Nothing – no atmosphere in the world – will ever have the same effect on me as St Moritz in the Graubunden in Switzerland did (and still does). I was only eighteen years old and desperate to get away from home and see the world on my own! It was even before I’d gone to university, the first summer of my adulthood, immediately after leaving school.
I knew I was going to Switzerland but fate had drawn out my name next to a placement in St Moritz, one of the most exclusive resorts in the Alps, high up in the mountains in the south east corner of the country. Now St Moritz is mainly known for its skiing and for the fact it’s very expensive and frequented by the rich and famous. But I’ve never to this day been there in the winter. It was St Moritz in the summer that I knew and fell in love with.
Mind you, when I arrived there was still snow lying on the peaks and the weather was miserable, the whole place shrouded in clouds and rain. Pulling my case along by the lake in search of the hotel where I was to work (I must have been too young, too inexperienced, too poor to take a taxi) remains one of those big memorable moments of my life. Scared and excited by the unfamiliar surroundings, and moved immediately by the atmosphere and beauty of the mountains – how can anyone who has ever lived amongst proper mountains ever bear to live anywhere else? (I have often asked myself that question when suffering the downsides of London’s urban sprawl.)
Well, I worked for around three months in St Moritz. Spent long hours waiting at tables, earned lots of tips, got quite proficient at speaking German, made friends from around the world – generally had lots of new and interesting experiences!
I could have done all that anywhere, but it was the place that mattered, the place that was special.
The sun rising in the mountains, the peaks themselves throwing deep shadows that creep gradually down or up the hillsides, creating the sort of light effects at the beginning and the end of each sunny day that you don’t experience anywhere else.
Riding the various cable cars and funiculars up to the high peaks. Particularly Piz Nair above the town, looking down at the now so familiar view of the lake. Walking down from Corviglia, a half way station above St Moritz Dorf, to Signal, another small cable car that rises up theatrically from St Moritz Bad. Sitting on the grass on sunny slopes, amongst the mountain flowers. Listening for the calls of marmots and the distant tinkling of cowbells, breaking the mountain stillness.
There’s a sound in the mountains that’s a non-sound. Maybe it’s the wind, maybe it’s the general way in which the vast expanses of air dull and absorb the sound of your speech and your footfalls. It’s the sound of emptiness, of geological age, of pure beauty! It’s a non-sound that becomes a feeling, it’s something that can’t be described but grips your heart.
Maybe that’s why someone wrote ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’, something I used to sing to myself – and out loud to the mountains when no-one was about – as I wandered around on mountain paths on my days off, exploring, enjoying the scenery and the atmosphere.
In the woods I would catch sight of deer, sometimes bouncing across a clearing in the distance, sometimes running along a path in front of you, sometimes glimpsed quite close between the trees. I loved the woods on Piz Rosatsch, which was dear to my heart because I could see it from my window in the hotel. The deer were dear to my heart!
Everywhere there were waterfalls and streams so fresh and clear you didn’t hesitate to take a drink from the wild mountain water. The sound of rushing water was so much part of the place, part of the memory. Pure nature.
I walked once up to a mountain restaurant, the light of which can be seen at night from the town. I rode the biggest cable car, Piz Corvatsch, which spans a huge drop and takes you up to where there’s snow all year, and you can see people picking their way across deep snow to the very top of the mountain.
I walked round the lake several times. If you kept walking past the restaurant at the far side, you came to another small lake which people swam in when it was warm, and which you could make out from when you were up on higher ground.
Oh there are so many beautiful and atmospheric places in and around St Moritz!
The Diavolezza cable car is another spectacular one. The big cars swing scarily as it rises, and at the top you have amazing views of a huge glacier (no doubt less huge today than it once was). People on hang-gliders whiz past your head as you sit eating sausage and drinking Ovomaltine in the outdoor part of the café.
Muotas Muragl is a funicular that climbs to the point from which all the most famous views of the Engadin valley are photographed. Yellow mountain flowers and yellow lichen on the rocks provide a pretty foreground, with grazing cows aplenty and the long chain of lakes and broad vista of mountains contributing to an excellent photo.
I once got a yellow bus along the edge of those lakes and down into Italy, to a little village called Chiavenna. I wandered through its sleepy hot streets, between the houses and through its little courtyards, feeling both out of place and entranced. This was another world to that I had known back home, comprising mainly of family life in a boring semi and endless trips to an unruly school in a non-descript part of dreary England! Little Italian children peered at me curiously, scrawny cats ran up to my feet, old ladies called out queries to me that I wasn’t able to answer. Somewhere in Chiavenna is a particular square, a particular place where I sat, so full of youth and life and excitement. I’ve tried looking for it on Street View but it’s probably long gone. One day soon I’ll go and look for it in person.
And not forgetting Chur, the town where you change trains to get onto the wonderful scenic railway that winds and climbs up to St Moritz itself. I fell in love with Chur almost as much as St Moritz – particularly a tiny little cobbled square with a fountain in it, where I sat alone, listening to the tinkling of the water and realising I was in love with Europe and little cobbled squares in general!
Beautiful St Moritz! I mourned that place and my summer there for several years. I had St Moritz posters up on my walls at university. I wore my St Moritz t-shirt constantly. I searched relentlessly and fruitlessly for any foodstuff available in England that remotely resembled Swiss nussrollen.
I dreamed about St Moritz a lot. I still sometimes have strangely significant dreams of revisiting the place, which are always accompanied by a sense of joy and happiness. I have been back in reality a couple of times, but the ‘dream’ St Moritz is somehow a more perfect place. I sometimes think that my own private heaven will involve being back in the mountains – in my ‘dream St Moritz’ – forever.