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The High Life: St. Moritz

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Photo: Benoit Peverelli

When I was a kid, cross-country always seemed like a tedious affair—pushing skis along in other people’s tracks, never leaving the parallel grooves. But here under a grand Alpine panorama, circling the Silvaplana Castle, the sport suddenly makes sense. The small stone structure, built in the 19th century on the edge of Lake Silvaplana, is now at the intersection of a number of ski routes. What’s as appealing as the view is the dynamism of "skating," a style of cross-country done on shorter skis, the movement of which resembles ice skating or rollerblading. It’s much faster than the classic sport, and skiers follow wide paths and slopes rather than a track.

Olivier Molly, a private instructor, explains all this to me. "More and more, people are switching over from downhill," he says, "especially as they get into their forties and fifties." Molly grew up here in the Engadine, and teaches tennis in the summertime. He’s a thoughtful guy, and when I ask him how St. Moritz has changed, he answers by reeling off some troubling developments: "The town is more and more built up, and yet apartments are empty most of the time," he says. "It’s a bad trend—the place is going to die out! Look at the stores—there’s only luxury shopping, and nothing else. No one even manages to stay open all year-round." (St. Moritz effectively shuts down in the spring and the fall—the hotels, the mountain railroads, the shops, everything closes.) The solution, Molly believes, is to tax the empty houses.

"Half of them are empty for 48 weeks a year. And they’re being heated!" says Hanspeter Danuser, head of St. Moritz Tourism since 1978, who came up with the tax idea. "We sold the cow instead of the milk," he says, when I visit him in his downtown office. A 2005 law limiting new residential construction has made prices skyrocket. The Shah of Iran’s villa (built in the 1960’s) just sold for about $34 million. Recent marquee developments include two from architect Norman Foster: Chesa Futura, a beautiful blob-like wooden apartment building completed in 2003, and Murezzan, his residential development in the center of town, with its chic restaurant, Post Haus.

Both of these projects (and especially Chesa Futura) are striking and elegant and cool, more proof that Foster is the great architect of our age (just an opinion, of course), but they are also emblematic of the changes here. The luxury real-estate market is booming at the expense of affordable, middle-of-the-market places like the now-closed Albana and Posthotel, which were four-star properties before being incorporated into the Murezzan development. Danuser’s idea is to force absentee owners to rent their residences out or pay a punitive tax. This would draw a broader spectrum of people to town, not just the extremely wealthy. "But," he says, "people are afraid of the new. And in Switzerland, property is holy." He laughs. "They call me an old radical, a communist Alp Marxist. But we need to solve the problem before the bureaucrats in Bern decide to do it for us." The proliferation of vacation houses is a political issue—and not just in the Swiss capital. Many wish to preserve the authentic character of the country’s small villages.

On my way out of Danuser’s office, one of his assistants asks how I’m enjoying St. Moritz. "Have you been to La Baracca?" he asks. "I’m going, I’m going!" I answer.

After all the talk of over-the-top, $20 million villas inhabited by the super-rich for a few weeks a year, I jump at the chance when a friend invites me to see one and meet its owner. Luca Bassani is the Italian founder of Wally, a company that makes superfast, high-tech megayachts, the sort of things James Bond would pilot and which cost even more than St. Moritz villas do. Bassani’s house in Suvretta, a hillside area in St. Moritz, is quietly spectacular, with lots of pale woodwork and lots of light. It’s built in the traditional Engadine style, with modern touches: floor-to-ceiling windows, bent-wood chairs, a squash court, a pool, and art photography on the walls. Bassani and his family spend weekends here all winter, and summers in Portofino.

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