There’s nothing like the need for an Inferno when it’s minus 14 degrees at the top of a mountain, where it feels a bit nippy round the edges even when you’re out of the biting wind.
And there’s absolutely nothing to match the sort of Inferno you get every year in the picture-postcard village of Murren in Switzerland, for it’s the rather daunting name for a series of ski races including the biggest downhill for amateurs in the world.
It’s always a fantastic spectacle, with 1,800 skiers taking from a few minutes to goodness-knows-how-long to complete the swooping course down the Schilthorn, the mountain topped by the revolving restaurant which featured in the cracking Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
This year, for the 76th running of the race, the temperature and the swarms of paparazzi were boosted by the presence of Pippa Middleton, with more attention given to the shape of her derriere in a skin-tight ski suit than her time to the finish line. Not by me, of course, despite me clutching my notebook and camera and being all kitted out with my ‘media’ bib along with an international Press group, because after breakfast with some racing members of our party and then a rendezvous at the finish in Winteregg, I’d seen enough bulging Spandex and Lycra to last me a lifetime.
It might look good on a Ski Sunday professional, but sometimes the years and the diet are not kind when it comes to striking a stretchy pose in front of a crowd of gluhwein-swilling friends and spectators intent on a day of fun and frolics.
The huge field of racers, limited to about half the number who actually apply to take part, included a fair old sprinkling of Tarquins and Tamaras, as befitting a race thought up in 1928 by a bunch of daft, upper-crust Englishmen, but it’s very much a day of laughs and derring-do for skiers from all over the world, with the accent on having a good time in glorious surroundings.
It’s worth noting, if you’re thinking of having a go next year, that if you don’t get enough speed up at the start, you can end up walking on the flatter bits, bearing in mind that the fastest guys get down the nigh-on 15 kilometre full course in less than 15 minutes, with a fairly competent skier taking around 45 and some a darn sight longer.
Whatever the speed, it’s worth it for the view, although the cloud was a bit patchy this season and made going really fast a bit difficult at times. It didn’t trouble me too much, because I waited for the sun to come out and took the cable car link down to Murren for a spot of lunch, then headed for the cog railway for the final stretch to the finish line, while colleagues with a mission to have some fresh air and exercise took the picturesque path alongside the line.
Just time at the finish to compare notes amid the mayhem, music and Lycra overload, then down from the dizzy heights by another cable car to the village of Lauterbrunnen in the bottom of the glacial valley separating the Murren plateau from its gorgeous neighbour, Wengen, perched high on the opposite mountainside and full of promise for another day.
From Lauterbrunnen – look online for the almost 300-metre Staubbach Falls, just one of 72 waterfalls in the valley, silent and frozen in winter – we headed back to the delightful town of Interlaken and a base camp which would surely have been familiar to those posh pioneers of Alpine skiing.
When it comes to rather imposing Belle Epoque hotels in Switzerland which have the word ‘grand’ in the name, there’s grand; and then there’s really grand.
Setting the bar just as high as it gets on the quality ladder is the 5* Victoria–Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa on the Hoheweg promenade in the heart of the town, one of the most beautiful hotels in the country and, not surprisingly, one of The Leading Hotel of the World.
Glittering it may be, with the notion that you should be turning up in a gilded, horse-drawn carriage or a vintage Lagonda or Lanchester, nothing so common as a Roller, but even walking in from the station, travel-weary in workmanlike ski gear and dragging a roller bag, you’re made to feel welcome by smiling, liveried staff in a reception hall gleaming like a marble and gilt art nouveau palace.
A quick wander round to take in the sumptuous surroundings, including piano bar (grand piano, of course), billiard room/library, restaurants and humidor room, leaving the spa for another time, then it was past the stairwell fountains and up to my suite, with a balcony overlooking the Hohematte across the road, a lush, open meadow in summer which is transformed into the hugely-popular Ice Magic attraction in winter.
Suitably refreshed, long johns and ski pants neatly stashed in the room-sized wardrobe, and spare socks put away, it was time for a dressed-up (by skier standards!) dinner in the La Terrasse restaurant of the Victoria-Jungfrau, with an interesting starter of apricot, quail and blackberries; leading on to a main course of Scottish ‘label rouge’ salmon with rice roll and shiitake mushroom; and topped off with a pear, marzipan and vanilla dessert. While savouring the delights of a 2013 Charles Steiner Clos a l’Abbe Sauvignon Blanc and a rather smooth Le Tourmentin 2006 from the Rouvinez family in the Valais, genial host and hotel sales chief Niklas Breitenbach explained that La Terrasse will soon undergo a revamp and there will be a lighter, more modern, and innovative approach to the menu, so I must keep plugging away with the Lottery!
Coffees and a good deal of international banter followed the delicious meal, with our party led by Swiss-Italian leader Eugenio from the Swiss Tourism HQ in Zurich and made up of a heady mix including one from the UK (me) and others from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the Czech Republic and Ukraine
No time to indulge in the amazing spa before an early-ish night, but just enough to squeeze in a nightcap at the Victoria bar with Czech ski journo Jan Kloucek, earning Brownie points for the next night by trading tales with an expert, entertaining barman adding to his extensive armoury of anecdotes by explaining why more Benedictine liqueur is drunk in one East Lancashire town than anywhere else outside France.
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