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Switzerland's picture-perfect Gstaad is an immensely popular world-class skiing destination that boasts miles of hiking trails and other exceptional outdoor activities, high-end shopping opportunities, major international sporting events and the most wonderful festivals, but it didn't start out that way. Gstaad has been around for centuries, and it was once a simple mountain village filled with farmers who worked hard to make a living with their crops and livestock. Read on to learn about the events that changed Gstaad's course of history and made it the incredible mountain resort town that it is today.

Early Beginnings

Gstaad dates all the way back to the Middle Ages when it belonged to the county of Gruyere, which included the Jauntal Valley, the Sanetsch Pass, the Saane River and the present-day Lac de La Gruyere. In 1246, Gstaad and the entire county of Gruyere fell under the control of Peter II of Savoy. That didn't go over too well, and a conflict ensued in 1404 that resulted in the destruction of several castles and other structures in the area.

By 1407, control was returned to the county, but the Count misused the people's funds on his lavish lifestyle. That led to extreme financial difficulties, and it became necessary for lands to be sold to pay off large debts. On November 9, 1554, the county was forced into bankruptcy, and Gstaad became a part of the Canton of Berne, where it remains to this very day.

Though things weren't always perfect in those early years, that didn't stop Gstaad from establishing itself as a proper town. The villagers worked hard at both agriculture and cattle farming, and by the 13th century, the town boasted an inn for weary travelers, a big population of oxen that were used to pull wagons over the mountain passes and a large warehouse for the storage of the many goods that were used for trading purposes. In 1402, the St. Nicholas Chapel was built, and visitors may still see its incredible murals from the 15th century today. Sadly, a great fire destroyed much of Gstaad in 1898.

A New Start

That fire set Gstaad on a different path, and its people were determined to bounce back in a way that would make things better than ever. They began to rebuild with the rapidly growing tourist industry specifically in mind. In 1905, the Ski Club of Saanen was opened following the construction of the Montreux-Oberland Bernois railroad, which connected the once-isolated village with the rest of the world.

The Ski Club of Saanen was so successful that a second ski club was needed. That led the way to the Ski Club of Gstaad being opened in 1907, and the town's very first ski school opened in 1923. Once it became obvious that tourism was going to be big, investors and the people of Gstaad began to build skiing and hiking areas, swimming pools, tennis courts, ice-skating rinks and vacation residences.

The very first ski lifts were opened between 1934 and 1944, and these were quickly followed by many chair lifts, ski lifts and gondolas. In 1942, an airfield was constructed that was used by both the military and the civilian population. Helicopter rides were added as an extra thrill for the visitors, and flights in brilliantly colored hot-air balloons began being offered in 1980. The prestigious Gstaad Polo Club was later founded in 1992, and polo tournaments immediately became all the rage.

Famous Faces

Many people consider the peace and beauty of the area to be nothing short of paradise, and Gstaad has attracted famous visitors that include Madonna, Princess Diana, Elton John, Margaret Thatcher, Diana Ross, Paul McCartney, Quentin Tarantino, Jackie Kennedy and Sophia Lauren. Others were so enamored with Gstaad that they decided to call it home, and these include Julie Andrews, Grace Kelly, Peter Sellers, Sir Roger Moore and Elizabeth Taylor.

Popular Culture

When you see Gstaad for the first time, you may think it looks familiar because much of it has been immortalized in some wonderful ways. Beloved children's author Richard Scarry kept his main studio in Gstaad and took inspiration from the landscape and surroundings to create some of his best illustrations. Several scenes from Blake Edwards blockbuster movie, “The Return of the Pink Panther,” were filmed in Gstaad, and a wonderful animated version of Gstaad may be seen in the “Swiss Miss” episode of the popular Archer television series.

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