Swiss Survival Guide: Surviving St. Moritz

The advantage of skiing in Switzerland is that noone would possibly know that you bought your ski jacket and salopettes in Lidl.

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They do actually have Lidl in Switzerland, it’s just that nobody goes, or at least they would never admit it. And you can be doubly confident that none of the Bogner/Mongler/Cartier ski suit wearing punters in St Moritz shop in Lidl (yes apparently Cartier make ski-wear….)

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If you say something like ‘Wow Lidl costs a third of that duopoly coop/migro that has such a grip on the shopping habits of your nation’ then you are likely to be excommunicated from your Swiss in-laws. But at least a small bag of shopping doesn’t cost £150.

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Now there seems to have been some excitement in the financial markets the past few days which, if I’ve got this right, means that overnight our visits to Switzerland will now, not just be a bit more expensive, but 40% more expensive. 

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And that got me thinking what kind of things don’t cost the earth in Switzerland?  As specifically, how to not spend too much money when you happen to be in the play-ground of Oligarchs and winter habitat of the English toff, St Moritz. 

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I started with food and here’s the blog of a week of Swiss recepies based on a theme of starch and cheese which may be light on the pocket but are certainly rather heavy on the stomach. 

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But there’s also lots of things to do that won’t break the bank and here’s a list:

1. Watch the races on the Olympia Bob: 

The world’s only natural ice bob run (there is no concrete underneath). They practice every day in the season but if you are there for a race it is even better. 

You can walk down a really good footpath from the top near the Kulm Hotel all the way to Celerina and get the bus or train back. Stop at the bar on the amazing horseshoe bend to watch the action.

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2. Relaxing Sledging:

Top day out. Take the train to Preda, and head down the old road, that is shut in winter, to Berguns by sledge. It is 6km long and really picturesque as it winds over and under the World Heritage Site railway line. When you get there, lots of Gluwein stalls await and the train back up to do it again. 

(It’s not such a bargain day out of you have to hire a sledge though)

3. Oligarch Watching

It is really rather good entertainment to spot outrageous bling all over the place. Lots of furs and lots of diamonds and lots of ridiculously oversized dark glasses. Walk down the main street passing every high end luxury brand you can think of. Look out for heated car-park spaces so they are kept clear of ice. There is a whole road that has under-tarmac heating to keep it ice free between the Palace Hotel and Casa Veliga. Be horrified at how the planet is going to hell in a handcart. And how the world’s elite live. Then wander into Hotel Kulm in your walking boots for a cocktail.

4. Ursli path: 

A lovely walking path themed around the fantiastic children’s book ‘A Bell for Ursli’ taking you up to Salastrains. Take a sledge and kids can sledge down (it’s not officially a sledging route so be prepared to be frowned at by Swiss people). 

The path finishes at the Salastrains nursery slope where the hut that was used to film the original Heidi TV series now lives. Go in. Be Heidi and Geiserpeter. 

…. and read “A Bell for Ursli” before you go.

5. The Cresta Run: 

The last bastion of the English toff at St Moritz, now that Russian Ologarchs have taken over. You can hear the plummy voices from miles away as the announcer calls out their double barrelled names ‘Number four. Lord Thisleton-Lumley’ as they throw themselves headfirst in plus-fours and vintage leather shoes. 

 No women allowed. Which makes them look even more ridiulous if you just head over to the Olympia Bob and see the amazing women from the Swiss skeleton team who would burn them all off in an instant. 

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Swiss Survival Guide Part 4: Be a bit more Swiss if you want to get on the pistes early

Everyone wants to make that first beautiful run down: snaking tracks down the newly-groomed pistes. But, given my recent(ish) experiences, I think that I need to work on cultivating my inner Swiss before I try again.

On the third day of the holiday I determined to carve some new tracks in the snow and rose before everyone else, pulled on gear, gulped down a breakfast, donned boots, picked up skis from the boot-room and was off. The walk takes about 10 minutes on a rising gradient but when I reached the slope to ski down to the lift I found that my boots had shrunk and were far too small to fit the bindings.

I had brought the wrong skis.

Quick back to the flat.
Quick hobble in ski boots down an icy road past the reams of folk now emerging to head to the slopes.
Arrive at lift at exactly the time I would have done without all the extra effort.

Next day I tried again, this time heading out even earlier. I shuffled to the ski slope in double-quick time, but before I could feel smug I realized that I had dropped one of my mittens on the way so had to trot back and found it lying in the road nearly back at the flat. ‘Oh well, still ahead of the pack’, I thought, and set off, once again, to the slopes. This time I found that, again, my boots wouldn’t clip into my skis. ‘But I definitely have the right skis’ I wailed to a group of teenage snowboarders who had been observing me hurry backwards and forwards… I had the wrong boots! I dragged myself and the pair of boots belonging to someone I was hoping hadn’t needed them in the past 20 minutes, back to the flat. On my second walk back to the flat I passed the rest of my party heading to the slopes with a leisurely breakfast in their tummies and a set of self-satisfied looks on their faces. I can’t say that a vision of the Hare and the tortoise didn’t swim before my eyes.

You might think that I would be annoyed at this experience but in fact I was rather delighted to find that the ex-rental boots that I bought for £5 in Aviemore in 2009 were pretty-much indistinguishable (at least to my eyes) from a pair used by an actual Swiss person in St Moritz. And there’s nothing like knowing that, for the price of a coffee in a mountain cafe, I have at least as good a pair of boots as anyone….

Spot the difference:
I admit one is purple and one gray, but in the dim morning light with eyes fogged with sleep, it’s surely an understandable mistake. The skis less-so, the ones I carted out were utterly different and 30cm longer than mine

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Swiss Survival Guide Part 3: The Swiss don’t ski in total white out conditions

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When the cloud is down and the snow is falling you’ll be alone out there on the slopes with the other Brits (and they’ll probably be a few Germans and Poles ricocheting about too)

This is obviously a good thing, especially if you can use as your reference point a day on a Scottish mountain. Even the windiest lift-shutting blizzard in the alps pales into insignificance against the raging hurricane that is a normal day at Glen Shee. All those pomas and t-bars seem immune to wind, perhaps that’s why they have so many of them in Scotland and not just to test the endurance of your thigh muscles.

We had a couple of white-out blizzard days. The only reference points for the vertical were the piste markers, and the other skiers (well the few that were still upright). At one point, while showing a lost skier back to her route, expert Swiss skier hubby somehow mistook the poles marking the left-hand-side of the run, for poles marking the right hand side and shot off into the deep snow that had settled in a wee burn. It’s not that often I get a chance for a hysteric belly-laugh as my husband wallows about in neck-deep snow searching for his skis.

Had we been skiing in Scotland, this would be the best day out of the year: amazing snow conditions, wide slopes totally devoid of people, no lift queues, hardly any wind, and a total absence of rock and heather on the run. We felt like we were doing something real, an expedition, an adventure, something to be survived.

It also means that you will get a seat at the über-cool Raclette Stube where you will be able to make full use of those floor-ceiling windows to observe your ski sticks blowing over and rolling away down the mountain. There will also be none of the usual hip-crowd there which means your shabby Gore-tex and bobble-hat will look less out of place.

After all that, the tame, sunny, smooth perfect resort that returned the following day was almost a disappointment. I just can’t wait to get back to Glen Coe and test my rock and heather-avoidance skills.

Swiss Survival Guide Part 2: Don’t make a Noise

The Swiss might make their apartments of concrete with tile floors in all staircases, corridors and communal areas but this isn’t because the Swiss love to hear the sound of children’s singing/fighting/wailing echoed and amplified throughout their apartment blocks.

No it is not.

In Switzerland please be quiet. Not just on the stairs and communal areas, but please take care not to run out a bath after 9pm. It’s OK to run the bath, so long as you wait until after 8am to run out the water – God forbid that you run a dishwasher at night, and I am still unclear as to whether one can flush a loo in the evenings. I think once or twice is acceptable, just don’t go OTT. And hoovering is a complete no-no.

You won’t have to worry about the washing machine though. There will be a communal washing machine for all flats in the block in the basement which you will forget to book the necessary week in advance and so you will be washing your smalls in the bath. Just make sure that you don’t take the plug out after 9pm.

Swiss Survival Guide: Sharpen your elbows for the lift queue

This isn’t Aviemore or Glencoe where skiers form an orderly queue stretching far up the slope from the ski lift, shortening the already rather short run considerably. This isn’t where people say ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry for tripping you with my pole accidentally on purpose’ or where people would be horrified if you stepped all over the backs of their skis in the lift queue. On no, this is all out ski-lift war.

Try and find a person who looks like a ski-queue veteran, elbows sharpened, ski sticks at the ready, and stick by them, they will find the path of least resistance. Shuffle your ski tips into any gaps that open up, those that say ‘after you’ and ‘women and children first’ will be trampled.

I happen to prefer this method to the all-too-polite Scottish ski slope etiquette. One wonders how a Swiss would fare in a queue at Aviemore.

Swiss Survival Guide: This is where we start

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I am a regular visitor to Switzerland, being married to a swiss, and so when visiting, I occupy the privileged position of being able to observe the swiss at close quarters. I am now (almost) able to understand what is being said in swiss german after many years of my GCSE- level German being utterly useless in the face of the sing-song gobbledygook that is ‘Sweetzer Dooch’. A couple of years ago I thought things were looking up when, sitting on a plane leaving Amsterdam for Zurich I had a breakthrough.

‘Hey! I can understand everything that flight announcer is saying!’ I chirruped enthusiastically to my husband.
‘He’s speaking Dutch’ he replied dryly.

Anyway, I do, mostly, get the gist of what’s being said, (especially if I already know what they are talking about) and I’m pretty good in the emphatic tense as applied to kids:
‘Get dressed!’ (Aar-lekke) ‘Get your shoes on!’ (Lek deenie shua ah) ‘Sit down’ (ab sitze) ‘Eat your dinner’ (is deeser snacht) ‘Go to bed (gang ins bet)

The spelling appears to be mostly arbitrary in Swiss German, as they use High German for written documents, so I feel justified in using my own form of phonetic written Swiss here, I hope you are saying each phrase out loud to yourselves, don’t they sound funny?

We regularly visit the same places each year and each visit I feel a little like an amateur anthropologist, trying to understand Swiss people and Swiss culture, and trying to fit somewhat into a place so utterly alien from the comfortable chaos of life in Scotland.

I thought I should write a few observations of Switzerland and the Swiss to help me get through the visits. In the spirit of ‘if you can’t laugh, you’d just cry’. It might also act as a bit of a survivors’ guide to visiting Switzerland.

I hope you enjoy….

Swiss Survival Guide part 1: ‘HOW Much??!!’

After many years of fretting about the cost of buying anything at all in Switzerland from the smallest postcard to the shopping for a week, I now realise that things get much easier once you reach a state of acceptance I call ‘wallet zen’. When you reach this state, rather than coming to every transaction with a rising blood pressure and an impending sense of doom, you can just open your wallet and say ‘Really, just take it all, I have no need of it’

It is almost impossible to overestimate how much things are going to cost you in Switzerland. So here are a few survival pointers:

1. Food
A couple of years ago we met up with my parents in Switzerland and my mum kindly made a meal for 10: her usual speciality- a beef stew with baked potatoes. It was very delicious and warming after a day in the snow, but the constant refrain during the meal, and indeed the rest of the holiday, stays with me to this day.

“Do you know how much this stewing steak cost? FOURTY FIVE POUNDS! thats £45, not 45 Swiss Francs….. and that was just the steak!”

But panic not! there is a solution. All traditional Swiss food seems to be based on a theme of starch and cheese, with a bit of cured meat if you are lucky. This is presumably because it was not so long ago that the very smartly besuited and be-booted Swiss were all peasants, living off their höflies (pron. herflees – meaning little farms).

So if you stick with tradition you can eat pretty much as cheep as you can get in Switzerland (so long as you don’t eat up in a mountain restaurant where your fondue will cost you £45 – and that’s per person…)

So here’s my survival guide menu for a week in the mountains:

Day 1: Rosti and fried egg
Rosti (pronounced Rer-shti) is grated potato fried in a pan. It’s the authentic Swiss egg and chips

Day 2: Pizzocheri
This is stodgy buckwheat pasta with boiled potatoes, sage and cheese.

Day 3: Spazeli and fleishkäse
This is egg pasta fried in a pan with something rather like sliced spam (though I would recommend to eat spazeli with baked ham but that’s less the budget option)

Day 4: Fondue
Melt three cheeses (a good melter like Raclette or vachrain, a tasty one like Appenzeller or mature gruyere/comté, and a bulk one like a milder gruyere or cheddar) with lots of white wine, add kirsch, nutmeg, pepper and then fight the folks sitting either side of you with long pointy forks to get your fait share.

Day 5: Käseschnitte
This is the leftover bread from the fondue in the base of a casserole soaked in white wine with the leftover fondue mixture on the top. Then you bake it in the oven – yum!

Day 5: Raclette
This is basically melted cheese on potatoes with some picketed gherkins and onions.

Day 6 : Mac cheese.
An obvious mainstay if we are talking starch/cheese combos. With some chopped ham mixed with the cheese sauce. The Swiss will have a fancy name for it but it escapes me.

It will still be expensive, but perhaps not quite so crippling on the wallet. The food expense doesn’t help that there is a pretty effective duopoly of supermarkets in Switzerland (co-op/migro) and that there aren’t many independent food shops to speak of but you might be lucky and come across one of the excellent farm gate stalls or farmers’ markets which can be cheaper. (Which will be the subject of another blog)