Engelberg: Purple pistes

Engelberg

What do you get when you mix a blue run and a red run? A purple one. As a beginner (I’ve now been skiing a staggering 4 times), I tend to stick to blue runs. Red, the universal colour of danger appears somewhat threatening to a novice so I avoid red runs like the plague. Heading up to Engelberg I was sent off on a blue course alone, confident that I could handle it. The sun was shining and I got chatting to a lovely Dutch pensioner who showed me how to dismount a chair lift. Having spectacularly ballsed that up I brushed off the snow and continued down the seemingly easy hills of a comfortable blue run. Little did I know that this merged with a red run ahead in an oncoming blizzard.
In these situations there is only one way to get down, so you plough your heart out and hope for the best. After countless times falling I gave up, dismounted my skis, laid them down on the ground and headed down on my front, head first. At the time it seemed like the only sensible thing to do. With no real ability to break, you just have to close your eyes and believe that you’ll make it to the bottom alive.
Exhausted at the lift I contemplated finding my friends for lunch and picked up my skis. It wasn’t until I reached the top and tried clicking in to them that I realised that they were not the skis I rented. In the most stealthy manoeuvre possible, I made it back down on the next funicular, dropped the temporarily stolen skis and located my own in time to get back on the next lift. With all the mix up, I’d managed to rid the adrenaline from the previous attempts at skiing and became confident enough to get back to the restaurant for a cheese coma.
I still may not be ready for purple runs just yet, but on the second attempt I made it all the way down without falling over once. Once again I learned to believe in my physical capabilities. It is really easy to give up when something is difficult or scary, but given that this was only my fourth time on the slopes, I’m actually nailing it.

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Skiing success=not dying whilst sliding down big hills


I had absolutely zero interest in skiing after moving to Switzerland. I’m not paticularly good with adrenaline and my wrists are so feeble they could break just from looking at them. But last summer I took the plunge and bought a load of ski gear in a sports sale. It was 34 degrees and I was trying on thermals but it was the commitment to the cause I needed. The first 2 experiences were utterly horrendous. My first episode was in a blizzard on a steep blue run with a sheet drop to my right whilst my friends repeatedly shouted PIZZA at me from a distance. The second time I strapped skis to my feet I had flu and it was the last weekend of the season so it was glorified sunbathing in slush.


Third time lucky for the first weekend of the season this year. I gritted my teeth and donned my shiny new gear and went for it…wholeheartedly. I spent a great deal of time building up my confidence in my own physical ability in India and it paid off. I can actually ski, somewhat competently too. Granted I was still practising with toddlers but I wasn’t on my arse or hiding on a sun lounger. It is exhausting trying to stay alive on compacted ice when toddlers are flying past you and women are carrying babies up the piste. A 30th birthday ski lodge apres ski in a strong blizzard dressed as a unicorn is the only answer for exhaustion. I think this year is finally the year at the tender age of 27 that I’m going to nail skiing. Famous last words. Bring on more snow!

Fondue and Feuerzangebowle

IMG_0136-0Living in a Swiss nation you’d think its pretty standard to have a fondue as a work social event. Well it is every part the stereotype you have in your head. However working with a number of German colleagues has meant that there was an inevitable Bavarian twist on the occasion. Instead of the seasonal Glüwein we had a rather theatrical Feuerzangebowle. As you’d expect it’s very much a case of fire by name, fire by nature affair. The recipe is much like its mulled wine cousin’s but I fear the fiery version has considerably higher alcoholic content.
You just need a mild red wine, nothing too rich as it becomes syrupy as it cooks. To this you add a cinnamon stick, some cloves and a star anis, and some sliced fresh lemon and oranges. Then for the best bit…the specialist goods. You can order sugar cones online all year round which is he safest option unless you have a well stocked German specialist store in your vicinity. You place the sugar cone on a platform on a platform as the mixture bubbles in a cauldron below. You soak said cone in rum then set it alight. As the flames melt the sugar it forms a syrup the drips into the hot cocktail beneath. You add a ladle of rum as the flames lower and continue to your taste. This is also true for the sugar content. You can add as much granulated sugar as necessary to sweeten it. Obviously the aroma it creates is astounding. Pure Christmas in a mug.
The only appropriate accompaniment for this drink is a good fondue. We paired it with 2 different types a hausgemacht stronger full flavored blend and a milder smoother version. Absolutely delicious start to the festive season.

Hiking Creux du Van

For me, hiking with a distinct lack of appropriate clothing and footwear only adds to the sense of achievement of making it up and down a mountain alive. Armed with only treadmill trainers and a pair of leggings in windy November, hiking Creux du Van in a day trip driving from Zurich was quite a challenge. However there have been times in tropical environments when hikes have been last minute unplanned adventures and all I have on me is a water bottle and a pair of flip flops. Other times, such as in upstate New York, I have been suitably dressed from top to toe in a gang fully equipped with enough snacks to fuel an entire army, yet we’ve taken the wrong turning at the very beginning and completely circumnavigated a peak in 10 hours when a full ascent and descent should have taken less than half that! Either way, no matter how equipped you think you are, things can, and do inevitably go wrong, but its the group you are with that makes it entertaining.

Creux du Van is a horseshoe-shaped valley geography porn phenomenon that forms “nature’s very own giant amphitheater”. Its a moderately easy hike and easily reachable by car in only 2.5 hours from Zurich. You can explore different hiking route options, but its well worth doing a round trip to get a full 360° panoramic view of the valley. My favourite vantage point was a stack that protrudes from the main arc that allows you to perch on the edge of the sheer drop. It takes some balls in strong winds to stagger down to the edge. Gird your loins in colder months because the bitter gales can be horrendous, and be certain to set off early enough to make it back down in daylight hours. You should also make sure that you check parking signs with a fine tooth comb. We parked in a half empty open car park on a Sunday only to discover that a petulant resident had let the air out of our tyres owing to a tiny concealed No Parking sign hundreds of metres away. That aside it was totally worth the late night panic to see such beauty.

European Athletics Championships, Zurich 2014

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It’s always good to watch athletes achieving PBs, breaking world records an generally excelling at things you cannot even comprehend being remotely competent in doing. But one of the disappointing things about attending an event is seeing all of the empty seats surrounding you. Particularly at sports events knowing that there are dedicated sports players the world over who would give anything to be there.
I was fortunate enough to be given a ticket to the European Athletics championships in Zurich thanks to a generous volunteer and I was extremely grateful to be there. It’s two years since I went to an athletics event and now the London Olympics just seems like a distant memory. However the spirit and energy in the city that summer was overwhelming. It was the best year to be living in London absorbing all of the positivity for once. This was somewhat lacking in Zurich to say the least. This may have been largely due to the half filled Letzigrund. Why was it so under capacity you may ask. Probably due to the fact that the tickets were so incredibly over priced, that even the average Zureicher couldn’t justify taking out a mortgage to attend.
Watching play back footage of the crowd was utterly cringeworthy seeing a sea of empty seats and missed opportunities. The ticket price was fixed at an astronomically high rate and could not be possibly be lowered. Whether this was to save face to avoid admitting that they were unaffordable, I am uncertain. But there is no excuse for letting them lay to waste. Rather than a fire sale the organisers could have simply donated then to schools and athletics clubs to harness the opportunity to inspire young Swiss minds.
It’s not often that I’m proud of my home nation’s general athleticism. Granted there is still a colossal amount to achieve in getting the population active and living healthy lives. However the generation of young athletes that were borne out of hosting the world games is awe inspiring. I watched a number or Britons triumph across a range of heats. I wasn’t beaming with patriotic pride and and wailing God Save the Queen as the Jack was raised by any means but I was impressed by the athletic achievement.
This is not a rant against the organisers or a complaint about the expense of living in Switzerland but merely an acknowledgment of how sad it was to see a valuable opportunity missed. It’s a shame to know that schools and clubs could have thoroughly enjoyed a visit to the stadium but instead thousands of tickets never even exchanged hands. I can only hope it’s a lesson learned for future events.

Second Italian road trip of the year, this time its wedding time in Toscana

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So I think I have finally mastered the art of the Italian road trip, and the answer is…drive at night. I made a vow to tackle as much of the 7 hour journey from Zurich to Sinalunga under the cover of darkness and it paid off. I was required to make one stop to sleep in a lay by on the motorway because my copilot couldn’t stay awake any longer. It was perfect until we were awoken by an angry beeping truck driver. We made it to Toscana in good time and explored the hill top town of Montepulciano simply because its one of my favourite wine regions. From there we realised that we had lucked out on the hotel beyond all expectations. Such a beautiful garden overlooking Sinalunga within crawling distance of the gorgeous Teatro wedding venue. One of my best friends of all time decided to get hitched here after her engagement there the previous year. They couldn’t have picked a better spot if they tried. It was as though Wes Anderson had directed the ceremony. I can honestly say that I have never eaten and drank so much at any event before in my life. It was relentless, but because it was too good an opportunity to waste, everyone continued gorging on the phenomenal food that was continually produced. Hands down wedding of a lifetime, without any of the cheesiness.

siena pisa

After the wedding it was onwards to Sienna, the beautiful medieval town where we visited the museum of torture and stumbled across Tony Adams, holidaying and losing his family in the crowds! The torture museum was a bit of a macabre afternoon of entertainment but interesting to see just how horrific human beings were towards each other in the middle ages. Of all the gelato we samples, I think Sienna had the best. I can’t help myself when it comes to cioccolato fondente, but trying ‘muffin’ for the first time which was full of blueberries finally knocked me out of my boring same flavour selection streak. We managed to squeeze in a cheeky visit to Pisa for sunset, which was a slightly confusing tourist location, given that everyone is there for only that one attraction. Its yet another one of those sites that makes you feel perplexed as to whether its real or not. I had a final farewell dropping of my friend at the airport and headed up to Cinque Terre for another night in the love mobile. We woke up at sunrise overlooking the cliff edge and took a wander around some of the bays and got a final summer swim in the ocean before returning to our landlocked nation.

roadtrip

From Italian heat it was back across the border to the pouring rain and fog of Switzerland. We stopped off in Brig for Grandma visiting duties before taking the Grimsel pass. Despite the excitement of a Help the Heroes rally convoy, it was a mild disappointment because I had to drive at 30kmph at all times as I was barely able to see my own hand let alone another car, so the views were lost in the fog. But it was made up for in rope bridge adventures on the other side. This bridge delivers you at the foothill of the steepest furnicular railway I’ve ever seen, would definitely love to go back in the snow. The final stop was in Aareschlucht to see the gorge in the driving rain. It didn’t make the slightest bit of difference under the dripping rocks as you were bound to get drenched anyway, but it meant that it was almost tourist free, so I had the creepy place to myself. I was dubious at first but its really worth doing the full walk, the rock formations are really rather impressive, says the geography geek in me.

Hiking in Wilhelm Tell Land: Äsch, Uri, Switzerland

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Following a tiny map from a newspaper cut out we headed to Äsch in Uri to explore the lands of Wilhelm Tell. It started as an overcast day with enormous flies that bit you if you stood still for more than 5 seconds, but soon the sun came out and the gradient increased and we got a good old fashioned family work out. The views were incredible along the way, and surprisingly the paths were empty. We didn’t see another soul despite it being prime summer hiking season. When we reached the top in Oberalp we found a small museum and restaurant with typical mountain food. Everything was homemade of course because lugging things up a considerable hill from a supermarket isn’t exactly practical. The owner also happened to be the winner of a TV show competition to be ‘Country woman of the year’. Her food was sensational, not just because we were ravenous  from the climb. It was delicious produce of homemade bread, sausages and cheese all serve on a chopping board in the shape of a cows head. The best part of the day was me discovering a forgotten Swiss army knife by a stream, not just any old knife, an enormous Victorinox one with all the extra hand stuff like a torch. Just two days ahead of my birthday this was the best gift ever found laying in the grass. On a trip to the bathroom I think I found one of f the world’s nicest toilet views, I think I could lookout at this everyday for the rest of my life and not get bored:
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We took the cable car back down the valley to pick up the car and drove on to Lake Lucerne to refresh our sweaty bodies we went for a brief swim with a view of Schiller rock, the place where Switzerland was founded. The water was ice cold but picking blackberries made up for it. From there it was on to the town of Brunnen. On first glances it seems rather touristy but it is a gorgeous lakeside town. At sunset and under moonlight it is unbelievably pretty and really reminded me of Lago Como. We found a restaurant to eat some proper hearty Swiss food and settled on Älpermagrone. We heard the sound of alphorns playing, and to our surprise it was live so we rushed outside to watch them play in the square. It was my first time to see anyone playing this instrument, and as cheesy as it may seem it was actually rather beautiful to watch. The sound it creates is so moving, another nice unexpected treat. What’s more it was not old a full moon but a super moon that evening peeking over the mountains and shining on to the lake which after sunset made the town light up. I slept in the car the whole drive home like an exhausted toddler after a thoroughly lovely day out. Hiking in the Swiss mountains will exhaust you but luckily mountain food is always on hand to fill you right back up again.

 

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