Between past and present.
The former director of the Grandhotel Waldhaus in Vulpera still radiates the warmth of a host. In his house he keeps the souvenirs of the former Grandhotel like in a treasure chamber – his office resembles a museum and lets you dive into a bygone era.
The search for vocation
When Rolf was 16 years old and faced the choice of a profession, he had no idea which career was right for him. As he had always been interested in nature and liked to spend time outdoors, his secondary school teacher at the time advised him to train as a forestry engineer. However, Rolf wanted to see something of the world and not stay in his home village of Niederuster. He decided to start an apprenticeship as a chef in St. Moritz and so his life's path led him to the Engadine for the first time. After his apprenticeship, he was able to gain experience in various kitchens, including in Geneva, Zermatt and Sweden.
The years in England
In his early 20s, however, Rolf came to the point where he had to decide what he wanted to do concretely with his life. The plan was to work on a cruise ship for six months. But life had a plan of its own in store for him and so Rolf was finally drawn not to the sea, but to England. In the prestigious hotel «The Bell Inn» – at that time one of the best restaurants in England – he worked as a young chef. Within five weeks he was promoted to sous-chef and worked in a 22-strong team of chefs. This was both a beautiful and exhausting time for Rolf. After a holiday in Switzerland, however, the longing in his heart to return to his home country arose again.
It quickly became clear to Rolf that he did not want to stay in England permanently and so, after a winter season at the Suvrettahaus in St. Moritz, he started hotel management school. As fate would have it, Rolf returned to England the following summer – that's how he met his wife Sally. He celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with her in 2023. In 1972, Rolf graduated from hotel management school and then worked as a restaurant/reception manager.
The time in England was a very educational time for me. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that this is not the country where I want to live and where I can realise myself.
Returning home to Switzerland – to the Engadine
In March 1975, Rolf and Sally left England to develop their careers in Switzerland. He was given the opportunity to manage the Hotel Krone – with 100 beds, this was the largest hotel in the canton of Uri at the time. Rolf was able to work again where he liked it best: at the front of a hotel business. With the rise of bus tourism in the 70s, Rolf was once again faced with the question of what to do next for him. Because this kind of mass tourism, with such an enormous intensity and fast pace, was not the kind of tourism Rolf had at heart. After a three-month break, which he took for himself and his family, circumstances led him to a job in Vulpera through an acquaintance.
The variety of hotel structures in Vulpera
At the age of 35, Rolf coordinated the various operations in Vulpera as «Director Adiministation». This included the holiday centre, the large laundry, the entire infrastructure in Vulpera and the management of the employees. Vulpera was a magical place. Just imagine: All the hotels belonged together and were complemented by the tennis court, the tennis hall and the golf club. Special gardeners were employed to maintain the magnificent park. A saddler, carpenter, electrician and painter maintained the hotel facilities. It was a world of its own, like a fairy-tale place, where a completely different rhythm dominated the daily routine. Rolf has many pictures from those times in his archive, but he has also left some of the documents to the Lower Engadin cultural archive.
The stakes for the continued existence
But Rolf knew after taking over the hotels that the group was not doing well financially. A nerve-wracking period followed, during which it was not clear whether the hotels with the various leisure facilities could be reopened and continued in the next season. Rolf did not give up and put great commitment into the continuation of the hotel chain. With the support of the GKB and the takeover of the Schweizerhof by the Robinson Club, the continuation was secured. Very good years followed, during which Rolf and his wife Sally ran the Grandhotel Waldhaus for the guests with heart and soul.
27. May 1989
The fire at the Grandhotel Waldhaus
The fire in the forest house on 27 May 1989 was a drastic event. Rolf remembers it well. Early in the morning at 5.00 a.m. he was woken up and noticed the smoke from his bedroom window. Within two hours, the Grand Hotel had burnt down. Rolf could only watch stunned as the hotel was swallowed up by the flames. He could only really realise what had happened when the representative of the cantonal building insurance was on site and gave the fire brigade the order to let the house burn out.
There was and still is speculation about the cause of the fire. Rolf is still intensively dealing with the question of why. «This is a highly emotionally charged topic and there were many suspicions, the imagination can run away with you,» Rolf recalls. After the event, Rolf ran the Hotel Villa Post and Vulpera slowly recovered after the horrors of the fire. The sale of the flats from the holiday centre and the departure of Robinson Club from the Schweizerhof heralded the collapse of Vulpera. The facilities made a deficit. The open-air swimming pool and the tennis facilities could not be covered by the hotel income. Rolf was unable to find an investor, and so it was with a heavy heart that he had to watch the hotel group being torn apart and sold to various operators.
Family, memories and the love of nature
For Rolf and his family, the years in Vulpera were beautiful and intense, but they also took their toll. There was no time for hobbies – Rolf spent his free time with his family. Sally was a great support to Rolf. With her British manner and ability to keep a cool head even in emotional conflicts, she always had his back. The two of them still remember the many wonderful moments they had with their guests over the years. Of course, there were also situations in which not everything went smoothly. But the two of them stuck and still stick together and enjoy their time together most of all with their dog Holly. Far away from the crowds in the idyllic Engadine nature, Rolf finds peace and enjoys the quiet moments. He particularly enjoys hiking to the Lai Nair or to the stone pine forest «God da Tamangur».
I had no time for leisure activities or hobbies. I spent my free time with my family. Bernhard Russi once called me the least sporty hotelier in Switzerland.
Cultural Treasure: The Index Cards.
«No more Easter greetings!»
The well-known index cards from the Grandhotel Waldhaus Vulpera, which were spared by the flames, are contemporary witnesses and recorded in the book «No more Easter greetings!» Together with Andrea Kühbacher and Lois Hechenblaikner, Rolf has compiled the book and it will be published in spring 2021. At the beginning of this year, Rolf accompanied film work for a documentary about the Waldhaus Vulpera. The film will be broadcast in 2025 and will deal with the hotel fire, among other things.
Rolf Zollinger is a good storyteller – anyone who talks to him is soon transported back in time. In an entertaining and exciting way, he talks about life in the past and thus builds a bridge between the past and the present.
Bilder: Michelle Zbinden / Archiv Rolf Zollinger
Text: Michelle Zbinden
Rolf Zollinger has written a chronicle about Vulpera, in which the historical development from 1800 BC to 2017 is recorded.
From the archive.
SRF report on the fire in the Waldhaus
Are you interested in details about the fire at the Grandhotel? Watch and read the report from Swiss television from 2021 documenting the fire and its consequences.
Impressions: then and now
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