There’s a moment on the Glacier Express railway line, which runs from Chur, south of Zurich, through the Albula Alps, where the track winds away from the side of a mountain. Carried across the void by the high narrow arches of a stone viaduct, it then enters directly into a tunnel opening which is cut directly into the cliff face.
It’s an extraordinary feat of engineering that feels like the portal to another world. And in a way it is. You emerge from this tunnel into an almost magical realm of towering peaks and wooded valleys, silenced by vast drifts of snow. The train moves slowly to the steady, relentless pace of Swiss railways, winding its way between tiny stations and scattered chalets, half-submerged in a sea of white.
Stranger still, after this enchanted kingdom of snow, the end of the line is not a fairy-tale castle in the middle of nowhere, but St Moritz, the peerless party town of the skiing world and winter retreat from the financial elite. It’s like waking up from an evening reverie.
On this trip, however, I took a diversion. A few kilometers before St Moritz, I changed trains for another station in the Engadine valley – Pontresina. Today it stands, at least by reputation among skiers, firmly in the shadow of its larger and much more famous neighbour. But it’s a much prettier place. While St. Moritz has transformed with sleek contemporary architecture, the narrow streets of Pontresina are still lined with 19th-century villas and pitched-roof chalets, the walls decorated with picturesque sgraffito.
That’s not to say Pontresina lacks credibility as a contemporary resort town. You can still reach the same ski areas as St Moritz – just rely on the hotel minibus. And, at the time, from the 1860s until after World War II, it was just as fashionable – sharing the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics with St Moritz.
It is this history that fascinates me and it comes to life in a particularly evident way at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof – which remains Pontresina’s premier address. The equivalent of the Kulm Hotel or Badrutt’s Palace in St Moritz, it was established in 1848 by the Gredig family as a guesthouse and wine warehouse. The demand for winter sports has increased. It is now a Belle Epoque beauty on the outskirts of town. Three wings surround a courtyard and the best of the 350 rooms overlooks the valley below.
A tour of the building, however, reveals how it has adapted over the years. We pass from the reception rooms with coffers and colonnades, from the wood-panelled cocktail bar and the chandeliers of the large dining room to a contemporary spa. From an original 19th century bowling alley, to a vaulted stübli and the original family room with its old ceramic stove, which served as the owners’ accommodation 170 years ago.
But for me, the most powerful and poignant part of the visit was the cellar bar, which was also part of the original guesthouse and is still used as a party space. This is where the wine was stored in huge wooden vats, some of which are still in place. More intriguingly, stacked haphazardly around the walls are dozens of old wooden skis and poles with large circular stops. On most, the varnish is cracking, the leather straps and the metal binding springs are stiff with age. But still attached to some of them, with pretty bows, are their original paper tags.
They’re faded by time, some torn, some unreadable, but where the ink is still light, flourishes of handwriting record the owners’ names. “Mr. Allen, I have a pair of skis, 2 poles”. “Ralph WALTER, 16 Thorney Court, Palace Gate, London. Keep for future use. Perhaps most poignantly – it turned out – there was a printed label that read: “R Blacker Douglass [correct]Irish guards.
I googled the name when I got back to my room. Lieut. Robert St J. Blacker-Douglass MC, of the Irish Guards, was killed in action at Cuinchy in the Pas de Calais on February 1, 1915, at the age of 22. As he and his men rush at a German barricade, he is wounded by a grenade. Despite his injuries, Blacker-Douglass continued to advance but was cut down by the enemy moments later.
He received his MC posthumously. I found a photo of him on the Imperial War Museum website: handsome, impeccably dressed in a starched collar, with a pencil-thin mustache and a glint in his eye. Undeniably an energetic and determined man, he must have stayed at the Kronenhof in 1912 or 13. He left his skis in storage at the end of the season and he would never return.
But perhaps the spirit of Blacker Douglass and that first generation of winter sports enthusiasts lives on. Not so much in Pontresina, but down the valley in St Moritz. The proof is in the much more recent photographs of raucous revelry pasted all over the walls of the famous Sunny Bar at the Kulm Hotel. This is where the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club gathers to celebrate, sympathize and recover from their exploits on the Cresta Run, which was founded some 30 years before World War I.
And scanning the photos, I have to admit, I thought they looked like a bunch of cheers; rich toffs looking for a shot of adrenaline. But then I thought of Blacker-Douglass and the bravery of youth. It takes a lot of courage to take on the Cresta Run. Blacker-Douglass may have been a hooray too, only he died a hero.
From Zurich airport (I traveled with Swiss.com), take the train to Chur and change to the Glacier Express (sbb.ch). The journey from Zurich takes about four hours in total. Try to travel in daylight for the best views.
At the Grand Hotel Kronenhof (kronenhof.com) in Pontresina, doubles cost from £535, Kulm Hotel (kulm.com) in St Moritz opens December 2, doubles from £1,080 half-board for two .
myswitzerland.com and stmortiz.com