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.
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
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.
Extreme Austrian sled runs
The areas around the city of Innsbruck are rich
with sled runs, and about 104km from the city centre in the ski village of Ischgl
you can experience one of Austria’s most fun routes. Open only at night, the floodlit
sled run stretches more than 6km, starting at a 2,320m elevation and dropping
you 950m at breakneck speed – not one for beginners, but a real rush. Germans
and Scandinavians have long praised the resort’s upscale village vibe and snowy
pistes loaded with fine intermediate and expert terrain, and British and
American travellers are slowly catching on to Ischgl as an alternative to
better-known (and more crowed) Austrian ski resorts like St Anton and Kitzbühel.
For the world’s longest floodlit sled run, open
until 10 pm each night, head to Wildkogel Sledding Arena in the state
of Salzburg, where the lift sweeps you up to 1,300m to sled more than 14km back
down a white-knuckled route loaded with hairpin turns to the town of Bramberg.
The best part? If all that adrenalin makes you thirsty, you can stop off at a slopeside
alehouse for something cold and frosty to warm you from the inside out.
An adrenalin kick in Norway
of the above seem too tame, then kick your sledding experience up a notch with
a bobsled run in Norway. There is plenty of old school wooden tobogganing to be
had at the country’s many ski resorts, but the most extreme experience can be
found in the town of Hunderfossen in
southern Norway, where bobsleds carrying up to four passengers careen at 100kph
down Europe’s only artificially frozen luge track. One glance at the terrified
faces exiting the sleds and you will understand why Norwegian cheeks always
look so rosy.