Swiss Alps; December 28, 2019 - January 5, 2020

The two halves of our vacation couldn't have been more different, with the only common feature being tiny countries. We left sweltering Djibouti with our usual developing-country dive-trip array of marine stings, insect bites, and stomach problems, arriving to recover in sterile, wintery, insect-free Switzerland. In Africa when things get unfathomably dirty or chaotic, travelers shrug it off as "TIA" (This Is Africa); on the second half of our trip we coined "TIS" (This Is Switzerland), for when things are unfathomably clean or organized.

We benefited from TIS soon after we arrived. Despite four separate air tickets, and only Alex and Jennifer having frequent flier status, inexplicably all four of us were moved to business class on our Istanbul-Zurich flight. The upgrades were especially appreciated by Tim & Emily, but in all the excitement Jennifer managed to leave her laptop on the plane (a first). Luckily, TIS: with an online form and automated updates, the laptop was recovered and cleared by the Swiss police for pickup the following day.

Fortunately we'd built a second buffer day into our travel at this juncture (the first one was absorbed when Tim got stuck in Istanbul on his way to Djibouti), so the laptop debacle didn't end up interrupting our plans. With Clara rejoining the group, our free day in Zurich was spent hiking Zurich's popular Uetliberg:

For the rest of the week we were based in Chur -- reputed to be the oldest town in Switzerland, a short train ride from Zurich and conveniently located within striking distance of several different ski areas. All of the ski resorts we visited have hyphenated names and link together formerly separate areas: Arosa-Lenzerheide, Flims-Laax, and Davos-Klosters-Parsenn. We were extremely lucky with the weather overall, with mostly sunny days hovering around freezing, although to break the monotony, one day in Davos served up white-out blizzard conditions on the upper parts of the mountain.

We've done a bit of skiing in the Alps some years ago, but this visit was the most extensive by far. The European ski experience differs considerably from the USA (or at least Switzerland differs considerably from California):
  • Skiers are fast, highly competent, and rarely fall down. They tend to stick to the groomed slopes, but politeness prevails so it never feels crowded.
  • I won't speculate whether it's related to the previous point, but there are relatively few snowboarders.
  • There's more automation, from lift ticket purchases (top up your Swiss transit pass online and you're good to go), to card-reader entry gates, to conveyor belts whisking skiers into position for the chairlift.
  • Chairlifts can be cushy, with heated seats and plastic wind-protection enclosures that raise automatically at the top of the lift.
  • Despite the fancy chairlifts, old style surface lifts are still in use, along with gondolas, cable cars, and at Davos a charming funicular:

  • Lunch is more likely to consist of raclette and Riesling than burgers and fries, and Gluehwein is the local favorite for a warming drink.
Most distinctive of all is the robust apres-ski scene: Numerous venues at every ski area boast thumping music and people of all ages still in their ski boots letting loose after a full day of fast, polite skiing. On-slope locations necessitate a dim and tipsy final ski run to the bottom when the festivities are over; everyone seems to make it down one way or another. Apres-ski is an integral part of the experience, aided by the fact that most skiers travel to the slopes via Switzerland's excellent network of public trains and buses. We participated in apres-ski every day and thoroughly enjoyed it.

We took one day off from skiing to go sledding instead. Make no mistake, this isn't a matter of towing a plastic sled up a snowy knoll and sliding down. The whole enterprise is highly organized (TIS!) with top-end sled rentals and groomed runs of different difficulties accessed by a variety of lifts. We sledded out of Berguen, a charming village teeming with people pulling their sleds and a unique ice bar for the apres-sledding scene:

The steepest route is the Darlux-Berguen run, apparently quite well known. Jennifer never got up the guts to hurtle down at full terminal velocity although the rest of the family did, with only a few bruises from the inevitable crashes that, in contrast to skiing, seem to be an accepted part of the sledding culture.

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