I’m standing in my hotel balcony wearing the entire contents of my suitcase. I can’t feel my face, but I’m certain there’s a stupid grin buying real estate on it. In the two weeks before my departure, I called everybody I know begging for extra woollens. I’m now in Engelberg, a quaint town in central Switzerland surrounded by the Alps and, from here, it’s only going to get chillier.
Here’s a fun fact: I’ve never even seen the snow up-close before. I’ve been thrown in the deep end, and the lake is literally frozen. This is Winter in Switzerland 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Powder.
The Baroque church at the monastery that gave Engelberg – Angel Mountain – its name
I’m doing my best to ease into the programme, which means a spot of sledding, an activity that needs no skill at all. My sled looks like an upside-down laundry basket, and I’m supposed to just get in and hurtle myself down a hillock that’s more slippery than usual as there hasn’t been much snowfall lately. I’m breaking into a cold sweat, but, when it’s over, one Swiss minute later, I’m exhilarated. It’s the best thing I’ve done with six layers on.
I’m on the bunny slopes at Klostermatte, great for families and tailored to suit beginners. The best part about it is the ‘magic carpets’ – conveyor belts that take your uphill whether you’re sledding or skiing. When there’s enough snow, this is a good place to get ski lessons, as it will save you the cost of the cable pass, which you can then use to go to the sunny side of the mountain.
Klostermatte Ski Resort
I’m famished, and skip today’s ski lessons for a meal at Bergrestaurant Ristis, a mountain bistro accessible from Talstation Brunni, but I learn something anyway: on aerial cableways, always keep your camera handy. The bird’s-eye view of the valley is staggering. At Ristis, I get my first taste of two typically Swiss dishes— rosti, crispy potatoes, and spaetzle, tiny dough dumplings sprinkled with cheese. The setting is sublime — I’m surrounded by fir trees and snow-covered crests with the sun on my face and the occasional paraglider soaring past, throwing shadows on me.
The rest of the day is spent in Engelberg, strolling the streets of the town and hopping into a horse-drawn carriage. I snuggle up under a warm fur blanket as we canter past fields blanketed in snow, stacks of firewood, and a moon that makes an appearance while sunlight still sparkles off the peaks.
That night at the Alpen Club, I realise that I could make a meal of the raclette alone. It’s a simple dish, hot cheese scraped off the wheel onto a plate and served with pickled silver onions, sliced gherkins and baby potatoes. I try to assuage my guilt the next morning with a few rounds of ice-skating. The Sporting Park has a natural, outdoor rink and I’m flailing at first, but, inspired by the fresh air and breath-taking scenery, and fuelled by envy of the five-year-old zooming past me, I soon master the art of gliding on ice.
If you’re still thinking about cheese, there’s only one spot to go in town — the Schaukaserie Kloster Engelberg, the cheese factory on the premises of the 900-year-old Benedictine monastery that gave the town its name. From the very beginning, the monks in the abbey travelled with and traded the soft cheese they crafted for leather and other necessities.
At the cheese factory, you can observe a cheesemaker at work inside a modern glass-enclosed unit, but you can also sign up for a more in-depth demonstration. Luana Cuadalupi runs the tours, and will be teaching me about the cheese-making process. Together, we make cheese curds, adding cultures, calcium and (vegetarian) rennet to pasteurised milk. It coagulates quickly and we strain it into bell-shaped moulds to separate solids from whey. In the next eight days, it will grow white mould and be ripened in the monastery cellars to finally become brie. Harder cheeses can take years.
Schaukaserie Kloster Engelberg
The shop sells every variety of cheese imaginable, so I pick a couple to go. My most important takeaway, though, is this nifty tip courtesy Luana: “Packing soft cheeses in your luggage is a big no-no. Only take cheese home that’s waxed or vacuum-sealed.”
The rest of the day will be spent at FIS Ski Jumping World Cup. In the backyard of the Sporting Park is the world’s longest natural ski jump at Gross-Titlis-Schanze. Each December, Engelberg plays host to a round of this winter sporting event that draws crowds from all over Europe. There are 65 competitors representing 18 winter nations, and only 30 will qualify to the final round.
Gross-Titlis-Schanze Ski jumping trampoline
When the gong sounds, the athletes ski down a ramp and launch themselves off the end, getting as much air and length as possible. I can’t help but think of Superman as they whiz past at alarming speeds, seemingly parallel to their skis. I’ve given up blinking entirely because, when I accidentally did, I missed it. Many of them cross lengths of over 100 metres, often landing swiftly and with a flourish because they’re judged on both distance and style.
The atmosphere is feverish and festive, and it’s impossible to not get into the spirit (and the schnapps). As I climb the steep bank alongside the incline, I whoop like a local and wave my flag — Swiss, of course, because that’s the freebie I’ve been handed.
Lucerne is picture-perfect even as night falls
There is something special about train rides in Europe, and my journey on the Lucerne-Engelberg Express is no exception. I gape at panoramic vistas of the countryside as it progresses from cool and white to lush green pastures dotted with cute wooden cottages. It will be a day of gorgeous views. On my agenda is lunch, or, more specifically, Mittagsschiff, a lunchtime cruise on Lake Lucerne. To use a cliché, it’s a must-do, largely because it’s a terrific deal. Boat travel is included with the Swiss travel pass so you pay only for what you’d like to eat, whether that’s a decadent three-course meal in the upstairs fine dining hall or, simply, a bowl of hot soup. There are few less splendid ways to while away an afternoon than sailing on a stunning Alp-fringed lake. My fish is perfectly cooked and beautifully presented, and the sights on offer span the gamut from traditional architecture to dramatic, misty landscapes.
After you disembark at Pier 1, burn off the calories by wandering the cobblestoned streets of Lucerne’s Old Town, full of buildings covered in pretty murals and plenty of shopping, both local and brand name.
I’ve never been to Europe in winter and I’ve only heard about the Christmas markets, so I’m excited to pay a visit. Just around the corner from the famous-from-postcards Wasserturm and Kapellbrucke (the water tower and chapel bridge), the annual Lozarner Weihnachtsmart is set up at Franziskanerplatz.
Wasserturm water tower
There are stalls at the market representing countries as varied as Sweden and Britain and Senegal and Tibet and almost each one sells Christmas decorations, traditional dishes, and warm drinks with a shot of something strong in them. I spy hot toddies, coffees with rum, and of course, much loved and widely available gluhwein: hot, spiced, wine. I take it upon myself to sample it at several stalls (so you won’t have to) and a clear winner emerges — the Swiss stall makes it best.