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The Mecca Of Skating: Switzerland's Skating Craze

Ulrich Salchow competing in Davos, Switzerland

If the concept of a 'mecca' has ever applied to figure skating, Switzerland would have absolutely been it. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, skaters from England and throughout Continental Europe flocked to the mountainous country in droves to hone their crafts. The main impetus behind this phenomenon was in fact the weather. From 1882 to 1885, the Wimbledon Skating Club boasted a grand total of one day where the ice was safe enough to skate upon. In a matter of twenty years, dozens upon dozens of outdoor rinks were constructed in Switzerland and hotels were packed like sardines with English and Continental skaters. Let's trace our way back and explore the early history of Switzerland's skating craze got started.

In his book "Ice-Skating: A History", figure skating historian Nigel Brown tells us that "skating in the Alps had been practiced at the end of the sixties in Davos on a sheet of ice situated in the garden beside the Kurhaus. A group of male skaters danced the quadrille. They were a mixed gathering of Dutch, Germans and Russians. They had been attracted to Davos for health purposes - Alpine air, the glorious winter scenery and sunshine being considered a cure for bad nerves and general worries... But skating in Switzerland began seriously in the Engadine during the seventies, when a band of English enthusiasts who had spent the previous summer in the Alps, taking the waters at St. Moritz spa, suggested the idea of returning there in winter to put in a few weeks of skating. Heavy frosts in England appeared to be more and more rare, and sometimes a skating season melted down to two or three days. The big lake before St. Moritz lay free and beckoning. The idea was excellent but a hardy one, for the journey was long and tiring, and the hotel in St. Moritz that opened for them specially was not equipped for winter residence. From Chur the travellers had to hire a coach and ride along the route the Romans took over the high Julier Pass. Heavy snows blocked the way and a blizzard howled at 8,000 feet, taking them three weeks to arrive at their destination. Next morning, with spades and brooms they cleared a small corner of the frozen lake from snow and in the afternoon were skating on the natural ice of St. Moritz."

In 1871, the St. Gall Club, the first of many great Swiss skating clubs, was founded by wealthy patrons. However, the Hotel Belvedere in Davos (founded in 1875) was perhaps the most successful of Switzerland's skating clubs in the nineteenth century. Shortly after opening, it was immediately deluged with visitors from England who worked with the hotel manager to construct a skating rink two years later. It became known as 'the English rink' as most of the skaters there were from England and skating in The English Style. A competing rink in Davos accommodated German and Russian skaters. In 1880, skaters in the area organized the Davos Skating Club. The next year, a new skating rink double the size of the original 'English rink' was built to accommodate an international membership of over two hundred, including skaters from as far away as India and the United States. By 1894, the International Skating Club Of Davos was formed. Grindelwald and St. Moritz also developed clubs and a who's who of figure skating came to Switzerland to train, compete and discuss the development of the sport, from Gustav Hügel to Ulrich Salchow to Madge and Edgar Syers. It's actually Madge and Edgar that we'll turn to next. Their 1908 publication "The Book Of Winter Sports" offers without a doubt the best description of the each of the Swiss winter resorts and as the book is now in public domain, I thought it would be wonderful to include all of these descriptions in their entirety to give you all a real sense of the uniqueness of each of these skating hot spots and their roles in the greater Swiss skating phenomenon of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century:

"ADELBODEN (4450 feet), in the Bernese Oberland, is admirably, situated for ski sport, owing to the valley being surrounded by grassy slopes (which are used as pastureland in the summer) and to the number and variety of excursions and tours in the neighbourhood. A sports club was formed in 1908, and has under its management the principal rink and the ice-run. The club furnishes ski and the services of capable guides and instructors for the benefit of its members. The first week in February is devoted to sports and competitions in skating, ski-ing, tobogganing, &c. The Schwandfehlspitz (6650 feet), Kuonisbergli (5710 feet), and Elsighorn (7695 feet), are convenient ski-ing tours. Hotels: The Grand, the Beausite, and the National.

ANDERMATT (4813 feet).- A pleasant winter resort, sufficiently high to ensure a continuity of winter sports.Andermatt is situated in the Canton of Uri, and is reached by rail vid Lucerne and Goeschenen and thence by diligence. There is an excellent skating-rink, and the facilities for tobogganing, ski-ing, &c, are good and varied. Hotel: Danioth's Grand.

AROSA, situated in the Grisons (5650 feet) has become a favourite place of late years among those who desire a quiet holiday. Skating, curling, &c, may be had, and the delights of the Euti Road are well known to followers of bobbing. There are many excellent ski-ing routes, notably Maran and the
Pretsch Alp (6560 feet), Weisshorn (8717 feet), and the tour to Davos vid the Furka Pass (8020 feet).
The Seehof Hotel is comfortable, and the charges are moderate.

BALLAIGUES (3000 feet) was opened for the first time in the season 1907-8. The principal hotel is the Hotel Aubepine, which is the only one at present opened in winter, though no doubt others will speedily follow suit. The place is situated in the Jura Mountains half an hour's drive from Vallarbes and close to the French frontier. It is one of the least expensive places in Switzerland both as regard the cost of the journey and the pension rates. Ballaigues is about half an hour's sleigh drive from Le Pent on the Lac de Joux. It is a quiet and pretty resort, very attractive to those who do not require the highly developed skating facilities which are found at places with higher altitudes. There is excellent ski-ing on the slopes of the Suchet which rises 2000 feet above the village.

CAUX is situated above Montreux at an altitude of 3610 feet, and has excellent facilities for skating, tobogganing, and ski-ing. There are two good rinks, the larger about 200 yards long by 100 yards wide, with convenient dressing-rooms which are heated throughout. For tobogganers there is a fine run at about two miles from Cret-d'y Bau to Caux, the starting-point being reached by train. There are good ski-ing grounds in the neighbourhood. Hotels: The Grand and the Palace.

CELERINA (5665 feet) owes its popularity as a winter resort to the Public Schools Winter Sports Club, which occupied the Cresta Palace Hotel as soon as it was opened. The Cresta Palace has a splendid rink, 8000 square metres (two acres) in extent. In midwinter the sun rises on the rink
at 9 a.m., and at St. Moritz it does not rise till about 11 a.m. The result of this is that the ice at Celerina is not so brittle as at St. Moritz. There is also a very good curling rink. Celerina will probably be some time in attaining very wide popularity as a winter resort owing to its proximity to St. Moritz, as visitors are attracted to the larger centre, but those who love quiet and do not care for the bustle of Brighton-onthe-Alps, will be delighted with this lovely little village.

CHATEAU D'OEX (3203 feet), situated in the Canton Vaud, has several excellent skating rinks. The largest, which is reserved for the use of visitors to the Berthod Hotels, is 7000 square metres. The ice is most carefully tended. Ski-ing has become very popular during the last few winters, and competitions and tours, under the auspices of the Chateau d'Oex Ski Club, take place during the season. There are, as yet, no made toboggan runs, but the sport may be enjoyed on the streets leading from the village and on the hillside paths. Hotels: The Grand, the Berthod, and the Beau Sejour.

Davos Skating Rink, circa 1907

DAVOS is situated at an altitude of 5250 feet in the Canton des Grisons. For many years Davos was recognised as the principal training centre for speed and figure skaters. With the opening of the railway to St. Moritz, however, the latter resort has attracted many of the best skaters and Davos no longer retains the monopoly of former years. The public rink has an area of 18,300 square metres ; here many well-known speed skaters train during December and January. The lack of a reserved enclosure for figure skating is much felt, as on Sundays and other holidays the ice is usually in very bad condition owing to the crowds of children let loose upon it. The rink of the English Skating Club, 7500 square metres, is reserved principally for combined skating. An annual competition is held in January for the Club Challenge Bowl. The curling rink lies close to the others and has an area of 1700 square metres. The club plays frequent practice and inter-club contests during the season, the annual match with St. Moritz being the principal event. A fine expanse of natural ice on the Boden See occasionally affords excellent lake skating early in the season. After the first heavy snowfall, however, this is no longer available. Excellent tobogganing may be had on the Klosters road and
on the newly constructed Schatzalp run. Eor ski sport Davos is very favourably disposed. The Ski
Club organises long and short expeditions and tours, provides ski on hire, and retains the services of a thoroughly qualified guide and instructor. Bandy is played on a portion of the public rink, and an annual match is held alternately at St. Moritz and Davos. Victory in these contests has, we believe, always rested with the home team. Interesting ski expeditions may be made to Bremenbuhl (7348 feet), the Jacobshorn, the peak immediately facing the town of Davos, Kerbshorn (8625 feet), and the tour to Kublis by way of Wolfgang and the Parsenn Furka (7917 feet), from which a run of nearly ten miles to Kublis may be enjoyed. Good accommodation will be found at the following Hotels: The Fluelapost, the Angleterre, and the Belvedere.

ENGELBERG (3315 feet), situated in the Canton Unterwalden, the centre of Switzerland, is in the position of being able to cater adequately for all winter sports. There are good curling and skating rinks, and a new rink is being constructed which will have a circumference of 500 metres, and will be the headquarters of the Engelberg Skating Club;  there will be held international championships and competitions in figure and speed skating. The facilities for ski sport are good, and the following tours may be adapted to suit the capacity of the novice or expert: Titlis (10,629 feet); this is a somewhat exacting ascent, and it is usual to spend the night at the Triibsee hut ; Urirotstock (9620 feet) ; the Blankenalp (5833 feet) ; and the Joch Pass. A number of shorter excursions may also be arranged.
The interests of tobogganing and bob-sleighing are well looked after by the Kurverein and the Sports Club. There are excellent made runs ; that for bob-sleighs finishes at Grafenort, from whence the return journey may be made by electric railway. The Titlis, Grand, and Kuranstalt Hotels are modern and very comfortable.

Postcard of the Grindelwald resort

GRINDELWALD, one of the oldest and best known of winter resorts, is sufficiently high (3500 feet) to ensure to the visitor the enjoyment of whatever branch of winter sport he may affect. There are excellent skating rinks, and the Grindelwald Skating Club holds annual competitions in both styles, and in waltzing. The Bandy Club provides matches and practice from the end of December to the middle of February. The best ski tours are to the Schwarzhorn (8790 feet), the Faulhorn (8049 feet), and the Grosse Scheidegg (5850 feet). Hotels : The Bear, the Beau-Site, and the Eiger.

GRIIRNIGEL is situated at an altitude of 3800 feet on a spur of the Stockhorne range. It is twenty miles from Berne, the same from Thoune, rather less from Spiez. The station for Giirnigel is Thurnen, on the line from Berne, to Thoune vid Belp and the Giirbethal. From Thurnen the hotel is reached by sleigh in two and a half honrs. The baths of Giirnigel have been for more than a century a
favourite summer resort of Parisians and South Germans, but in winter the district has hitherto remained unvisited save by a few enterprising members of the Berne Ski Club who make occasional week-end trips to this most interesting Hinterland. The original Hotel was a vast structure of wood, dating from the eighteenth century. This was destroyed by fire in 1902, and the owners decided to erect a stone palace with every possible modern comfort. Giirnigel lies high above the fog level and the winters are, as a rule, more severe than at places of the same altitude in the Ehone Valley. That is to say, the snowfall is heavier, beginning earlier and lasting longer. On the shortest day the sunshine lasts nearly five hours, but as the mountains rise very gradually to the south the amount of daily sunshine increases very rapidly after January 5 and the rinks are soon in full sun for six hours daily. The curlers at Giirnigel are particularly favoured. Their rink, large enough for sis or eight matches, is just below the terrace, only a few steps from the hotel entrance. Scarcely less fortunate are the skaters. It is true that they are obliged to walk through the forest for five or six minutes, ascending 150 feet, but there they find two fine rinks in one corner of a seventy-acre clearing. At an altitude of nearly 4000 feet, in full sunshine and sheltered from the north and east, with magnificent views, they are hardly inferior to any rink in Switzerland. Tobogganers, too, are well catered for. Besides the made run, there are several paths through the woods, especially those below the hotel, which afford excellent lugeing. The bob-sleigh track begins at the hotel and, partly on the main carriage road, partly on a parallel by-road through the forest, runs at a good gradient as far as Eutti, about two miles and a half away. The contours are well banked and will be safe at any speed. Ski-runners will find Giirnigel a convenient touring centre. The great feature of the country is the extensive forest of over 4000 acres, covering the slopes of the hills for miles around. Many interesting ski-ing expeditions may be had from Giirnigel, including the excursion to the Obergiirnigel, the Seelibiihl and the Schwefelberg Bad.

KLOSTERS (4000 feet) was opened as a winter resort in 1905-6. Visitors to Davos have given currency to the idea that Klosters is down in a hole. This is because they generally get their idea of the place from tobogganing down the famous Klosters run the finest run in Switzerland - and they usually do so in the afternoon, when the sun has shifted from that side of the valley. At Klosters the sun rises early over the valley and gets on to the rink about 10 a.m., leaving it about 2.30 in mid-winter. It is unnecessary to say anything about the tobogganing for which Klosters is famous. The Grand Hotel Vereina has constructed a really good ice rink. Ski-ing slopes abound in every direction, and after three seasons Klosters may be considered to have got well under weigh as a winter resort.

LENZERHEIDE (4846 feet) is a little lonely hamlet, or rather cluster of buildings, consisting of one large hotel and two or three much smaller ones. It is four hours' sleigh drive from Chur on the Churwalden route to the Engadine. It was discovered by some old Grindelwald skaters, who formed what was called the Lenzerheide Winter Sports Club, though the place has now become a resort of the Public Schools Winter Sports Club. The rink at Lenzerheide covers about two acres, but the great
attraction of the place consists in its fine ski-ing slopes. In many places the ski-ing ground begins at some distance from the hotel and extends only in one direction, but at Lenzerheide it is possible to start on ski from the hotel, north, east or west, and to climb two or three thousand feet in any direction except south. Lenzerheide enjoys about five hours' sunshine in mid-winter. The Kurhaus and the Schweizerhof Hotels are comfortable and enjoy brilliant sunshine.

MONTANA (5000 feet) is the principal centre of the Public Schools Winter Sports Club, of which the Head Master of Eton is President, and Lord Koberts, Lord Lytton, and Mr. E. F. Benson, Vice-Presidents. It was from Montana that Lord Eoberts was summoned to take charge of the English forces in 1900. Montana is one of the most delightfully situated of all the Swiss resorts for those who like extended views. The Rhone Valley separates it from the Pennine and Savoy Alps, and the whole range of the Alps from the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc is visible from a point 500 feet above the hotels. Montana possesses a number of artificial lakes which are said to date from Roman times, and were probably constructed for purposes of irrigation. As the great mountains on the south of the valley attract the rainfall, the mountains on the Montana side are exceedingly dry, and hence the necessity of irrigation. These lakes furnish excellent skating for the first few weeks of the winter before the snow falls. One of them is used by the Hotel du Pare (the oldest of the Montana hotels) as a skating rink throughout the season. The Palace Hotel, which is the headquarters of the Public Schools Winter Sports Club, possesses a large skating rink, but uses one of the lakes as a curling rink. This lake is emptied in the autumn and built up from the bottom. Montana has excellent toboggan runs, including a not very ambitious ice-run and a long snow run from Vermala 500 feet
above the Montana Hotels. Ski-ing is a most popular sport at Montana, and the excursions that can be made on ski are very numerous. The slopes of the Wildstrubel, the Tubang, and the Wildhorn, give excellent opportunities to the more ambitious ski-runners, and the journey from Montana to Adelboden has been accomplished several times on ski, passing over the Plaine Morte Glacier to the Wildstrubel hut, where the night may be spent, and then starting early on the following day and ski-ing down to Lenk, proceeding thence by the Hahnemoos Pass to Adelboden. One of the greatest charms of Montana is the sunshine, which lasts for 7§ hours daily in mid-winter, a longer period than that enjoyed by any other Swiss resort.

Postcard of girl performing a shoot the duck in St. Moritz

ST. MORITZ is probably the best known and most popular of winter resorts. It is situated in the upper Engadine at a higher altitude, 6187 feet, than any of its rivals. Ample facilities for skating, tobogganing, curling, ski-ing, &c, are to be found at St. Moritz, and both for outdoor and indoor amusements it is second to none. The three principal Hotels, the Palace, the Kulm, and the Grand, have large private rinks, and several of the smaller hotels are similarly provided, though on a less ambitious scale. There is also a public rink under the control of the Kurverein. The St. Moritz International Skating Club, which has Lord Lytton as its president and numbers among its members most of the leading international skaters, has its headquarters at the Palace Hotel, where tuition in skating may be obtained from Herr Meyer, the well-known Swedish professional. Competitions and tests are held by the club during January and February. The St. Moritz Skating Association is located at the Kulm Hotel. With the advent of a Swiss Skating Association, affiliated to the International Skating Union, an amalgamation of the two St. Moritz clubs has been suggested, and will probably be shortly effected. The bandy players and curlers have their several rinks under the control of their respective clubs. One of the chief attractions of St. Moritz is the famous Cresta run, the finest toboggan run in the world. Danger is reduced to a minimum nowadays on the Cresta; but for beginners, and those who are not ambitious to travel at something approaching sixty miles an hour, the village run may be recommended. For 'bobs' a specially constructed run, banked and iced, has been recently built, owing to the increase of traffic on the only road available for the sport. Trotting races and driving on ski take place on the lake in February. The latter is a very pretty sport, recently introduced from the north of Europe, in which horses are driven by competitors on ski. Ski jumping contests are held in the neighbourhood of St. Moritz, and, before the snow arrives, splendid skating may be enjoyed on the St. Moritz lake, and the lakes of Sils and Silvaplana. Ski tours may be made from St. Moritz to the Laret Alp (6893 feet), Piz Nair (9945 feet), and by Suvrettasee and Beverstal to Spinas, returning by rail.

Pairs skaters in Villars, circa 1930

VILLARS-SUR-OLLON (4250 feet) was first opened during the winter in 1905-6. It is beautifully situated in a sort of amphitheatre surrounded by the heights of the Diablerets, Dent de Morcle, Chamossaire and other smaller peaks, while the Aiguilles of the Mont Blanc range are visible at a distance of forty or fifty miles. The greatest attraction of Villars in winter is undoubtedly the excellent skating rink, which is one of the three or four largest in Switzerland, with an area of about 10,000 square metres (2 acres). There is also a good curling rink. The ice toboggan run is probably the best run of the kind to be found in Switzerland outside Canton Grisons. The Alpine Ski Trophy, presented by Mr. W. E. Rickmers, a member of the English, Swiss, and German Alpine Clubs, has been contested for at Villars during the last two years on the slopes of the Chamossaire, which are well adapted for ski-ing. An interesting long ski excursion may be made from Villars over the Col de la Croix to the Diablerets, and thence to Gstaad and Launen on the Montreux-Oberland route. Villars is one of the sunniest places in the Alps, having 6 hours of sunshine in mid-winter. Hotels: The Grand and the Bellevue."

I know what you're probably thinking. God love Madge and Edgar Syers, but why in the hell did he have to include all of that? I wanted to illustrate not only the number and variety of winter resorts that offered excellent figure skating facilities but also to allow you to gain a broader knowledge of some of the historical development that took place quickly, particularly the shift from Davos to St. Moritz as 'the preferred spot' for skaters. In the mention of the Lenzerheide resort, it is evident that this is indeed the same rink that Brown referred to in his 1959 book. With the wealth of information out there about the popularity of skating in Switzerland during this era, one could easily write a whole series of books but I think this primer will certainly suffice to give you an understanding as to the early development of the phenomenon. It all sounds rather magical.

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