Ski like it’s 1899 at ‘Belle Époque’ week, Switzerland

imageWhat was skiing like in its earliest days? Adrian Bridge gets some idea at ‘Belle Époque’ week in the Swiss resort of Kandersteg.

For one terrifying moment, I felt exactly as I did the first time I ever put on a pair of skis and faced down a mountain. Gulp! Where do I go from here?

My fear had a lot to do with what was on my feet: two extremely long pieces of wood with no finely honed edges, no firm bindings at the back and almost no flexibility.

These were the skis that those plucky pioneers of winter sports holidays – many of them British – would have been wearing when they first began exploring the Swiss Alps more than 100 years ago. And suddenly I had a whole lot more respect for what they had achieved.

Luckily, close by there were two experts demonstrating just how easily it could be done. Lilian and Kurt – dressed in the woollen clothes and basic leather boots worn at the time – made it seem effortless, bending each knee alternately as they glided down the mountain with perfect poise.

The style – still practised today with Telemark skis – does not come easily, and my own efforts were somewhat less graceful. There were many falls and curses and many times when I wanted to give the whole thing up and get back into the comfort zone of modern-day skis. But I persevered and, by the end of the morning, found myself able to come down the simplest of nursery slopes without ending in an embarrassing heap. It was exhilarating. I could see why this skiing thing took off…

Kandersteg, the picturesque Swiss resort in which I was trying the wooden skis, was one of the first to attract those looking for a different kind of winter holiday once train travel opened it up to a wider audience towards the end of the 19th century.

And once a year, in honour of those early enthusiasts, the village puts the clock back more than 100 years to the era of the Belle Époque.

It is an extraordinary experiment in time travel. And it hits you as soon as you arrive. At the station, I noticed guards in bow ties and women in bonnets. Outside I bumped into someone who looked suspiciously like Sherlock Holmes.

I had travelled from Bern by train, enjoying the beautiful scenery of Lake Thun and the Bernese Oberland, but it felt as though I’d just taken a trip in Dr Who’s Tardis. It got even more bizarre at the Hotel Victoria, like many in the region named in honour of those early British visitors. Here a “tea dance” was in full swing and guests done up in their finest Edwardian garb were going through their polka paces on the dance floor. There was nothing for it: I donned a white dress shirt, tails and bowler hat and tried to fit in…

The Belle Époque week, held first in 2009 and now an annual event at the end of January, has proved a surprisingly successful way to inject a bit of life and variety into a resort that, with only 25km of groomed piste and five ski lifts, has long been overtaken by the giants of winter sports holidays such as St Moritz and Davos.

Kandersteg is not the place to go if you want fast downhill ski action and a complex piste area. The early visitors liked it for its simple slopes (after all, they had to carry their skis up the mountain), its flattened valley surfaces (great for ice skating) and the simple pleasures of fresh mountain air, invigorating walks and striking scenery.

The local community has entered into the spirit of the Belle Époque experiment with gusto. Many shopkeepers and hoteliers dress in the costumes of the time and display notices that would have been there in 1900 (“We now have toilet paper on rolls,” said a sign at the local Co-op).

Besides attempting to master wooden ski technique, visitors can enjoy traditional bobsleigh rides and operatic evenings, dance classes and horse-drawn sleigh rides. There are organ concerts and literary soirées; English high teas and nostalgic “Belle Époque” dinners. There’s a grand ball, and curling – a sport introduced by Scots visiting Kandersteg in the winter of 1904/05.

The vast majority of participants are German-speakers – from Switzerland itself and Germany – but English is widely spoken and there are British visitors, too: I came across some genuine kilt-wearing, whisky-flask-bearing Scots at the curling event and a couple from Tunbridge Wells who had come for the period costumes and the food.

With development passing it by, Kandersteg looks a bit like the village time forgot: there are still grand Belle Époque-era buildings and plenty of classically Swiss wooden chalets where you can feast on cheese fondues and rösti potatoes. Lovers of vigorous après-ski nightlife will be disappointed: the attractions here are the slow pace, the relaxed air and the starry skies.

I got my best sense of that serenity when I replaced the wooden skis for cross-country ones and set off into the surrounding Oeschinen forest with Fritz Loretan, a man who has been guiding visitors around these mountains for nearly half a century and who has the gnarled looks to prove it (as well as a charming smile).

“Bend zee knees and follow me,” he said, striding off purposefully. It was another first, but I found the cross-country technique considerably easier than trying to negotiate the mountain with wooden skis.

Within a few minutes we were deep in the forest, surrounded by pine trees covered in a fresh layer of snow and almost completely alone. It was for this, too, that those early pioneers ventured into the Bernese Oberland.

As Mark Twain wrote following a visit to Kandersteg in 1878: “The spirit of the place was a sense of deep, pervading peace; one might dream his life tranquilly away there, and not miss it or mind when it was gone.”

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