Thumbs up for Switzerland

22 January 2006

Clockwork. Probably the most abused cliché for any first-time visitor to Switzerland. Other than Cloud Cuckoo Land, if you’re used to African time, I suppose. Trains, planes and automobiles here in the country of Lindt chocolate, Swatch watches and Swiss army knives are painstakingly punctual. Departure time is not “around quarter past seven”, it is exactly 07:13. On the dot. No excuses.

The flight from Johannesburg into Zurich has been unremarkable, but this is the reality of constant travel. You lose the excitement of taking off into an unknown culture, especially if it is predictably European. But who knows, maybe Switzerland will prove to be more than a succession of chocolate box snapshots.

I’m aboard the express train to Lausanne from Zurich, and the village of Diablerets is my final destination. It is here that I will meet the other journalists, a media contingent with representatives from Poland, Russia, Czech Republic, Brazil, Israel and, of course, South Africa. Should be interesting.

23 January 2006

Met up with the press corps at one of the local restaurants and it certainly is a bit of a United Nations. Eastern Europe, Africa and South America make for a diverse mix, but it is a great bunch of people.

The start this morning is relatively relaxed and we head up to glacier 3000 by bus just after breakfast. Weather’s awesome down at the Col du Pillon cable station, but great plumes of snow billow off Scex Rouge peak, signifying heavy winds higher up.

When we step off the cable car it is into a full-blown blizzard, with wind speeds of close on 90km per hour. At first Cedric is not too keen to let us go to the snowbus, a caterpillar-type vehicle allowing tourists to explore the glacier.

After a coffee, we manage to sway Swiss sensibility though and step out to face off against the elements. The winds hit you with a grueling body blow, with horizontal sheets of sleet buffeting you. We literally have to link arms as we force our way through the storm.

Once inside the snowbus, we’re safe from the elements and able to roam freely along the vast glacier. Above us, the Diableret peak punches skywards in all its glory while Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn scratch at the sky in the middle distance.

An hour or two later, after lunch in the famous Botta restaurant, it is back to the village for our next adventure. We meet with Virginié of Mountain-Evasion, a local adventure company, to go on a snowshoe walk.

This is great fun and we soon have our “raquettes” strapped on, ready to take on the showy slopes below Scex Rouge. The shoes are easy to master and, together with the trekking poles, it is a cinch to negotiate the deep drifts.

We see a lot of rabbit and fox spoor along the way, and Virginié tells us a lot about the local geology and nature. After a laid-back glűhwein stop in this fairytale forest, it is back to the hotel for our final adventure of the day.

First we head up to Les Mazots, a restaurant atop the Les Diablérets slopes, for a traditional Swiss cheese fondue. Accompanied by white wine from the Aigle valley and a few hits of kirsch, this turns out to be a merry affair.

From here, it literally is downhill all the way. Everybody gets a sled and a head torch and we assemble at the top of the 7km sled slope. Everyone is issued with a wooden sled, and after a short briefing, we’re let loose to blast down the run.

It’s impossible not to wipe out, and I tumble into the snow a few times, but it sort of sucks you in as you give chase, haring after the yellow circle of bobbing light. Ivana from the Czech Republic is in top form and pips me to the post, but I manage to claim a podium post for SA, just behind her and Igor from Russia.

He’s a great guy, solid as a rock and with a few choice stories about run-ins with the KGB and trips into Siberia. As we skid to a halt in a spray of snow he opens up his jacket and hauls out a bottle. “Stoli, da?” he says and the bottle of Stolichnaya vodka does the rounds.

24 January 2006

We’re blessed with another perfect day in the Swiss Alps. And a good thing too, as we’re heading to Chateau D’oex for the International Balloon Festival, probably the biggest gathering of hot air aficionados in the world.

With nearly 100 competitors, the snow valley has been transformed into an explosion of neon colours. Hot air balloons of all shapes and sizes are drifting in the sky, and furnaces are spewing full pelt to inflate those still on the ground.

We rush around to grab photos, while David of Swiss Tourism flaps after us like a mother hen trying to keep her chicks together. Ivor, Ivana, Ania and Steven take off into the sky and about 10 minutes later, while Joāo from Brazil, Olga and Svetlana from Russia and I wait our turn.

Disaster! Our balloon has a hole in it and won’t be able to fly. But David proves to be a real fixer. “Don’t worry”, he says, “we’ll go and do a quick tour of Rougemont and we’ll have a balloon ready for you when we get back.”

It works out perfectly – after a relatively boring tour of the historical chalets of Rougemont, we trip back to Chateau D’oex. Clive Bailley, our pilot from Bristol, is busy preparing our balloon and within 10 minutes we’re in the basked and ready for lift-off.

“All you guys need to do is watch out for balloons coming up fast from below,” he says, sending great gouts of fire into the bell of our balloon. We take off slowly at first, gaining just enough altitude to lazily drift above the snow-covered roofs and spires of the village.

But our ascent is deceptive, and before we know it, the snowy peaks of the Alps spike the world below us. It is like looking at a frozen world of ice cream cone mountains dusted with icing sugar, with miniature villages sprinkled along the low-slung slopes.

The low sun paints the countryside in warm shades, with shadows slanting in stark contrast to the pristine snow. Two horses canter past below us, their side-lit shadows accompanying them in giant loping strides.

We finally land in a snowy field near to a rambling old farmhouse and say goodbye to Clive. He’s reloading gas canisters with the help of his back-up team, but for us it is time to head back to Les Diablerets.

25 January 2006

It is time to move on from Les Diablerets and we board the train, first to Sion and then to Leysin. Another beautiful little Swiss town set in a picturesque village, with the added bonus of a toboggan park.

We spend around an hour bombing the slopes, whooping it up like a bunch of 8 year olds. The park has been designed by one of Switzerland’s Olympic champs, and the tubes are superfast and slick. On some of the bends, you literally zoom along the wall at breakneck speed as your tube spins through 180 degrees.

We have lunch atop La Berneuse in the Kuklőss Restaurant, tucking into traditional Swiss fare as the breathtaking Alpine panorama slowly revolves past our window. But time is limited and we soon have to take the cable car back down to Leysin before boarding the train to Leuk.

From here, it is a 25 minute bus journey from Leukerbad, a beautiful village tucked away amidst the imposing peaks of the Gemmi Pass. The town is blessed with more than 60 mineral hot springs, the biggest of which bubbles out at a temperature of 51°C and a volume of 900 litres per minute.

It is here that one will find the Linder Alpentherme, the Alpine region’s biggest thermal spa with a mind-boggling selection of spa rooms, pools, baths and therapies, it is an institution famed around the world for its restorative surrounds. We unpack at the Hotel Bristol and spend the rest of the afternoon lazing in the baths, soaking up the luxury of this very special place.

26 January 2006

We have most of the morning free and I decide to get in another swim in the big sport pool. All the eating and drinking is getting to be a bit too much and I’m in serious need of blowing off some steam.

Refreshed, we head up to the Torrent ski slope above the village for lunch. We’re joined by a group of journalists from Belgium and Luxembourg, lending an even more international flavour to the trip.

I try my hand a snowboarding, but I’m afraid that I really suck at this and spend most of the afternoon amusing onlookers as I plough my way through the snow on my butt.

No worries though, as the rest of the afternoon is spent leisurely exploring the narrow alleyways of the old part of Leukerbad. There are lovely little shops, century-old chalets and heaps of character.

That night, we join up with the Benelux and Spanish journalists for a torchlit hike up to a restaurant nestled within the forests high above the village. It is a raclette evening, with scrapings of grilled cheese and potatoes, onions, gherkins and tomatoes for supper.

What really makes the evening though is the local wine. Igor and I get stuck into the vino bianco and have soon sorted out a down-down-cum-headbutting competition. This escalates into a belly war and arm wrestling and when we finally have our coffee, everyone is roaringly drunk.

Now this is not necessarily a bad thing, except if you have to sled downhill on a dark-moon night without a torch. This does not cause undue concern until we somehow manage to lose the track and end up on a downhill skiing slope.

Ivana, myself and one of the Luxembourgish journalists don’t let this worry us too much, and end up blasting downhill at full speed. We occasionally lose even the slope and once I end up head-first in a snowbank up to my belly.

Igor is not quite so lucky and manages to bang full-speed into one of the protective nets, breaking his nose in the process. “Nyet prăblém, apparatchik,” he guffaws, as we stumble back to the hotel for a nightcap.

27 January 2006

I manage to fit in another swim in the morning before setting off to explore the rest of Leukerbad village. At a shop called Rel-action, I find a toy that really impresses me. It is something similar to a very sturdy air mattress, and is called an Air-Board. Basically you lie on top of it like a body board and then bomb downhill, steering the board by forcing down the left or right side. On tight turns, you can ice-pick your boots into the snow to really force your way through tight curves.

I manage to persuade the tourism guys to let me try it out and head up to the top of Gemmi Pass by cable car. It is a really impressive journey, hauling us more than a thousand meters up the sheer cliffs towering over Leukerbad. This 8 hour via ferrata (or Klettersteig) route zigzags in and amongst the limestone crags, but this is sadly only open in summer.

It is windy and, at -13°C, cold as hell, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of what is promising to be a major endorphin rush. There is no chance to really learn the ropes, as you hit the slopes with a vengeance and not much in the line of brakes.

I completely lose it on the third curve, ramping across a snowdrift to tumble head over heels into the little gorge beyond. Everything is blanketed in soft snow though so the landing is soft, if totally spectacular.

The second run is along a much steeper slope, but by now I have attained a lot more control over the board. Pumping wind and sheets of sleet rage along the slope, and at times it is like wave-boarding a monster wave within a total white-out, but is by far the most fun I’ve had in Switzerland.

I have to call it a day when the stormy wind forces the ski lift to shut down. David and I are the last guys off the mountain and we ride out the gust in the cable car down along the spectacular Gemmi cliffs.

28 January 2006

Sometimes even the mean Swiss organizational machine hits a glitch …. Today was meant to be the Festival of Fire and Ice and all of us were planning on heading up to The Torrent slopes for a day of spectacular events.

One obstacle though – the wind is pumping at full strength and the cable cars had to be closed. This means completely reshuffling the festival programme and the organizers are in the end forced to scrap some items.

This is a great pity, but it does give us time to fit in an afternoon walk in the forest clinging to the slopes above Leukerbad. It is great to get out into the natural environment and impressive to see how powder waterfalls veil down the vertiginous cliffs below the Gemmi Pass.

We see some deer (called reh locally) and a snow hare (feldhase) before we troop back down to the village square to watch the toned-down version of the Fire and Ice celebrations.

After a short set by the Irish folk band, the small (and freezing) crowd is treated to a troupe of fire jugglers, flame blowers and stuntmen. All very amusing, but it does not quite compare to what could have been if all of the action unfolded upon The Torrent slopes with the Alps as the background.

The party afterwards makes up for what admittedly came as an anti-climax. The Russians, Polish, Czech and Catalonians engage in fervent cultural exchange and we sing national songs and do traditional dances.

The vodka, tequila and vinorioja flow and by the time I finally escape it is well past 2 am.

29 Januar 2006

Most of us leave Leukerbad under the low cloud of a hangover threatening to blow. Fortunately, the train journey to Zurich is uneventful and most of the journos grab a powernap.

Zurich itself is rather drab and grey, but the day is brightened up when I meet Lize Marie, who has journeyed up from Paris to spend 2 days with me.

We go on a walking tour, see a few forbidding buildings, stare at the bankers and generally try to get a handle on this Swiss economic centre. Maybe it’s winter, or maybe it has just been a long and tiring trip, but I’m not blown away by the city. The country itself, however, gets a big thumbs up.