Tuesday 21 January 2020

Switzerland: On the piste in the World Cup of ski resorts

When in Adelboden, do what the locals do, says Shane Fitzsimons - and that doesn't mean just lolling about eating Toblerone and gruyere

The Swiss village of Adelboden hosts two of the gold standards of alpine skiing
The Swiss village of Adelboden hosts two of the gold standards of alpine skiing
Shane on the slopes in the chocolate-box village Adelboden

Shane Fitzsimons

If you're at all into skiing, then you'll know that this weekend saw the Swiss village of Adelboden host two of the gold standards of alpine skiing - the FIS Ski World Cup giant slalom and slalom competitions.

It's a magnet for 50,000 or more European ski fans. Tune in to Ski Sunday (BBC2, 18.15) and check out the insanely fast and intense runs by the ski pros, spending all of about one minute and 15 odd seconds to get down what is one of the steepest race courses anywhere - with a turn at the end that sees them come around a copse of snowy pine trees about 800m above the finish line, shooting out like a bullet down a 60pc gradient... before gracefully gliding to a stop before 50,000 cheering fans.

It's the Becher's Brook of skiing.

And I can tell you that when I tried it, I came off like Red Rum on the piste at 2,000m where the air is thin. And I spent five minutes getting to that copse of snowy pine trees, zigging and zagging, making slow ponderous loops and spending at least half the time skiing uphill just to slow myself down a tad more. And then I eventually got to the turn at the snowy pine trees and I looked down the 60pc gradient like I was looking down the barrel of a gun.

My God! A 60pc gradient. Could I maybe snow plough all that way and ignore the sympathetic looks from super pro skiers flying past me every couple of seconds?

My ski guide saw my expression and realised my look of frozen terror was in fact well-placed wisdom and he shushed me out the "side door" - off the World Cup slopes and back on to a nice and windy red slope. Eventually I got down to the finish line - 10 minutes from top to tail! And it's all there on video for my descendants to watch back on. Hmm.

But like they say about Rome, when you're in Adelboden, you've got to try to do what the locals do, and that doesn't mean just lolling about eating Toblerone and gruyere (attractive as that sounds).

Adelboden itself is a chocolate box village, with all of the intimacy and seasonal charm that the big glossy resorts would love to imitate - but can't. The village is really just one main (car-free) street with wooden-faced chalet-type shops, delicatessens, restaurants, ski shops, toy shops, and - in the centre - the church with its spire rising up as a landmark. Picture-postcard cute. The World Cup village and the start of the gondolas is a free five-minute bus ride away.

The village has a long tradition of welcoming visitors who want to ski. In fact in 1903 it was Adelboden which became the very first Swiss village to welcome the world's first ski package holiday. And wouldn't you know it, the event was organised by a Trinity College student.

Bear with me, it's an interesting yarn: Henry Lunn, a former missionary in India, and Trinity medical student, was a strong believer in unity and cooperation between Christian churches. While in India he had seen Christian churches compete for souls so he sought to bring different Christian faiths together on these "package" holidays, which he imagined as a half religious retreat/ half physical adventure. Muscular Christianity in the snow.

Roll forward 80 years and ski package holidays kind of evolved into something different to Lunn's (who founded Lunn Poly travel agents)original concept. Slack jawed 18-30 bacchanality in the sand. Who was it who said that if we want to make the gods laugh, make plans?

Adelboden is tucked away on the sunny side of the mountain at the head of a long valley. Most of the slopes are linked to those above the village of Lenk, towards the west, and a nice place to ski into for a spot of lunch. The resorts on the Jungfrau are further to the east, but they are within range for a day-trip. Most slopes are above 1,500m, so the snow is reliable and anyway the area has extensive snowmaking - and the grooming is immaculate.

There's a lovely comfortable run back down to the village lifts. But before you think of skiing home you've got to take in the best place to eat on the mountain - the skilehrerhutte (which I think translates as ski teachers' hut) and is exactly that.

Best burgers are in the Chumihutte, a converted barn owned by farmer Hansueli Hari. He's also a dairy farmer specialising in longhorn highland cattle - and on hearing Irish accents, he invited us over to his farm the next morning to see one of his prize cow's newborn calf. It would have been churlish not to go, and the calf was cute as hell - though why do farmers everywhere insist on getting their days started at 6am?

One cultural thing I noticed in Adelboden, was that the Swiss seem to shake hands an awful lot. Where we Micks tend to give a nod of recognition, or even a raise of the eyebrows, when we meet, they do this touchy-feely hearty gripping thing. Very manly. Not too sure about it myself.

But no matter how well you can hum the theme tune to Ski Sunday, ski holidays are not just about the bindings and powder. They're about the holidaying. If you can get six hours on the mountains every day, you're doing phenomenally well. And you'll want to make the most of your time when you aren't on the slopes. It's a mixture of the mountain, the accommodation, the culture, the craic - and the food.

We were staying at the Cambrian, and if you're not going out en masse for a chalet, that's your best option. It's a lovely hotel, very friendly, with a great restaurant, and a meltingly hot infinity pool that has made its way on to many top 10 lists. After a day skiing those World Cup slopes (ahem), there's nothing like stretching back on the underwater recliners. It's like a million-finger massage as you gaze on the mountains. Unforgettable.

In the Cambrian, the restaurant is called the Glasshaus, and it's a mecca in these mountains. Serving what they call "new alpine food" by which they mean fillet of beef with kalamata olives and a crust of cashew nuts; fried perch with a panko breadcrumb and orange yoghurt sauce. Due to the slopes, where energy is called for, we felt it was OK to binge on the carbs, so we called for polenta fries with garlic dip, crunchy green pea fritters with zingy feta and a lime yoghurt dip; red cabbage salad with orange slices, quinoa and roast pumpkin seeds; wild mushroom soup just for the candied chestnuts that came with it.

There was dessert: crepes with a chilli and orange compote and nougat ice cream and a chocolate and hazelnut brownie with a mocha-marscapone confection of ice cream. Then there was the coffee.

Someone pointed out that the hotel bar served draught Guinness. There was a murmur of interest. But when in Rome... so those who could still move called for a digestif. Probably. I'm speculating... but that's what you do in the village of Adelboden.

Getting there

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Shane on the slopes in the chocolate-box village Adelboden

For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call the Switzerland Travel Centre on the International freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail info.uk@myswitzerland.com; for packages, trains and air tickets sales@stc.co.uk.

Swiss International Air Lines: SWISS offers more than 15 weekly flights from Dublin to Zurich and Geneva. One way fares start from €73 to Geneva and €95 to Zurich including all taxes, fees and surcharges, one piece of hold and hand luggage.

SWISS are also happy to transport your first set of ski or snowboard equipment and boots free of charge in addition to your standard free baggage allowance subject to availability (excluding hand luggage only fares).

For more information visit swiss.com or call +353 1 890 20 05 15.

NB: This story originally appeared in The Sunday Independent

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