Travel Flashback: Skiing in Scuol, Switzerland

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

As the countdown continues for my upcoming Swiss ski trip, I have found some more interesting materials in the archives.  This time, the pictures are from my visits to the remote Swiss town of Scuol in the winters of 2004 and 2006.

The narrow streets of downtown Scuol (2004)

There is something to be said for letting one’s destination be a bit of a mystery.  I didn’t know anything about Scuol (pronounced “Shkwoal”) when I arrived there in March of 2004 for a Swiss Abroad ski camp.  It’s certainly not a place that I would ever have selected on my own:  the ski area does not have an international reputation.

Taking a break on the slopes of Motta Naluns (Scuol, 2004)

But what a pleasant surprise!  Instead of being an international resort where English was commonplace, Scuol was located deep in the Rumantsch-speaking region of Switzerland’s Graubünden canton.  With its narrow streets, unusual architecture, and highly distinctive regional cuisine, it was unlike any other winter resort I had previously visited.  And it was literally at the “end of the line”:  the train could go no further.

Traditional ways in the village of Sent (2006)

As you can see from the photos, the lack of international visitors is no reflection on the skiing:  one of the pistes (the “Traumpiste”, or “Dream Slope”) continued for more than 10 km from the top of the resort to the nearby village of Sent.  The ski area’s vertical drop was in excess of 5000 feet.    And yet, we rarely encountered any other skiers:  everybody you see pictured on the slopes is part of the ski camp.

Getting ready for another long piste at the top of the resort (Scuol, 2006)

I enjoyed Scuol so much that I returned to the region with my wife in the summer of 2006 and celebrated the Swiss National Day in the village of Sent.  I hope to write about our summer visit in a future post.

I’m enjoying the slopes high above the treeline (Scuol, 2006)

It is always a pleasure to discover a place like Scuol that has avoided mass international recognition.  This is what we’re hoping for in the summer of 2018.   We usually plan these summer trips well in advance and, several months ago, thought that we had found a great destination in southern Africa.  We even bought a guidebook and had blocked off the provisional dates off in our calendar.  As far as we were concerned, it was just a question of booking the flights when the airfares hit the “sweet spot”.

Near our hostel in the old part of Scuol (2004)

However, travel does not take place in a bubble.  Due to a number of external factors, including the political uncertainty in nearby Zimbabwe, we reluctantly decided to put this destination on hold.   The timing just wasn’t right.

Ready for some skicross shenanigans (Scuol, 2006)

As a result, the search for our summer destination is once again underway.  Looking at the pictures of Scuol, my desire to go somewhere off the beaten path was affirmed:  not only are such places fun, but they are also highly advisable during the summer when prices and crowds are onerous in high-profile destinations.   I’m watching the airfares closely and will pounce on the next opportunity.   Stay tuned for the details!

Swiss Ski Camps

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Although I have been to Switzerland a total of 20 times, I have not been there since starting this blog in early 2014.  My only Swiss posts have been travel flashbacks to earlier trips.  Happily, that is going to change in early 2018, as I will be returning to Switzerland for an extended ski safari.

Some of my friends having lunch outdoors, at the 1992-1993 Swiss Abroad ski camp in Splügen, Switzerland

Switzerland is an expensive destination and simple economics dictated that I ski elsewhere for the past several winters.  However, I have found a way to make this work and will be skiing in both Wengen and Lenk this winter.

Me, halfway down the “Black Rock” piste above Wengen, Switzerland in 2002

Why Wengen?  You may have heard of it as a stop on the World Cup ski circuit:  the famous Lauberhorn piste is a real test of both daring and endurance.  However, I chose Wengen this year because of the great experiences I had in the Grindelwald-Wengen-Murren region (a.k.a. “Jungfrau Ski Region”)  between 1999 and 2011 with the ski camps for the Swiss Abroad.

Having lunch outside in the sun: the “Tipi” at Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland (March 12, 1999)

The Organization for the Swiss Abroad (“Auslandschweizer-Organisation”, or “ASO” for short) organizes ski camps every year for Swiss citizens who are living abroad.  I attended many of these camps and met lots of people who continue to be great friends.  In fact, my current ski posse arose from the ASO camps.  Some of us have been skiing together for 20 years!

Skiing by torch light down to Grindelwald (March 13, 2000)

The ASO camps feature a LOT of skiing, in addition to other sports and cultural activities.  It’s a great way to connect with one’s Swiss roots…and become a much better skier.  The camps tend to move around each year:   I attended camps in resorts such as Splügen, Scuol, Arosa, and Grächen.  However, I attended at least five such camps in Grindelwald and Wengen.

Me, in front of the Jungfrau (March 9, 1999)

This winter, I will have the opportunity to take up-to-date photos of the riotous scenery around Wengen.  I will also be playing the role of guide:  with all that experience, it will be a pleasure to show one of my Canadian friends some of the many highlights of these iconic mountains.

Part of my group, preparing to ski down the James Bond 007 piste from the Schilthorn to Mürren (March 11, 1999)

And the highlights are many.  There is the brilliant chocolate cake at Wengernalp.  There is the black-rated “007” ski run from the top of the Schilthorn (and its rotating restaurant), made famous by James Bond in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.  The black-rated pistes called “Oh God” and “Black Rock” that lead down from Eigergletscher also offer unforgettable challenges…partly because the scenery is so distracting!  Above Grindelwald, you can watch an Alpine Ibex watching you from an impossibly high and inaccessible peak.

Avalanche! The Wetterhorn, above Grindelwald, on March 13, 2000

It goes on and on.  There is the astonishing 2km sheer vertical rock face of the Eiger, which rises to a height of 3,967m:  I can think of no more intimidating mountain in the world.   To me, it is even more impressive than the adjacent Jungfrau, which rises even higher to 4,168m (13,675 feet).  There is the car-free village of Wengen, perched on top of a cliff that plunges down 500 metres to the valley below.  There is the “Tipi” at Kleine Scheidegg, where I have eaten many a sun-dappled picnic lunch outdoors…but where I am determined to have one of the freshly cooked pizzas and sausages.

About to ski down “Oh God”: March 15, 2000 (Wengen, Switzerland)
Pausing halfway down the “Oh God” piste, above Wengen (March 15, 2000)

I am really looking forward to revisiting some of these past highlights, as well as discovering new ones.  To accompany today’s post, I’ve unearthed some archival photos of my Swiss Abroad ski camp experiences from 1992 to 2002.

Looking for Ibex, high above Grindelwald in the “First” ski area (2002)

Stay tuned for more on Swiss skiing…and on my evolving plans for the rest of 2018!

Christmas in Toronto

(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

My second trip to Toronto this fall was entirely different from the first.  This one was focused on Christmas shopping and the entertainment district:  I didn’t get anywhere close to Bloor Street or The Annex this time!

Pulled Pork and Goat Cheese Pierogi at “Loaded Pierogi”

We stayed in a hotel very close to the St. Lawrence Market; lunch was at a popular new restaurant called “Loaded Pierogi”.  The menu here is essentially confined to pierogi, but the toppings are the real attraction.  I went for the pulled pork and goat cheese pierogi, while my wife went for the bacon and caramelized onion pierogi.  These sustained us for an entire afternoon of Christmas shopping.

Christmas Market in Toronto’s Distillery District

Toronto’s Distillery District (see also the photo at the very top of this post) is transformed into a European-style outdoor Christmas Market for the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Perhaps to control the crowds, there is a cover charge of $6.00 on Friday evenings and weekends.  As with most such charges, it does not add any real value but we didn’t have any choice with the timing of our visit.

The Dutch Shop, at the Christmas Market in Toronto’s Distillery District

Fortunately, to set off any ill feelings about the cover charge, there were some vendors from the “old countries”.  I enjoyed the Dutch kiosk and there were also some Swiss treats at one of the German kiosks.  We focused only on the “must-have” items, as we still had some unusual shopping lined up for the following day.

A Dutch restaurant in downtown Toronto

As I had enjoyed my visit to the Second City comedy facility in Chicago in 2014, we caught an evening show at the Toronto location.  We enjoyed the show itself but the leg and shoulder room was abysmal. We didn’t really have any choice for our seating, but you will definitely want to avoid the front row if you are of even average height and width.  Unfortunately, the advertised free improv session is after the *second* show of the evening, so you will have a long wait if you attend the first show.

19th century baking at William Lyon Mackenzie’s house in downtown Toronto

On Sunday morning, we had a fun shopping experience at the Swedish (!) Christmas Market.  I have never seen so many Swedes in one place outside of Sweden before.  The line-up for the food stalls was massive, as this market takes place only on one weekend and the “regulars” knew exactly what they wanted.  However, there was no cover charge and we ended up getting some really interesting items for Christmas.

Yonge-Dundas Square in downtown Toronto – starting to look like Times Square!

Thanks to some corporate sponsorship, a number of historic sites in Toronto had free admission that weekend.  We visited the William Lyon Mackenzie House on Bond Street:  besides being a forefather of one of Canada’s longest-serving Prime Ministers (William Lyon Mackenzie King), Mackenzie was also the first mayor of the city of Toronto and was a leader of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion.  We enjoyed some authentic baked goods, prepared the 19th century way in a very unpredictable gas-fired oven.

Evening view of the CN Tower and Union Station, taken from just outside the Royal York Hotel in Toronto

For lunch, we went to “Real Mo-Mo’s” and had some Tosti Hawaii.  Despite the name, it is in fact a largely Dutch restaurant with dishes ranging from Dutch pancakes to Bitterballen and Uitsmijter open-faced sandwiches.   It was hidden away on a small street just north of the St. Lawrence Market – yet another place to check out on a return visit.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with some details on my 2018 travel itinerary:  I’ve got trips planned for both the winter and summer months!