“Can I shuffle down on my bum?” I pleaded, looking wide-eyed like a deer in headlights at my instructor. Almost Yoda-like, he shook his head and said “no, snow plough you must”. He pulled me to my feet once more and we continued our winding descent through crunching powder snow, the only disturbances being my frequent moments of contact with the ground.
Thankfully, despite my inexperience and less than Ski-Sunday-chic composure, I was not the only beginner facing my fears in this winter wonderland. The Aletsch Arena in the southern Valais region of Switzerland is very popular with families – meaning baby and adult beginners alike. That said, there is nothing like seeing a three-year-old cruising along with perfect form to make you wonder who really needs the tutelage!
The Valais’s ‘headline’ resort is arguably Zermatt, but our base for this skiing adventure was the beautiful Riederalp – a stunning car-free village situated moments from the one of the region’s most stunning sights, the UNESCO world heritage site of the Aletsch Glacier. As well as being spectacularly beautiful, Aletsch enjoys a reputation for being a fabulous resort for families, with its wide and gently sloping nursery pistes, ski-in ski-out apartments and veritable army of Swiss instructors, bedecked in their signature red apparel, all who speak excellent English.
Naturally this also makes it wonderful place for beginners to find their feet, no matter if they are three or fifty-three. Unlike many other European resorts, which force learners into a very unsteady adjustment between the almost flat nursery area and far more challenging slopes, the pistes here are wide enough to practice turns and control speed without the imminent threat of collision with a neighbouring group. There are also lots of blue runs interspersed throughout the resort, meaning you really get to ski the pistes, but are never covering ground you feel uncomfortable on.
The Swiss ski school (www.swiss-ski-school.ch) here have quite a mission statement – they say that from a standing start, they can have you successfully skiing a blue run in just three days. This thought initially provides me with solace – surely no one was beyond learning? – and sure enough, hour by hour, my feet and head began to move in tandem, and fear began to dissipate, making way for real enjoyment!
Despite my feelings toward skiing after that first shaky morning, I’m definitely an advocate of the post-ski lunch – you need lots of calories to stave off the cold, right? When visiting alpine resorts, you know to expect the usual boot-filling dishes of potatoes loaded with cheese – and certainly in Aletsch Arena there is no shortage of that. But, what you may not expect is to enjoy some world-leading fayre. The Valais canton is known in Switzerland for its exceptional produce, namely because it is the sunniest (over 300 days a year) region in the country. From the cows who provide the flavoursome meat and freshest milk for the chocolate and cheese, to the fruit farms bursting with ripe apricots, the region has an array of specialities which each make the most of ingredients from a small radius.
When travelling in Europe, I’m a great advocate of the rule ‘leave no cheese behind’ – a principle I indulged whole-heartedly with so many Swiss delights on offer. My first port of call was to get my mitts on the famous Raclette, a semi-firm cow’s cheese, often served melted alongside potatoes, gherkins and pickled onions. This was decadent and delicious, washed down with the dry and flinty Fendant – one of the first of many fabulous Swiss wines I tasted. Valais accounts for over 40% of Switzerland’s wine output, with over 50 grape varieties. The great shame is that many of these bottles don’t make it into our supermarkets, with British shelves stocked predominantly with French, Italian and Spanish wines.
The grapes from Valais are harvested by local people, with virtually every home stocked with its own vines. The favourable, sunny and dry climate, as well as the diversity of soils, account for the amazing richness of unique wines that the Valais produces from a wide range of grape varieties. Pinot Noir and the Swiss classic Chasselas account for the lion’s share of production, but you will also find an amazing depth of variety including the region’s oldest native grape varieties, such as Arvine, Cornalin, Humagne and Rèze. Hard to find at home, but well worth the effort!
Dried meats are very popular, and delicious, but many of the mountain classics are vegetarian dishes, layers of potatoes, cheese (do you sense a theme developing?) and additions of apple and pear within pasta and pies. Sitting as it does on the boarders of Italy and France and not forgetting the Germanic influences from the north, the cuisine is a melting pot in the truest sense, but underpinned by the quality of the produce – something the people of Valais are evidently proud of. One of the most famous dishes of the region is the somewhat unappealingly named ‘Cholera Pie’. The hearty dish takes its name from a 19th-century cholera epidemic that swept across Europe. The mountain people in the Valais confined themselves to their homes to avoid contagion, forcing them to improvise a meal from whatever they could scrounge from their larder. They added leeks, onions, apples, pears and a bacon called petit lard, wrapped it all in pastry and baked it. It was so tasty, they continued to make it, and it has become a staple ever since! I’m not surprised either, it is utterly delicious and everything you could want in winter comfort food.
Whilst my skiing was beginning to improve under expert guidance (and supervision!), I was glad to hear that a break in the itinerary left some time to explore the slopes via different means – snowshoes. Images of the great explorers with wooden tennis rackets attached to their feet filled my mind, but I was pleased to find that the modern snow shoe was a much more civilised and petite affair. We ascended via cable car to the Moosfluh summit station and with our expert guide to help us navigate, we forged a path across the virgin snow. There is a special silence that creeps across a landscape under the dusting of fresh powder snow, and it lends such an other-worldly, sparkling quality. Along the way, we began to hear the great Aletsch Glacier before arriving upon it to take our first long look. Brooding and magnificent, cloaked in pockets of cloud and rumbling with power, you can see why this magnificent glacier has attracted so many to explore.
We continued the walk through woodland, only to emerge at a sight so chocolate-box perfect as to look unreal. Framed by lofty pines and dusted in snow was the historic Villa Cassel, where Winston Churchill is said to have spent a number of summers. The house is now a centre for natural history and mountain excursions – and frankly few monuments are better placed!
My final thoughts as we wandered through this incredible landscape was just how recharged I felt. Whether it was the alpine air, the wonderful food or just the exertion in the altitude, I was struck by a new appreciation for Swiss culture and felt I had experienced more than just a standard skiing jaunt. I was leaving the Valais with an understanding of the deep pride the people of the canton take in their little slice of heaven.
Whether you visit as a family or a foodie, an intermediate or an ecologist, there is so much to see and enjoy in this wonderful region, you may just struggle to do it all in one trip. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to have to return for a bite of that Raclette…
AT A GLANCE
It’s now easier than ever to get to the Valais region. Flights with Swiss International Airlines to Zurich or Geneva are available from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick (seasonal), Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal) and Dublin. Select dates with direct flights from London to Sion are also available.
The added bonus of Swiss International Airlines is that you can check in your ski equipment at no additional cost.
Once you’ve arrived a the airport, take advantage of Switzerland’s world-famous trains and see scenic views along the way with the All-in-One-Ticket from Swiss Travel System www.myswitzerland.com/rail.
Need to know
The village of Riederalp is dotted with lots of apartments for the self-catering option. We opted for a hotel stay in the charming Hotel Walliser Spycher www.walliser-spycher.ch
Before you go
We recommend trying to find your feet at a your local ski centre, either dry slop or indoor with real snow. I headed to the Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead for a 1-2-1 lesson www.thesnowcentre.com
GET IN GEAR
Having the right kit is essential when skiing – especially if you are a beginner who will spend a fair bit of time on the ground! Here are our top picks, all from Columbia available from www.snowandrock.com
Women’s Columbia Powderkeg Jacket £320 As well as providing a bright pop of colour, this jacket is Heat thermal reflective and insulated and features Columbia’s signature Omni-tech waterproof/breathable technology. It has internal stretch panels and 4-way comfort stretch for the perfect fit plus jacket/pant connectors to stop snow going down your back!
Women’s Columbia Bugaboo OH Pant £100 Featuring a fully waterproof-breathable construction and critical seam sealing, the women’s Bugaboo ski or snowboard pant is insulated with Omni-HEAT thermal reflective to help retain body heat. With a killer ergonomic fit and adjustable waist, these pants deliver the perfect amount of warmth during active winter play.
Men’s Columbia Powderkeg Jacket £320
An ultra-technical waterproof-breathable minimalist shell combines with a super-warm 650-fill-power down liner that zips in and out for a 3-jackets-in-1 combo that can take on any condition imaginable. The toasty liner also features thermal reflectivity, which reflects your body heat for warmth while maintaining a high level of breathability.
Men’s Columbia Powderkeg Pants £tbc Articulated at the knees and built with 4-way stretch fabric, these ski pants are designed to move with you down the hill. Omni-TECH™ provides all-day water-resistance, while Omni-HEAT™ technology traps warmth. They’re vented where you need airflow, reinforced at the cuffs and have internal leg gaiters that clamp around your boots. Zippered back, hand and thigh pockets give you plenty of room for storage.