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Heading off the beaten track with a downhill champ

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 20, 2012

  • Swiss skier Bruno Kernen on his way to a gold medal in the downhill in 1997. Michael Cranmer was lucky enough to get the chance to ski with the former world champ

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Let's get two things out of the way first. How do you pronounce Scuol – and where is it?

The former question is solved on arrival at Zurich airport after being met by my charming Swiss Tourism guide Katja. "It's easy," she said, "Skwol!"

"Bless you!" I responded.

"No, no. That's how you say Scuol," said Katja.

The latter became less of a mystery. As we hopped on our train, she referred to the handy maps which Swiss Rail provide for travellers, and traced our journey eastwards until, just before the border with Italy, her finger stopped in an area which for me was beyond the edge of the known world: Graubunden.

I've visited quite a lot of Switzerland, ticking off the great ski resorts like St Moritz, Davos, Crans-Montana, and Zermatt, but I was now entering the dark zone, where the official language is Romansh.

Romansh originates from the spoken Latin brought to the region by Roman soldiers, merchants, and officials in 15 BC. Time obviously moves slowly here, as they still teach the language in schools, and road signs are in this pre-Christian dialect. A bit like Wales but with "proper" mountains.

It truly is the "end of the line". The railways terminate here, with the station a two-minute walk to the bottom of the ski-lifts, but before skiing I had first to check in to the nearby Belvedere Hotel, where I discovered further evidence of ancient influences – Roman-Irish baths "with various wellness and therapy opportunities".

Mmm, we'll see. But first, on to the snow!

The main lift whisks you up from 1,250m above sea level to Motta Naluns at 2,146m, where the centre of the skiing is based. A couple of restaurants, a ski school and nursery slopes overlook the village and away across to the Austrian border to the north. The mountains here are not of the Matterhorn/Toblerone variety, being more benign and gentle.

But, don't be fooled. The top station here is at a respectable 2,783m, with a wind-prone T-bar dragging you up the valley. The view alone is worth the ride.

There are acres of untouched off-piste to savour, and here's where Scuol's relative inaccessibility comes up trumps. In the glam resorts like Zermatt, any overnight snowfall would quickly be cut up and tracked by early morning powder-hounds. But here there was still beautiful fluffy untouched powder at 10.30am on the higher slopes. Why? It's a quiet place, literally off the beaten-track. Looking around, there were a lot of families, who tend to stay lower down on the mountain, a fair few silver-skiers (yes, I'm one too, although I prefer ash-blond) some well-heeled couples down for a few days from the money mines of Zurich, and a few hardcore skiers. Consequently nobody rushes to get the first lift of the day and cut up the newly fallen snow as they undoubtedly would in most resorts. It's more of a lazy breakfast and pootle up the hill. Very agreeable.

The other thing that was very apparent was the almost total lack of Brits. But that's about to change with the coming of the Swiss Ski Company, an established small British independent tour operator, which is now offering Scuol among its more well-known resorts.

So, back to investigate the Roman-Irish baths.

The hotel staff pointed me in the direction of a long corridor and I tramped off in trepidation, clutching my cossie and key card. With little German, and no Romansh, it was a daunting experience, but I managed to negotiate a sliding door revealing a rather butch receptionist who thrust a toga-style towel and some awful plastic sandals at me and gestured me into the changing area.

It was here that the truth dawned on me. I wouldn't need my cossie. This was a naked area.

I stripped off, feeling very exposed (not surprisingly) and followed the corridor into a sauna already occupied by two very fit-looking couples. After about ten minutes, another lady (clad in shorts and T-shirt) found me and led me towards the massage area with pairs of treatment tables next to each other. The neighbouring one was already occupied by a naked woman on her back, having some sort of treatment.

I was told to do the same and soon I was lying looking at the ceiling desperately thinking of the most boring things I could… David Milliband, tax-returns, the M25… as my masseuse got to work.

Reader, I'll draw a veil of decency over the next 20 minutes, suffice to say I did not disgrace myself, but ended with a relaxed glow of Swiss "wellness".

A blur of saunas, freezing plunge pools (not good for male morale) and steam rooms followed, until I staggered, clothed now, back up the corridor to my room. Phew!

The next day brought another surprise. Kurt Gastgeber, the hotel owner, asked if he could introduce me to a friend of his, Bruno Kernen. Hang on… THE Bruno Kernen – 1997 World downhill champion skier?!

Apparently Bruno was staying for a couple of days and was inviting guests to ski with him. It took me just about 30 seconds to get my gear.

It was clear from the off that Bruno was up for a bit of fun. We swooped, raced, goofed around and laughed over the mountain. I had to keep pinching myself to convince myself I wasn't dreaming.

This was my last day and we crowned it by doing the longest run (10km) from top to bottom without stopping – until we got to a bar at the end, that is.

Bruno told me we must celebrate, and ordered a round of munggapfupf, which came with little Swiss flags, and slid down quickly, as did another couple. And another couple.

What a day, what a trip.

When I got back home, I emailed Bruno to thank him for a great time, and to ask him what munggapfupf is in English. The answer came pinging back with a big smiley face at the end. Translated it means "marmotte's fart".

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