If you’re a fan of Westworld, the HBO television series about a fantasy theme park set in the 19th century, and are also enamoured with the splendours of winter in a big mountain setting, I’ve got some good news – and some more good news.
First is the existence of a fairy-tale Swiss mountain resort called Kandersteg that turns the clock back to the late 19th century’s lavish Belle Époque period every year during the last week of January. It is a singularly amazing sight, with the entire town dressed up in long dresses and top hats, like extras on a Downton Abbey set.
The second bit of good news is that thankfully, unlike in Westworld, no one in Kandersteg is a lifelike homicidal robot bent on killing tourists!
After hearing tales of Kandersteg’s historically accurate slalom races using vintage wooden ski gear, I became intoxicated by the idea of time travelling back to the Belle Époque (which began around 1871 and ended in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War). I couldn’t resist the notion of seeing what the sport dearest to my heart looked like in its infancy.
In Westworld, thrill-seeking tourists enter the park by train, so I thought it would be fun to use the same 19th-century technology on my magical voyage back in time. After crossing through some of the most breathtaking snow-capped peaks the Swiss Alps have to offer, my train pulled into Kandersteg on a crisp and sunny Friday morning.
Disembarking onto the platform, I was immediately drawn to an elegant woman in a floor-length dress, her shoulders swathed in mink fur and her blonde locks offset by the black lace and red roses covering a magnificent Victorian cartwheel hat.
Like being back in time
“Welcome to Belle Époque in beautiful Kandersteg,” she said with a soft-edged Swiss German accent. “I’m Livia Wyssen from Kandersteg Tourism, and I’ll be your time travel guide over the next few days.”
After dropping me off at the Hotel Blümlisalp, a cozy, family-run establishment that sits in the shadow of the majestic alpine massif it’s named after, Lady Livia (as I would call her all weekend) suggested we ease into a late 19th-century mindset with an activity that was very popular during that age – a promenade around town on foot “to see and be seen.”
But before going outside I would have to get into character. I chose to honour my wife’s Scottish great-grandfather William Hanna by wearing a kilt made from the family tartan. I accessorized as if I were a fin de siècle Highlander on a ski holiday in 1899, topping off my kilt with a reindeer-motif alpine sweater, a bright red tam o’ shanter wool cap, vintage-look brown leather hiking boots and an antique wooden ice climbing axe from a local costume shop as a walking stick.
After promenading down Kandersteg’s main street – which is lined with some of the most impressive traditional Swiss chalets I’ve come across in my alpine travels – we popped into the town’s oldest inn for a little lunchtime sustenance. After filling ourselves with fondue and a most delicious Riesling-Silvaner white wine at the Restaurant Ritter, we walked to the edge of town to take in the classic Merihang ski race.
This event is living history pure and simple, and an absolute must-see if you are a passionate skier interested in a first-hand look at the roots of the sport. After sashaying through a large crowd of spectators kitted out in their best Belle Époque finery at the bottom of a steep snow-covered slope, Lady Livia and I parked ourselves next to one of the town fathers, Rieder Hansueli.
A rugged-looking gentleman farmer with deep and ancient roots in this mountain community, Herr Hansueli’s role in Kandersteg’s annual vintage ski racing celebration is that of Rennleiter, or what we would call Race Chief. Standing next to Herr Hansueli was a spine-tingler for me. After decades of covering some of the most prestigious ski races in the world, from the Olympics to the famed Hahnenkamm and Lauberhorn, nothing has made my heart beat faster than standing next to this fine gentlemen signalling racers to start by blowing an old brass hunting horn.
After marvelling at dozens of men, women and children decked out in vintage wool sweaters, knickerbockers or long dirndl skirts, and giant-sized wooden skis manoeuvring and contorting around beautifully low-tech race gates made from tree branches and hand-sewn cloth panels, I thanked Herr Hansueli for the front row seat.
“You are most welcome,” he said in Swiss German. “And you must come back tomorrow night to see our Nachtslalom. It is racing by torchlight under the moon and stars, and it is very, very magical.”
Ski racing. Torchlight. Moon and stars. Magical. Isn’t that what ski dreams are made of?
My first day in Kandersteg was very special – there is no doubting that. But things went from special to full-blown otherworldly in a flash when the sun set over the titanic peaks surrounding this sleepy little mountain hamlet.
At 6 p.m., after a little rest and some late afternoon spa time at the Hotel Blümlisalp, I met Lady Livia at an outdoor skating rink in the centre of town for a little pre-dinner aperitif. Little did I know that the aperitif du jour was the green concoction known as absinthe – now legal after decades on both banned and most-wanted lists.
When I began to prep for this trip, I re-watched my favourite film set during the Belle Époque era. The scene I’d always loved most from Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the sexually charged absinthe-drinking psychedelic montage with Dracula and Mina.
“Absinthe is the aphrodisiac of the self,” Dracula tells Mina as she drinks the aromatic anise-flavoured liqueur. “The green fairy who lives in the absinthe wants your soul, but you are safe with me.”
I’m not worried about my soul, but I am concerned that future mountain holiday visits to drinking establishments will pale in comparison to Kandersteg’s truly magical Bar Magique.
Under the stars in a ghostly white tent lit by candles, a goth-like female bartender in a black top hat ministered the taps of a vintage crystal absinthe fountain. As I watched the cold water drip, drip, drip over a sugar cube sitting on a slotted silver spoon over a glass filled with absinthe, she looked into my eyes and could tell I was a novice.
“Enjoy your drink tonight,” she said with a grin. “I’m sure you will have wonderful dreams.”
Realizing one absinthe would be sufficient, Lady Livia and I headed out to dinner at Ruedihus, a top-notch local restaurant housed in another awe-inspiring Swiss chalet–style wooden building with one of the most intricately carved fronts imaginable. Dinner for me was an absinthe-induced blur, but it was excellent – or, at least, that’s what Lady Livia told me the next day when I asked her if I enjoyed my raclette.
Day two was another bluebird winner for the memory bank. It started with a gondola ride up to the UNESCO Ice Walk, a very tourist-friendly winter hiking spot situated on the extremely scenic high alpine Oeschinensee Lake, which is a dead ringer for Lake Louise. After a selfie-taking orgy disguised as a 90-minute frozen lake trek in the Swiss Alps, and a hearty alpine lunch at the Berghotel Oeschinensee, we made our way back into town for Kandersteg’s annual bobsleigh race.
This is also a must-do if you are fan of fun in wintertime. For a small fee, organizers let you rip down a handcrafted bobsled track on a vintage wooden sleigh driven by locals who are experts at having fun sliding down icy mountains on wood. My ride had all the thrills, chills and spills I could ask for, and my face hurt from the glee-fuelled smile I couldn’t get rid of for the rest of the afternoon.
After sunset, I headed back to the Merihang slalom course to see if Kandersteg had any more magic left to offer. I can confirm it did.
Back to the future
The haunting calls of a brass hunting horn echoing through the dark peaks under a starry winter sky. The subdued melody of ancient wooden skis schussing through snow in the moonlight. The frantic eruption of cheers and ringing bells as the racers come into view on a ski track lit by firelight. The heart-warming, soul-affirming laughter as racers crash through the finish line. This is the magic of community, of sportsmanship, of memories, of tradition, but most of all, it’s a celebration of a past that’s gone but not forgotten – and I can’t wait to go back.
– By Michael Mastarciyan