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Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo   February 1, 2010


In the end, my friends and I didn't really do much skiing last winter in Switzerland. We were too busy soaking in delicious hot water pools, riding funny little snowbikes down mountains, deciding whether to buy a Swiss watch in an ice palace at the "top of the world." Oh yes, and eating more kinds of cheese than I knew existed.

Leukerbad is not exactly on the "Swiss most visited" list. It's a typical small mountain village ... 1,200 people, cobblestone streets that rise and drop at alarming angles, charming old houses built of sturdy pine with carved gnomes on the doorsteps. And baths.

Lots of baths.

People have been coming here for 500 years for the town's healing waters.  In fact, when you buy a combo ski ticket, it also gets you into the three local spas.

First, though, we had to get to Leukerbad. I had worried because it involved three trains and a bus after 12 hours of air travel. But the train station is below the airport. I landed at 11 am, cleared customs by 11:15, rode an escalator down and was on the train by 11:40 am.


The center of Leukerbad in the canton of Valais in the south of Switzerland, at 1411 metres (4629 feet) above sea level. The location is impressive because of the cliffs which surround the village. Leukerbad dates back more than 2,000 years and is important because the nearby Gemmi pass links the cantons of Valais and Bern. Today Leukerbad is best known for its healing waters and health spas along with skiing.

Leukerbad from the air

Clocktower in Leukerbad

Clocktower in Leukerbad, Swiss village in the canton of Valais known for its healing hot water baths, spas and skiing.





Skiing in Europe is not like skiing in North America where everyone wears an altimeter watch and feels cheated if they haven't clocked 30,000 vertical.  Rather, it's hefty breakfasts, an hour ride on a local train, maybe two hours on the slopes followed by two hours over good food. Then maybe another hour on the slopes before hot chocolate, a sauna and dinner. But no fear. You WILL walk it off.  Nothing is ever close here and if a local tells you it's a five minute walk, budget 15.

We skied ourselves into exhaustion that first day, then wound down into town, grabbed our bathing suits and headed for Burgerbad to float in a thermal pool while sipping wine and nibbling sliced cheese and meat from a floating tray. Another night, it was off to the Alpentherme pool where we again floated in hot water, this time watching the latest James Bond movie on a full size movie screen.

And then, there was the Roman/Irish bath. It's 11 rooms of sauna and steam that get progressively hotter, broken by a quick, soapy massage and body scrub with coffee grounds, then a gradual cool down. The sauna rooms had windows so we could watch a snowstorm turn the village into a Currier & Ives Christmas card.



Leukerbad housetop

Typical building in the heart of Leukerbad in the canton of Valais in the south of Switzerland, at 1411 metres (4629 feet) above sea level. The location is impressive because of the cliffs which surround the village. Leukerbad dates back more than 2,000 years and is important because the nearby Gemmi pass links the cantons of Valais and Bern.

  Leukerbad Snowboarder  
Snowboarder makes his way past a mid mountain lodge on ski slope at Leukerbad in the Alps on the southern edge Switzerland.
  Etched glass

Etched door leading to large pool of the Lindner Alpentherme, one of the several spas featuring healing hot waters in Leukerbad, Switzerland.


  Apres ski in heated swimming pool at Burgerbad, one of the many spas in Leukerbad, a high Alpine village in the south of Switzerland. Here, a woman enjoys sliced meats, cheese, juice and wine on a floating tray in the pool.   Pool drinks  
  In addition to baths and minding other people's money, the Swiss do something else incredibly well ...  cows. Cows are what sustained the Swiss over the centuries. The milk, the butter, the yogurt and the tiny milkshakes at breakfast are incredible. Once you've had creamy Swiss milk, you are spoiled for all other milks.  
Brandegg kafe
  Swiss Lunch   Hot Chocolate  
Brandegg kafe, a house specialty of a small cafe on the mountain above Grindelwald, Switzerland.
Typical Swiss lunch ... Kaseschnitt with schinken and spiegelei (bread with melted cheese, ham and eggs).

Hot chocolate topped with whipped cream in Switzerland.


Cow Bells
Cow bells for sale at tourist shop in Grindelwald, Switzerland. Cows are very popular in Switzerland, as are dairy products.

After four days of baths, milk and a bit of skiing, it was on to Grindelwald.  If Leukerbad is off the beaten path, Grindelwald stands firmly in the middle of the trail. This is the iconic Swiss town, known around the world.

"We have the same number of cows, sheep and goats as we had 100 years ago," a local said proudly. Rent-a-cow is wildly popular for those few who don't have their own. For as little as 50 Swiss Francs, you get a percentage of a local bovine, which means you get a percentage of its cheese.

Skiing during snowstorm at Grindelwald, Switzerland.
  Skiing here is more than just sliding down hills ... at the end of the day, the trip back to town is a very special journey. You start at the very top, threading tracks through a world of white, then gradually coming back to civilization past rustic wood huts that hold cows for the winter, past the tinkle of goat bells, past small farmer cabins, then down roads, over bridges, through tunnels, finally skiing into people's back yards and along city streets.  
Woman carrying skis
Man At Schilthorn
During heavy snowfall, skier carries skis at the end of a day skiing at Grindelwald, an alpine town in Switzerland. The town museum can be seen behind her.

Man enjoys the 'top of the world' view from the outside viewing deck of the Shilthorn revolving restaurant in the Swiss Alps above Grindelwald.



But, of course, skiing is not the whole story here. Forty percent of winter visitors to Grindelwald don't even ski. So, the next day we did the James Bond breakfast at Piz Gloria, an amazing revolving restaurant high in the mountains in the Schilthorn area.

It's been 40 years since the James Bond film, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service,"  performed its now famous ski chase and jumps here.  On a floor below the restaurant, they show ancient film clips which are more than a bit funny by today's technical film and ski standards.  But the view from the revolving restaurant is breathtaking, nonetheless.

  SchilthornGondola   SchilthornGondola  
Gondola to the top of the Schilthorn ski area. This is the highest gondola. It takes people to the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant and viewing deck.
Ice palace with ice carvings at Jungfraujoch, the end of the line of the train route from Grindelwald through Kleine Scheidegg.
  There's a weather station up here, an observation deck with killer views of the glacier, a booth to send picture emails to your friends, an ice palace with sculptures of igloos, penguins, eagles ... and a concession stand selling Swiss watches.  

There are places that say they look like the Swiss Alps but until you have been here, you can't possibly understand what the Alps really are.  The mountains rise before you, a towering wall of spare, snow covered rock. You can see the blue of glacier ice and the folds of uplift. It is beyond huge.

The other big non ski activity is the cog train.  We caught it the next day to Kleine Scheidegg and on to Jungfraujoch, Europe's highest train station at 11,333 feet.  Some 7.5 km of the 9.3 km ride is through a tunnel and the top part, alone, took 16 years to build at a cost of what today would be $25 million per kilometer.

  CogTrain   Jungfraujoch  

Train station at Kleine Scheidegg which connects to a cog railroad that crosses the Eiger mountain on its way to Jungfraujoch at 3454 meters (11,333 feet), the highest train station in Europe. Here people can visit an ice palace, view a glacier and visit a weather station.


Visitors photograph the mountains from viewpoint along the train route from Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch, at 3454 meters (11,333 feet), the highest train station in Europe. At the station, people can visit an ice palace, view a glacier and visit a weather station.

  Our last day we tried something called a velogemel, a wooden snow bike that locals have used for centuries. It's a simple wood saddle, handlebars and skis instead of wheels and it works exactly like a bicycle.  We slid down the mountain, gliding around curves and floating alongside trees. It was a blast. The bike, called a Velogemel, is a centuries old design that is still used for transportation in the Swiss Alps.   Snowbike  
Riding a snowbike on ski slopes above Grindelwald, Switzerland

Some 2,380 vertical feet later we wound up at Kleine Brandegg where we did what any smart Swiss does at the end of a snowy day ... savored the local house special drink, in this case a mix of coffee, kirsch (a potent cherry liquor), sugar and whipped cream.   

My last day, I went in search of a good, strong local cheese. We couldn't find a cheese shop so we stopped in a bakery for directions.   

"Oh my father has cheese in his sport shop," a girl said as she paid for her bread.

Sure enough, across the street her mum Kathy smiled and excused herself to rummage in the basement, coming up shortly with a half kilo wedge.

Who made the cheese?

"We did."

You have cows?

"Of course. Four."

Doesn't everyone?


Winter season in Switzerland runs December through April.


For overall information -- For Leukerbad -- For Grindelwald -- For Jungfrau and the trip to "the top of the world" -- For Schilthorn and the James Bond activities -- For the Swiss transportation system including trains, buses, ferries, Swiss Pass and more --  

Non ski activities include: In Leukerbad, waterslides, snowshoe hiking and spas. In Grindelwald, an onslope zipline, tobogganing and snow biking, hiking and snowshoeing, sleigh rides, ice skating, the cablecar ride up the Schilthorn for the James Bond Breakfast, the cog railroad to Kleine Scheidegg and on to Jungfraujoch.


1. Swiss wines are fantastic but you and I don't know this because 97 percent of it never leaves the country. When in Switzerland, drink Swiss wines.

2. The people are friendly. Really friendly. Yes, they are efficient and punctual but they are always happy to talk and may even take you home to meet the family cow.

3. A five minute walk for the Swiss is 15 for the rest of us. No place is close and everyone walks EVERYwhere. It's probably why you don't see many fat Swiss. The upside is you get to eat as much of those yummy cheese dishes as you want.

4. The coffee here is really good ... especially with schnapps and whipped cream.

5. You can drink the water anywhere ... in your hotel room, from taps in bathrooms, from those stone fountains in any town square.

6. The Swiss transportation is even more efficient than you expect. You never wait but those five minute connections do work. And for $15 extra on your Swiss Pass ticket, you can have your luggage transported from your home airport directly to your hotel, even if it is three trains and a bus ride away from where you land in Switzerland. It works going home, too.

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