“Apart from accidental interruptions, caused by the presence of manufactories or similar sources of atmospheric impurity, the number of bacteria steadily diminishes as we ascend, until at about 5,900 feet above the sea-level they entirely disappear. Thus the mountain air, free from substances producing fermentation or putrefaction is beyond doubt antiseptic in its effects.” Even the most famous spa guest in literary history – Hans Castorp from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – dozed his way to recovery in a Davos sanatorium.
From the mid-19th century, another type of early Alpine tourist was the “sportsman”. Most were from Great Britain, and, thanks to a bet by four Englishmen with the resourceful St Moritz hotelier Johannes Badrutt, some began to spend winter in the Alps. At first, wealthy guests travelled by train and horse-drawn sleigh to Engadine, but towards the end of the 19th century the first automobiles also began to appear on the Julier, Albula and Flüela Passes. The local folk were often less than amused at the leisure and sports visitors in their noisy, smoky and dangerous machines. “Since the times when the battues of men recklessly stormed through the farmers’ fields and trampled the fruits of their farm work, never has the rural population had to watch such imperious entertainment as automotive sport with the same fury,” stated a Swiss farmers’ newspaper. Hence, in the summer of 1900, the Grisons authorities imposed a ban on automobiles that would remain in place for 25 years.
These days, “gentlemen drivers” no longer have to fear the throwing of stones or insults on the way to St Moritz or Sils Maria. From Chur, the shortest way to Lower Engadine is first to Davos and from there in long sweeping curves along the valley floor, before climbing through dense pine forests. Further up, sweeping in large curving bends, you get the first glimpses of the Weißhorn and Schwarzhorn, before reaching the Flüela Pass at 2,386 metres. Built in 1867, the road was initially used by stage coaches. Since the opening of the Vereina tunnel on the Rhaetian Railway in 1999, however, the Pass has lost some of its appeal with tourists. Moreover, in springtime, the avalanche risk is high and parts of the road are closed.
Behind the barren high plateau of the Pass summit comes the first majestic vista to the mountains of Lower Engadine. Leaving the valley behind, we glimpse the bluish-green glacier waters of the Susasca flashing between the towering pines, larches and firs. Equally stunning is the view deep into the unspoiled primeval Piz Grialetsch, shortly before the road disappears under several short galleries until finally reaching the little village of Susch in Lower Engadine.
With more time, we would have spent a day or two in the nearby village of Lavin. We would have rented a room in the charming historic Piz Linard Hotel, enjoyed the local cuisine and browsed through the well-stocked library. Alas, our mission is to chew up kilometres. And so our route takes us from Susch to the south, and on to the vast valleys and noble resorts of the Upper Engadine. Shortly before reaching Saint Moritz, the road branches off to the east – towards Pontresina and the millennia-old Bernina Pass, which runs alongside the world-famous Bernina train to the southern valley of the Val Poschiavo and further into the Italian Valtellina.