The scenery is serene as we glide along. The sky is a cold wintery blue above the wide U-shaped valley that looks as soft as a marshmallow twinkling in the sunlight. On each flank, tangles of evergreens are laden with snow. The houses we pass – stocky villas decorated in elegant yet rough-hewn sgraffito so typical of the Engadine – are weighted under what looks like one-metre high millefeuille. Manicured strips of white mark out our cross-country ski trail: somewhere ahead, Samedan, then St. Moritz. Behind us, La Punt-Chamues-ch.
This is the route used in the 42-kilometre Engadine Ski Marathon every March, when 14,000 cross-country skiers hurtle along the trails between Maloja and S-chanf at a speed I could only dream of. My boyfriend and I are taking it easy today – a fact helped by the railway running parallel, meaning we can ski along as far as we like, then hop on the little red Rhaetische Bahn train to ride back to base. To make life even easier, the wind is behind us and the gradient this direction on a slight decline.
And it is just charming. The cold air nips my cheeks as we glide along in a swoosh-click step, taking care to keep our narrow skis pointed along the tracks. At the foot of the forest, a horse and rider canter by. A little while later, a ribbon of red train chugs past, a stark contrast against the snow.
It’s easy to see why this corner of south-eastern Switzerland is dubbed a “cross-country paradise” by the tourism board. The 210 kilometres of classic and 200 kilometres of skating trails meander along the open valley, across frozen lakes or high into frosty woodland, where the volume of snow cleared from the tracks is enough to build walls and your only company are nutcrackers and deer.
We are staying in Sils, an idyllic village right on the marathon trail between two frosty lakes. Yesterday, we had a lesson in the skating cross-country technique. At first, I felt like a duck on ice skates: my legs wouldn’t do as they were told and complained about the effort of each movement. But a few handy hints from our instructor – weight forward, avoid always driving with your strong leg, and keep on the inner edge of the skis – and I got moving. I’m happier with the classic style – perhaps because I have tried it before – and today I feel like I’m flying as we push forward in a step that looks like an exaggerated Nordic walk.
“Kompliment!” cries our guide Riet, praise in local dialect, as we navigate a steeper downhill section. He grew up in nearby La Punt-Chamues-ch and has been skiing all his life. Like most of the locals, he looks like he was born on skis, and is effortlessly cool in his mirrored sunglasses and coordinated outfit. He knows everyone, and though it is still early and not many folk are out, they all give us a cheery wave as they pass. At one moment, Riet’s daughter races past – in training for tomorrow’s women’s ski marathon.
After two hours, we are out of breath and beaming. I can feel the effort in my legs yet I just want to keep going. But Riet had mentioned that a few years ago, he and his wife transformed their garage on the marathon trail in La Punt into a café. Now known as Café Curtinet, it serves warm drinks and snacks to tired skiers and sits in a lovely spot. It’s too tempting to resist, so it’s off with our skis and onto the train to La Punt.
The village itself is absurdly pretty – a cluster of 16th and 17th-century patrician palaces with ornately painted stone façades at the foot of the Albula Pass, it straddles the River Inn and looks out onto the jagged peaks high above the valley. For me, it’s the ultimate mountain scenery – because the valley is so wide, the summits give a sense of openness rather than oppression.
At Riet’s café, we gaze out at this scene from the sun terrace and wish the day could last forever. Skiers speed elegantly past on the trail as we tuck into rum-infused hot chocolate and a slice of homemade Engadine nut cake – buttery layers of pastry enclosing caramel and walnuts. Just the post-cross-country fix we need, though we already can’t wait to get back on our skis tomorrow.