Silence and tranquillity are not words that often spring to mind in relation to a ski resort, especially one of the best-known on the planet.
Yet only minutes away from the always-busy conference mecca of Davos and its normal, workaday bustle is a ‘slow and easy’ haven of calm. But how come?
It’s worth remembering that an area that now attracts the super-fit who want to fling themselves down mountains on skis and snowboards first appealed to people trying to get themselves fit in the first place, with well-heeled Brits joining the great and good from across Europe in seeking the ‘cure’ from rampant TB.
Health clinics and sanatoriums – many now converted into top-notch hotels – were established on the slopes in the 1800s, taking advantage of the crystal-clear Alpine air and spring water and the glorious, uplifting views.
And thankfully, more than a whiff of that relaxing, healing heritage remains, most tangibly at sun-drenched Schatzalp, which got its own funicular railway from Davos Platz in 1899 – decades before the Parsenn Mountain Railway or the pioneer T-bars for skiers across the valley at Jakobshorn.
This is seen as The Magic Mountain in author Thomas Mann’s global best-selling novel of the same name, inspired by visits to his wife there in 1912, with the ambience celebrated in the unchanged Belle Epoque timber grandeur of Hotel Schatzalp and its south-facing terraces.
These balconies and decking walks, where sanatorium patients once recuperated from the dreaded ‘consumption’, now serve as sun traps for tourists, who can also enjoy a bracing walk on the Thomas-Mann-Way.
The determined walker with great lungs can start 1,620 metres above sea level at the Waldhotel Davos, once the woodland sanatorium where Mann’s wife Katia was being treated, and trek 2.6 km up through the trees to Schatzalp at a heady 1,880 metres.
The less-determined – like me – can take the restored funicular up the mountain and then meander down through the forest, taking in the ten information spots explaining links with Mann and sharing in the sheer magic of an almost eerie silence amid the snow-laden trees, while keeping an eye open for chamois and squirrels.
For a quicker way down and not such profound silence, there is the legendary 3 km sledge run – an on a classic Davos sledge, of course – from Schatzalp to Davos Platz, built in 1900 and still better than senna pods if you need that sort of thing, with 18 corners and floodlights if you also fancy a night-time run to earn a schnapps or two. The nightcap need is amply caterd for only yards away from the sledge dropping-off point at (just fancy that!) the Ex Bar on the Promenade, smack on a free ski-bus stop and not far from our base at the excellent Kongress Hotel. Skiing needn’t be neglected on the Schatzalp, either, for here you are still helped on the draglift to the sound of traditional folk music, with the uphill ride easy and the slopes nice and gentle. A modern chairlift leads on to the Strela, but the skiing remains as it was in the early days, relaxed and with an appreciation of the glories of nature around you, with even more to savour if you take in the cross-country tracks.
This self-styled Slow Mountain is a great counterpoint to no less than five other ski mountains accessible from Davos-Klosters, hitting its market by consciously appealing to a more leisurely and environmentally-aware public.
Once down in the town, the architecture in Davos Platz and Davos Dorf is recognised as love at second glance, because it certainly doesn’t have the instant Heidi-appeal of a Ricola sweets advert or its rather glam neighbour, Klosters. Rather, it’s seen as being a pioneer of the Alpine flat roof (to avoid urban avalanches!), with sanatorium architecture transformed by light-flooded rooms and wind-sheltered balconies; and minimalist styling adding up to being a forerunner of Bauhaus.
So it’s not pretty-pretty, but it is vibrant, and here on the level are more reminders of the sporty Brits who virtually founded snow and ice sports and pushed for the building of a huge natural ice rink, with the International Ice Skating Club Davos being set up in 1894.
The grandfather of a chum of mine, a certain Charles Edgington, resplendent in white knitted jersey, deerstalker hat and plus-fours, won a gold medal by setting the world one-hour speed skating record there in 1896, as well as meeting his (English) wife.
It appears he fell and dislocated a shoulder with a few minutes to go, but with true English pluck, he got up – of course – and cradled his arm to finish the race, and as an international skater of some renown, he returned to break the record again in 1898.
The Swiss championships are still held there, along with a strong focus on curling and ice hockey these days, with not a deerstalker in sight – but I still raised a glass to Charles!
Getting there isn’t quite the trial it was in Charles’s day, with SWISS offering up to 19 daily flights between the UK and Zurich from Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester (from £125 return); and up to an astonishing 31 daily flights if you throw in Geneva and Basel. From Zurich, we went by super-efficient train (from the airport) with a picturesque and almost seamless trip to Davos via Landquart thanks to the Swiss Travel System with a Swiss Transfer Ticket covering a round trip from £96 second class, £153 first.
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