Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2018/1 posted by hidden europe on

We had assumed that the practice of diligently recording and publishing the name of visitors had long since died out until last summer we visited Samnaun. This really is one of Europe's most oddball communities. It is tucked away in the hills on the north side of the Inn Valley in Switzerland's Lower Engadine region.

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Dear fellow travellers

When the French journalist and playwright Eugène Guinot stayed at Baden-Baden in the mid-19th century, one aspect of daily spa life upon which he commented was the publication at five each afternoon of the Badeblatt. In Guinot's own words (from his 1853 book A Summer at Baden-Baden):

“Let not the name alarm you […] The Badeblatt makes no pretension to profundity [...] It presents every day on its octavo pages a useful collection of advertisements and notices [...] and a full account of all the fashionable novelties which have just arrived from Paris. But the principal merit [of the Badeblatt], and what contributes most to its popularity is the insertion of a daily list of all the strangers that arrive in Baden [...] The first pages contain the names of the new arrivals of that morning and the previous night.”

We can imagine spending many a happy evening, exhausted by the rigours of spa routine, just combing through the pages of the Badeblatt, analysing whether this or that hotel had secured new royal patronage. The Badeblatt included titles of course. Twice each week the diligent editors at the Badeblatt collated the daily list into a single compilation and this expanded during the year to become an annual roll-call of visitors to Baden-Baden.

Resorts, spas and shipping lines have traditionally maintained a list of all their guests and in the 19th century it was perfectly normal for such lists to be published on a regular basis.

We had assumed that the practice of so diligently recording and publishing the name of visitors had long since died out until last summer we visited the Swiss town of Samnaun. This really is one of Europe's most oddball communities. It is tucked away in the hills on the north side of the Inn Valley in Switzerland's Lower Engadine region. Historically, this little corner of Switzerland was not easily reached other than by traversing Austrian territory. So the canny traders in Samnaun managed in the 19th century to secure exemptions from the usual Swiss taxes and these privileges have remained. For today's visitors that means cheap ciggies, bargain perfume prices and fuel for under one euro a litre.

Arriving in Samnaun on a bright summer day, we had a sense of time travel. The hotels have names which sound like Soviet-era guest houses in the Crimea. We wandered past the Nova and the Soliva, the Primavera and the Felaria. Then we picked up a copy of the Samnaun Journal which attests to the diligence of Samnaun record keeping over decades.

We learned that we had just missed Günther and Barbara Sommerfeldt who are clearly Samnaun stalwarts. Last year, when they stayed at the Hotel Bellevue, they notched up 50 years of holidays in Samnaun. Every Thursday throughout the year, those who have shown exceptional loyalty to this remote mountain community are honoured in a reception, and their names are published, usually with photographs, in the Samnaun Journal.

The anonymous editors of this illustrious journal clearly have an egalitarian streak as it's unusual in the German-speaking world (and Samnaun is mainly German speaking) not to have great titular bouquets. Okay, there may not be many counts and princesses in the Swiss hills these days, but presumably there must be a few Herr Professors travelling to Samnaun with their wives and multiple doctorates. Would that the Samnaun Journal could record these details.

What's extraordinary, though, is the sheer number of individuals, couples and families who routinely holiday in Samnaun for decade after decade. We can indeed see the resort's appeal for skiers and mountain walkers, but surely those of more senior years find very little to do in Samnaun. There must be a limit to the number of times you can eat fondue at the Restaurant Pöstli, have coffee and cake at the Edi or buy a new watch at one of the many duty-free shops.

But it's a tribute to human affection for place that people do indeed return year after year to Samnaun. We wonder if the very fact that such loyalty is publicly recognised fuels the trend – in much the same way as in the 19th century a certain kind of traveller would travel from spa to spa collecting the published lists which recorded their arrival at each successive resort. Those who had the good luck (or foresight) to have arranged accommodation at the same hotel as a visiting dignitary could savour the moment. “When I was in Karlsbad with Metternich,” is always a sound opening gambit.

This summer, Samnaun is organising a special weekend in July for Stammgäste – ie. those who have shown extraordinary loyalty to Samnaun. One wonders whether, back in the 19th-century heyday of the guest list, Baden-Baden ever did the same.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.