Engelberg is a black-and-white canvas of charcoal painting on a December afternoon. There is no trace of the sun in this Swiss town and a thick blanket of snow cloaks everything. The 12th-century Kloster Engelberg is hidden by a screen of fog.
The 900-year-old Benedictine monastery was founded by Swiss warrior Count Konrad von Sellenbüren. The town's residents believe the nobleman had a vision and followed an ox that came to a stop at the eastern end of Engelberg Valley. Sellenbüren saw cherubs on the summit of the Hahnen mountain. He named the area Engelberg, or Angel Mountain, and the town came into existence in the shadow of the mountain.
Built in 1120, the Kloster Engelberg is one of the largest Baroque edifices in central Switzerland and was influential in cementing Engelberg’s spiritual identity. For over 600 years, it prided itself as a hub of trade and a centre of learning in the European country. The resident monks were also cheesemakers and were known for a special soft cheese that was carried by traders to Italy to barter for leather and other goods. In 1729, a fire nearly destroyed all the buildings, which were later delicately restored. Within the monastery’s church is a gigantic, golden chandelier, sculptures, high ceilings with ornate paintings made by local artists, and stained glass windows. The church’s west gallery holds Switzerland’s largest organ with 9,097 sounding pipes for 137 registers.
There is more to explore in this alpine resort town, just 35km from Lucerne and an hour south of Zürich. I follow the Christmas lights strung between alleyways across snow-dusted neighbourhoods and walk past quaint chalets, nearly empty cafés and ski bars—an otherwise boisterous spot to grab a drink or two—and open parks that have turned into playgrounds for friendly snow fights.
In the mid-19th century, the British came to Engelberg for the unsullied mountain air and saunas as prescribed by European doctors, but stayed for the thrill of mountaineering, and eventually, skiing. Over the decades, St. Moritz, Davos, and Zermatt rose to international fame as the stars of alpine tourism. Engelberg, equally praise-worthy, maintained a low profile but the 3,238m Mount Titlis still draws skiers, and between November 2021 and October 2022 it received 8,27,616 tourists.
“You cold?” my guide Peter Niederberger asks as we make our way to the foot of Mount Titlis. We arrive at the valley station and hop aboard the eight-seater TITLIS Xpress cable car that soars summit-wards. Towering, frost-coated pine trees flicker past the window and a snowy Engelberg comes into view. Ice sits conspicuously where aquamarine lakes thrive in the warmer months, but winter has an inescapable charm. The mountaintop can get colder by a few degrees with the lowest recorded temperature plummeting to -20°C during a particularly cold winter, Peter says.
We disembark at Trübsee middle station, our first stop and the home ground of adventure sports at an elevation of 2,427m. The sun is still shy outside and the temperature plunges to -6°C in winter. The weather isn’t ideal for skiing, but that does not deter the strong-willed. A group of teenagers clad in ski uniforms inch towards the edge of a slope, and then in one swift motion, glide down the slope. I watch them disappear after a few bends. Skiing isn’t the only activity on offer.
Snow tubing—racing down a slope on a tube—and riding electric snow mobiles are equally popular. I try both until the iciness gets the better of me and I retreat to the cosy, wood-furbished Titlis Panorama Restaurant for hot goulash soup, homemade tagliatelle with creamy tomato and bell pepper sauce, and gingerbread with whipped cream. While raclette (melted cheese eaten with meat or vegetables), rösti (a cross between hashbrowns and potato pancakes), and cheese fondue are obvious après-ski or post-ski fixes, Peter says locals prefer simpler meals of risotto and pasta. Food provides a renewed sense of energy, pushing us to brave the outside once again.
The Titlis Rotair tram is chock-a-block with tourists ascending the final leg of the summit. The five-minute ride is touted as the world’s first rotating cable car that spins 360 degrees, providing views of the steep rock faces, snow-stacked mountain peaks, and deep crevasses of glacial ice. The first view of Mount Titlis is as extraordinary as it is grounding. Every inch of the glowing-white landscape demands my undivided attention. An artificial cave in a 5,000-year-old glacier is decked in blue lights and ice thrones for photo ops. A 150m-long underground tunnel leads to the viewing platform on the south wall window, where a ride aboard the Ice Flyer chair lift reveals glaciers, fissures and skiers below.
As I prepare to bid goodbye to Engelberg the next morning, the sun makes a cameo for the first time in a week. I pull up at the Bahnhof Engelberg, the town’s main railway station, to board a train to Lucerne, just as the rays create halos on top of cliffs and mountain peaks. It looks like an angel is smiling down at the valley.
Pooja Naik is a Mumbai-based travel writer.