St. Moritz - Possibly The Strangest Place on Earth.
One Very Weird Night in St.Moritz
The main reasons for ending up in St. Moritz were threefold: Firstly, I've long wanted to take the Glacier Express through the Swiss Alps, and having spent New Year in Vex, watching friends ski, learn to ski, and avoid skiing, this would be the perfect occasion to do so, as we would be in no hurry, close by, and ready for a sit down after a frenetic week of falling over, mainly. This was not because of the frozen ground beneath our bruised buttocks, but because of the amount of booze consumed during the previous 7 days. Secondly, we needed to get to a city that has a good connecting airport to Prague, and although something of a circuitous route, Milan fit the bill completely, and after our night in St.Moritz, another scenic train journey south, we would be there. Thirdly, St.Moritz has a lot of history when it comes to the Swiss ethos, history and its winter sports - It must surely be worth a tick on the 'Places Visited' map based on its fame alone?
Unfortunately, as the time came to leave and catch the Glacier Express, we were informed that due to the recent storms the route between Zermatt and Chur would be closed due to the risk of avalanche for the immediate future. It's hard to argue with avalanches as they always win and are pretty cold hearted and so best avoided... especially when travelling in a thin metal tube, 3000 metres above sea level, crossing a spindly bridge teetering above a rocky precipice full of broken glass, alpine lunge snakes and flaming spear pits, ... probably. We took the hit with good grace, both in our hearts and in our wallets, as having to buy new tickets on the day of travel from Brig to St.Moritz is never going to be cheap, and so it proved. As we handed over enough cash to have afforded a night at the Kempinski Hotel there, I took solace in the fact that I had saved money ahead in the booking of the hotel we were actually staying at. Even the the Hotel de Lice didn't sound very nice, we required 3 rooms as we were 4 travellers who had spent the last week at over 6000 feet, 4 out of a group of 10, dodging snowstorms, leg breaks and cheese fondue, and might need a break from each others ramblings and stoic damp sockedness. An apartment, my usual choice of accommodation in these circumstances, was probably out of the question from a privacy and battery recharge point of view. The new route would take us north east via Bern and Zurich and wouldn't get very scenic until after the latter, but as it would be a proper express train, we would get to our destination slightly earlier despite a couple of changes en route. This turned out to be no great blessing but more on that shortly.
The journey was very pleasant and after the initial rush of city folk heading home after the new year break, it settled in to a very picturesque and relaxing journey. The views afforded to our left along the lakes Zürichsee, Obersee and Walensee were lovely and then as we climbed back into the Alps and on towards Klösters the scenery was magnificent and a brief glimpse of what we might have expected on the cancelled Glacier Express. There was great solace in the fact that we had the Bernina Express to fall back on tomorrow, and that journey to Tirano would be no disappointment at all, as it proved to be equally majestic. As we approached town, we saw the famous lake, frozen over and covered in a thick duvet of snow with a very high toggle count indeed. It was quite the thing and as an opening stanza to St.Moritz it would do very well, thank you. There can't be many places on earth with this kind of setting and things were boding well.... it seemed.
We arrived at St.Moritz train station expecting the badly advertised hotel transfer to be standing patiently with horses charged and a gently smoking tailpipe but it was nowhere to be seen. I had been in contact with the Hotel du Cockroach earlier to notify them of our change in arrival time but they were clearly underlining just as to why it wasn't openly advertised. I rang again, but the phone line was unusually busy - Eventually they assured me that it was on its way and that he was just at the winter markets picking up some soiled mattresses for the hotel's 1st floor suites and that he shouldn't be too long. So, with at least a little hope that we did actually have a reservation (It's always on the mind of the actual organiser during any holiday transition that everything is in fact booked, from hotel's to train tickets, to flights and transfers - It's unavoidable. Sweet dreams my fellow travellers, I always say - Meanwhile I will just stare out of the window chewing my lip and going through every step of the booking.). Slightly anxiously we stood in the light, warming sleet, waiting for our ride in absentia.
After about 20 minutes, in a van with the Termite Hotel emblazoned drabbly on the side, he duly arrived and we all bundled in out of the snug heavy drizzle and were off. The weather was already proving changeable. All kinds of drizzle were to be found. I had promised the group a pub or bar crawl through the town that evening but as the car trip through St.Moritz continued, it became pretty obvious that bars hadn't quite caught on here yet. I knew of a couple but had assumed, wrongly, that there would be several others scattered about. I'm a fan of bad bars - the best nights are always in iffy and suspect bars as all the good bars of full of people trying to be cool and well behaved. I also knew that this town was more of a hotel bar kind of place, especially for apres ski, as one tended not to venture out very far for several good reasons. Mainly due to the fact that a lot of the actual apres ski takes place up the mountain and off piste. Furthemore, once you've got back to base camp, you're usually too tired and sore to move very far at all. Then there's the weather to consider, and finally, taxis are really very expensive here... It's actually cheaper to rent or buy a car than it is to book one of these overcharging charlatans....or cheaper still, to steal a car, drive it back to your hotel drunk and just pay the fine. If you add to the dearth of hostelries, the fact that we were starving and you'll begin to appreciate the mild panic beginning to set in. There was one bar I was aware of that served food but I was rather hoping to save that one for later as you really needed to be drunk to go in it in the first place.
St.Moritz had the usual glitzy and ultimately useless high end shops that are usually reserved for airports and Los Angeles, an abundance of nothingness in bland shop window after bland shop window, the occasional coffee shop but really it was just a scattered array of 'dull' heading off in either direction from one main high street. It was clear that we wouldn't exactly be walking leisurely around - far too difficult.
We finally arrived via the Hotel de Lock-up-your-Valuablés revolving door and checked in easily enough amongst a throng of lost, and presumingly banned Russian weightlifters. The hotel itslef had quite a grand old school edifice and smell all of its own - Part mouldy sock drawer, part garden shed. I asked about a good place to eat that wasn't too far, and after quite a lengthy discussion between our three 'client receptionist operatives', the disheartening news was that there was only Bobby's Pub across town that was currently doing food. My companions had been banging on about wanting sausages all day and I really wish I hadn't taken my hosting duties so far as to ask. Nervously I said, "Do they serve sausages?" The look of total confusion on their twitching faces was enough to tell me I should've gone with my gut and not asked at all. We would have found out soon enough. Why did I have to ask? "................. Sausages?" came the reply. "Wurst..? Never mind." I said hurriedly and off we scooted. Past the vast ballroom rammed full of 70's style beige chesterfield sofas and armchairs, past the empty bar, precisely replicated from the website depiction even down to the position, clothes and expression of the elderly barman, past the antiquated cinema, past the hookers and pimps, and the forlorn and disinterested guests, to the tiny little lift. Checking we still had our wallets and passports, watches and jewellery, we bravely entered, having let two assassins take the first one to arrive.
We disembarked on Level 3 and back into 1923. Leaning against the atrium balcony was one of the soiled mattresses that our driver 'Bogdan' had picked up earlier and was awaiting its new home, patiently although with an obvious sense of abandonment and doom. The chambermaids were a flurry, busily dirtying sheets and smearing tobacco on the bedroom walls ready for the new guests, while handymen loosened taps and lifted carpet. The grottyness was very well organised, you had to give them that. Our room was straight out of 1984 and I mean the book not the year, as the actual decor dated further back than that. Back to a time when pipe smoking was all the rage and surplus battleship grey paint was daubed liberally by hand on to nearly every available surface apart from the walls and ceilings, that is. These areas were saved for two tones of green, better suited to a 19th century hospital corridor than a hotel room. It was now completely obvious to me as to why the Stasi had given up on decorating hotel rooms and had focussed on torture and persecution instead. A wise move indeed, but this open museum to their efforts was quite a sweet, although misguided, consideration to a bygone era. To make matters worse, the view from our window was of the glorious Kempinski Grand Hotel were we should have been staying, only to tease rich people though, to be fair. We settled on cleaning our teeth in the mirky brown tap water dripping from beneath the sink in the old bakelite wardrobe, ordered a gold plated taxi and were off in search of sausages and beer and bars and sausages ... and beer. By the way, if at this point you are saying to yourself, its beautiful, go for a walk. It was approaching dusk, it was drizzling and we were tired and hungry and wanted nothing more than a feed and a few cold ones.
We arrived at Bobby's Bar after another ride through town, and it didn't improve on a second impression, although I had started to spy a couple of venues for our trek back should Bobby's not fit the bill. At first sight, the bar was not very welcoming at all - Why a themed British bar would be decked out in wood-look formica and concrete is a mystery but it turns out that this is a different bar stuck on the front of the other one. Presumably to make entering the real bar more of a pleasurable experience. The actual Bobby's is through a small door in the corner of the ante-bar (anti-bar) and is best gone through believe me, given the choice.
It was indeed British pub looking. Dark, woody, reddy carpety and with ancient veridian Anaglypta wallpaper, and it was completely empty... Mind you, it was only 4pm. There was a dart board, fussball, food menus and beer. This will do. There were also plenty of views out of the window to remind us of just where we were. Don't think ill of us: we had been amongst the snow and cold for quite some time and the conditions had previously been quite exhausting, due in no small part to the effects that global warming is having in these parts. Snowfall, followed by rain, followed by freezing temperatures is making this snow capped paradise quite treacherous for locals and tourists alike. Snow underfoot is being replaced by ice and that is even more difficult to live with. We ordered our beers and some simple burgers, although they're not called that on the menu. There were no sausages as they are apparently as rare as chicken lips around here, but burgers will do. They were fine, ordinary but fine. They would certainly keep us alive until we get back to the hotel and the 'World Hitman of the Year Awards' that were being held there. The beer flowed, the bar began to fill with both folk of a much younger generation and with smoke of a much older one - Unbearably so, regarding the latter. We discussed the Hotel du KGB with an increasingly drunken irreverence that was quite heartwarming and our dorms crappiness provided much good humour, as it should on such occasions. None of that complaining nonsense that dulls the mood and lessens the laughter. We choose ridicule and rudeness over a good whine any day of the week. Anyway, I'm willing to bet that a good whine is something quite familiar to the Le Dustmité Hotel, apart from behind the bar, that is.
Jorge, the youngest of our group, decided to stay and mix with an age group closer to his than to our suite's wallpaper, while we decided to leave in a whirl of drunken excitement, for want of a better word, but leave we did. Immediately after stepping outside and wondering if we could afford a second taxi, the dark night sky was suddenly illuminated with a glorious bang of fireworks emanating from the centre of the lake. We stood, with cricked necks and tongues resting on our bottom lips, agog at both our good fortune and at the display itself, before hailing a passing Highwayman to rob us blind and take us down the hill in his Mercedes Benz to our beds, .... unless they were now propped up against the atrium balustrades, obviously.
We walked through the ancient revolving doors and decided that we should probably have a nightcap, and so, careful not to step on any of the henchmen's toes, we sidled as smoothly as two beer ridden middle aged men could do, over to the mostly empty bar, having lost the ever brave Kati along the way - Who, rather cleverly, had chosen to go to bed instead. At this point I would like to say that we should have gone too, but we didn't. The barman was ...rustic but friendly, and had a tired weather beaten character that I actually prefer to the American mock friendly service so popular in most chain establishments or those that have recently put in the hands of the receiver. I was keen to try some local booze but settled instead for gin. There was a singular gentleman sitting across the bar from us who was clearly killing time by eavesdropping on our autopsycal conversation and started to interact accordingly.
My drinking partner soon decided it was best for him to also call it quits at this juncture. It had after all, been a pretty big day again, with early starts, long journeys, miles covered and beers drank. At this point I would like to say that I should have gone too, but I didn't. Chatty guy came over to join me and we started talking about life in general and Switzerland in particular. I was now drinking an artichoke schnapps that was truly awful but it was local and so fitted my usual remit. No doubt it would grow on me.... It didn't. After an hour or so, Jorge flung himself into the hotel via the revolving doors, and I must say, seeing someone come in who wasn't either the daughter of a 'would be' oligarch or one of his 'Oddjobs' was a very pleasant change indeed. He arrived just as my new 'friend', who, in a previous life had been a resident of St.Moritz, was giving me a guided tour of the hotel, from its murals, La Scala cinema and staircases, to its ballroom, lobby and cellars. Jorge put up a little fight with some feigned interest but soon, well, just ran away actually. At this point I would like to say that I should have too but I didn't.
I retook my seat at the bar where the barman had been released from his customer care shackles as we were now the only ones still drinking. He obviously knew my new mate of old, and the night became one that was all too familiar to an old hotelier like myself. Everything was closed up or down and we were left to drink quietly into the early hours of the morning, often 'self medicating'. As the lights dimmed, so did the mood. My friend's choice of topics were becoming much darker, and instead of mourning the loss of the old St.Moritz that he knew, it became increasingly apparent that he had plenty of scapegoats. Now, I know that I am treading a thin line here with my gentle mocking of the particular type of hotel guest staying here, and their affect on the mood and atmosphere within, but it is quite another thing when obvious racist lines are crossed. Sometimes we find ourselves nodding when a local discusses what's gone, but there does reach a point, on occasion, when the nodding stops and either arguments ensue or subjects are quickly changed and goodbyes hastily wished. For me, a story teller and a drunk one at that, I was actually more intrigued as to how far he would go, and he was about to show me. The Hotel de Flea's bar finally closed and I was offered the chance to check out some of the town's lesser known bars . I was assured that they were just across the road, that I would find them interesting and that it would be just for a night-cap anyway. The barman had gone to bed but at this point I would like to say that I should have too, but I didn't.
We went out into the mild night air, snowy underfoot and starlit over head, crossed the road and were almost immediately at the door to a cellar bar. I was told that it was associated with the hotel we were slumming at but would definitely be open. Down we went and it was unfortunately open as promised. Quite dark, quite long and thin, we took two stools to the left of the bar and ordered. I went back to gin as there are only so many artichoke's one can drink. There was a stocky henchman to my left and in very close proximity to myself and a young woman next to him. They both studied me intensely as if measuring up my skin for a new coat. She looked like she didn't want to be there, she also looked like she had a job to do but wasn't doing anything particular apart from helping her boyfriend make me uneasy. Her possible 'position' and roll began to play on my mind somewhat. It was all very odd. She wasn't so much as someone drinking in a bar but of someone just doing as they were told and pretending to drink in a bar.
My drinking partner was now speaking a lot of German to the barmaid, who's eyes kept flitting back and forth between us both and again, I was becoming slightly unnerved as they were obviously talking about me. We had a bar tab so there was no need for cash to be exchanged but exchanged it was. Surreptitiously, out of the back of his and across and under the bar. She nodded and left, only to return with a packet of unmarked thin, cigarettes, which, yet again, I found odd as there were cigarettes clearly on sale behind the bar to suit most tastes. There was a sprinkling of other couples in the bar, besides skinhead and co to my left, but there wasn't much talking going on between any of them. It was a room full of people who had only ever been swiped left, and they all seemed much more interested in us anyway. Having just been bought another gin, my alarm bells rang even more loudly when the conversation returned to 'them and us'. When I say conversation, it was more like the reading of a Fascist manifesto. A racist monologue that had no opportunity for polite nods from me but one that everyone else in the bar was keen to listen to. I was offered a cigarette at this point, which I took, mainly due to the fact that as an ex and successful ex smoker at that, I can afford myself the hideous luxury every once in a while especially when under duress and moments of unexpected unnerviness. At this point I would like to say that I shouldn't have, but I did. Enough time and conversation had passed for me to lose all my suspicion in the mysterious packet of under the counter fags being offered, but as my outrage and confusion built, I took the opportunity to indulge, if only by way of a parting gesture. I had had enough of this crap. It's easy to say that I should've skedaddled sooner but alcohol, the possibility of a good story, and little bit of polite self-preservation had kicked in and I had picked up on the need to not offend anyone in there very early on indeed.
Since entering, the atmosphere seemed fake, staged and one akin to mischief and crime rather than drunken revelry and good humour - It was very sinister indeed. The henchman disappeared without letting anyone know he was going and his docile partner didn't seem at all perturbed by this. Where had he gone? Was I becoming paranoid? The answer was no, as my 'friend' raised his glass for a toast - "Heil Hitler!" he said, seriously. Even after the right wing tirade that had been building, I was till shocked by these words and the seriousness with which they were uttered. My shock was nothing however, to that which I felt as I witnessed the whole bar toast the same. "Heil Hitler" came the response. The cigarette kicked in with the usual hit for either a non-smoker or ex smoker drunkenly making sure that they still don't like it, but then it got much worse. It wasn't just heady, it was practically incapacitating. Coming at the moment it did was even more unfortunate for me. The henchman's partner had now encroached into my space and the whole room became very small indeed. With his toast, my drinking companion had unleashed what was no longer an opportunity to live life, but possibly to lose one. My head was spinning out of control, my body was losing function apart from the trembling and I was sweating profusely. I felt that if I didn't leave now, I might not leave at all. I can explain the paranoia, even without the feeling that I'd been drugged. It was real and I was beginning to paint a picture of just how some people in this world go missing while on holiday. Where was the henchman? Why was his silent partner still here and monitoring my every move? What was in that packet of cigarettes? Who the hell says "Heil Hitler" and who the hell not only doesn't object to the toast but responds to it in kind?Who was this Nazi madman? Who were these people? Where was I? Had I even bought a drink, there was no bill? Why was I getting the full treatment? If I got up from my seat, would my legs work? and .... had I finished my gin? These were all new experiences for me.
I suddenly jump from my chair and say very quickly that I have to leave and I do. I am closely followed up the stairs by the henchman's girlfriend - Nobody else. I am checking the doorways and the shadows but why is she with me? Through all of my mess, she asks where I'm staying and I lie, exaggeratedly pointing in the opposite direction to where I'll be heading. Bursting through the door at the top of the steps, the cool air starts to clear my head a little and I become a bit more confident and mentally coherent - Just being out of the bar helped a great deal. I was still scanning for the henchman. Looking for an onrushing mass or flitting shadow as we crossed the road from beneath the snow covered trees... As my confidence grew, I started to ask some questions. Was she okay? What was she doing here? Was she here by choice? Why was she leaving on her own and with me? She didn't want to answer any of my questions, and I made the decision that it was time to break completely. As she turned her head to cross the road, I slipped away, over the iced pavements and the thankfully short distance to the safety of my Hotel.
Kati greeted me at the hotel room door and wasn't angry, just exited by my animated state and the story I had to tell. I showered and we slept for the not many hours remaining only to awake still quite drunk. I keenly told the story over breakfast, quite loudly and with a thick head. As our fellow guests gathered, there were no sights for sore eyes. Every woman seemed disfigured by botox, lips distended with collagen, faces lifted by helicopter and invisible bulldog clips. Some looked like they had been wrapped in sellotape and some with bandages.... Gold lamé and terry towelling casual wear abound. The men, all surly, prison tattooed, with close cropped hair, body warmers, tracksuit bottoms and training shoes menacingly went about sniffing the grapefruit juice with suspicion with shoulders hunched and holsters unclipped. All looked like they were here for a 'hit' and not in an Elton John kind of way either. The rooms must be chock-a-block with semi automatic weapons, fake ID's and night scopes. Nobody here was a skier. Nobody here looked like they were even on holiday. It was like the complaints department at a plastic surgery or a human trafficking convention. There wasn't a chance that these faces matched their passports. We scoffed our terrible breakfast, packed our bags and got the hell out of Dodge, quickly and never to return. Due in no small part to the fact that I had apparently said all of this out loud from behind the safety of my drunken stupor and death mask. Easily in earshot of one and all, or headshot in this company.
We caught the Bernina Express to Milan that day. From the viewing carriages towards the rear, St.Moritz gleamed in the low morning sun. Locals zipped about along the frozen lake, alpine skiers everyone. Gleaming snow covered trees framed these scenes perfectly and the blue sky and scudding clouds provided a dramatic contrast to the white blanket below. By the way, when taking scenic railways such as the Bernina, I heartily recommend the rear carriage as you have the added benefit of being able to view and take photographs through the rear door window. It adds a little extra dimension if you're that way inclined.
Much like the previous day, the area around St.Moritz was truly beautiful. High up in the mountains the skiers would be having the times of their life, and the town itself has many wonders, but it is in peril. If it becomes a place to tick off, a place to just visit, one that doesn't revolve around the locals or the winter sports community, it will soon go the way of Santorini, Sorrento or Florence. St.Moritz isn't for me however and I probably won't be going back.... unless I'm invited and it's free.
Footnote: Some friends of ours visited only days after we left and had a ball, loved the place and sang its praises from the rooftops. Just goes to show, you never know.
Thanks for reading.