Helen Moat spends Christmas high in the Swiss Alps and discovers that a festive season under a blanket of snow takes a little getting used to
We went up to the Engadine from Zurich well before Christmas _ in November. Heidi, my friend, ‘sister’ and employer, had a house there and couldn’t wait to get out of the city.
I’d made the journey with her in summer and autumn; and now it was time to see the Graubϋnden in winter. Ritual required us to stop at the same service station, just a petrol pump and a little shop at Tiefencastel, before heading over the Julier Pass. It was always the same – a käse-schinken sandwich (ham and cheese baguette), then Heidi would roll down the window of the car for a quick cigarette before gearing herself up for the steep, winding road over the Albula Alps.
From Tiefencastel, we knew we were on the last lap. The wide u-shaped valleys would now give way to the deep folds of mountains. From now on in there would just be z-bends and banks of snow sweeping a treeless landscape, and the occasional stone village stuffed into the valley by the river banks of the Ova dal Vallun. Climbing into the mountains, we’d twist backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards until we reached the highest point, the Julier Pass then dropping us like a stone into the Engadine valley and depositing us at its feet in Silvaplana.
Across the bridge was Surlej and ‘home’, the place that Heidi loved more than anywhere else in the world – bar Africa perhaps. And I too was falling in love with it.
The house in Surlej overlooked Silvaplanasee with the traditional Engadine village of Sils at the other end of the lake and the Malaja Pass dropping off the edge of the world beyond. Strangers would knock on the door of the house to ask if they could buy it, not least because it commanded some of the best views in the whole of Switzerland. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t for sale.
Surlej may have been on the Engadine valley floor, but it still lay at 3,000 feet above sea level. Just after our arrival the lake began to freeze. For days Silvaplanasee burped and rumbled, crackled and sighed. The peculiar sounds emitting from the bowels of the lake echoed around the valley until the entire lake was frozen solid. Then snow fell on ice, covering the lake in a deep white blanket, and the lake became part of the landmass: a place to walk and ski. For the months ahead my world would be white on grey, white on blue, even white on white as I sped over the lake, skis flying over compacted snow; for the months ahead all other colours were erased from the Engadine paint palette.
Christmas was on its way – a guaranteed white Christmas. On the evening of the 24th we gathered round the tree in the living-room, a log fire burning in the hearth, the snow outside as crisp and deep and even as anywhere in Good King Wenceslas’ bohemia. Heidi installed a large bucket of water next to the spruce and lit the candles as quickly as she could.
Keeping with German tradition (Heidi was German despite her clichéd Swiss name), we sang Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht around the tree. We were in a quaint, old-fashioned world – a cast in an old romantic film – only candlelight on dry tinder was a fire hazard and not conducive to wallowing in nostalgia. Heidi took the first verse at a steady pace; by the second she’d driven it up a notch. By the third, it sounded as if we were all on helium. We’d barely sung the last word when Heidi shouted, “Now – blow the candles out!” Only when the last candle was distinguished did she begin to relax.
We exchanged gifts, and in my naivety, I thought Christmas in Switzerland was rather splendid, extending from the eve of Christmas.
The next day was a day of nothingness. Everyone in the house went skiing. Lunch time came and went: no Christmas turkey, no presents, nothing. Feeling rather sorry for myself, I made myself a sandwich, put on my skis and took myself off across Silvaplanasee. The world around me was Christmas-card-perfect – but I yearned for the damp, mild weather of the north. I was homesick.
In the evening, Heidi cooked a Christmas day meal. We gathered round the table for foie gras and toast. The starter, I thought. Then turkey with all the trimmings. But that was it. Not even Christmas pudding.
But aside from the 25th, it felt like Christmas in the Engadine that entire winter – from November to April. There was day after day of snow , day after day in the Christmas card; day after day in the outdoors – downhill and cross-country skiing and sunbathing in sleeping bags on the terrace.
But our extended Christmas came to an abrupt end. April arrived and the snow disappeared as quickly as it appeared, all but gone within a few days. After the weeks and months of winter white, I’d forgotten what colour looked like; forgotten its brightness – and the green seemed so intense it hurt my eyes.As the snow turned to a slushy mess, Heidi said, “I think it’s time to go back to Zurich". Our ‘long Christmas’ in the Engadine was over. It was time to head over the Julier Pass again.
Helen Moat has won several travel writing competitions, including runner-up x 2 with The British Guild of Travel Writers and highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing competition. She is currently writing the Slow Travel: Peak District for Bradt Guides.You can find more of her travel pieces on her blog.