JFK and Le Rosey. What perspective has that given you?
My family has had close ties to Gstaad for three generations since 1946. My grandmother sent my father and two uncles to Le Rosey and wanted me to follow in their footsteps. I lived abroad – in London and elsewhere – but, when I had children, I came back. I wished my kids to grow up in these beautiful surroundings and to be able to do simple things like walking to school on their own, drinking tap water and enjoying 300 days of sunshine a year – things we take for granted here.
I get the impression that you are an unofficial ambassador for Château-d’Oex and the region. What motivates you?
I’ve lived here for the past 18 years. During this time, I have truly come to appreciate Château-d’Oex and the diversity of the people who, like me, have chosen to settle here. Change in our world is inevitable but this charming village, with so much character and history, deserves to be protected for future generations.
I work in real estate and find the prices here interesting. People discover the beautiful surroundings and the hidden life of the village, and grow to love it.
Many of the people who come to live in the region are already retired but you’ve managed to attract people who are still working.
I meet prospective buyers who tell me they would like to get away from the stress and pollution of city life – either to have a mountain refuge for weekends or to work here. They can live up here and use information technology to run their businesses elsewhere. Rail and road transport is good, with easy access to airports and the big cities. I have friends who commute to Geneva and Bern or even further afield during the week and then return to the region for the weekend.
You’ve been very active in fundraising for the Château-d’Oex hospital. Can you tell me a bit about these activities?
Claude Barbey, one of the founders of the Friends of the Hospital of Saanen asked me to start a similar association in Château-d’Oex in the hope of securing its survival with a joint venture hospital in two cantons. I was also inspired by the legacy of my adored grandmother, who built and founded the Clinique Génolier, close to Geneva, in the late 70s.
For current residents and for those seeking to buy, the hospital is a significant advantage. We have established an association with charitable status, Les Amis de l’Hôpital du Château-d’Oex, and have been fortunate to raise well over a million Swiss francs to date. As part of a development called Pole Santé, the Commune has donated ground on which a new hospital will be built with improved facilities for patients and doctors’ offices.
Do you have a vision for Château-d’Oex?
I had a dream of Château-d’Oex becoming a center for artisanal activity and I think the recent interviews suggest that this is beginning to take place. We have a dynamic group of entrepreneurial women in the village (including Laurence and Sophie) and we often get together to discuss our plans and ideas.
Do you think New Highlanders feel welcome in the area?
Yes, I do. In fact, I would argue that many of the locals are New Highlanders themselves since so many originally came from elsewhere. What the village has is a strong sense of community. I find that those who participate to help in local activities are warmly accepted, regardless of their backgrounds.
Part two: Interview with Laurence de Bournet
Why were you attracted to the Pays-d'Enhaut and Saanenland?
When I was young and living in Geneva we occasionally came to Saanenland on holiday. I’m attracted to this region for many reasons, but particularly the mountains, the alpine pastures and the beauty of the chalets. I’ve always wanted to live in a place that combines nature and architecture.
When you were looking for a property did you plan to buy a restaurant?
No, not at all. Our original idea was to buy a chalet but when we saw Les Alpes [Café des Alpes] we fell in love with it. We like the idea of living somewhere central where we can participate in the daily life of the village – having a restaurant just below us is a bonus. The main challenge has been to find the right person to manage it as the former owner was retiring.
You’ve restored the building beautifully. How did you find a new chef?
Several people were interested in Les Alpes. The hard part was finding a compromise between our vision for the restoration and the person who would take over. My friend Leopoldine often spoke to me about Massimo, who ran the Mon Sejour restaurant in Vers l’Eglise. We spent six months getting to know each other and were fortunate to develop a mutual trust. For the restoration, we tried to preserve some historical elements of the building and recover original materials. The woodwork was painted by Nathalie Rosat, who worked miracles.
I believe the restaurant has had a lot of clients since it opened?
It’s a mixture of a number of factors. Massimo trusted us to create a warm ambiance and it seems that clients really love it. Secondly, he created a simple menu based on traditional Italian food; this clearly meets the clients’ expectations. Finally, Leopoldine, Sophie and myself are totally in love with the region so, naturally, we do advertising for the restaurant which is so central to Château-d’Oex.
The feedback that I’ve received is that the people are grateful that you are investing and reviving the village.
Château-d’Oex is still very much alive and I think that the village was already in the process of enhancing its daily life. There are many dynamic “highlander” women who support Château-d’Oex and this region. These include Leopoldine Serra di Cassano, Cécilia Roger, Sophie Labarraque and Sylvie Plassnig. They work in different domains: real estate, artistic embroidery, glass blowing and painting. But they all share the same passion for their work and for the region.
For my part, I am passionate about construction that combines new technologies with traditional products. My company specialises in building insulation based on a mixture of chalk and hemp. We are fortunate to have several local customers that believe in us and Les Alpes is the first example of the work we are capable of.
Mountain regions always have a number of challenges. Are you optimistic about the fate of this region?
I see the Saanenland and the Pays-d’Enhaut as, above all, a family-oriented region. For me this should be the main focus.
The diversity of the inhabitants and the many different networks make daily exchanges very enriching. I think we all share a common love of nature, so I am confident for the future. The hiking trails offer a multitude of possibilities. It is the farmers who “garden” these beautiful alpine meadows and are extremely dynamic. We need to encourage the younger generation to continue farming.
With all its wealth, I am very confident that this valley is and will continue to be an exceptional place.
Part three: Interview with Sophie Labarraque
What made you move to the Pays-d’Enhaut?
I discovered this region during childhood vacations and I love its authenticity. I chose Château-d’Oex because I fell in love with a chalet here and discovered the charm of the village. It has what I call a village character, a human side that is important to me, and also a whole foreign community, a cosmopolitan side.
Then there is also my attachment to the crafts. I recently discovered all the wood trades such as the tavaillonneurs and other artisans in the area. I bought this little chalet – having been seduced by its orchard – and transformed it with the help of a tavaillonneur, one of the few who is still in the region. The discovery of these unique skills deeply touched me. And I think that my activity suits Château-d’Oex.
Why do you call your gallery “Ambulant Curiosities”?
In Paris, where I lived for thirty years, I worked closely with people who had exceptional skills and experience in the luxury sector and also with different craftspeople and artists. When I returned to Geneva, two years ago, I wanted to communicate this know-how [savoir-faire] that I had acquired. With this in mind I bought a small van, an old 1970s Renault Estafette, and set it up as a travelling gallery. I participated in markets and outdoor events and I wanted to keep this traveling theme with my gallery, hence the name. This gallery, although it’s a more fixed place, is in communion with nature and my objects fit in well here. Here I will exhibit things that I could not put in the van.
Can you tell us a bit about the people you work with?
I’ve always wanted to bring together craftspeople, artisans and artists with their exceptional knowledge and to combine their skills with those of other trades. I may, for instance, ask a cordelier to work with a cabinetmaker on an object like a screen or a headboard. All kinds of customised projects can be created from the objects in my window.
My clients can be private individuals, architects, decorators or hoteliers. There are many professionals in the region who I would like to meet. I make custom projects for clients on demand. I also intervene for architects and coordinate follow up.
The artisans I know are all passionate about their work. They are always generous in giving me new contacts so I often meet new artisans through them – a sort of snowball effect.
For the moment I am working with people in France, England and Italy and hope to enlarge this group to include artisans from Switzerland. I like to work with this notion of the person behind the creation. When I first discover an object I need to get to know the person and establish a collaboration between us that develops little by little. I accompany them. This takes time but establishing this relationship is important to me. I personally do not create anything at all. I always leave the artists free to follow their own creativity.
Now that you have this gallery what are your plans?
The gallery will be open during the school holidays and then by appointment. I will continue to go out occasionally with the Estafette. I also often travel around to look for ideas and things at flea markets, in antique shops and old houses. I browse a lot, I travel, I look around, I watch. I need to have this availability.
I plan to have open days on a regular basis with an exhibition in my chalet and my orchard – perhaps one Sunday a month. I am creating a showroom in the basement of my chalet and my idea is to show an artist’s work – ideally with the artist present.
In the gallery, my showcase, I will have a range of objects – each piece unique, handmade – ranging from small gift items and simple things at reasonable prices to garden art and bronzes that may be worth several thousand francs.