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31/01/2009Winter wandering in Wengen
Travellers can take in the scenery in this Swiss winter wonderland by snow trekking, skiing and even curling.
It must be rather elevating for the train driver since the Wengenalp (WAB) rack railway from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen, in central Switzerland, is uphill nearly all the way.
Travellers can gaze out over sparkling, snow-covered roofs and pine trees, and as if to underscore the picture-postcard nature of this wintry scene in the Bernese Oberland, a brook alongside the tracks babbles into the valley below.
Not all the visitors are here to admire the scenery. Around half the passengers aboard the Wengen alpine railway are schoolchildren keen to hit the ski slopes as quickly as possible.
The sport centre is near Eiger, Moench and Jungfrau -- one of the most spectacular mountains in the Alps, and no cars are allowed. Electric buggies are used to haul the luggage to the lofty hotels. Only around 1,500 people live in these parts permanently.
Some guests spent every day of a two-week vacation exploring the 215 kilometres of piste and never once leave the snowfields. Sad really as there are plenty of other winter-sport locations within easy reach and loads to see and do for those not interested in downhill skiing.
Snowshoe hiking is popular in the Bernese Oberland and interest in it is growing. Doris Schmied, a trained guide, is a great fan too. One of her favourite routes leads from the village of Isenfluh to Sulwand, which lies 1,500 metres above sea level. The first part of the trip is the least strenuous since hikers can take the "Luftseilbahn" cable car -- it can accommodate "eight persons or one cow" as a sign in the cabin points out.
Schmied tramps off ahead, pausing only to give her charges some tips on how to tell the difference between fresh and old snow and advice on animal tracks. "Look at those -- they are from this morning," she said. "One of them was a mountain hare and the other was probably a weasel." The goat-like chamois is another native of these parts "and three years ago we even had a wolf," Schmied recalled.
Plodding along on snowshoes is good fun but tiring. There are hazards, too, and occasionally the surface of the snow breaks and hikers find themselves up to their waist in snow. Doris has chosen the Maeder-Alp, which lies at 1,600 metres and offers a panoramic view of the tremendous north face of the Eiger, one of Europe's most treacherous climbs.
"Ueli Steck went up from over there," said Schmied. The Swiss speed climber is one of the region's most highly respected figures. "He managed to conquer the north face in a record 2 hours and 47 minutes," she tells the group.
Snowshoe hiking is a far more pedestrian way of exploring the area and the sense of personal achievement tends to shrink in comparison with such extreme sporting feats. It is nonetheless a good way of working up a healthy appetite and the hunger pangs are not long in coming. Fortunately, the cosy Sulwaldstuebli restaurant has a hearty cheese fondue on the menu.
It would be easy to hop on the cable car for the return trip but that is reserved for killjoys. A far more entertaining descent is to be had with a "Velogemel" or snow-bike in local Grindwelwald dialect. This cross between a sledge and a bicycle is more than a simple means of downhill transport. The snow-bike nips adroitly through the turns while the rider enjoys a sudden rush of speed reminiscent of childhood tobogganing.
Winter sports in the Bernese Oberland sometimes have a British flavour -- curling is the prime example. The sport is hugely popular with visits from the island. "Guests from England and Scotland are sometimes at it for hours on end," said Vasco Duarte da Costa, a 15-year-old who competes with a local club. In a typical curling contest, two teams of four players meet to propel granite stones across a rectangular sheet of prepared ice.
It may look childishly easy, but this is a game for grown-ups. The stones whizz across the ice but they seldom come to rest where required. Points are scored by getting the stones into a circular area of the board called the "House" and closest to the bull's eye centre. Judicious sweeping in front of the moving stones by two members of the team is designed to ensure the round, granite chunks reach the target by making the field smoother which in turn reduces rolling resistance.
What may sound like manipulation is permitted under the rules and is also an essential part of the game. "Hey, hey, hey, ha!," yell the members of a group of English team supporters enthusiastically. The shouting makes no difference to the standard of play, but it does serve to encourage the participants. Curling is actually an Olympic discipline, but competitors like to retain a sense of fun.
A liqueur is just the thing after a round of curling and visitors to Wengen do not have to go far in order to find one. Entertainment in the picturesque village is geared towards an international clientele and signs proclaiming "English-speaking" adorn the door of most pubs and bars. Karaoke fans are catered for too -- watch out for grammatically challenged notices as "Sing like all your favourites."
Most of the winter guests here are British, outnumbered only by the Swiss themselves. Hostelries such as the "Tanne Bar" boast being "open every day" with a drinks menu which lists such heart-warming local specialties as homemade "Gluehwein," the German name for spicy mulled wine.
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