Autumn in St. Moritz – Switzerland, Europe

Ah, St Moritz. The mere name brought to mind a delightful summer in Torquay. I was 16 and he was tall, blond, a little shy. He had the most beautiful smile. I'll call him Hanspeter. When planning this trip, I considered looking him up but couldn't remember his surname. Then I realized I never knew it. Hey, it was summer, we were young and who cared about such trivialities. So he'll always be just Hanspeter from St. Moritz to me.

My first view of St. Moritz and the Engadin Valley was jagged, alpine peaks kissing the clear sky, larches in golden autumn colours, the sun sparkling off the water in the deep-blue St. Moritzsee. Here and there, a house clinged precariously to a cliff. Only Swiss and Norwegians would choose to live in such splendid isolation.

Terrace of the Schweizerhof

Terrace of the Schweizerhof

I could have stayed here on the huge, sunny terrace of Hotel Schweizerhof forever, drinking in that magnificent view; filling my lungs with fresh mountain air. I was surrounded with daisies, violets, lobelias and geraniums in every shade of blue, purple, magenta, red, yellow and white. Perfect. Sadly, I had a meeting to go to (how else would I be staying in the Schweizerhof, after all).

The town is divided in two. Up in the hills is St Moritz-Dorf – everyone's image of this swanky resort – full of chalets, hotels, boutiques and the odd souvenir shop. Down by the lakeshore, St Moritz-Bad is another story – full of ugly concrete blocks of flats and sports halls.

The two parts are connected by a series of escalators through St Moritz Design Gallery. The town must get its fair share of lazy tourists, then – those here for some Prada shopping rather than skiing. Claudia Schiffer and Pierce Brosnan stop by occasionally. I'm sure they're fit enough to walk, though. Lance Armstrong, too.

I rode the escalators down to Bad and ended up on a large concrete terrace overlooking the lake; an excellent location for snapping sunset photos. And just in case the two short stairways down from the terrace are too much, there is a lift to the pavement.

Towards one end of the lake is Bad. I tried not to look, but it was hard to miss, like a pimple on an otherwise flawless face. You just have to view it. What goes on in the minds of architects? Really. I want to know. You're surrounded by beauty – and you're inspired to build this? That's sad.

I focused on the mountains, the hillsides and the hotel, Waldhaus am See. It was easy to picture this quirky old-world hotel on an early autumn day in, say 1906; people clad in Edwardian costume strolling around, picnicing by the lake, chatting happily, resting and taking the baths. Very belle epoque.Going back up through the gallery and looking at posters showing scenes from St Moritz at the turn of the century, I yearned to visit St Moritz of the early 1900s. Where oh where is that time machine? (With it I could also make a quick detour to that English summer, be all grown-up about it and ask his surname).

The Swiss are very competent linguists. Swiss German is the major language heard in St Moritz – in the off-season, that is. Completely different from standard German, it's incomprehensible to Germans. In this canton (state), Rhaeto-Romanic, Italian, Swiss German, standard German and a plethora of dialects are spoken, and in the canton parliament, members speak in their own language. It's assumed everyone understands and no translation is provided.

Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann and Friedrich Nietzsche used to hang out here, according to the town's official website. Along with a whole host of other famous names, they all "came as travellers and remained as adorers". Big words.

Big words also describe the heavy-duty marketing of this town. St. Moritz is prestigious, world-famous, chic, elegant and exclusive. It's a playground for movie stars and royalty, it has a pronounced cosmopolitan ambience and – my favourite – a champagne climate more tonic than anywhere else.

The emphasis is obviously on attracting big names and big shoppers, even trademarking the name St Moritz. Well, sorry if I hurt anyone's feelings, but this is not a beautiful town. I found it obtrusive, actually. The phrase less is more would likely receive nothing but a sneer here. But what the town lacks in beauty, it makes up in the setting.

Perhaps the most famous building in St Moritz is the super-luxurious Badrutt's Palace hotel. This is where Pierce, Claudia and the rest of the gang stay. I couldn't decide: was this faux castle cool or tacky? The hotel has won tons of awards, but none for architecture, as far as I know. But it was built in 1896. And, somehow, gaudy buildings from 1896 have more charm than gaudy buildings from 1996, so I'll go for kind of cool. What do you think?

I was going to have a look inside. I noticed a poster on the surprisingly unassuming front door telling me it was closed. But I'm happy to know they're looking forward to welcoming me on the fifth of December at noon. Foot the bill and I'll be here wearing bells, ready to fall on my face on the slopes.

In the meantime, the early evening streets were mostly empty. The St. Moritzers must be either indoors or enjoying a fortnight's cruise out of Tenerife on board the AIDA blu for 2 564 francs, the temptation of the day at the local travel kiosk. Me, I entered the Emilio Pucci store, drawn in by a pair of funky trousers and some killer crystal sandals in the window. On seeing the price tags, I gasped and stumbled right back out.

I couldn't help comparing St. Moritz to Zermatt. An unfair comparison, of course. Zermatt has the Matterhorn, after all. That masterpiece of nature, often hiding behind a shroud of clouds – the little tease. Now you see me, now you don't. Mostly you don't. Also, the Glacier Express, breathtaking rail journey of world fame, goes between St Moritz and Zermatt.

May I suggest doing the journey in that order? Begin in St. Moritz, with its stunning setting and brash town – and end in Zermatt, equally stunning setting, a lovely valley village, no cars (apart from the annoying little electric bugs carrying luggage between the station and the hotels), and the Matterhorn. You'll go from gorgeous St. Moritz to über-gorgeous Zermatt in seven and a half hours of uninterrupted scenic splendour.

While you're in St Moritz, fork over 32 francs, take the Bergbahn up to Corviglia and continue in a cable car up to Piz Nair. Then walk to the top. Remember not to run, even if you want to. At 3,057 meters (just over 10,000 feet), the view is grand.

View from Piz Nair

View from Piz Nair

On the way down to the cable car station, I noticed a glass-enclosed pickaxe and went to have a closer look. On the handle of the axe were inscribed the words, Mount Everest 13.5.1999. In addition were a pair of crampons and a photo of a person in mountaineering gear and a Greek flag. Above, the words Constantine S. Niarchos 1962-1999, on a brass plaque.

At first, I thought this was a young woman who had died while climbing in the area. But Fabrizio at the Panorama restaurant told me she was a he; a shipping billionaire and the first Greek to reach the summit of Everest. Niarchos had loved the Engadin valley so much he wanted his memorial here. Also, he had contributed financially to building the Panorama and even had a chambre separée here for some high altitude dining.

The date of his death was just a short while after the Everest triumph. Had he died in the Himalayas, then? This had me curious, so I checked it out. According to an article in the Telegraph dated 8 July 1999, he died of a massive cocaine overdose (enough to kill 25 men!) in his flat in London just two weeks after conquering Everest. So the story didn't have the romantic ending I had imagined. Rather a sad one. I guess being wealthy can be lonely.

I took the cable car back to town since I was in a hurry. Another, probably better, option would have been to walk down, all the way or part of it. At the Panorama, I had bought a little stuffed marmot for my youngest daughter, so I was very happy when I saw live ones – a whole family of marmots, along the mountainside on the way back.

Here's my quick take on St. Moritz: The town – eeeh, the setting – awesome. Worth the trip? Yeah. Would I go back? Sure. I've lots more to see, like the Swiss National Park for some ibex- or bearded vulture spotting, and more of those cute marmots. There's a wide array of hiking trails, several of them wheelchair accessible and it's possible to stay in Swiss Alpine Club huts.

For children, there's a fairy-trail, including Heidi's hut, and the child friendly Hotel Chesa Spuondas.

If you like exercising outdoors and eating superb food, the Bike Gourmet Tour may be just your ticket. Of course, just about any kind of sport is available, summer and winter.

Hard to believe, but St Moritz also has several hostels, including the Jugendherberge Stille.


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