La Gran Baita

by Don Paolo Papone

The building remembered with the name “La Gran Baita” embodies in itself a great part of Cervinia’s history. When Cervinia still didn’t have a name it was known as the “Breuil”, a basin of grazing lands and bountiful of water, with few houses inhabited only during summertime. Still, the basin was dominated by the Cervino-Matterhorn, and starting from the 1850s the mountain became the object of desire for mountaineers first and later tourists and vacationers. Thus, among the lodges of herdsmen the first hotels were built and the Breuil name started to go around all Europe.

Between the 19th and 20th century, skiing ended up changing the way people approached the mountain, and skiers found in the elevated fields of snow of Breuil the perfect ground for their passion. In these heroic times people used to arrive in Valtournenche with a coach and then walking up towards the Breuil to the Theodul pass and to Pian Rosà to enjoy a single endless descent.

Towards 1930 a young engineer from Biella, Dino Lora Totino, discovers the charm of Breuil and with some friends he starts to dream its touristic development. It would have remained a fantasy, as long as the connection between Breuil and Valtournenche was simply a mule track. However, the Minister for public works Araldo di Crollalanza was involved. He arrived in Breuil in 1931, falls in love with the place and gives his approval with the funds for the realisation of a road open to vehicles.

The road reaches Breuil in September 1934 and it is opened to traffic later that winter, taking a great flow of vehicles and visitors.

The next year the prefect of the Province of Aosta, Angelo D’Eufemia, proposes to name the newborn touristic locality as “Cervinia”, a sharp name that becomes instantly popular, substituting the original “Breuil”.

Meanwhile, Lora Totino and his friends constitute the Società Anonima Cervino for the touristic development of Breuil and begin to buy land to build a cableway connecting Plan Maison to Museroche, the only area offering solid rock to build the station.

Right from the beginning the project merges technical issues of the cableway with perspectives of restaurants and hospitality reception. The first project is made by Mario Dezzutti in July 1934. Dezzutti himself will publish another one, with some variations, on the magazine “L’Architettura Italiana” in October 1935, but the realisation will still be different from both projects.

During summer 1935 the alpine hut of Museroche is demolished and in its place the first new structures of the new cableway made of reinforced concrete arise. These are just technical buildings, covered by a simple cabin–roof with its ridge oriented towards Plan Maison.

April 1936 sees the legendary transportation of the cables taking place: three massive reels from the Redaelli company of Gardone Valtrompia, weighing 50 tonnes, reached Chambave by train and were then loaded on three lorries, proceeding at a slow pace while the workmen of S. A. Cervino held the cables between vehicles on their shoulders. Spring just began and the single file carries on between tall walls of snow, the same snow that would facilitate the job of the winches, pulling the cables to Plan Maison. With everything assembled, these cables covered a distance of 2360 metres with two intermediate pylons, one of which 32 metres tall. The cabins carry 35 people, covering the distance in 7 minutes, with a maximum capacity of about 500 people per hour.

During spring 1936 the private road connecting the square in Breuil to the departing station of Museroche, and the arrival station in Plan maison are built. The cableway opens on August the 2nd 1936 and introduces a huge touristic development: summer 1936 sees an average daily flow of 300-600 cars. The real touristic development of the Breuil basin had begun, and the need for services is imperative: the postal and telegraphic services are activated, and soon after telephone connection as well.

During the board of directors of July the 23rd 1936, Lora Totino proposes to the partners to take a further step: now that most of the technical issues have been resolved for the best, it’s time to make the investments fruitful, aiming towards tourism infrastructure, «adapting the upper part of Museroche’s station as hotel, restaurant and bar, and to build the Ristorante Belvedere at the arrival of the cableway in Plan Maison, area of incomparable beauty and perfect destination for hikers».

Here then the proto–station shifts to being a receptive complex, carrying out the projects from Dezzutti of 1934 and 1935, significantly enhanced. The technical spaces are incorporated in a structure characterised by a big gabled roof positioned orthogonally to the cableway.

In its most sunlit section – the one dominating the entrance atrium – three storeys of windows open, protected by continuous covering. On the same line of the roof’s ridge, a low and long structure is developed, which is rounded towards North-West, including a basement and two floors above ground, everything covered by a big terrace.
On the 1st of June 1937 the structure opens, named “Grande Albergo del Breuil – Gran Baita”. Otto Bermann takes charge of conducting it, with his experience as a director of the nearby Grande Albergo Cervinia. After two weeks Bermann demands a development concession to further enhance the structure and on August the 24th a positive response from the Ministry of Popular Culture approves the project to “raise the Grande Albergo del Breuil of two storeys”. The project is made by Carlo Mollino, that for his work he will be paid by Società Cervino in August 1937: above the belt course residual of the terrace, a new floor is built following the one underneath, and above this an attic made of wood with a single pitched roof, surrounded by a small terrace. On June the 15th, 1938 the management passes from Otto Bermann to Leo Ferro.

Gran Baita

On July the 8th 1939 a fire destroys the attic of the Gran Baita, damaging the underlying floor. After the event two identical floors are rebuilt, with narrow windows (unlike the big windows of the lower floor), everything covered with a big terrace, similar to the one of the earlier stage, yet two storeys higher. The hotel can now accomodate 120 guests, and the new manager is Mario Fiorio.

The fascist nationalism won’t tolerate the use of languages different from Italian. In 1940 the law to “remove signs in English or French” is confirmed, therefore “Grande Albergo del Breuil” is a replaced with an ever-so-Italian “La Gran Baita”, the great alpine hut. Only in a later stage French will return with a sign above the entrance of the cableway with a quote taken from a restaurant on the shore of Lac Leman, modified aiming to the mountains and attributed to Lord Byron: «Heureux celui qui sur ces monts put longtemps se reposer. Heureux celui qui les revoit s’il a du les quitter». « Happy the man who could longtime rest on these mountains . Happy the  man who can see them again if he had to leave them ».

Italy goes into war and life gets tougher, as the Nation puts everyone in a state of privation and struggle. However, in Cervinia life stays cheerful. On March the 16th 1944, the prefect of the Province of Aosta commands the Gran Baita to be shut for an indefinite period, for the “continuous failure to comply to regulations regarding goods rationing, dancing, alcohol and spirits sales and non-observing pricing policies”, as well as “displays of immorality”. Responsibility falls on the manager, yet the guilt is of ten people ruling for two years over the hotel, covered by their questionable war earnings.

Anyhow, the Società Cervino cancels the contract stipulated with Fiorio because of his guilt and commits the hotel to Perino on the 31st of March 1944. Soon all the best hotels of the area, Gran Baita, Cervinia and Monte Cervino are shut and all the furnishings, food supplies, wines and spirits are confiscated.
When armistice comes everything goes back into business, cableways and hotels. The big terrace of the Gran Baita needs every year expensive repairs, therefore in 1948 decision is taken to rebuild a pitched roof, further raising the structure of another storey, and to install a lift in 1949. After more restoration is conducted in 1953, the management passes to the Borghigiani family.

In 1969 the Gran Baita is closed to the public as a hotel and used as a lodging and competition office, especially for the Chilometro Lanciato (1970-72). On April the 7th, 1973 a new fire, despite not making any victims, destroys the building, carrying away a strong symbol for Cervinia.
Waiting has been long, 44 years, but finally a group of entrepreneurs from Valle d’Aosta, Biella and Lombardy decided to purchase the structure and restore it back to its original use as a grand hotel for 250 guests. The property will be transferred in June 2017 and rebuilding works will start soon.