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Enchanted by the view

Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

This season, try and be where all the world's winter sporting action is to be.

HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER

St Moritz in the evening ... its spa noosed with light.

SNOW lies like fleecy, rugs in the high Alpine slopes. The lake is a sheet of hammered steel. And between the mountains and the lake, the resort town of St. Moritz spreads gently between trees and manicured green fields. But when summer gives way to autumn, and autumn to winter, the snow will creep down from the Swiss Alps and settle softly over the whole town. The lake will then freeze into a sheet of tough glass and sports enthusiasts from all over the world will flock in.

Today, however, as we stand in the bay window of our hotel, St. Moritz is touched by a long, slow, summery, dusk. Across the lake, light nooses the white towers of its spa where hot water bubbles out of the earth as it's been doing for more than 3,000 years. There's a great deal of history wrapped around this town, as we learnt when we did our homework this morning, racing in on the immaculate Glacier Express train. St. Moritz was named after a Roman Christian soldier who was martyred here when he refused to reconvert to the religion of the Ceasars. Which brought us to an interesting fact: St. Moritz is in the Romansch area where the fourth National Language of Switzerland is spoken. We were delighted, therefore, then we were received by Claudio Duschletta. He is a member of this unique minority group and is very proud of his Roman ancestors who settled here and married local women.

The Romansch influence, could account for the superb salad and pasta dinner we've just had. The sun's in a very hard working mode. There's still light in the sky at nine at night, and it'll brighten the valley by five tomorrow morning. Tomorrow promises to be a long and interesting day.

It was. We're back, laden with exposed film, notes and bright memories. Australian John Webster, ski instructor turned summer tourist guide, came for us in a van which he called "the bus". St. Moritz, like all the other Swiss towns we've visited, has a squeaky-clean, determinedly orderly, air about it. Flowers blossomed in their beds, the buildings looked freshly scrubbed, and public transport ran with split-second precision. We refused to be tempted by the international designer labels in the shops though, even for non-shoppers like us, Versace, Armani, Vuitton, Hermes, Bally and Cartier do have a certain magnetic tug! We did, however, linger in front of old mansions decorated with the ginger-bread-like sgraffiti designs. "Graffiti" means "scratchings" in Latin. Sgraffiti designs are made by painting an undercoat of plaster, covered by an overcoat of another colour. When the second coat is still wet, designs are scratched into it. Sgraffiti, we were told, is typical of the Romansch area.

But, before we head into the old Romansch villages, we visited the cobbled town square with a statue of St. Moritz, and strolled to Chesa Veglia, the leaning tower of a small church built to commemorate the sacrifice of that Roman solider. At its base is a metal figure of a tobogganer in honour of the great Cresta Run Race. And thereby hangs an interesting tale told by John.

Back in the 1800's it was fashionable for those inveterate travellers, the British, to do the Grand Tour of Europe, "taking the waters" in the famed spas. No one, however, travelled in winter. Then, in 1856, local hotelier Johannes Badruth got an idea and he made an irresistible offer to four rich Englishmen. He would pay for their travel from England to St. Moritz and back, and host them in his hotel, the Engadiner Kuln, for as long as they wanted to stay, just to convince them that St. Moritz in winter was even better than in summer. And so they came in Christmas, muffled up in furs and with mountains of luggage, and were pleasantly surprised.

Swiss mountain resorts are built in valleys, unlike ours which spread over the tops of hills. The delighted Brits found themselves in a vale flooded with sunshine, sparkling with snow, and as welcoming as a Christmas card. They stayed on till Easter and winter sports was born. In 1884, the single-man toboggan race, the Cresta Run, was launched. This was followed by the two-to-four team bobsled run and horseracing on the frozen lake including the unique ski kjoring, where a rider-less horse pulls a skier. This winter season, St. Moritz's sports will range all the way from the Cresta Run starting on December 22 through a ski jumping competition on December 26 and the World Alpine Ski championships from February 1 to 16, 2003, to the Engadine Cross-country Ski Marathon on March 9, 2003. We were tempted to return to our warm old hotel, the elegant Albana, for the winter sports, but we had second thoughts. As residents of the Himalayas, we're not terribly enchanted by snow!

So we drove through the valley, past two of the main island-dotted lakes, bristly with conifers, and waited to shoot a red mountain train against the 3,905 m high Piz Palo peak. The Monteratsch Glacier spread down from it like a silky, white, bridal veil. Then we drove into the greatly revered old Romansch village of Zuoz, and stepped back a serene 500 years. Cobbled streets wound past houses lovingly preserved, their history carefully crafted on their facades in sgraffiti. A shaggy dog bathed in the trough of the public fountain and, when it had finished, another dog got in. Even the dogs of civilised Zuoz stand patiently in queues! Children played an enthusiastic, but disciplined, ball game in the town square, and all the signs were in Romansch which resembles Italian but is closer to ancient Latin. The Romansch people even have their own festivals on March 1, and July 24. The first is on the New Year's Day of the old Roman Calendar; the second is a fertility festival when boys and girls drench each other with water. Clearly, such ancient festivals have much in common with other seasonal celebrations all over the world.

Zuoz was the spiritual and cultural centre of the area till the 19th Century and the events of the past are still fresh in people's minds, renewed by repeated re-telling. Once upon a time, they say, when the village was about to be invaded by a frustrated Emperor Maximilian, the inhabitants hid their possessions in their cellars, set fire to their houses, and took to the woods. When the Emperor's army arrived, they found the ashes of the villages and they not only had nothing to plunder, but they also had no food or shelter. They retreated from the village and left it to resume its unitedly independent and placid life.

We would have lingered in Zuoz, basking in its deep sense of peace and contentment, but we had begun to feel hungry and we had been told about a particularly delectable confection, a speciality of St. Moritz.

And so, now, we're sitting in our bay-window, enjoying the rich walnut cake called Egadiner Nusstorte, while dusk gives way to a light-twinkling night in the town that created the chill and zestful delights of winter sports.

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