On the first of March, as the dawn light touches the frost-covered morning, cowbells clang through the Swiss Alps. The bells are rung by children wearing red hats and scarves held together by empty matchboxes walking through the towns and villages that dot the mountain valleys some 2,000 metres above sea level. This festivity, named Chalandamarz, takes place each year to scare away the evil winter spirits and welcome in the spring. Some of the children collect money, too. According to superstition, the greater the donation the faster winter will leave and the longer the summer will last. Outside the Kulm Hotel in St Moritz, a chef in a tall toque blanche bends down to drop a five-franc piece into a blue bucket.
The train to the Upper Engadin Valley from Zurich takes me along the vast lake. It is August now and 30 degrees. People of all ages lie on small areas of grass at intersections along the lake; it is a deep turquoise so striking it looks artificial. This is the first of many brilliant shades of water I will see. The almost empty carriage speeds past a scene full of incident. People sunbathe, kick footballs, swim, sail. One man fishes. Old dark wooden boathouses provide much-needed shade.
At Chur we change trains. It starts to rain, heavily. The air is thick, almost yellow. We are surrounded by green Swiss pines. The train combines a constant gentle rumble with soft wails as we start to climb upwards. A fat man in dungarees with a can of beer sits next to me. “Scientology?” he asks, looking at my book. I tell him no. It’s Vladimir Nabokov’s Transparent Things, which tells the bleak story of a haughty American book editor named Hugh Person through depictions of the protagonist’s four visits to a small village in the Swiss Alps throughout his life. The novella opens:
A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film.
Lose focus and break this film, the narrator explains, and the moment will be lost to our involuntary thoughts, or as Nabokov writes: “the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish.” I hold this advice in mind as I look out of the train window, cheek pressed against the cool glass. Occasional streaks of lightning cut through the sky as we cross the same valley four times, spiralling our way towards the clouds. From a ravine below, three people in fluorescent yellow, green and purple rain jackets stand taking pictures of the train as it curves overhead. A lone black horse noses the undergrowth.
Towards my destination, the fat man is replaced by a young woman who prefers to study a pocket mirror than the dramatic scenery. We arrive at the final stop. I was too hot in Zurich, but standing by St Moritz Lake it is fresh, chilly.
The people of St Moritz are proud of their many “firsts”. The town is home to the first bobsleigh run created in the 1880s and hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1928. This preoccupation is partly driven by the Kulm, the town’s first hotel where I’m staying for the weekend. Founded in 1855 by Johannes Badrutt, the Kulm drove early tourism in the region and introduced several major technological developments to Switzerland. The country’s first telephone, for example, was installed at the Kulm after Badrutt met Alexander Graham Bell at the 1889 Paris Exposition.
The Kulm is also arguably the birthplace of the ski holiday. This began with a bet made by Badrutt with his English summer tourists in 1864, who he asked to return in winter and promised to reimburse if they were disappointed. Badrutt won his wager. The guests came for Christmas and stayed until Easter. As one visitor wrote to Badrutt, the St Moritz winter suited him far better than the winter months spent in Menton in the French Riviera. Amidst detailed recordings of the temperature and humidity, the visitor recounts:
On average, we spent four hours each day outdoors, hiking, skating on the lakes, sledding, or sitting on the patio reading. The latter lasted two to three hours, and twice in January we even had lunch on the terrace; other days we took the picnic with us in our sledges.
St Moritz has been defined in many ways by its early English clientele. In January 1885, five guests at the Kulm who formed the so-called “Outdoor Amusements Committee” completed the first Cresta Run, a natural ice run winding three-quarters of a mile down to the village. A forerunner to Olympic skeleton racing, competitors would ride a small sled face-down and head-first. While the sport may have become more professional, the culture of the Cresta still feels intimately linked to a certain blue-blooded Britishness.
Since 1887, the Cresta has been run by the private St Moritz Tobogganing Club, which has as its clubhouse the Kulm’s Sunny Bar. The bar’s warm interior is intensified by hundreds of photographs of past racers and club members on the walls. Raucous figures smoking cigars and sporting the club’s cricket-style jumper loom out of the frames. The effect is reminiscent of a snug in a Mayfair members’ club or a boarding school common room – hidden away places where men and boys come up with games. A large trophy, the Morgan Cup, named after Harry Hays Morgan, a former US diplomat and one of the most venerable Cresta riders, stands on a ledge. The winner of that particular race each year is obliged to fill the trophy with champagne – which fits 29 and a half bottles. Hanging from the ceiling are a series of rings. A competition within a competition, whoever among the post-race revellers climbs between the rings the most times wins another prize. Previous champions, their names immortalised in engravings on a pillar in the room, include a Lord and a Count.
Starting with that first visit more than 150 years ago, the winter season in St Moritz and Upper Engadin quickly usurped the summer as the main season – a time to see and be seen, frequented by golden-era movie star A-listers like Brigitte Bardot. Today, the lake hosts polo matches and horse racing. Some of the globe’s leading art galleries have locations here. Picnic sites have been replaced by Michelin-star restaurants. The luxury, in some ways, poses the question: have the games gone too far?
By contrast, my first impressions of St Moritz in August are of a sleepy place. The summer, in a reversal, has now become the time to seek repose, escape the heat and enjoy calm and restoration.
On my first morning, all that can be seen from the window is a receding area of grey. I can’t see further than a metre. I’m told this happens whenever there is heavy rain, and the blank cloud will dissipate under the sun by mid-morning. This is encouraging as I am paragliding at 10am. I take a bus a short way along the valley to meet Davide, a cheerful, tanned, wiry man in his 30s. Davide grew up in a nearby valley and knew he wanted to paraglide since he was a boy watching gliders from his classroom window. Ascending in a cable car, the valley opens up before us. Davide records our progress on his phone. “I do this every time. It’s a kind of tradition,” he informs me. All I can find to say in the moment is, “beautiful”. Davide is generous, responding to any of my observations with a smiling “that’s it”.
At the top of the ascent, the air feels thinner. Advised by Davide to keep breakfast to a minimum in case of nausea, I feel light-headed as we lay out our bright red parachute on the ground. We are waiting for wind. Small sticks with strips of coloured string are dotted across the slopes. Once you notice one, you see them everywhere. They are carefully placed by Davide to measure the direction of the wind. But for now, the strings lie limp. Davide takes a call. He nods. “That’s it.” Laughs. Then, abruptly, he hangs up his phone – the wind has come, and we have to run. We lift off, our legs wheeling in the air ready to drop down again. We bump the scrub. Run four steps more. Then we are flying.
The Upper Engadin valley stretches out below to the southwest via a string of brilliant turquoise lakes flanked by high mountains.
On one or two days a year, when the upward currents of warm air are perfect, Davide can fly more than ten hours and hundreds of kilometres – as far as Italy and back. We glide gently along the mountain face, catching glints of waterfalls, discovering small meadows surrounded by trees. A marmot stands to watch us. I search for ibex, wild mountain goats with huge recurved horns, but no luck. Directly below us lies Lake Sils and the adjacent town of Sils-Maria where Friedrich Nietzsche spent many summers throughout the 1880s. The philosopher would spend hours walking through the forests and mountains before putting down his thoughts late into the night in a small rented single room. “Here my muses live,” he wrote. In an aphorism from Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche sketches out a scene nearly identical to the view unfolding below:
I looked down, over waves of hills, to a milk-green lake, through firs and pines austere with age; rocky crags of all shapes about me, the soil gay with flowers and grasses… On the left, overhanging cliffs and fields of snow above broad belts of woodland; to the right, two enormous ice-covered peaks, high above me, shimmering in the veil of the sunny haze – all large, silent, and bright. The beauty of the whole was awe-inspiring and conducive to a mute worship of the moment and its revelation.
Many writers, philosophers and acolytes have retraced Nietzsche’s steps in the Upper Engadin in search of similar moments of revelation, or sat by the banks of Lake Silvaplana where Nietzsche first had his vision of eternal recurrence – the idea that all events, every pain alongside every joy, repeat themselves cyclically. “Nietzsche was, for most of his life, in search of the highest, routinely bent on mastering the physical and philosophical landscape,” writes the American philosopher John Kaag in his memoir Hiking with Nietzsche. But there can be danger in following this path too closely: “If thou gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee,” Nietzsche warns in Beyond Good and Evil. Kaag discovered this first hand, nearly dying isolated in the mountains while following Nietzsche’s brutal route through the Alps as a 19-year-old. On arriving in Sils-Maria, Kaag stopped eating and sleeping, entering a period of mania walking the mountains alone and studying Nietzsche’s work. “In my last week in Sils-Maria, I came as close as I ever have to understanding Nietzsche’s claim, ‘I am no man. I am dynamite!’,” writes Kaag.
The philosophers Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse uncovered a more prosaic picture of Nietzsche when making a similar pilgrimage to Sils-Maria in the 1960s. Scouring the village for anyone who still remembered the German philosopher, they met an elderly shopkeeper named Zaun who recalled that Nietzsche carried a red umbrella wherever he went to protect himself from the sun. Zaun and his friends would hide stones in the parasol and wait to watch them fall on Nietzsche’s head, ready to flee, whooping with delight, as they were chased through the town.
Heinz Hunkeler, general manager of the Kulm hotel, has his own memories of boyish hijinks in the Engadin Valley. He was born in the hotel where his parents both worked –his father as a chef, his mother as a housekeeper. Heinz, ruddy-faced from a morning on the mountain, still carries a slightly mischievous air as he explains how the entire hotel was a playground in the off-season growing up. “We would have football tournaments in the empty swimming pool,” he says, which is where he had his first job in the hotel as a pool attendant. “Attendant makes it sound more glamorous. Really I was a pool cleaner.” But Heinz quickly learned the way to make money was from tips bringing towels and opening doors for guests. It was, of course, glamorous, too. Heinz remembers the anticipation of meeting the famed Swiss chef Anton Mosimann, who cooked for four presidents and four generations of the British royal family. “I was ten years old and remember having to wear a necktie. I was very nervous and tripped over when I went to shake Mr Mosimann’s hand. I hid from everyone for days after that.”
Today, Heinz tries to keep the Kulm’s spirit of ingenuity alive. He invited St Moritz’s first Peruvian chef, Claudia Canessa, to open a new restaurant in the Kulm and embedded a submarine complete with a bar in the town’s frozen lake. At the same time, the Kulm retains its traditional elegance. Each room has an entrance of Swiss pine greeting guests with the fresh scent of the forests. The bright lobby area of soft yellows designed by Renzo Mongiardino is enlivened with trompe l’oeil details and floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of St Moritz Lake. The overall impression is sophisticated but understated. The majority of the Kulm’s guests are returning visitors. During my stay, I note many of the other guests are part of large multigenerational families, some of whom may have been visiting for decades, others who are experiencing St Moritz for the first time.
I pass a small boy interrupting a bridge game in search of cake. Two tables of elderly women beam after the unexpected visitor as he trots off down a long corridor, as Heinz would have done all those years ago.
The following morning, I return to the mountains. I start at Corviglia, slightly higher than St Moritz and where the terrain is gentle. Cows meander through green meadows, sipping from an empty bathtub-turned trough. Mountain bikers wind their way upwards, slowly, diligently. A flurry of songbirds dip over the next ridge. Snow cannons covered with khaki tarpaulin stand like totems at regular intervals along the slope. Families take the funicular up to spend a lazy morning on the soft springy grass, kicking at tufts of thistle and picking dandelions. I am filled with a deep sense of well-being as I watch a hillside stone tumble down the slope and think of the other people or small animals who have watched the same stones over incalculable seasons.
Across the valley, I climb higher to Corvatsch viewing point. Groups stand photographing a wrinkled glacier reminiscent of marble shroud or an enormous wrapped object by Bulgarian artist Christo. The air is crisp, cool. The sun is hot. I feel the altitude – heavy in the head. Hiking gear adds splashes of colour as we take in the views.
I walk to Ford Surlej, a secluded mountain lodge. An elderly sheepdog is shooed from the kitchen. Hikers enjoy a simple lunch of sausage and potato salad or bread and cheese and gherkins with brown bottles of beer. Lounging by small pools, people talk and mingle. An Italian couple with four poodles – Oscar, Plumpish, Oliver and Olivia – tell me they have come in their caravan from the outskirts of Milan.
For many, the Swiss Alps invite the thrill of competition, the desire to climb the highest or finish first. But on this gentle summer Sunday, quiet appreciation of the moment feels more appropriate. In the end, for all the glamour of St Moritz, the mountains are a levelling place where anyone can share in nature at its most sublime. Two retired couples from Munich ask me to take their photograph. A peal of bells calls across the mountainside and we turn – tension film unbroken – to watch a herd of cows trip down the steep run of a nearby peak. ◉