From 22 to 29 January, the Alpine resort of Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland, comes alive with Belle Epoque Week. DayGlo jackets will be banished from the slopes, making way for the dapper styling of the 1890s. Locals and tourists dress in period costume, and enjoy musical performances, tea dances, balls and candlelit dinners. The event has been held every January since 2009 to attract visitors during the "down" period between Christmas and early February.
When I arrived in Kandersteg for the festivities at the beginning of this year, the temperature in the open was a pleasant 12 degrees. My accommodation was the three-star Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria, dating from the 19th century, which made for the perfect setting for the week's entertainment. Rooms start from CHF870 (£678) per person for six nights.
To get in to the spirit, I headed over to the town costume-hire shop, the aptly named Belle Epoque Clothing, to change into some vintage attire. It's not compulsory to dress up, but it is good fun. That evening, I attended the special Belle Epoque ball with a classical orchestra and dancing in the hotel's chandeliered ballroom. Tickets, which cost around CHF160, covered wine, music and dinner.
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Skiing with an Olympian
When not dining and dancing, the resort offers plenty of other winter activities besides downhill skiing. I tried cross-country skiing at the Nordic skiing school, and I was fortunate enough to take a lesson at the village's purpose-built circuit with Urs Niedhart, who competed for Switzerland in the "Nordic combined" skiing event at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
The skis are narrow compared with the broader downhill skis, and it takes a while to get into Nordic skiing's 1,2,3 slide rhythm. I can safely say it's one of the most strenuous sports I've ever taken part in, but it's a great way to keep fit. After nearly three hours and with every muscle in my body aching from the exertion, I headed for a large dish of rsti and a glass of wine at the al-fresco Ritter restaurant.
A competitive debut
The next day I entered the local "tradition toboggan" race. I hired a toboggan and took the ski lift up to Oeschinensee for a 5.5km practice run back down to Kandersteg. While up in the mountains I visited the frozen expanse of Lake Oeschinensee, 1,578 metres above sea level. The ice was snow-free and thick enough to skate on, if only I had taken my ice skates with me.
The race down to Kandersteg was fast and exciting. I finished sixth and celebrated my encouraging start in competitive winter sports with a dinner at the candlelit Cowshed restaurant, part of the three-star Chalet Hotel Adler, which has a warm, cosy feel. A dish of raclette, a traditional Swiss cheese, served melted and eaten with bread, went down well with a bottle of Swiss red wine.
Taking to the ice
There is a large, open-air ice rink in the centre of the village, which is divided in two to accommodate both ice hockey and curling. It's here that the annual Switzerland versus England ice-hockey game takes place, with players wearing the kit of the Belle Epoque era. It's a fun game with people of all ages and skating ability taking part. The rink is free to use, but skate hire is available from the indoor ice rink across the road.
A walk in the mountains
Casi Platzer, the owner of the Belle Epoque hotel, also acts as a guide for the 10km snowshoe trek in the mountains. The cable car from Kandersteg takes you up the 1,936m to Sunnbuel and into a pristine wilderness. We walked along part of the historic Gemmi Pass route, which connects Kandersteg to Leukerbad, and Casi pointed out some fresh wolf tracks.
Wolves, along with bears, have made a welcome return to these mountains, which are also home to ibex, hares, and eagles. Back at the Ritter restaurant afterwards, I finished the day by ordering the Tartarenhut (Tatar hat): a conical-shaped tabletop barbecue, where each diner is given a selection of raw chicken, bacon, beef and veal to drape over the metal frame. The sizzling meat juices are captured in the rim of the Tartarenhut, where they help to cook the vegetables.
Victory at last
On my final day at Kanderstag, I tried my hand at curling a sport I had only previously seen on TV. I was told the match we were about to play is just to learn the rules and not at all competitive. So much for that. By the time the first stone left my hand, I knew it was a battle to the finish. One convincing victory later, I headed for the airport on a high after a thoroughly enjoyable, unconventional twist on a winter holiday.
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