St. Moritz in summer
The promotion for St. Moritz, the most famous of Swiss Alpine towns – often compared with Aspen – tells us that the sun shines here an average of 322 days a year. The ads proved to be correct when my wife, Betsy, and I visited the dry, sparkling area last June. About a thousand feet lower than its Colorado counterpart, the Continent’s most cosmopolitan ski resort is a splendid choice for an early summer visit. At this time, the usual crowd of Europe’s aristocracy and wealthy were noticeably absent. For one, European schools don’t let out before July. Besides, the renovations of the grand hotels in town weren’t finished yet. Although the big-name stores were open and many restaurants advertised specials, main street was largely deserted. We decided to spend more time in nearby villages and on the famous Swiss trains that pass along the glaciers.Host for two winter Olympic games, in 1928 and 1948, St. Moritz is known to be largely asleep in the offseason, as are Zermatt, Davos, Wengen, Engelberg and other winter resorts in the Alps. There are no major events such as the Food & Wine Classic or a two-month long music program like in Aspen. The well-marked hiking trails on the surrounding mountains and the chic parties do attract a steady British clientele in July and August, though.The people who first settled here, the Rhaetians, controlled the passes even after they fell under Roman rule. Miraculously, some 40,000 people still speak the rare, ancient Romansh language with gusto. My Latin education helped to spot some key words, but much of the local conversation remains a puzzle to the rest of the world. It is a similar case with the country’s most popular dialect, the Switzerdeutsch, which even German-speaking visitors can only partially decipher.
If you come from Geneva, you will start with French on the train. By the time you spot the Jungfrau’s peak, you will hear Hoch-Deutsch (classic German) mixed with Switzerdeutsch. In the lower Bernina Valley Italian is spoken (and eaten), but in St. Moritz you may hear more English than any other language. The multilingual conductors of the bright red-painted Rhaetian Rail’s cars understand all, including sign language. What remains a mystery to me as I travel across Switzerland is the way the passengers’ newspapers are switched from French to German to Italian as the train passes the invisible language borders of the small country.
If you come from Geneva, you will start with French on the train. By the time you spot the Jungfrau’s peak, you will hear Hoch-Deutsch (classic German) mixed with Switzerdeutsch. In the lower Bernina Valley Italian is spoken (and eaten), but in St. Moritz you may hear more English than any other language. The multilingual conductors of the bright red-painted Rhaetian Rail’s cars understand all, including sign language. What remains a mystery to me as I travel across Switzerland is the way the passengers’ newspapers are switched from French to German to Italian as the train passes the invisible language borders of the small country. Glaciers and global warmingThe talk of our Swiss friends is about environmental dangers in the Alpine area, although they are not fanatics about it. They tell me how plastic covers are being carried up to some peaks to cover glaciers. We passed through Andermatt a week earlier, where operators of the ski facilities already had wrapped up an entire glacier to stop its melting. But St. Moritz is not yet ready to protect its famous runs. Still, a protective layer covers 27,000 square feet of the Gurschen glacier. “This initiative is highly exaggerated, expensive and pointless,” my friends say. The sheet covering the glacier in the canton of Uri is 0.15 inches thick and made of a synthetic fiber that protects the snow from ultraviolet rays with the aim of saving the ice. “Then you have to think of removing the contraption in the autumn and put it back next spring,” I was told. But those who are in favor say that over the past 15 years the Alpine glacier has receded from one of its stations by more than 65 feet. The owners of ski lifts panicked – and most likely paid for the experiment.European activists from the Greenpeace environmental group unfolded banners on the Gurschen glacier overnight, calling for climate protection rather than treatment of symptoms. “Covering up glaciers is not going to solve the problem of global warming – only cutting back human use and industry would,” they proclaimed.
Just as in the Rockies, most glacial remnants from the ice age turned into vegetated hills in the Alpine valleys. For chocolate lovers like us, the sight of munching cows provides some consolation. The increased temperature also has affected the smooth, clear lakes that dot the area. The swathes of ice needed to support the lakes as well as the flora and fauna have been stripped away; many fear the erosion’s long-term impact on tourism, a pillar of the Swiss economy.Business people in Aspen, where the winter season and profits shrink along with the snow each spring, understand the danger. They should be watching the future of the Alps where – in spots – glacial valleys have suddenly turned barren and rocky. Last year, in the middle of a heavy tourist season, the canton with the Matterhorn had to shut off the peak after a layer of permafrost had melted, causing dangerous rock slides. The subject is of little concern to the few tourists in the bars of the five-star hotels in St. Moritz, such as the Badrutt’s Palace, the Carlton and the stately Kulm. In the brilliant sunshine old and young sip café glacé on the terraces overlooking a sparkling lake. Other visitors sit by small marble tables in the colorful piazza of San Murezzan (as the Romansh-speaking locals call their town). There is little else to do here after the last snow has melted on the town’s world-famous slopes – except to buy watches or chocolate in one of the stores lining the streets.Beyond skiingKnown for the healing powers of its mineral springs since the Middle Ages, St. Moritz was rediscovered at the time of the classic 18th-century Grand Tours by bedraggled Brits. The real sporting life only started 100 years ago when toboggan races on the steep village streets became fashionable. Then came the first winter Olympics featuring Sonja Hennie’s still-copied figure skating posters.In the midst of cow pastures on the edge of town, Betsy spotted the winding path of the once revolutionary Cresta Run for skeleton tobogganing. But with no skiing, bobsledding, polo or skating waiters on the frozen lake to entertain us, we just walked a half-mile along Lake San Murezzan to St.Moritz-Dorf, an area with more upscale shops and more grand hotels.
From here we rode in an old wooden carriage [reserved mostly for lazy British tourists], pulled by two strong draft horses, to a remote mountaintop inn for tea and apple strudel. Remnants of medieval Engadine farms and fortresslike stone churches dot the hills.For architecture buffs, the tiny towns of Celerina and Samedan, in the valley a mile or two from St. Moritz, are even more fascinating. The Romansh people’s 16th- and 17th-century family homes are embellished with mystic symbols and animals called sgrafitto. For a few quiet days and hikes, we settled in the excellent 1864-built Bernina Hotel in Samedan. At 6,000 feet, the Romansh-speaking town features Europe’s highest airport surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The best panorama is from the Corvatsch glacier, reached by a slow-moving, steep cable car all year-round.For glacier skiing, a 10 minute train ride takes you to Pontresina, where cable cars go to Diavolezza. The near-10,000-feet peak, a favorite of skiers, overlooks the Engadin Valley.
From Samedan we took the sightseeing train over the Bernina Pass toward Italy. Over viaducts and deep gorges, through spiraling tunnels, it takes you to towns of bucolic Mediterranean lifestyle and architecture. After passing high cow pastures at the foot of the 4,048-meter Bernina Peak – and another language border – the winding tracks bring the train down the steep rocks to Poschiavo, the Italian-speaking region’s capital.The sun was bright and the air fresh, so we got out in Poschiavo for lunch. The distant Bergamask mountains inspired composers and poets for centuries. The San Vittore Gothic church, first built in 703 and renovated with a Romanesque tower in 1212, is worth a visit. Next to it, we spotted a morbid depository of hundreds of skulls, lined up neatly on wooden shelves and looking out to the street from behind iron gates. They had been excavated just 100 years ago and the townspeople reverently saved them as a memento mori. It was time for an al fresco lunch at the quiet Piazza Comunale. We had a superb osso bucco, accompanied by a high-altitude version of the Barollo, gnocchi with asparagus and truffles, and a cool gelato al limone to finish off the Italian treat in the friendly Albergo Suisse. Only a few elderly locals joined us for cappuccino.Next time we are in these southern reaches of Switzerland, I promised Betsy, we will continue the ride to Tirano, the last stop of the Bernina Express. It is just about an hour farther, over the Italian border. From there it is hard to resist the scenic bus ride heading west to Lugano. The romantic, always sunny Lake Como and Maggiore, straddling the Alps between Switzerland and Italy, are then just a jump away.Until then, we say (in Romansh), “gracha fich, a revair,” thanks and au revoir.When they’re not traveling, Paul and Elizabeth Fabry spend time at their Victorian house in Aspen. They can be reached at email@example.com
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