Information on apartment rentals for a week-long stay in an authentic Swiss mountain village. Also, hotels and restaurants for a weekend excursion.
By Bob Bestor
A few years ago, the city of St. Moritz in the Swiss canton of Graubünden copyrighted its name. So, if you are thinking about opening a restaurant and calling it the St. Moritz, don't. You might get sued.
In terms of name-recognition, St. Moritz is to Graubünden as Michael Jordan is to the NBA. The town's fame, however, may have taken some of the spotlight from some of its lesser-known but more charming neighbors. Pontresina, for example.
In the improbable event that Mr. Jordan had a relatively unpublicized teammate who was just as good a player as he was, and an all-round better fellow to boot, that person would be to the NBA what Pontresina is to Graubünden: an unknown superstar.
While nearby San Moritz, with its postwar architecture, traffic and commercialism, has been somewhat spoiled by success, this lovely little town at the head of the Bernina valley retains its character as an authentic Swiss mountain village.
And, there is the matter of cost. St. Moritz has a Gemütlichkeit Hotel Rate Index of $127 (average lowest priced single room rate among leading three-star hotels) while Pontresina's GHRI is $100.
The village lies on a hillside, with most of its hotels, shops and restaurants gathered along one, long, sloping street. Buildings are typical of the Upper Engadine, with thick walls, arched entrances and small, deep-set windows. Many are decorated with the unique plaster designs known as sgraffito.
It is a setting that offers a good view across the Ova da Bernina, the river which runs through the floor of the valley below, to the Bernina peaks.
In summer, when the weather is especially pleasant, with low humidity and cool nights, Pontresina is a town of walkers, hikers and climbers. In the late afternoons they flow like rivers out of the mountains to fill up every sidewalk table on the main street.
A good spot to watch these comings and goings is from a table in front of the Hotel Schweizer Hof where one of our favorite beers, Pilsner Urquell, is served on draft. It's a great place for an alfresco lunch or a late afternoon refresher.
One of the most popular walks is a nearly level route between Muottas Muragl and Alp Languard, a distance of some four miles. Take the chairlift from the village to Alp Languard, at an elevation of a little over 8,000 feet, and walk eastward around the mountain to Muottas Muragl where there is a restaurant. You can descend on foot in about an hour and a half, or faster via the Muottas Murgl funicular.
Though most visitors come for the outdoor activities, there are one or two cultural attractions.
The small Santa Maria Church, located at the highest point in the village, attracts visitors to its murals which date from the 15th century and cover virtually every inch of every interior wall.
A daily summer diversion is the orchestral concert from 11 a.m. to noon in the Tais forest.
In St. Moritz, the Engadine Museum is of interest.
Where does Pontresina fit in to a European vacation? Here are two possibilities: as a weekend excursion from Zürich or Geneva (or even Innsbruck or Munich); or, by renting one of the town's many Ferienwohnungen (holiday apartments), for a longer stay of a week or more.
Here are our recommendations:
Several years ago (September, 1993) in an issue that featured Pontresina, we reported on a friendly but somewhat worn out hotel that catered to young families. Though still counting many families among its clientèle, the former Hotel Atlas has been refurbished, recast from dowdy to hip, and renamed.
It is now the Saratz and a modern new wing has been added. The two completely different buildings are separated by the hotel's new focal point; a glistening, Art Nouveau-style common area. This open, high-ceilinged space with recessed halogen lights, floor to ceiling windows and a floor surface that is half dark green slate and half unfinished hardwood, is where the formalities of check-in are done seated at a large wooden desk while quaffing a welcoming glass of champagne or juice. The room's backdrop is a high wall of rough beige stone broken only by an open fireplace, hooded by the same stone. Placed discreetly to one side is a small, round wooden bar.
In the old wing, the good parts of the great old Victorian building were, of course, kept intact: the squeaky wood floors, the wide corridors, the high windows and ceilings.
The breakfast/dining room probably once a grand ballroom has 20-foot ceilings and massive windows that rise to at least 15 feet. In the center of all hangs a monstrosity of a chandelier with 15 etched glass globes. It is perfect. There are tall, gilded mirrors and a stuffed eagle keeps its eye on things from a high perch on the far wall. At the other end, a small orchestra balcony overlooks the floor.
We stayed in the new wing. The most attractive element of our double room, Number 164, was the four-panel, nine-foot high French door/window unit that offered a sweeping unobstructed view across the Ova da Bernina to the peaks beyond. Fixtures and furnishing were all in character: clean, simple and modern. Bed linens and mattresses were top quality and there were tiny furrows in the tightly woven carpet. The well-lit bathroom had a heated, rough slate floor, separate tub and tiled shower.
The room's two wicker chairs were firm and comfortable but not for curling up with a novel on a snowy afternoon.
Inexplicably no toiletries are provided, not even hand soap.
Breakfasts from a well-stocked buffet in the huge former ballroom are a delight.
The Saratz offers two choices for dining; the very informal Pitschna Scena and the more traditional Restaurant Saratz.
The somewhat funky Pitschna Scena gave every sign early on of being a disaster until the food arrived.
We were shown to a rather odd side room which in summer is the entrance to a terrace. Sitting on slatted patio chairs, we shared a single clip board menu with three 60ish Spaniards who were seated with us at this table for five.
Their company was welcome but the single menu was inconvenient and the room had no warmth or ambiance.
Our server was pleasant enough but seemed a little harried.
Expecting to get something local, or at least Swiss when we ordered a beer vom fass, we were served an odd-tasting Foster's from Australia. After that we ordered the Swiss beer, Klosterbräu, which was more to our liking.
The food, however, saved the day. Scaloppine di vitello alla piastra (27.5 Sfr./$19) was two juicy little rounds of veal buried in a delicious melange of fresh greens and lettuces, slivers of sautéed fresh yellow and red peppers, and a liberal sprinkling of flavorful, tiny, sautéed wild mushrooms.
Equally good and similarly presented was tagliata di filetto d angnello, bits of lamb filet folded into rucola greens, intensely flavored cherry tomato chunks and paper thin slices of Parmesan.
We divided a splendid Wintersalat (12.5 Sfr./$8.50) which contained many of the same ingredients of the entrée's salads plus small pieces of smoky ham, croûtons and a warm, thin slice of goat cheese which had been slightly browned on each side just before serving.
Five deciliters of one of the houses open wines - Grumello, an Italian red - cost 26 Sfr. ($18). For dessert we asked for a single Kugel of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce (not on the menu) to share and were charged 2.5 Sfr. ($1.70).
The meal was amazingly good; light but very satisfying. Without beverages we paid 69.5 Sfr. ($47).
The following evening in Restaurant Saratz, we found the menu priced about the same and the cuisine similar in style.
An appetizer of Besaola-Carpaccio auf Rucolasalat (half portion 12.50 Sfr. $8.50; full portion 17.50 Sfr./$12) was air-dried meat served with slightly wilted rucola greens, thinly sliced Parmesan, all in a superb oil and vinegar dressing.
A full portion of Maccharoni mit Knoblauch, Peperoncino, tomatoen and Basilikum (16.50 Sfr./$11) was penne pasta in a spicy, creamy sauce. Morel mushrooms, fresh chives and bits of smoked ham mixed in with the veal put the pizazz in Engadiner Kalbsgeschnetzeltes mit Pilzen, Blattspinat and Kartoffelpizokel (half potion 27 Sfr./$18; full portion 33 Sfr./$22).
After the main courses, we divided selections from the proffered cheese cart (12 Sfr./$8) and a dessert, Engadiner Sauerrahm (9 Sfr./$6), a pudding with wild berries. Not to be missed from the cheese cart is Rohmilch-Käser Speciality Rolf Beeler.
In this room, the Czech beer, Pilsner Urquell is available on draught.
We splurged a bit on the wine with happy results. A Tuscan red, 1993 Flaccianello from Della Pieve (63 Sfr./$43), was terrific, soft and mouth-filling, with a long finish.
Without beverages, our dinner for two cost 80.5 Sfr. ($54).
There are a couple of welcome departures from the norm at Restaurant Saratz; each table is set with a pitcher of water and many menu items offer a half-portion option for about 80% of the full portion price.
For those who occasionally weary of stodgy formality, the Saratz is a fresh breeze. The emphasis is on youth. (Near the hotel's front entrance is parked manager Adrian Stalder's Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which he sometimes uses to fetch arriving hotel guests from the railway station.) The clientèle is young and the style low-key and relaxed, but with no compromise in quality or service.
Daily Rates: Singles 110 to 178 Sfr. ($75-$121), doubles 180 to 318 Sfr. ($122-$216). Breakfast included.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 13/20
Though the Saratz is good value, it is not cheap. For those willing to commit a week or more to Pontresina, a wide range of self-catering options are available. Most offer more living space at substantially less money than at a hotel. The trade off is you don't get hotel services; you make your own breakfast and your own bed.
Among several rentals inspected last month in Pontresina, Gemütlichkeit found a wider range of quality than price. The same, of course, is true for hotels, but if you make a mistake there you're usually not stuck for a full week or more. So, absent a recommendation you can trust, our advice is, if at all possible, to look before you rent.
All the apartments we inspected come with direct-dial telephone, cable TV, bed linen, towels and a fully-equipped kitchen, in some cases even to the extent of food staples such as salt and spices.
Typically not included with the prices quoted is a cleaning charge - expect to pay from 50 to 100 Sfr. ($35-$68) - and garage parking. Minimum rental is usually seven days.
Switzerland Tourism's classification system for apartments has four categories: First Class, Medium Class, Standard Class and Basic Class.
This bright, sunny apartment, located very near the center of things, is perfect for two persons but would be a bit cramped if a second couple were added.
The main room consists of a sitting and dining area adjacent to a sparkling kitchen. Large French doors open on to a pleasant outdoor terrace. There is a separate bedroom and the sitting room sofa pulls out to make a second bed.
Chesa Nouva had the look and smell of being recently remodeled. The building in which it is housed is a ho-hum blocky modern style, but this apartment is the best we saw and the only one to have a dishwasher.
This is rated a "First Class" apartment.
Daily Rates: 120 Sfr. ($82).
Contact: Chesa Nouva, Chesa Miramunt, CH-7504 Pontresina, tel. +41/081/842 7844. Proprietor: G. Gredig.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
A short walk above the town, this pleasant apartment in a handsome rock and stucco private residence would equal Chesa Nouva except for the fact that it is one large room. The sofa must be converted to a bed each night.
Nonetheless, one or two persons would be very comfortable here. The room is on two levels, there are lots of natural wood built-ins, and four windows look out on the view. Rated "First Class."
Daily Rates: Summer 90 Sfr. ($61), winter 100 Sfr. ($68).
Contact: Chapütschin, CH-7504 Pontresina, tel. +41/081/842 7449, fax 842 7670. Proprietor: Elisabeth Costa-Drig
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20
In a more traditional, country-style building is the Chalet Alpina, operated by Erika Kaiser, an enthusiastic, vigorous 70 year-old who retains a zest for the vacation apartment rental business.
This first floor (our second) rustic rental is clean as a whistle, offers better views and is larger than Chesa Nouva, but not so light and airy. Furnishings and decor are somewhat drab and catch-as-catch-can.
There is a bedroom, a sitting room separated from the kitchen, and a long balcony that can be accessed from both the bedroom and sitting room. The bathroom has an odd color scheme but there is a skylight, slanting ceiling and a shower with curtain over tub.
Also rated "First Class" by Switzerland Tourism.
Daily Rates: 110 Sfr. ($75). Price includes parking garage.
Contact: Chalet Alpina, CH-7504 Pontresina, tel. +41/081/842 6407. Proprietor: Erika Kaiser
Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 11/20
Guests walk up two flights of stairs to reach this "Medium Class" apartment above a sporting goods shop on Pontresina's main street.
There are good views from the rooms and a balcony, but these are only adequate accommodations.
Daily Rates: Summer 105 Sfr. ($72), winter 130 Sfr. ($88).
Contact: Chesa Quadrella, Giassa Stipa, CH-7504 Pontresina, tel. +41/081/842 7689, fax 842 7689. Proprietor: Nora Gossweiler-Sauer
Rating: Quality 7/20, Value 7/20