Sledging and skating into the unknown

The train provides a comfortable ride back to the top at Preda.

Bypassed by skiers heading for the nearby resorts of St Moritz and Davos, the villages in the Albula Valley are happy to be left out in the cold.

This content was published on January 21, 2004 minutes

However, anyone wishing to get off the beaten track will find a region waiting to be discovered. And the best way to do so is by sledge or on ice skates.

Since the Albula Pass road is closed in winter, only tourists who choose to travel by train from Zurich to St Moritz catch a glimpse of the region's beauty.

During the final stretch, the train passes several sleepy villages and crosses a series of stone viaducts leading up to the Albula Pass.

The last stop before entering the Engadine Valley and St Moritz is the hamlet of Preda which is also the start of the region's main winter attraction - a five-kilometre-long sledge run.

Passengers who may have enjoyed the views from the train, scream with delight as they careen on their wooden sledges back down the Albula Pass road and under the viaducts.

Long and spectacular

It is one of the longest and most spectacular runs in the Swiss Alps, and sledges can either be hired in the well-preserved village of Bergün at the bottom of the run or from the railway stationmaster at Preda.

"The second part of the run is the nicest because you see a lot of bridges and trains passing over them," says stationmaster Johannes Rauber, clearly happy to break up his lonely vigil by giving advice on the right type of sledge, and even a little instruction.

"If you want to stop, you have to put both feet down," he warns.

After a 30-minute adrenalin rush, sledgers drag their toboggans through the narrow streets of Bergün where they are tempted by a few cafes and restaurants on their way to the railway station for the ride back to the top.

Hot chocolate

There is even an unmanned stall selling hot chocolate and apple punch for SFr1.50 a cup. A sign requests sledgers to drop their coins in a cash box.

Bergün is modest by any standard, but sledging is big business here for locals like Jackie Mark, who runs the Mark sport shop.

"Originally, about 100 years ago, people used to bob down there with old bobs, and the way the sledge run is today goes back about 30 years," she says.

"That's when we started commercially renting toboggans. We would have only ten or 15 people during the week, or maybe 30 or 40 on a Sunday. Nowadays, it's up to 300 on a Sunday and even more at peak season."

Bergün has opened a steeper sledge run below its ski slopes on Alp Darlux, but Mark says locals do not want the village to lose its character by being overrun by tourists, as many places are in the Engadine.

Up until this season, the even smaller village of Surava further down in the Albula Valley did not have a single tourist attraction.

Ice-skating trail

All that changed when Giorgio Bossi, who runs a local building supplies company, opened a three-and-a-half-kilometre-long ice-skating trail.

"The idea came about because we didn't have any snow the last couple of years to be able to make a cross-country trail where the 'Skateline' now exists," remembers Bossi.

"But there were very icy places along the path, and so we came up with the idea for the skating trail."

The trail cuts through the forest and follows the course of the Albula River between Surava and Alvaneu.

No sun

The villages are hemmed in by steep mountainsides and, as Bossi says, "there is no sun for two and a half months of the year in Surava."

"That makes for perfect conditions along the banks of the river - where the ground is always frozen - to make a skating trail."

Bossi founded a "Skateline" association made up of volunteers to prepare the icy path and run the booth in Surava where skates can be hired and hot drinks and snacks are sold.

Bossi himself drives the van ferrying skaters from Surava to the start of the "Skateline" in Alveneu.

Reto Barblan, head the regional tourist office, says the "Skateline" complements the variety of winter activities available in the area.

"Where else can you skate along a three-and-a-half-kilometre-long forest trail?" he asks.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

The sledge run is five kilometres long and drops 400 metres in altitude.
The Rhaetian Railway runs a half-hour service between Preda and Bergün.
The 3.5-kilometre-long ice-skating trail is the first of its kind.

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In brief

Tourism in the Albula region in southeastern Switzerland pales in comparison with the nearby resorts of St Moritz and Davos.

In winter, it is best known for the sledge run between Preda and the region's tourist centre, Bergün, where visitors find a selection of restaurants, hotels and holiday apartments.

The village of Surava this season opened a unique ice-skating trail along the banks of the Albula River. It is the first tourist attraction in the village.

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