(dressing up is a requirement for Fasching, hence the floor-length velvet gown I am wearing in this photo)
However, my host family had other plans for the Fasching vacation. Bright and early Saturday morning, we loaded up the Volvo with backpacks of warm clothes, baskets of equipment to make Swiss raclette, and lots of good books; we were headed to Switzerland for a week of skiing.
I've skied on the East coast of the US, and Maine winters are famed for being icy, snowy and sometimes even beautiful, but I was in no way prepared for the majesty and sheer size of the gorgeous Swiss Alps. After three hours in the car (which included vacation traffic and a brief detour through Austria), we were suddenly surrounded by mountains whose snowy tips seemed to scrape the pristine sky.
I took the above photos from the car. The car.
The village/ski area we were headed to, Braunwald, was not immediately apparent as we pulled into the parking lot. In fact, until I was told to put on hiking boots, surrender my luggage to a helpful Swiss person, and given a ticket, I was not aware that the last leg of our journey would be via mountain train.
We crawled up the mountain at a very steep degree, at one point traveling through a section of rock. When we emerged, we were halfway up a mountain, in the charming, car-free village of Braunwald. Since I had taken pictures from the car, a fog had descended, wrapping us in a cocoon of fog like frozen cream. Everything was white, and I had to put on sunglasses despite the lack of sun as we walked with backpacks up to our home-away-from-home, the Chalet Bätschli.
The chilly house had not been opened in a while, so after walking, unpacking and a bit of exploring on my part, we sat down to a hearty meal of raclette. This Swiss staple is well-known in the country, but I had never tried it before. Each person is given boiled potatoes, and then the communal skillet in the middle of the table is used to melt cheese, which is then combined with the potatoes and eaten with relish (by which I mean happiness, not chopped pickles). This food really sticks to your ribs; delicious and heavy, it fills you up and, admittedly, weighs you down a little. The odor of melting raclette cheese and the heat from the raclette pan seeped into the house, making it feel really Swiss, and much, much warmer.
After such an excellent meal, we fell into our beds accompanied by hot water bottles. However, when I woke the next morning and drew back the curtains, it was like a different world.
This breathtaking view, combined with a breakfast of fresh bread, green tea and Nutella, assured me that our vacation was off to a great start. And truly, it only got better from there. Days blurred into each other, as we read books on the foggy days, skied on the sunny days, admired the views, cooked, slept and relaxed.
We were able to ride the gondola up to the ski area, which, in typical European fashion, was home to at least 5 cafes.
Sledding was also a highlight of the week; as the village is car-free most people carry sleds with them, riding the gondola up the mountain until they can sled home again.
We skied, of course, above and below the treeline. I'm always thrilled with the speed and grace of skiing, but it feels even more like flying when one looks down into the valleys below, around at the mountains that seem very close, and up at the very, very blue sky.
The exhilaration of skiing and sledding in this stunning environment (which with wooden sleds is quite different from your average after-school sledding) was only perhaps matched by the luxury of sleeping in, being greeted in the mornings by birds at the birdhouse, stunning views, cups of tea, postcards, and reading a book in German and understanding it, too!
One snowy afternoon, we made a trek among the chalets, discovering a cafe with serious claims to fame: a home to Bela Bartók for a summer, and a fresh-made apple strudel. Add some snow, cheery little Swiss horses, and of course the adorable village, and my vacation was complete.
There was, of course, much more to this vacation than these snapshots you see, but one can only see so many Swiss vistas (Swisstas?) before you'll all be getting on a plane and heading there yourself. It was marvelous to spend this week with my host family among the snowy mountains.