Europe’s best sled runs
In the Swiss village of Berguen, locals transport everything from their children to groceries atop the traditional wooden sleds. (Terry Ward)
Sledding is the quintessential winter experience – and in Europe it is not for the faint of heart. From Norway to the Swiss Alps, the continent’s snowy winter terrain is criss-crossed with all kinds of magical locales for adults and children to get their rodel (German for “sled”) or luge (French for “sled”) on.
Secret Swiss sledding
Bergün is an end-of-the-valley Swiss town that is home to one of Europe’s most scenic sled runs. During the winter months, the Albula mountain pass closes to car traffic and the road gets taken over by schussing wooden toboggans. Riders catch the Rhätische Bahn, an alpine train, from the town’s railway station for a few Swiss francs, toboggans in tow, for the 25-minute uphill ride through a Unesco World Heritage landscape accessed through corkscrewing tunnels and over ancient stone bridges. Fortify yourself with some gluwein (mulled wine) from the hotel restaurant at the top of the pass before careening into the moonlit night along the 6.5km-long sled run back down to the village. The screams of joy – and sheer terror – echo long into the night.
A few valleys over in the village of Vals, its sled run is equal parts fear-inducing and exhilarating – a downhill 7km screamer that will take you about 15 minutes from the Restaurant Zervreila (where you can rent sleds and fuel up on fondue and mulled wine) to Vals village below. Take a shuttle bus (about 20 minutes) from the village to access the sledding route, that traverses floodlit tunnels, hairpin turns and screech-to-a-stop straightaways.
But for the longest sled run in the Alps -- and, reputedly, the world -- head to the Jungfrau region of Switzerland and the touristy town of Grindelwald to hurl yourself 15km down the Big Pintenfritz. The run’s mass transit-style cable car access lacks the charm of smaller resorts, but this one is all about endurance and duration.
A traditional French ride
In the village of Manigod near the excellent ski resort of La Clusaz in the French Alps, sledding’s roots run deep and practical. Since the early 20th Century, children here have used their special single-blade sleds, called parets, to get to school and around town. On moonlit nights at La Ferme hotel, the owner invites guests to pull wooden parets down from the chalet’s rafters for a screaming run from the slopeside hotel into the village, less than 1km downhill. For an even wilder ride, test your sledding skills on the modern version of the paret called a yooner, which has shock absorbers that better carve the corners in much the same way as skis. The lower ski pistes at La Clusaz are also open several nights a week during winter for dedicated sled runs.
Das German sledding
Rodeln (sled riding), is very popular in Germany, and it is in the high peaks of the Bavarian Alps that you will find the best action. Try the sled run on Breitenstein mountain from the village of Fischbachau; while there is no chairlift here to whisk you to the top (you walk an hour up a mountain road, dragging your sled behind you), there is a little wooden hut at the summit laced with icicles that serves cake and coffee to fortify you after the hike and before your descent.
For the longest natural sled run in the country, head to Wallberg mountain near the town of Rottach-Egern in the south of Bavaria, where the route stretches for just over six perfectly groomed kilometers (read: no potholes in the snow to send you blindly flying), and there is a cable car to carry you back up to the top for continuous runs (18 euros per person).
And a good sled run for families looking for mild thrills is at Untere Firstalm, a cosy mountain hut in the Bavarian resort town of Spitzingsee, where you can tuck into an apple strudel before cruising with the kids down the tame, snowy slopes.