NOT all that keen on ice, unless it’s the tinkle of cubes in a timely G&T, because I hate skiing on the stuff and I’ve also been known to go base over apex on it just walking to and from a ski lift.
But the stuff I came into contact with in the Swiss resort of Interlaken changed my perspective somewhat – and I had a sub-zero ball!
The picturesque ‘inter-lake’ town – nestled between Thunersee (Lake Thun) and Brienzeree (Lake Brienz) – is a junction for the rail link to Grindelwald on one side and to the village of Lauterbrunnen, giving access to Wengen and Murren, on the other.
It’s famous as a great all-year-round base or stopping-off point in the Jungfrau region of the Berner Oberland and I’ve been through it many times en route to ski areas, but never found time to stop until now – and that’s a shame.
The first hint that there was something special afoot came soon after we had checked in at the 4-star Hotel RoyalSt Georges renowned for its historic 1908 façade, elegant lobby with huge, sweeping staircase and art nouveau hall.
We had travelled there in some style after flying into Zurich from Manchester on a slightly ice-delayed Swiss flight, boarding a train to Bern and then changing for the final stretch to Interlaken, with the Swiss TravelSystem living up to its reputation by being clean, comfortable and bang on time.
And after a quick freshen-up at the hotel, it was off to see our first real instalment of ice with sculptor and raconteur Bruno Hanggi in his garage studio, while his charming wife Nicole was busy shuttling from her kitchen with lashings of gluhwein and nibbles.
Bruno was a world-class chef, with a wall full of diplomas and awards, and still manages to dominate many a banquet and high-end, pop star party – when the likes of Madonna drop in – with his astonishing creations hand-hewn from large blocks of crystal-clear ice.
Bruno is the man behind the sculptures in the Ice Palace at the amazing Jungfraujoch Top of Europe attraction at a breathless 3,454 metres, reached by the legendary rack railway from Kleine Scheidegg which climbs up through the looming Eiger.
As we duly sipped and nibbled, Bruno wheeled out some works-in-progress, grinned hugely and set to work – with a chainsaw. He then reached across to an armoury of custom-made, long-handled Japanese chisels and to do some fine-tuning, and after remarking that I looked particularly interested, he suggested I should have a go.
I gingerly grasped a chisel which was so sharp it would have shaved the fur off a bumblebee and tackled part of a practice block of ice that wouldn’t show if I made a mess of it, and had to marvel at just how much skill the unassuming Bruno must have at his (gloved) fingertips.
His subjects range from giant dragons to eagles, angels, swans and delicate romantic party centrepieces like a heart which encapsulates a single rose or bouquet, and even a flaming torch for a ‘fire and ice’ display. After carving, a hosing down with clean water reveals the glistening details of another masterpiece which might only last a matter of hours.
Lasting an even shorter time are his neat shot glasses made of ice, almost fluorescent when served up full of red vodka (to keep out the cold, you understand) and meant to be simply thrown away after being emptied to shatter and melt. Funny how the pile of ice chippings suddenly got so much bigger – but I blame Bruno.
Suitably warmed, at least on the inside, our gorgeous guide for the evening from Interlaken Tourism, Annie Neukomm, took us to the Top of Europe Ice Magic attraction smack in the centre of the town and about to live up to its name.
Magic for meeting friends and mingling, the new venture is already a big hit among locals and almost a ‘must’ for after-work winding-down or starting off an evening out. Some hardy souls in our party donned skates right away and ventured onto one of the ice rinks under the stars, while some of us softies elected to sample some of the goodies on offer at the numerous stalls and stands, mainly souvenirs and local specialities to boost the calorie intake. Some chasbratel – molten raclette cheese scraped onto hunks of crusty bread – plus an introduction to white (!) gluhwein, was a suitable prelude for dinner later on, as well as fuelling a spot of Bavarian curling on another of the four outdoor rinks linked by ice pathways.
The stones, much lighter than the more familiar Scottish variety, with a wide flat base and an easy-to-hold vertical handle, lend themselves much more to an impromptu game for ham-handed amateurs, so much fun was had as it started raining gently, promising snow at altitude the next day.
Slightly bedraggled and with an appetite well worked up, we decided it was time for dinner – and guardian angel Annie knew just the place. She might be a veggie, but she led us to a splendid restaurant and grill in the Matktplatz which rejoiced in the name of Ox which gives a fair idea of its specialities – and a great night was had by all.
Early start the next morning, with a tough-as-nails guide taking us on a snowshoe hike on the Lombachalp a protected high moorland plateau near Habkern, full of rare flora and fauna in spring, summer and autumn, and a white wonderland in winter for langlaufers and snowshoe hikers, with views every bit as amazing as you expect, from the lakes far below to the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau way in the distance.
Well worth the lung-straining effort to reach the highest point, but not a place to linger too long in an icy wind, so we headed for the Jagerstubli restaurant and a great welcome from Yvonne and Albert Feuz, who had a local speciality on the stove ready for us – hörnli mit gehacktem und frisches apfelmus. Yvonne explained the recipe, which my smattering of rudimentary German translated as macaroni with minced beef (cooked with onion, garlic, sage parsley and red wine) served with a dish of fresh apple sauce. Sounds unusual, maybe, but it was delicious and a suitably hearty lunch, helped with a glass of equally-suitable and very local Rugenbrau beer.
No time to sit back – and no sun to sit in – so it was back down to Interlaken for the train to Lauterbrunnen, then a cog railway ride to Wengen where ice again featured very much on our agenda.
After a stroll round the traffic-free village, we should have been helping to mark 150 years of snowsports in Switzerland by indulging in some nostalgia skiing, dressed in Victorian togs and using long, long wooden skis. I’d even grown my ‘tache long enough to twirl for the occasion, but there was no fresh snow on the chosen ski area in the heart of the village and it was just too icy to be safe on skis with no steel edges. Maybe we were saved from ourselves, because old-style bear-trap ski bindings and fragile ankles are not a good mix, so there was another icy option for which Wengen is justly famous – traditional curling in the village ice rink.
We shared the ice with a bunch of ex-pat silver regulars who play there most days a week, and they certainly showed us up. Perhaps we should have stuck to the Bavarian variety – it certainly goes better with gluhwein.
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