MORE curlers than a hairdresser's... and all of them with a lot more idea than we had. The scene was the ice rink devoted to curling in the heart of Wengen in the Swiss Alps; the pocket drama about to unfold was the baptism of fire for a bunch of hapless Brits who had barely set foot on the ice before.
'He encouraged me to have a go with one of his razor-sharp, custom-made Japanese chisels, but wouldn't let me anywhere near his chainsaw'
We had, in fact, been forced inside to the covered rink by too much ice outside – it was too slick and icy underfoot to do what we intended in the open air, so curling was the order of the day.
We already had a few ends of Bavarian curling under our belts from a session in the aptly-titled Ice Magic in the centre of Interlaken the evening before, but that was just child's play – fuelled by grown-up glühwein – which was no help at all for the real thing under the watchful eyes of local experts.
Classical curling was all great fun, of course, especially for the throng of ex-pats of a certain age who piled in for their daily game and proceeded to give us a masterclass on how it's done – with the occasional glance across that couldn't help being a bit patronising.
Anyway, torturing the knees and sliding face down on the ice to the sound of laughter was a fun way of passing a couple of hours on a dull, cloudy day, instead of ending up face down and in pain on the nearby village slope, where we had intended to be for a 'heritage' afternoon.
The plan had been to celebrate 150 years of snowsports in Switzerland by getting togged up in Victorian clothes and strapping on some towering wooden skis, and I'd even grown the 'tache to twirling proportions to look the part.
But instead of desperately trying to look elegant and remember the rudiments of stem Christiana turns, were were saved from ourselves when the event was called off – it was deemed just too dangerous to tackle a slick, virtually snow-free slope with unforgiving Kandahar bindings on long hickory skis with no steel edges to bite into the ice.
The only possible danger the day before had been from over-indulgence, starting with a Swiss flight from Manchester and then travelling from Zurich via Bern – thanks to the Swiss Travel System – and arriving in Interlaken to stay at the rather grand 4* Royal St Georges renowned for its historic 1908 façade and art nouveau hall, let alone its huge staircase which makes you ignore the lift just for the sheer snooty joy of walking up and down it to make an entrance.
Having dumped our gear, we went to see the Iceman – ace ice sculptor Bruno Hänggi – who gave us a workshop demo of his craft while his wife Nicole plied us with delicious nibbles and glühwein.
Bruno – see his amazing work at this link – carves the intricate exhibits for the Ice Palace at the stunning Jungfraujoch Top of Europe attraction, reached via the legendary railway though the Eiger, and is renowned for his banquet and party table centre displays when the likes of Madonna and other A-listers throw an Alpine bash.
And he also does a nifty line in shot glasses made of ice, which he duly kept topped up with red vodka. Unlike his precious, crystal-clear works of art, the glasses are meant to be simply thrown away to shatter after use, so the fast-growing pile of splinters wasn't entirely due to our amateur attempts at carving under his supervision. He encouraged me to have a go with one of his razor-sharp, custom-made Japanese chisels, but wisely, perhaps, he wouldn't let me anywhere near his chainsaw.
Having started with such indulgence, gorgeous guide Anna Neukomm from Interlaken Tourism took us to Ice Magic – the scene of our attempts at Bavarian curling.
Before that heady sporting experience, Anna introduced us to the hugely-popular outdoor entertainment complex, new for the 2014/15 season, which boasted no fewer than four ice rinks with inter-connecting ice paths and a shed-load of stalls selling all manner of local specialities. The very best würst were on offer, along with rather delicious chäsbrätel – melted raclette cheese scraped onto hunks of crusty bread – and even white glühwein, a novelty one just had to try, of course.
All that fuelled us for the Bavarian curling session as the rain started to fall steadily, which in turn encouraged us to seek shelter. Counting the chäsbrätel as canapes, we headed off to a delightful restaurant called Ox in the Marktplatz, a surprise suggestion from vegetarian Anna, but a smashing one, as it turned out, with an excellent menu and no prizes for guessing the key ingredient of the signature dishes.
Rather rewarding wine list too, we discovered, so we had a lot to thank Anna for by the end of an entertaining evening when we wandered back to the Royal St Georges
No rain the next morning, but no snow either, so we headed for altitude and a snowshoe hike with a hard-man guide on the protected high moorland of the Lombachalp] near Habkern. A haven for wildlife and with a wealth of flora and fauna to see in spring, summer and autumn, it's also a joy in winter, on langläuf skis or snowshoes, with stunning views from the windswept heights, taking in valleys and lakes far below and the towering Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau in the near distance.
Heart-thumping ascent under our belts, lunchtime beckoned, so we made our way back down through almost knee-deep snow to the Jägerstübli restaurant and a local speciality prepared for us by Yvonne and Albert Feuz, which rejoiced in the name of hörnli mit gehacktem und frisches apfelmus – macaroni with minced beef, cooked with onion, garlic, sage, parsley and red wine, served with a bowl of apple sauce. Different, yes, but quite delicious when you have a mountain appetite, helped, of course, by a drop of another local speciality from the Rugenbräu brewery.
A wary descent along a narrow Alpine track and then back to Interlaken, nestled between the lakes of Thunersee and Brienzee and a key junction for the rail links to Grindelwald on one side and to Lauterbrunnen on the other, our base for the next night (at the excellent, family-run Hotel Silberhorn and a gateway to our afternoon destination of Wengen.
The only way to get to the picturesque, car-free village on one side of a huge glacial valley – with gorgeous Mürren perched on the other – is by cog railway, which is always a treat as it winds its way up the steep face and opens up amazing views, finally arriving in one of the iconic places where where Alpine skiing was born.
No skiing on the day to safeguard our health and safety, of course, so it was time for our shaky baptism in the rink. it was enough to make your hair curl.
David Graham is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and is on the team at SilverTravelAdvisor.co.uk.
Hotel Royal St Georges, Hoeheweg 139, 3800-Interlaken. Tel: (+41)33 822 75 75 email: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.mgallery.com/Interlaken.
Hotel Silberhorn, 3822 Lauterbrunnen. Tel: (+41)33 855 42 13 email: email@example.com. www.silberhorn.com.
For information on Switzerland visit this link or call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for packages, trains and air tickets email@example.com.
SWISS offers up to 86 weekly flights from London Heathrow, London City, London Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich and up to 200 weekly flights to Switzerland from the UK and Ireland. All-inclusive fares start from £65 one-way. Call 0845 6010956 or visit this link.
The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets, with the Swiss Transfer Ticket covering a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination: £92 in second class and £148 in first class. Call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit this link.
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