With Thomas Mann's most famous novel in hand, a couple takes to the magic mountains
For an hour we had been dipping in and out of a series of long gestational tunnels on the highway out of Zurich, marveling at the neatness of the landscape. The rolling hills were a kind of sound track—delicate, like chamber music. We entered one more tunnel—so smooth, orderly, and symmetrical, these tunnels—and when we emerged, the sky had darkened and a mountain was looming before us. By which I mean a mountain. The delicate strains of chamber music had been abruptly replaced by timpani banging thunderously, a symphony reaching a crescendo.
"And this isn't even a famous mountain!" I said.
"It's the beginning," said Elizabeth. "The Alps start here."
She had Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain in her lap. Hans Castorp, Mann's protagonist, traveled to Davos, where we were headed, by train. The journey, like everything else in the novel, takes a long time. Mann describes Castorp rising through the mountains into "a world of ineffable, phantasmagoric Alpine peaks, soon lost again to awestruck eyes as the tracks took another curve." This was true of us as well, but we were in a six-gear Passat and the drive from Zurich was only a few hours. Also, Hans Castorp is a recent college graduate when he embarks on his trip; Elizabeth and I were on our honeymoon. The logic of honeymooning on a driving trip through the Alps would be challenged on a number of occasions in the coming days. At that moment, though, as we moved toward that first mountain and then beyond toward ever higher peaks, the fantasy of the trip and the occasion for taking it were in perfect harmony—we were rising up into new territory, "ineffable, phantasmagoric."
We arrived in Davos in the middle of August, and it was freezing cold and raining. In The Magic Mountain, it snows in August. Snow in August would have been magical. Rain in August was not magical.
We checked into the Kongress Hotel, and had our first experience with the twin beds of Swiss mountain lodges—a totally perplexing phenomenon. A couple entering their room in such a lodge finds two single beds pushed together, each with its own down comforter. You are together but with specifically demarcated territory—his half, her half.
"Do you think they're trying to tell us something?" I asked. "It's as though we have visitation rights with each other, but we're not really supposed to sleep together."
"It is a little prim," said Elizabeth. "But maybe they assume everyone wants to have their own duvet."
I worried I would fall into the crack.
Our itinerary in the Alps was whimsical and random. But in Davos we had some business. It had been the home of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the German Expressionist painter, who cofounded the influential Brücke group. I believed the Kirchner Museum in town held a painting by the artist that had once belonged to my grandfather. It featured a snow-covered mountain range dotted with pine trees. For many years I thought nothing of it, but gradually that painting became a kind of totem of my grandfather, who always sat on the couch just below where it hung. Kirchner's hand was a kind of divining rod for the turbulence to come to Germany, Europe, and, as it happened, my grandfather—a German Jew who fought for his country in World War I, put himself through medical school by performing Shakespeare on the Frankfurt stage, and later escaped Germany one step ahead of the Gestapo; he'd been tipped off by his brother, also a doctor, who had a Gestapo officer as a patient. After my grandfather died, the painting was sold. The museum curator, Dr. Roland Scotti, would give us a tour the next day.
Today, Elizabeth and I took a walk up toward the hotel that was the setting in Mann's novel for the International Sanatorium Berghof, which sits on the side of a mountain above the town. The walk took an hour and a half. Eventually we reached a plateau and turned to look back over the valley. The similarity to my grandfather's painting was striking.
The hotel, called the Schatzalp, has a pre–World War I, Titanic-like aura of doomed splendor. We sat on the balcony, on a chaise of exactly the same sort that Mann's patients lounge on, swaddled in blankets, breathing the magically restorative air, taking their "rest cure."
"Let's stay here next time we come!" I said to Elizabeth.
"I don't know," she said. "It's a little…."
It's a little like a Venus flytrap. Mann's novel famously begins, "An ordinary young man was on his way to Davos-Platz in the canton of Graubünden. It was the height of summer, and he planned to stay three weeks." The next 700 or so pages are devoted to his sojourn of seven years.
My grandfather's painting does not reside in Davos's Kirchner Museum, it turns out, but in another one, in Chur. As a consolation, Dr. Scotti led us to the basement and a chest of metal drawers filled with black notebooks. "We have 160 of his sketchbooks," Dr. Scotti said, beaming. "Only a few others are scattered throughout the world." He held one open and began to flip the pages. The artist's familiar line was there in the barest form. Mountains, trees, hands, cows. Then came trembling lines that blurred into one another, like a lie detector gone berserk.
"These are letters he tried to write," said Dr. Scotti. "A bit like Cy Twombly, don't you think?"
"That's his attempt at handwriting?" I asked.
"He was very ill from morphine," said the curator.
"He was ill and was using morphine, or he was ill from morphine use?" Elizabeth asked.
Kirchner was a junkie, to put it bluntly. I found this scandalous, then realized my naïveté: in the confines of a museum, or even the house of my grandfather, whose life was not devoid of despair, there is still a huge remove of the artist from the artwork; the artist's anxiety or despair is an invisible presence lurking within the beautiful, valuable thing.
On the way out of the museum, I saw that the gift shop had a postcard of my grandfather's old painting, which I bought. There was no sense of dissatisfaction about not having seen the painting itself; I'd entered it instead.
Mann refers to the "tidy clouds" of the Alps—once one descends from the basso profundo of the Flüela Pass, pleasant white cream puffs dot the sky. We came upon the incredibly intense blue of Lake St. Moritz. The whole sky- mountain-lake combination triggered a memory of an old postcard. It's a familiar scene, but the colors are desaturated and a bit flat, as though the camera itself were overwhelmed by the lushness of what it sees. A slight element of kitsch, as if Julie Andrews might at any moment burst into its frame, singing. My postcard isn't stored anywhere except in my memory—I had only seen the Alps once, in Zermatt with my parents, when I was six—but it's tangible nonetheless, an image that for years lay dormant in my mind until Elizabeth and I began to wonder where we might go on our honeymoon. Then it presented itself just as palpably as if it had fallen out of a drawer. And now, rolling into St. Moritz, we were inside it.
Looking for lunch, we wandered into the spectacularly opulent lobby of the Kulm Hotel and sat by a picture window looking out on the lake and snowcapped mountains. Our drinks were served on doilies as thick as down comforters. Lunch was over, they said, but they could bring us a little something, which is how we came to enjoy the world's most dramatically staged ham and cheese sandwich. No crust, a few gherkins arranged on the massive plate as if it were a sculpture garden. We sat and stared at the water. Eventually the piano player arrived to warm up for the evening drinkers. On the road again, we skirted past cyclists by the lake and nibbled chocolates through the forest, blasting the radio; Elvis came on, singing "Walk like an angel.…"
By the time we got to Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn, I was ready to get out of the car. Honeymoons are meant to be recuperative as well as romantic—which is why some people sit on a beach for a week or two doing nothing, having just survived not so much the wedding day as the planning of it. I wasn't regretting the Alps trip, but as we made our way through drizzling rain, I began to see the appeal of the honeymoon focused on more or less nothing.
"Here we are!" I nearly shouted when we saw the sign for Zermatt.
My enthusiasm was premature. When we got to the town we were greeted by numerous waving and gesturing Swiss people. For a second I thought the waving was a kind of greeting extended to visitors, but that didn't make sense. People waved at us as though our car were on fire.
Finally a hotel doorman came running out in the rain. He told us that cars were banned here. I was supposed to have parked in the previous town and was in danger of getting a 600-franc ticket. We turned around and hurried back down the tiny road, laughing—we must have missed the signs, we're such idiots, etc.—but I had the sinking feeling that we might not be up to the navigational task of traveling, of being lost without anyone to help us get found.
The Hôtel Ambassador's lobby looked like the lost-and-found in a train station. An American tour guide leaned both elbows on the front desk, talking on the phone. The subtext of every line she spoke seemed to be that it was not her fault that it was raining. All around were suitcases of unseen travelers who had presumably just spent several days not being able to visit, or even see, the mountain that gives meaning to the town of Zermatt.
But in the time it took us to go up to our room, collapse on the two pushed-together beds, rally, wash up, and get our bearings, the low, cottony clouds retreated back toward the sky. The light shifted. And so I was lying on the bed staring out the window for nearly a minute before I realized I was looking directly at the Matterhorn.
The mountain towered above us the next morning as we rose in the funicular's glass box, and the chalets that compose Zermatt grouped tighter and tighter together, then became a little smear, and soon vanished. The walk down is magnificent. But it's not short. Eventually, fatigue set in, not so much from exertion as from the thin air, the sharp sun on our faces, the rocky and barren earth. And so we staggered into Zum See, a chalet serving lunch under white linen umbrellas. A gigantic slice of rhubarb-meringue pie went by on a waiter's tray. It was like a spirit-world manifestation.
Later, I looked at pictures from that lunch: dried beef and cheese, chèvre salad. But in the afternoon sun, exhausted, the dark wood of the chalet glowing like honey in the sun, we felt like we were having the greatest meal of all time.
In what was now a pattern, it was raining when we arrived at the Gletschergarten Hotel, in Grindelwald. And it stayed cloudy the next day; the breadth, the height, the scale of where we were remained a mystery. After a long, wet walk in the low hills around the town, we huddled in our room.
On our second night we ate at the Alte Poste, an old hotel-restaurant, and made friends with Anne-Laure and Stéphane, a French couple from Montpellier. They had come here five years earlier on their honeymoon and had returned to the same room in the Alte Poste every summer since.
The next day there was sun, and Anne-Laure and Stéphane offered to be our guides on the Eiger. For two days we had seen the foot of a huge glacier whose dimensions we could only guess, but now we walked from the funicular that had taken us straight up, and there it lay before us in all its overflowing majesty, pouring down between the two peaks like icing prepared by a pastry chef gone crazy. We moved closer and closer, until ice and sky abstracted to completely fill our vision with magnificent swaths of white and blue. But as exciting and beautiful as it was to look up, the main attraction was down below us: the many chalets of the town of Grindelwald spread out on the green slopes, the pattern of light and shade cast by the few "tidy" clouds. Such hope in the brightness of that sea of green! Humanity, so often a blemish on natural beauty, here enhanced it somehow. I could almost feel the maniacally cheerful window boxes adorning all those chalets beaming up at me.
We had lunch on the mountain, then said good-bye to Anne-Laure and Stéphane, who took the long way down. We took the short way. Or it was supposed to be short. For two hours we zigged and zagged down a ravine, past waterfalls, through thick forest, glimpsing now and then the vast green carpet of the valley below. Eventually we saw our hotel, the church spire in front of it, and our Passat parked next door.
We collapsed into the bucket seats as if they were massive easy chairs. After a few minutes we revived and began the drive back to Zurich for the flight home. We went up, we went down, and the road began to flatten. The normalness of the road, the way it guided us along gentle curves, offering nothing more than the slightest of inclines, was profoundly disorienting. Where was the wild up-and-down drama?The sun shone placidly, and it occurred to us both what tumultuous, unpredictable weather we had been in, the storms vanishing as suddenly as they had rolled in, leaving us under the most exhilarating skies imaginable. When we got to Zurich, we had the strange feeling, both melancholy and thrilling, that everything we had just seen had been a dream.
Thomas Beller is the author of How to Be a Man and The Sleepover Artist, among other books. He is a T+L contributing editor.
When to Go
July through September make up the second season in the Alps, but après snow come green pastures, flowers, and temperatures that reach 80 degrees.
Where to Stay
94 Promenade, Davos; 41-81/417-1122; hotelkongress.ch; doubles from $220, including breakfast.
Davos-Platz; 41-81/415-51 51; schatzalp.ch; doubles from $250, including breakfast and dinner.
Kulm Hotel St. Moritz
18 Via Vegria; 800/223-6800 or 41-81/836-8000; kulmhotel-stmoritz.ch; doubles from $420, including breakfast and dinner.
10 Spissstrasse, Zermatt; 41-27/966-2611; ambassador-zermatt.ch; doubles from $240, including breakfast.
Elsbeth & Finn Breitenstein, Grindelwald; 41-33/853-1721; hotelgletschergarten.ch; doubles from $180.
Where to Eat
Zermatt; 41-27/967-2045; lunch for two $70.
Grindelwald; 41-33/853-4242; dinner for two $60.
What to See
Kirchner Museum Davos
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Platz; 41-81/413-2202.