I meet Urban Meier, my Swiss teacher, at expert cross-country skiing outfitters Hofmanner’s, located in the heart of Davos, Switzerland. Here, I’m fitted for my ski-boots, which I’m happy to find are far less cumbersome than downhill ones, being more like soft leather ankle boots. But the skis are much thinner than traditional ones. This, along with the fact that the boots only clip on at the toe, leaving the heel free to rise and fall, makes the first few steps worryingly awkward. Urban tells me not to panic, I’m to learn ‘classic’ langlauf rather than the more freestyle ‘skating’ technique, so will be keeping to the tracks.
It’s a warm, sunny day and I’m told conditions are perfect, having had fresh snowfall overnight. It certainly looks perfect, with bright blue sky and sparkling white snow coating the wintry landscape. The first thing I realise, however, is that I’m dressed completely wrongly. Seeing my fellow skiers glide by in trim, streamlined suits, I suddenly feel very out of place in my bulky padded ski pants and Michelin-man jacket. With constant movement, and no chilly ski-lifts to sit on, these downhill ski clothes are really not practical.
Despite the bulkiness of my attire, in just two hours I’ve progressed from hardly being able to stand up to actually moving, albeit somewhat gracelessly. I bid Urban farewell as he glides off to his next lesson and take a seat outside the langlauf centre. After downing two delicious hot chocolates and a pastry, I feel ready go solo. Not so much gliding as hobbling, I make my way back along the tracks.
Each rooftop I pass is a metre thick with snow, making it look like fluffy white puff pastry crowning every building. Metre long icicles hang from the rafters, seeming more like stalactites, and every twenty minutes or so, bright red Rhaetian Railway trains dissect the snowy white landscape like a long red ribbon.
Although attractive, Davos itself doesn’t have the picture-postcard prettiness of neighbouring Klosters, mainly due to the architectural predilection to the 'Alpine flat roof', rather than the slanted chalet-style. Here however, you’re less likely to bump into a member of the British royal family or TPT over your après-ski beer and schnitzel, and there are also far more shops, bars, restaurants, and after-hours establishments to ensure there is plenty of life after 10pm.
I’m staying at the Meierhof Hotel, which is only five minutes walk from the base station and funicular of the legendary Parsenn mountain, birthplace of ski-sport in Switzerland, thanks to four English tourists who got lost in 1895 and ended up in Kublis, a municipality of Davos. It’s from here I take the short ride up to the middle station and Hohenweg restaurant. The place is packed with downhill skiers, but even if, like me, this isn’t on your agenda, it’s worth the ride for the fantastic view of the Landwasser Valley in which Davos is nestled, and the delicious apple strudels and coffee that can be enjoyed on the enormous decked terrace.
The following morning, Urban meets me at the hotel and I find there are trails just minutes away from the door. After a quick warm-up session, Urban teaches me a few new steps, then we’re off, delving deep into the Dischmatal valley, and I get my first taste of what langlauf is really about. Out on the trails, I find the skiers akin to hikers or ramblers; everyone is friendly, saying hello as they pass, and most seem happy and relaxed. It feels much less competitive and stressful than on the high pistes, with people going at their own pace, taking time to admire the view and stopping off at welcoming little huts selling hot drinks and snacks.
On Urban’s recommendation, I ski directly to Bolgen plaza at the bottom station of Jakobshorn for lunch, a place that has become synonymous with après-ski. Couples, families, snowboarders, downhill-ers and cross-country-ers alike sit and soak up the jovial atmosphere. Outside, there are long wooden tables, but I choose to sit in a comfy German wicker beach chair, in order to demolish a gigantic bratwurst, fries and large beer. I was amazed at how warm it was, so in just a t-shirt, I sat for a couple of hours marvelling at the snowboarders jump and fly down the half-pipe just a few metres away.
Looking forward to a sauna and a dip in the hotel pool, I stroll back along the Promenade in Davos Platz and take a look around the shops. As you’d expect in Switzerland, there are expensive watch shops, exorbitant ski shops and pay-through-the-nose boutiques, but I did find an interesting little place called Collani, full of gorgeous hand-embroidered cushions, interesting glass and metal-ware, elegant lamps and heaps of luxurious throws and blankets. All a tad pricey, but if you’re hoping to take home a better class of souvenir than the ten-euro cuckoo clock magnets, this is the place to find them.
My final lesson took us up the Sertig valley, into the landscape that had greatly inspired Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the German Expressionist painter, who had moved to the fresh air of Davos when his health deteriorated in 1917. Looking across the valley, from his wooden house, I could understand why he’d chosen to spend the rest of his life in this majestic mountain landscape.
A tall, slick langlauf-er streaks by, shouting a cheery welcome to Urban. ‘That was Dario Cologna’, explains Urban, ‘the current Olympic and World Champion. He’s just on his way home after his morning’s training’. It’s not just the Swiss cross-country skiing team training here, either; the German, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian and American teams also favour Davos for its extensive, varied terrain, high altitude and guaranteed snow from October to April.
Thanks to people like Cologna, langlauf is beginning to shed its stiff, elitist image. Over the last ten years, the profile and popularity of cross-country skiing has soared – even style-conscious young snowboarders are embracing the sport for its cardio-vascular benefits.
With 77kms of ‘classic’ runs, there’s something for every ability in Davos – the Sertig and Dischmatal valleys offer relatively flat terrain for beginners, and for the more experienced, the Fluelatel Valley has more challenging routes, including the steepest Cologna Stutz section, named in honour of the national langlauf hero.
On the final night of my trip, I decide to take advantage of the floodlit night trails through the forest and put my skills to the test. There are far fewer people out on the trails than during the daytime and with the moon and stars glinting in the inky darkness above, it’s a very different, more peaceful experience. At one point, I catch sight of my shadow – cast by one of the big floodlights – and for a moment, I’m actually gliding! But as soon as I realise, of course, I stumble and once again I’m the gawky beginner. Still, my enthusiasm is riding high so who knows – a few more lessons and I could have Dario quaking in his ski-boots.
Davos: beyond the slopes
The Albula and Bernina sections of this narrow-gauge railway were awarded UNESCO world heritage status three years ago due to their masterful engineering, which sweeps harmoniously through the spectacular Alpine scenery. Take a thrilling trip out to Tirano from Davos Platz, over mighty glaciers and world-famous viaducts, or enjoy panoramic views from the world’s slowest express train, the Glacier Express, from Davos to Zermatt, taking in the majesty of the Matterhorn en route. For details of fares and timetables visit www.rhb.ch or call +41 81 288 37 16
The museum, dedicated to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, changes its exhibition about four times every year, always devoting its space to different aspects of the Master’s expressive gestures and luminosity of colour. His works are housed within the groundbreaking architectural debut of Gigon&Guyer, an exceptional example of functionality and design which enhances encounters between visitors, art and landscape through the use of large picture windows, sharing the magnificence of the surroundings with the inside space. Entry costs 15CHF (£10). For more information visit www.kirchnermuseum.ch or call +41 81 410 63 00
The seven night Cross-Country Skiing in Davos trip for beginners and intermediates starts from £1499 including flights with Swiss from London Heathrow (or most other major UK airports to Zurich, onward rail and hotel transfers, half-board accommodation (including four-course evening meals) at the four-star Hotel Meierhof and a fully supported cross country skiing programme of three two-hour lessons. Ski pass, boots, poles and ski hire are also included, as well as a complimentary Davos card, which gives unlimited travel on most local transport. Tour only prices start from £1259 and self-drive option from £1238 including Eurotunnel. Tour only £1197. Trips run mid-December to March (last departure March 31). Call Headwater on 01606 720199 or book at www.headwater.com