Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2009-12-18
3 hours’ drive away from Milan and Munich, St Moritz is, along with Zermatt, Gstaad and Davos, one of Switzerland’s most renowned resorts. Leaving aside the ostentatious luxury, people go above all for its 322 days of sunshine a year and for the beauty of the Upper Engadine. There is something here to satisfy both sports-lovers and those seeking peace and quiet. It is also possible to stay here without bankrupting yourself!
Leaving aside the ostentatious luxury, people go above all for its 322 days of sunshine a year and for the beauty of the Upper Engadine. There is something here to satisfy both sports-lovers and those seeking peace and quiet. It is also possible to stay here without bankrupting yourself!
Chic but affordable!
At first sight, St Moritz (Sankt-Moritz in German and San Murezzan in Romansh*) looks like a concentrated Bond Street, nestling at the foot of Piz Nair. At an altitude of 1,856 m (6,089 ft) the Dior, Chanel, Hermès, Cartier, Bulgari and Versace boutiques light up the main street, whilst Rolls-Royces stand parked in front of the Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, watched over by heavily built doormen in livery. Luxury hotel, spa, casino and polo on a frozen lake… For a century, the clientele of St Moritz has worn its “high society” status on its sleeve. Fortunately, these clichés are not all there is to the resort which, through its history, charm and openness, also welcomes travellers seeking a complete change of scene… at an affordable price!
Where to stay in and around St Moritz
The very handy Hotel Stille stands near the ski slopes of St Moritz, with a view of the mountains, forest and lakes. Comfortable rooms from CHF75** (€47).
The Chesa Rosatsch Swiss Quality Hotel, set in the old part of the village of Celerina, 3 km (just under 2 miles) from St Moritz, is a charming, comfortable hotel surrounded by idyllic mountain scenery. Set in an historic 17th century building, its rooms start at CHF102 (€63.50).
The Hotel Donatz in Samedan, 5 km (3 miles) from the resort, is a 3-star family-run hotel created 35 years ago. The welcome is friendly and the rooms spacious. Prices start at CHF95 (€60).
The simpler Hotel Bellevue Garni, also in Samedan, is an ideal stopover for adventurers crossing the Engadine on the way to Lake Como in Italy. Rooms from CHF44 (€27) and copious Swiss breakfast.
Originally renowned for the healing properties of its chalybeate springs, St Moritz began to expand in 1864. Attracting the first skiers, skaters and frozen-lake curling players from Scotland, the resort fast became a top-notch fashionable haunt for the whole of Europe (especially since Switzerland’s first electric light was installed here in 1878!). The first European Ice Skating Championships took place in 1882. In 1890, blacksmith Christian Mathis produced the first bobsleighs, while the first bob run – made of natural ice – was created, linking St Moritz to Celerina. Today, it is still possible to reach speeds of 140 kph (87 mph) with 2 or 4 people on this 1,595 m (1,744 yd) long run with 19 bends; it will be host to the world championships in 2007. The world’s first ski school was founded in St Moritz in 1927. The resort’s reputation subsequently became established with the Olympic Games of 1928 and 1948 and the Alpine Ski World Championships of 1934, 1948, 1974 and 2003.
The upper part of St Moritz (St-Moritz-Dorf) is perched just above a lake bordered by a forest – a peaceful stroll around the lake is a magnificent way to spend an hour, particularly between 11am and 4pm in winter, when the sun lights up this southeast-facing spot. But beware: the reflection on the snow at St Moritz (whose symbol is the sun) is so strong that it is not uncommon to come across cases of sunstroke in winter! Starting in January, the frozen lake becomes the stage for numerous spectacular races, be it horses on snow, greyhounds or skijöring (a skier pulled by a horse and rider), not forgetting the snow polo tournaments (the oldest team sport in the world!) and snow cricket (the first frozen-lake tournament took place here in 1989).
To admire the town’s most beautiful residences, head to the upper part, at the level of the funicular, where you will find Chesa Futura, an amazing wooden structure built by English architect Lord Norman Foster in 2003. Its curves, containing 10 luxury apartments (including Foster’s), contrast with the traditional architecture of the surrounding Swiss chalets.
With its 350 km (217 miles) of pistes around Piz Nair, the skiing area of St Moritz is quite family-friendly and reserved for recreational skiing. It can be covered fairly quickly, but the pistes are well-maintained, the snow generally plentiful and the ski lifts efficient. Above all, one is immersed in dream scenery dominating the valley, at the bottom of which sparkles St Moritz Lake. To reach this skiing area, you have to take the funicular that links the town to Corviglia, at an altitude of 2,486 m (8,156 ft). A ski hire boutique, Corvatsch Ski, is located just below the funicular. As soon as you arrive in the morning, and before exploring the skiing area, we recommend putting your skis down (no known thefts reported to date!) and taking the 20-minute cable-car ride from Corviglia to Piz Nair at an altitude of 3,057 m (10,029 ft). There, a terrace offers a magnificent circular panorama, encompassing the peaks of Bernina and the 25 lakes of Upper Engadine.
In Corviglia, below the Piz Nair cable car, the legendary men’s downhill piste, created for the 4th Alpine Ski World Championships 2003, is the steepest and longest starting slope ever made. The first metres reach a gradient of 45°. In less than 7 seconds, the skier reaches a speed of over 130 kph (80 mph)!
In the footsteps of Nietzsche
Between St Moritz and the Maloja (a pass separating Engadine and the Italian side of the Grisons), the road through the valley is incredibly beautiful: you skirt the lakes of Champfèr, Silvaplana and Sils and catch sight of the high snowy peaks with their Rhaeto-Romanic names – Piz Julier, Piz Lagrev, Piz Gravasalda, Piz Surlèj and, above all, Piz Corvatsch, which is the starting point of some superb, perfectly snow covered pistes. Reflecting the clearness of the Engadine sky, the lakes are sapphire coloured at Sils and turquoise at Silvaplana. The mountain slopes are covered with fir and larch trees and the landscape, as changing as the weather, can in one hour go from severity to grace, and from brilliant sunshine to grey mist.
It was here that Friedrich Nietzsche, having left his position as professor at the University of Basle on health grounds, came to spend seven consecutive summers from 1881 to 1888. The dry climate and the light of the Engadine were favourable to the well-being of the philosopher, who took up residence in the flower-filled village of Sils Maria, “the most charming spot on earth”. Highly sensitive to any noise, he settled into a little room with just one window facing the mountains, where he wrote his finest books: Beyond Good and Evil, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Ecce Homo… This house, the smallest in the village, has now been turned into a Nietzsche museum (it opens at 3pm). To follow in the footsteps of Nietzsche, you can go to the Edelweiss inn where the philosopher took his meals, climb the slopes bordering the lake and go into the gorge of Val Fex, from where you can take in the sunny amphitheatre of peaks. His favourite place was a glade near the gorge above the Fex mountain stream, where he liked to meditate. It was in August 1881 that Nietzsche, skirting Silvaplana Lake, experienced the “revelation” of the eternal return at Surlèj, near an enormous pyramid-shaped monolithic block that is now dedicated to his memory.
3 km (just under 2 miles) from St Moritz, in the village of Champfer, the great chef of the region, Jöhris Talvo, welcomes diners in a tastefully restored 17th century inn (two Michelin stars). We were sadly unable to sample his inventive cuisine during our trip, but his warm lobster salad with old balsamic is, apparently, exceptional. (Meal from CHF98: €61).
In St Moritz itself, it is possible to eat without spending a small fortune at the Hauser restaurant, at the heart of the resort. Here you will find regional specialities influenced by the cuisine of Piedmont, such as grilled polenta with cheese and tomato (CHF15: €9.50). Founded 50 years ago, the Hauser pastry shop, which also gave its name to the adjacent restaurant, is first and foremost renowned for its chocolate truffles and walnut cake, which are hand made on the premises. At the entrance to the boutique, a fountain of hot chocolate flows all day long and it is customary to dip a waffle in it while you wait.
Those partial to “Grisons” dried meat will head for the Hatecke boutique. Grisons meat is simply beef marinaded for several weeks in salt, Alpine herbs and a secret blend of spices. The slices of meat are then wrapped in nets and dried in the fresh air of the Grisons forests. Following the same method, Hatecke also offers venison, veal, lamb, deer and pork meat.
On the way out of the Corviglia funicular, La Marmite restaurant is a pleasant place to have lunch in your salopettes with a superb view of the pistes. The chef Reto Mathis, a native of St Moritz, offered us a menu with tastes of France, Asia and Piedmont! His medium-cooked duck foie gras with fig and Asian apple pear is encrusted with Grisons dried beef in jellied port. His mushroom polenta accompanies a tender fillet of deer, roasted at a low temperature and flavoured with herbs from the valley. The dessert, a light, melt-in-the-mouth tiramisu with fresh raspberries and caramel, will enable you to hop lightly back onto your skis. (From CHF32: €20)
One of the biggest whisky cellars in the world!
Even if you know nothing about single malt, make time to walk to the Hotel Waldhaus Am See, which overlooks St Moritz Lake. It was here that the owner, Claudio Bernasconi, decided 22 years ago to put together one of the finest whisky collections in the world, following a stay in India where, for want of drinking water, he had to brush his teeth with whisky… Today his bar, the Devil’s Place, appears in the Guinness Book of Records, with over 2,500 items including a few great rarities such as the Macallan 1878 (approximately £4,690 a bottle) and the Johnny Walker Blue Label 1805 (about £10,000)… From around £1.30 to £3,350 a glass, you can sample in peace some marvels such as the magnificent single malts from Japan (try the Yoichi 1987, with notes of spices and preserved citrus fruit) or the magnificent Bowmore 1970 (Claudio Bernasconi’s favourite whisky) with its amber colour and aromas of dried fruit, grape and chocolate. The bar is open from 4pm to midnight.
It’s when taking the little red mountain train that runs between Chur and St Moritz that one hears for the first time this forgotten language, Romansh. Suddenly the hoarse, guttural Schwyzer Dütsch (Swiss German) gives way to a more familiar, Romance-style language: “Tuot ils viagiatuors vegnan gravüschos da sortir dal tren” (All passengers are requested to leave the train). A sort of cross between Italian and French!
Plane to Zurich then train to St Moritz via Chur (3hr 30min)
To get to Sils (11 km/6.8 miles from St Moritz): bus no. 4 leaving from the station (hourly).
Hotel Waldhaus Am see