St. Moritz – Home of Winter Sports
In the last post on this Adventures Abroad tour of Switzerland we walked the old city of Zurich which got things off to a great start for everybody. In this post we’ll relocate from Zurich to the legendary winter sports playground of St. Moritz and find out why it is considered to be the place where winter vacations first began. Please join our group as we explore this intriguing and beautiful place.
Getting to St. Moritz
Switzerland has one of the best and most varied rail systems in the world and on this tour we will get to experience just about all of them. Adventures Abroad decided to forego the traditional bus as the method of group transportation in favour of using the Swiss rail system which as a former brakeman and avowed railway nut was one of the reasons I signed on for this trip. In preparation for this our guide Victor Romagnoli has Swiss travel passes in each of our names. There are multiple departures daily to St. Moritz with one change at Chur, but there is only six minutes to make it. It should take 3 hours and 25 minutes from start to finish.
We departed exactly on time and after a pleasant ride along the shores of Lake Zurich reached the station at Chur to the minute. Now six minutes may seem like very little time to switch trains, but in fact, as long as you don’t dawdle, it is plenty as it usually means moving from one platform to another. Victor, who used to live in Switzerland, knows the proper route on each change and all we need to do is follow him and we’ll get there with time to spare. And that’s what happens here, except for one member of the group, who didn’t dawdle, but simply did not get off the train before it set off again. This caused a minor panic as the person in question had no phone, no passport and no money or credit cards. These were with his spouse. Long story short, Victor took control and had him identified and rerouted back to St. Moritz where he arrived only an hour or so after the rest of us. This was the only time anything like this happened on the entire trip.
The station in St. Moritz is on a level with the lake and this is the first view of the town that you get as you emerge from the station. Here there are banners that remind us that St. Moritz is one of the primary stops on the Rhaetian Railway System which has been designated as a World Heritage Site.
To get to the town proper we need to pull our bags through an enormous underground parking lot cut right into the rock below ground level. Near the exit are a number of spots marked ‘For Women Only’ which is a Swiss thing. The spots are well lit and under video surveillance so there are safety reasons, but I later learn that in all likelihood it will be the women who are carrying young children so there are practical reasons as well.
From the parking lot we take a very long escalator up to the town proper. There are posters like this one to look at on the way up and remind us of the place’s prominence as both a winter and summer holiday destination.
The escalator ends at the Via Serlas which definitely puts the Ritz in St. Moritz. It is home to what is claimed to be the highest outdoor exclusive shopping district in the world with over 70 high and super high end outlets which we pass as Victor leads us to our hotel.
Our destination is the Hotel Hauser where we will spend two nights. It is a modern medium sized family owned three star hotel right in the middle of St. Moritz. There are four famous grand hotels in St. Moritz including the five star Kulm where summer and winter tourism to St. Moritz began over 160 years ago. You can book a room there for only 1,100+ Swiss francs – that’s over $1,500 Cdn. For that you get all of 270 square feet. You can get a larger room than that at the Hotel Hauser for about one sixth of the price. I’m sure the Kulm is great, but there might even be something I could buy on the Via Serlas for the money I’d save staying at the Hauser.
The Hauser has a very nice restaurant and an even nicer confectionary which is where I start to invest my non-Kulm savings by buying some of the regional specialties that have been made here for over 125 years, like the Engadin nut cakes.
History of St. Moritz
St. Moritz owes its location to the hot springs that were first visited by the ancient Celts and later the Romans who highly valued such things for their public baths. The name comes from St. Mauritius or more commonly Maurice who was an early Christian martyred hereabouts. Weirdly enough he was the Egyptian leader of an entire Roman legion comprised of Thebans. They were ordered to Switzerland to help suppress a rebellion in nearby Gaul. While there they converted en masse to Christianity and refused to renege under threat of death. The Romans, apparently deciding they didn’t need their services after all, allegedly put every single one of them to death, over 6,000 in all. This immediately made the place of their execution a sacred site for Christians and after it became the official religion of the empire, St. Moritz was an important pilgrimage site for well over a thousand years. The waters of the hot springs were thought to have sacred healing powers.
Other than a site of pilgrimage, not much else seems to have happened at St. Moritz until well to do western Europeans doing the Grand Tour starting in the mid 1600’s would occasionally make their way to the area to enjoy the mountain air and do some hiking, just like we are doing today. They would leave the area in the autumn which left the few hoteliers with empty spaces for most of the year. In 1864 Caspar Badrutt, owner of the Kulm dared some English guests to return in the winter. They did and voilà, winter tourism was born, not just in St. Moritz, but in the world. It wasn’t only skiing that attracted winter tourists, but new sports like bobsledding and luge along with traditional sports like ice skating, hockey and curling. St. Moritz became so identified with winter sports that despite its small size, it hosted the winter Olympics twice, first in 1928 and then in 1948. While we are here in the late spring, we will see if not participate at a number of the famous St. Moritz winter sports venues during our stay.
Some St. Moritz Highlights
During our stay in St. Moritz we had a very busy day of walking, mountain hiking and seeing some of the more interesting spots in and around the town. All told we put in almost ten miles (16 kms.) on what was the longest day of the entire tour. Instead of putting it all down in one post I’m going to feature some spots in St. Moritz in this post along with the Heidi trail which we actually did at the end of our day in St. Moritz. In the next post I’ll detail our hike in the Engadin Valley.
Did you know that St. Moritz has its own leaning tower? I didn’t until our local guide Susie took us there. It dates back to the 12th century and was connected to the Church of St. Mauritius which burnt down in 1893. Its slant is even greater than that of the more famous tower in Pisa.
This is looking straight up.
This is the Cresta Rider statue. The Cresta is possibly the world’s most scary toboggan run which has been created from scratch every year since 1884. It’s over 1,200 metres long (¾ mile) and drops 157 metres (514 feet) in that distance. The surface is made of ice so you don’t need to be a genius to figure out the speeds these Cresta riders attain. Today the ride is made on a tiny sled very much like those used in the skeleton races at the Winter Olympics.
The crazy thing is that anyone over 18 can sign up to do this with the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club which has been around since 1887. I’m glad we’re not here in winter or I might be stupid enough to give it a go. Jules Bylandt wasn’t so lucky, dying on the Cresta run in 1907 and now memorialized in this nearby fountain.
Speaking of winter sports, believe it or not this was the stadium for the two Winter Olympics held in St. Moritz. Contrast it to the monstrous venues for today’s Olympics and you can see how far from the original concept the games have veered.
In another place in St. Moritz we came across this plaque which listed all the gold medallists from the 1928 & 1948 games. I noted that the Canadians won gold in hockey in both olympics and Barbara Ann Scott won gold in women’s figure skating in 1948.
There are a number of small, but interesting churches in the St. Moritz area including the Church of San Niculò with its unusual (for Switzerland), onion dome.
But we really came to St. Moritz to do some alpine hiking so let’s get to it.
The Heidi Trail
The story of Heidi the little orphan girl raised by her grandfather in the Swiss alps is one of the most endearing in children’s literature. It was made into a movie in 1952 with many of the scenes filmed in the Engadin Valley around St. Moritz. This was also the location of Heidi’s Hut, a wooden cabin where she and her grandfather supposedly lived. It is still there and to end our day in St. Moritz we are going to go part way up the side of the valley and then walk down to the cabin and then back into town. Remember that this is after we walked about eight miles around the Engadin Valley in the morning. We’ll be taking this tram.
There is a nice view of Lake St. Moritz and the mountains surrounding it when we leave the tram.
The Heidi Hut is not far away down an easy path and Alison goes inside.
Where Heidi is awaiting her. She’s grown a bit in the seventy years she’s been shacked up here.
In the next post I’ll go into more detail on the many types of wildflowers we saw on this first day of alpine hiking, but I couldn’t overlook this wonderful field of them near the Heidi Hut. That’s the tram station in the upper left.
There are many panels to stop and read on the way back down to St. Moritz like this one, but frankly we were knackered and just wanted to rest our dogs. Luckily the trail came out not more than a few hundred yards from the Hauser Hotel and we got our wish.
In the next post I’ll describe the wonderful hike in the Engadin Valley we did on this same day. Lace up your hiking boots and join us.