The top of Bergün's mountain sled trail
It’s 10 a.m. and I’m at the Bergün train station in southeastern Switzerland. With my ticket in one hand and a wooden toboggan in the other, I’m headed up to the small village of Preda, home to one of the country’s most popular sledding runs.
The 15-minute journey on the Glacier Express is breathtaking. As we climb 400 metres, we cross six arched stone viaducts and spiral through several tunnels that cut through mountain rock. (In 2008, the railway line was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
At Preda, I follow signs to the top of the six-kilometre run and sit on my toboggan. Letting gravity pull me forward on the initially gentle slope, I practise dragging both feet to brake or just one foot to steer in that direction. For sharper, more precise turns, the trick is to press the opposite foot on the curved front rail of the sled. As the slope gets steeper, instinct takes over and I get comfortable enough to notice that I’m gliding underneath those same stone viaducts. By the end of it, I’m laughing out loud and my inner 10-year-old screams, Again!
Sledding is big in Switzerland, a country renowned for its winter sports. You’ll find wooden toboggans for sale at grocery stores and for rent at train stations. Sled runs are even marked on ski maps. Les Diablerets in the Vaud Alps hosts the annual Pennette Trophy every January, where a crowd of avid locals vie for the title of fastest racer on the town’s 7.2-kilometre route. In Andermatt, sunny winter days see hikers, sledders and skiers sharing the multi-use trail that boasts perfect mountain views from the top of the first lift to the village. And in Grindelwald, you can descend the many trails, including the 15-kilometre monster, on a “velogemel,” a local invention that looks a little bit like a wooden bicycle but with runners instead of wheels. The beauty of sledding is that it’s a casual, family-friendly activity that gives even non-skiers the chance to experience the mountains in winter.
Back in Bergün, I take the chairlift up to the ski hill after the attendant hooks my sled on the back. I’m about to tackle the more adventurous four-kilometre run that criss-crosses the mountain. My stomach is in knots as I look down at my fellow sledders who are letting out scheisses as they rush down the hill. But when I head down myself, I realize the drama is thanks to a series of roller-coaster-like bumps that have me actually getting air. This time, I do go back for seconds. Gliding down Bergün’s main street, which is technically verboten, I stop in at the ice bar for a warming Holdrio, rosehip tea mixed with plum schnapps and a dash of sugar.
Fuelled up and just a tiny bit tipsy, I’m not ready to call it quits. I take the 5:15 train for one more run, which turns into two as I realize I’ve come down fast enough to catch the 6:15 ride back up – my chance to glide down in full darkness on Europe’s longest nighttime route. Finally worn out after covering more than 30 kilometres by sled, I chat with the rental shop attendant about top speeds and toboggan skills. I’d hit 29 kilometres an hour at the speed check on my fastest go, and he tells me that with a “sport” sled – more flexible and easier to control – people get up to 70. Next time, I think.
Air Canada and Star Alliance Partner Swiss International Airlines offer the only nonstop service from Canada to Switzerland. Air Canada offers four weekly flights from Toronto to Zurich and 5 weekly flights from Montreal to Geneva. Swiss International Airlines offers 5 weekly flights from Montreal to Zurich.