With the 2014 Winter Olympic Games behind us and the Paralympic Games well underway, now seems an appropriate time to post about the Swiss love of winter sports.
As you might expect of citizens from a country full of mountains, they love throwing themselves around on ice and snow. And they're pretty good at it too. Despite being a relatively tiny country, Switzerland finished 7th in the Sochi medals table, bringing 11 medals back to the land of cheese, 6 of them gold.
While we Brits may have outdone them in curling, the winter equivalent of crown-green bowls, they were victorious in bonkers, dangerous sports such as alpine skiing. Of course I don't feel too bad about this. In Britain we don't have any alps to practice on. If they made "Milton Keynes snowdome skiing" an Olympic sport we'd probably fare much better.
That said, even for the Swiss, winter sports are dangerous. Between October and March the number of people you see hobbling around Zürich on crutches is astounding. Between 10,000 and 12,000 cruciate ligaments are torn in Switzerland each year. That's about one per hour. And I'm pretty sure most of them are because of winter sports. The cry of Swiss fans as they cheer in their nation's heroes is "Hopp Schwiiz" (roughly translated as "go Switzerland"). But it's equally applicable in the cities after any winter weekend of good weather. Everyone seems to be "hopping" about on crutches. They've all done their knees in skiing and snowboarding.
Zoe and I don't ski. We've tried it but we don't 'do' it. When you tell a Swiss person this they often seem baffled. They will also be baffled if you ask them whether they "ski or snowboard?". This is a perfectly legiitimate question to a Brit. But they are Swiss. They can do both. Probably even at the same time.
We do, however, love being in the mountains. We recently went to the Grindelwald region, home of the Jungfrau and the Eiger, to do a bit of snowshoeing. Check out some of the pics below. It was great fun. Even if it isn't perhaps as thrilling as skiing, being able to walk on giant drifts of snow to take in incredible views was still breathtaking.
While we were in the area we also joined hoards of Asian tourists to head to the "top of Europe". A special train takes you up to the Jungfraujoch - within a stones' throw of the peak of the Jungfrau itself. It was spectacular.
Though as a Brit, and a lily-livered one at that, I may never feel on top of the world when it comes to winter sports, I literally felt atop the world that day. I can really see why the Swiss love their mountains. But I still have no urge to throw myself off one.
Swiss people are proud of their mountains. And rightly so. As peaks go, they have some of the very best.
Then, this weekend, Zoe and I headed to Bannalp, just north of Engelberg – proper mountain territory. And this time it was proper hiking. Meticulously connected public transport got us painlessly to a cable car which took us up to 1713m. And the weather was perfect. Zoe had planned a combination of two routes. A gentle uphill and then a descent on a route classified as “difficult” though I was assured we were skipping out the tricky bit. The climb up to 1951m wasn’t too tough and we were rewarded with a seemingly endless view of the glacial valley below. It was truly breath-taking (probably as we’re not very fit).
The thing is, as we’re not Swiss, we hadn’t quite got our plans right. The descent of almost 1,000m turned out to be THE tricky bit of the route and though we had planned lunch in a quaint little “Hütte” on the mountainside, one never emerged. So, I’m not going to lie, it was tough going. My knees are still sore from acting as brakes the whole way down. But I tell you what, it was worth it. The great outdoors, the fresh air, the incredible views, the repeated “Grüezi”s from passers by – it all made for a great experience and a sense of achievement at the end. If you want to feel reinvigorated then I now know what to recommend: take a hike.
Hope you like the pics,
From walking in the air to the sound of a young Aled Jones, or starring in last year's festive John Lewis advert, the UK cherishes the humble snowman as a symbol of the fun that can be had in Winter despite low tempeatures. In Zurich it's a bit different. Here, the snowman gets executed.
Instead of being allowed to gently dissolve to form a slushy puddle when the mercury in the thermometer starts to rise, he is perched upon a pyre to burn until his head, stuffed full of fireworks, explodes.
This is Sechseläuten (pronounced 'Zeks-uh-loy-ten) or, in Swiss German: 'Sächsilüüte' (zeks-uh-loot-e) and is the traditional Zurich festival for saying goodbye to the winter and welcoming spring. Celebrated on the 3rd Monday in April since the early twentieth century, it's a national holiday in the Canton of Zurich (but not elsewhere in Switzerland). Last weekend for 2013's celebrations saw glorious weather here and we were fortunate to have had my parents with us to witness this fascinating cultural event as well.
The day begins with a parade through the city by the members of the 'Zuenfte' - the old city Guilds, each with their own marching band and floats. My favourite was the 'Zunft zum Kaembel' or 'Camel Guild'. Derived from an organisation of fruit and vegetable sellers from way back when, they were dressed in arab clothing and their procession included actual camels (see pic in slide show below). I've tried to find the reason for this link with the middle east but even on their website in doesn't seem to be explained - presumably they were wheeling and dealing with tradesfolk from that part of the world to stack their own veritable Aladdin's caves here in Zurich.
The origins of the festival go back to medieval times when the first day of summer working hours was celebrated in the guildhalls across the city. Back then, the powers that be strictly regulated the length of the working day and during the winter period the workday in the various workshops lasted as long as there was daylight. During the summer months, however, the law stated that work must cease when the church bells tolled at six o'clock. Sechseläuten is Swiss-German for "The six o'clock ringing of the bells". Changing to summer working hours traditionally was a joyous occasion because it marked the beginning of the season, though the parade and snowman execution didn't begin until 1902.
The procession of guild members heads to a dedicated square next to the lake where the snowman or 'Böögg' as he is known (a bit like a bogey man - very different to Raymond Briggs' interpretation!) is perched ready to meet an explosive end.
At 6pm we, and a staggering 5000 other specatators, gathered around as the bonfire was lit. The legend has it that the quicker the fire reaches the poor fellow to blow off his head, the better the summer will be. The quickest execution on record was in 1974 when his carrot nose was sent into orbit after just over 5 minutes, indicating a scorcher of a summer on the way. The longest burning at the stake on record was 26:23 in 2001. That is, until this year.
Despite a hot sunny day, it took 35 minutes and 11 seconds for the final giant pop to indicate our bogeyman had gone to snowman heaven. This of course doesn't bode well for our first summer in der Schweiz. In fact, since the Böögg met his violent end the clear skies have been replaced by clouds. Even the UK has had better weather than us.
I'm beginning to wonder whether sacrificing Mr Snowman was such a good idea...
P.S. Just in case the spirit of winter is here to haunt us for a while I've included a few pics below from the trip we took with my folks to Luzern before the weather changed. And thanks to Dad for providing most of the below photos.
P.P.S - this YouYube video will give you a good feel for - the festivities: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQBEMWfVAuE - skip to the end for the snowman's final moments.
A coupe of weekends ago, having got ourselves unpacked, and with the weather forecast cold but clear, we decided we'd have our first mini-adventure outside of the limits of Zurich with a trip to Luzern (or Lucerne as the french swiss call it and you may know it).
Despite being only a 45 minute train ride away, Luzern delivered all that we hoped for when first getting excited about making the move to Switzerland in winter time. Built at one end of a huge crystal clear lake, Luzern is framed on all sides by beautiful snow-capped mountains.
Having got our bearings with a bracing walk around the old town we ventured out on a boat tour of the lake with a round trip to nearby Beckenreid. But this was no ordinary boat ride. This, dear readers, was
'Cake on the Lake'.
Just when we thought that things couldn't get much better than bright blue skies and mountains straight from the Toblerone packet, we settled ourselves in for a boat tour that specialises in offering all passengers a huge selection of cakes and sweet treats. On board the 'Tortenschiff' (literally cake ship) we treated ourselves to a chocolate nut brownie and a decadent slice of raspberry gateau. Ironically the 'icing on the cake' was nothing to do with cake at all and came when it emerged they served cold beer too! Though I must confess the cup of tea we had subsequently was probably better accompaniment to the baked delights.
It was a lovely day and a brilliant first real taste of the natural beauty that Switzerland offers. With Luzern such a short distance away we'll definitely be back, not least for the cakes. Enjoy the pics.
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.