hidden europe 13

Switzerland: the Bernina connection

by Nicky Gardner


The small Swiss town of Pontresina once attracted many of Europe's literati. Today, the poets and philosophers have gone, yet Pontresina and the surrounding mountains are as exquisite as ever. The town's railway station is the jumping off point for the Bernina pass route to Tirano - arguably the finest train route from Switzerland to Italy.full article available online

Pontresina is the sort of spot one might easily pass by without remark. But it was not always so. The place that nowadays is often taken to be no more than a railway junction just over the hill from glitzy St Moritz has an illustrious history. Few Swiss resorts have commanded such affection among Europe's literati as Pontresina.

Hans-Christian Andersen stayed in Pontresina. Richard Wagner, it is said, was seduced by the chasms, cliffs and glaciers that lie just south of the village. Elizabeth Gaskell penned Wives and Daughters, her gossipy tale of scandal and intrigue in an English country town, while having a holiday - with all her daughters - in Pontresina in 1864. A few years later, Matthew Arnold made an autumn holiday in the Swiss resort, where he tried to get to grips with Robert Burns' poetry. "A beast with splendid gleams" he wrote of Burns in a letter to his wife back in England. That same Pontresina season, Arthur Sullivan, the composer who worked with librettist WS Gilbert on more than a dozen comic operas, was in town — and he kindly organised a charity concert to raise funds for Pontresina's small Anglican church.

The Bernina Pass, the only route over the Bernina chain, is the principal means of communication between the Engadine and the Valtellina, and in good wine years much frequented.

Karl Baedeker (1878)

The twentieth century brought many august visitors to Pontresina. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was a regular visitor, discovering there what he claimed to be the best petits fours in the world. The small resort is nicely depicted in Zweig's posthumous novel Rausch der Verwandlung. A little later Bavarian composer Richard Strauss spent an entire winter in snowy Pontresina. And Herbert Marcuse, the great philosopher, was such a fan of Pontresina that when the issue arose as to where his ashes might eventually be scattered (after they had lingered for over twenty years in an urn with an undertaker in Connecticut), the Swiss resort was a strong candidate - although the claims of Pontresina to the philosopher's mortal remains eventually were eclipsed by Berlin, where Marcuse's ashes were interred in 2003.

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