It’s cold at 4.45am in Lucerne, yet the clammering mob of ghouls, goblins, smurfs and zombies are getting excited. Drums beat louder and quicker and we’re all jostling for a glimpse of the action. A man-sized fluffy bunny with demonic eyes and a bloody face is bouncing around in front of me when an explosion of confetti is unleashed, falling like snow over the ecstatic crowd, dancing and shrieking with the beat.
This is Fasnacht — Carnival, with a Swiss twist. With the added folkloric value of ‘scaring away evil winter spirits’, this six-day bash before Lent is packed with parades, booming with big brass instruments, non-stop drumming, and anything bangable that makes a vaguely musical sound — all called guggenmusik.
Despite the noise and ghouls, the Carnival atmosphere never feels threatening, and coming here without a costume, will make you feel woefully conspicuous. Thankfully, we had make-up kits and Gandalf-like pointy hats.
We stayed at the five-star Hotel Schweizerhof right on the lake-side promenade, near the mouth of the river Reuss. We were able to retire from the throng of the streets to sip beer and wine on our balcony, overlooking the parade of floats and costumed musicians with the magnificent backdrop of the lake and mountains. Resisting the urge to practise one’s royal wave was difficult, but VIP, this certainly is. Previous guests include musicians galore, from BB King to Sinead O’Connor, and a the wealth of royalty, politicians, artists and Hollywood greats.
Just 45 minutes away by super-efficient Swiss train is Engelberg — the perfect skiing antidote to the rigours of Carnival. Some of the back country itineraries here are legendary. We took the TITLIS Rotair cable car, which completes a full 360° revolution on the way up to the 3,020-metre summit of Klein Titlis, giving skiers and sightseers superb glacier views. Big Titlis is a 45-minute ski tour away to the slightly higher elevation of 3,238m, providing expansive spring skiing.
There’s something for every skier, with 82km of pistes plus plenty of off-piste too — and a choice of restaurants for long lunches. We stopped at Skihütte Stand — a picturesque chalet-shaped restaurant at 2,450m, with gorgeous views from the terrace and three authentic tiled stoves inside to warm up on cold days. They offer traditional food and their signature cheese burger, served on newspaper, with chips and coleslaw sides.
Meaning ‘Angel Mountain’, Engelberg still has monks living in its 12th Century Benedictine monastery, visible from the ski area. We walked by this imposing structure on our way to dinner at Fluhmatt, a charming wooden lodge built on a hillside ‘just a 25 minute walk outside the village’. Double that and factor in significant steep sections; we earned our beer and food. The local speciality of macaroni cheese with caramelised onions and apple sauce was as popular as the taxi that saved us the walk back to the new, boutique Spannort hotel.
Whether you visit for a short break or whole week, a stay shared between carnival and the slopes of Engelberg is a real pleasure.
Neil flew with SWISS airlines from Heathrow to Zurich and transferred by train with a Swiss Rail pass to Lucerne and Engelberg.
A double room with lake view for two nights in the Schweizerhof Hotel, Lucerne during 2019 carnival is £509. Book online at www.schweizerhof-luzern.ch or call +41 (o)414100410.
A double room in Hotel Spannort, Engelberg, during carnival week is £116 per night. Visit www.spannortinn.ch or call +41 (0)416370306.