I will be upfront: I don’t like skiing. I find it painful and uncomfortable and I’m terrible at it. Someone once suggested that if I didn’t like skiing, maybe I should try snowboarding, but I felt my incoordination and general ineptitude at physical activity really ruled that out before I even got started. So, when one is spending a week in a Swiss skiing village with absolutely no intention of going either skiing or snowboarding, what do they do? Go tobogganing of course!
Before I could go tobogganing though, we first had to get to the village of Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps, our destination for the week. This turned out to be quite a task, as the trip from Zurich airport to Grindelwald involved catching three progressively smaller trains through the Swiss countryside. Though it was a task, it was an enjoyable one, as we watched mile after mile of chocolate-box scenery rush past – fields so green the grass looked fake, huge glassy lakes and needle-sharp mountains piercing the oh-so-blue sky. I had never seen anything like it. The mountains in particular were a source of awe, so big you had to crane your neck to see the summit.
As we neared our destination the tracks began to climb steeply. Soon we were among snowy pines bedecked with icicles rather than wide grassy fields. At last we arrived – Grindelwald’s station was perched half way up what seemed to me like a mountain, surrounded by half the village, with the other half several hundred metres below in a deep valley with mountains on all sides. The whole scene was dwarfed by the imposing bulk of the Wetterhorn, 3692 metres of mountain peak towering over everything and forcing you to tilt your head backwards at quite an alarming angle to see the top.
Once you’ve arrived in Grindelwald you can then get down to the serious business of tobogganing. And a surprisingly serious business it is! It took us quite some time to get kitted out with hired toboggans and catch the train which carried skiers, snowboarders, walkers, sightseers and tobogganers alike up out of the valley to the start of the various downhill runs.
The beginners’ toboggan run was wide and well-groomed, though with a slightly worrying lack of railings or safety barriers (more than once on the way down I chose to veer face-first into a snowdrift rather than face the prospect of potentially careering off the edge of a sheer drop). We set off, with limited success at first, then building speed as we began to get the hang of it and the run grew steeper. There were flat sections that, unless you had a decent bit of momentum behind you, caused the toboggans to gently come to an unwanted halt, and sharp turns, which seemed to always come at the bottom of a hilly section so you were left frantically trying to slow down enough to make the turn.
We eventually reached the end of the run, feeling rather cold, slightly damp, but absolutely in love with this new-found form of alpine transportation. We defrosted with bowls of steaming barley soup at the chalet at the bottom of the run, then caught the train back to the top to do it all again.
Apart from various snowsports, what else was there to do in Grindelwald? We caught the train even further up into the mountains to Jungfraujoch, the highest altitude train station in Europe at 3454 metres, where the air was thin and difficult to breathe and the view was entirely obscured by the ‘Japanese mist’, so called because the amount of mist was supposedly directly correlated to the number of Japanese tourists. We did, however, see a spectacular view of the neighbouring peaks from one of the lower viewing stations. It boggled the mind that these mountains which we now looked down on were those which had caused us to crane our necks so to see them from the bottom of the valley.
Undoubtedly the toboggans were the highlight of our stay. Whizzing down mountains through the snow-drenched landscape of the Swiss Alps, the cold stinging your nose and the sun sparking off the icicled trees – the mountains have a way of making you feel tiny, but in a way that only increases the majesty of what’s around you.
Cover photograph: Arriving at the Romantik Hotel Schweizerhof.