Finding Fasnacht, Switzerland’s Annual Bacchanal

Switzerland is notoriously straight-laced, except before Lent, when Fasnacht arrives and it’s simply notorious.

by Leslie Anthony

We were somewhere around the Weiner Strasse when the bats appeared. Bats, in formation, playing French horns and saxophones, pounding drums and blowing whistles with twisted, leering faces. They lurched beside the steely River Reuss as it arched through Lucerne, one of Europe’s most beautiful burgs. But this morning, Lucerne was terrifying, twisted, and surreal.

I’d been awakened at 4 a.m. by my accountant (and traveling partner) banging on the door, then tossing a costume through the portal like a limp body. “Hurry up!” he barked, struggling into his own get-up. “They’re coming!”

His eyes hung like damp laundry behind his glasses and it was clear he hadn’t slept. “I was in a bar drinking with some Roman centurions and Snow White and seven very big dwarfs,” he said. “The band’s drummer passed out and they asked if anyone could play. I’ve never jammed to ‘Gorky Park’ before.”

He chopped the air with invisible sticks.

We downed our morning pharmaceuticals — Advil, vitamins, and coffee spiked with Grand Marnier — and headed down to the lobby of the storied Hotel Schweizerhof. All vaulted ceilings and gilding, wooden balustrades and pink Corinthian columns, it has regularly hosted royalty, writers, and musicians. Tolstoy wrote a book here; Wagner met Ludwig II while completing Tristan and Isolde. Now, pouring slowly down spiraling marble, I saw mythological forest beasts, plush leopards and pink panthers, bishops and martyred saints, and ungodly amounts of tassels and sequins. As we waded through the mess looking for an opening, someone in a very convincing bellman costume held open a door, and we were swept into the street in a river of B-movie zombies.

Geese honked somewhere in the dark.

“Not geese,” said my accountant. “Clarinets. And I think that’s ‘Copacabana’.”

The crowd surged toward the river, where a long, evil-looking boat lined with torches appeared out of the blackness. A gangway flipped down and a freakish honor guard poured like bilge rats from the boat, followed by an imperial, ermine-trimmed couple: the king and queen of Fasnacht, waving to the crowd. Fireworks exploded and a hundred mutant bands struck up a hundred different tunes.

And then things really got weird.

We had arrived in Switzerland three mornings earlier, in Adelboden, a blind-valley alpen-retreat surrounded by a jumble of madly tilted limestone shark’s teeth. We’d stumbled 50 yards from the train to the Cambrian Solis Hotel & Spa after 25 hours of travel, a blessedly direct delivery. At breakfast somebody passed around melatonin; I didn’t have the heart to tell them you’re supposed to take it at night. Also, it doesn’t mix well with mimosas. One sip into mine, a herd of mountains stampeded into the dining room’s ultra-modern interior; it took my jet-lagged brain a few seconds to realize someone had simply opened the blinds to let in the view. Staring through soupy eyes, I decided these precipices were no place for us that day. Better, a short hike and the spa — all slate and angles and saunas and steam rooms and undulating benches of stainless-steel rods — and sleep.

On the mountain the next day, instructors Andreas and Alfred informed us that the legendary Chuenisbärgli run on which we stood had hosted a World Cup giant slalom the week before. Indeed, it seemed more like a freshly waxed linoleum floor when the accountant wiped out, disappearing upside down over a knoll. With his backside newly purple from his multiple temporary landings, we were forced to spend the rest of the day mining off-piste powder, so he wouldn’t fall on something that would exacerbate his internal bleeding.

After lunch on a sunny deck — rösti, schnitzel, and a sharp Swiss white — we followed a virtual luge run through forests and meadows, passing farm cottages that channeled Heidi and wafted a miasma of manure. Catching a gondola from the valley floor back to the hill-hugging village, we were just in time for a horse-drawn sleigh ride to the family-owned Chalet-Restaurant Aebi. The chef there is descended from the genius who built the first pair of alpine skis; a wall-hung photo showed no bindings, only wooden boxes to stuff your boots into.

Next morning’s guide, Fritz, was nearly as old as those skis, and moved as quickly as the glaciers he guided us over. A sketchy tram pulled us over icefalls crawling with climbers to Engstligenalp, a flat alp cradling a meadow around which T-bars stitched up improbably steep walls. The schnapps-enhanced view to the Eiger was worth lingering over for the hour it took Fritz to catch up to us. On the meadow we lunched in a labyrinthine igloo with rooms featuring flowers frozen in blocks, candlelight and animal skins, killer fondue, and white wine.

The Restaurant Hohliebe-Stübli is run by former World Cup racer Sandra Burn, and that night she showed us seven fabulous courses including celery soup with honey, pike-perch, veal, a cheese plate, dessert, and wine, wine, wine. After dessert, diners are expected to return to town on sleds, down a switchback in the dark. Mercifully, a warm spell had made the sledding impossible, and my schnapps-addled head remained attached to my body.

These Swiss know how to party, I thought. Little did I know.

Bruised and skied out, we caught a train to Lucerne and the Schweizerhof, which, when we heard what was coming, seemed a safe haven from the cacophony of a 7.5 million-person party. But even these luxurious digs were no refuge from the debauchery.

fasnacht-Switzerland2

By that first Fasnacht dawn, every sentient being in town was wasted on the schnapps that gushed from the bars. In one, I sat at a table of hot-pink Elvises to down warmed Grand Marnier. “Thank you. Thank you very much,” they sneered in unison as I left. I merged into a herd of Jersey cows. From there, I recall only backing along the ledge of a building a story or two above the crowd as gargoyles came to life around me to play an oompah version of Van Halen’s “Jump.”

Midmorning, the corks went back in and the town went to sleep for a few hours. The entire masquerade would coalesce into an official parade sometime that afternoon.

Shuffling back to the Schweizerhof through ankle-high gravel of broken glass, crushed cups, and confetti, I wondered how the otherwise meticulous Swiss would handle this municipal mess. True to form, the parade finished with a phalanx of street-sweepers four vehicles wide and 100 drones deep. In the sparkling afternoon, Lucerne looked gorgeous once more.

And would, until the bats came out again.

SNOW Tidbits:
*Fasnacht is the pre-Lenten carnival celebrated in Switzerland, southern Germany, Alsace, and western Austria. It originated as a collision of early Christian practice and pagan beliefs about evil ghosts roaming the late winter nights.

*Adelboden-Lenk is a popular ski area in the Adelboden-Frutigen region of the Bernese Oberland Graubauden region. It is as well-known for hosting FIS World Cup races as for its extensive cross-country trails, walking paths, and sledging tracks. adelboden.ch/en/ 

*The 1845 Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern brags of “tradition that transcends history,” the legacy of five generations of the Hunziker family. schweizerhof-luzern.ch/en

*Cambrian Solis Hotel & Spa is the most upscale of many current facilities dedicated to the region’s new tourism mantra of “alpine wellness.” The Alpenbad Adelboden, a 116 million Swiss franc ($101 million) spa/wellness complex, should also be opening in the next few years. solisadelboden.com

*Family-owned Chalet-Restaurant Aebi is only a horse-drawn sleigh away from the village, and thick blankets keep you warm on the half-hour ride. restaurantaebi.ch

*Engstligenalp, a small ski area at the end of a blind valley, is just a quick bus ride from Adelboden. A tram ride up a steep cliff takes you to a ski-touring and cross-country nirvana with amenities like restaurants with sprawling decks where people often come simply to sun themselves. It also has the biggest “Fondue-Iglu-Restaurant” in the world. engstligenalp.ch

*Restaurant Hohliebe-Stübli, a miracle of warmth and wood, serves the most inspired meals in the valley. hohliebestuebli.ch/

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