Preserving ancient tradition is cold comfort
Nothing could be more romantic than going for a sleigh ride across a wintry landscape unless, of course, it happens to be 25 degrees Celsius below zero.
swissinfo discovered that bone-chilling temperatures can freeze an ancient Engadine courting ritual in its tracks.
The young men and women of the villages of the Upper Engadine valley are praying for crisp but not extreme winter temperatures for this year’s “Schlitteda”.
The horse-drawn sleigh processions take place each weekend in a different village in the valley in southeastern Switzerland (see “key facts” for dates).
When the custom began about 150 years ago, a sleigh ride through a winter wonderland was certainly the best way of wooing a girl in the absence of bars, discos and fast cars.
But if the mercury drops as low as it did last year, the young men and women may decide to pack it in, putting an end to a long tradition.
Few came out to watch the parade in the village of Pontresina a year ago, except for the usual horde of photographers, cameramen and radio journalists on hand to record the event – and even they had second thoughts.
Batteries seized up, moving pictures became stills, and frostbitten participants clammed up.
“It’s too cold to talk right now,” one young man told swissinfo.
He was wearing an embroidered costume - a priceless heirloom, but worthless when it came to offering protection against the elements.
It was left to the parents to wrap the young couples in blankets as the procession came to a halt on the outskirts of the village.
Jan Braegger, who has fond memories of taking part in his early adulthood, was trying to keep his daughter in good spirits.
“It’s very important to preserve the tradition,” he said. “It’s a shame when people start wondering why old customs die.”
Fortified by cups of mulled wine and hot tea, the couples eventually found the courage to continue, although few hearts were being warmed.
“It’s too cold to be romantic,” said Cornelia Braegger’s partner, as he prepared his horse for the onward journey.
The cortege made its way through the picturesque Roseg Valley, the horses pulling the slender hand-painted wooden sleighs through stands of tall fir trees.
The women sat still, wrapped in blankets, while the men stood behind, holding tightly onto the reins.
As a courting ritual, the Schlitteda is perhaps not as unusual as it may seem when you consider that most people in the Engadine were farmers up until the middle of the 20th century, and every farm had its horse and sleigh.
It is remarkable though that time has not caught up with the custom. Over the past few decades, the valley has gone from being modest and rural to an alpine playground for the rich and famous, centred on St Moritz.
Except for a few weekends in January, there are more Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis on the roads than wooden sleighs.
It took an hour for the winter caravan to reach its destination: a lone restaurant at the end of the forest and an oasis of warmth.
The restaurant was full of ruddy cross-country skiers and hikers, preoccupied with their bowls of steaming soup rather than the folkloric scene unfolding before them.
A band struck up a traditional waltz and the couples danced to get their blood flowing again.
“It’s not a show for tourists,” emphasised one woman dressed in traditional costume.
With the exception of one pair who did fall in love during a previous Schlitteda, most admitted that the custom had lost its meaning as a courting ritual.
Now only a fading sense of tradition keeps the custom alive.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Pontresina
Dates for Schlitteda events in 2004:
Pontresina January 11
Champfèr January 17
St Moritz January 18
Silvaplana January 24
Samedan February 1
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