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Travel Diary // Beating COVID to St Moritz

Travel Diary // Beating COVID to St Moritz

Words and photography by Andrew Coles

St Moritz has been the epicentre of winter alpine culture ever since Switzerland’s first winter resort, the Kulm Hotel, opened there in 1864. More recently the resort town played host to the first International Concours of Elegance (ICE) in 2019, held on St Moritz’s famous frozen lake, home to the winter Olympics in 1928 and 1948.

The day before our departure to the event, the much-hyped spread of COVID-19 saw the Swiss government ban all gatherings larger than 1,000 people. And I was due to fly into Milan, the epicentre of the European outbreak. With a cancelled event and a tabloid media proclaiming that a reincarnated Spanish flu was upon us, I nearly stayed home. But where’s the fun in that?

Milan at 10pm on a Friday night should be buzzing, but its streets were devoid of almost all activity as I drove to my first night’s stay in Como. My primary precaution, along with a rigorous hand-washing routine, was to limit my time in these areas which was a shame because the panic of infection is absolutely killing the hospitality and tourism industries here.

Saturday dawned cold, bright and sunny, and I skirted around Lake Como’s northern shore and across the border. The Maloja Pass provided the first serious test of the trip as its steepest section ascends nearly 400 metres in a scantly believable five kilometres, with 12 successive hairpins each requiring a well-timed heel-toe back to first to maintain any semblance of pace up the incline. My heart was beating at the summit, mostly from the sheer physicality of driving it at speed, even in a diesel Golf.

I arrived to St Moritz, but sadly, most of the gathered cars had already departed. There were rumours of a clandestine event happening despite the ban but this never came to serious fruition; it was a case of what could have been. A Countach, complete with toboggan on the roof and studded tyres, was being loaded back into a truck. An Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 sat in an underground carpark, and the Campagnolo wheel of a 1970s open-wheeler peeked out from under a car cover. A very pretty short-wheelbase 911 waited nearby in the snow.

I sipped a negroni in the Badrutt’s Palace Hotel’s Le Grand Hall while I pondered my options. I was on my own with 24 spare hours, a road map, a hire car, and was in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Screw it – let’s go driving.

My hotel that night was just across the Italian border in Tirano which necessitated crossing the Bernina Pass, its summit at almost zero visibility due to gusty winds blowing snow every which way. Out of the white haze appeared a Ferrari 275 GTB/4 heading the other direction – surely, I wasn’t just seeing things?

Once in Tirano I spotted a sign for a bar in Trivigno, a tiny village past the summit of the tight, narrow, bumpy Santa Cristina Pass. Barely a car width wide in places and with the types of cambers and supercuts that fool you into thinking you’re behind the wheel of an S2000 rally car, it was a laugh but the remoteness and encroaching darkness meant that one snowy understeer into a bank could see you shiver the night on the roadside. The bar was unsurprisingly closed and its advertised aperitive not forthcoming, but dinner way back down in the Tirano valley at Trattoria Gagin provided the family Lombardian culinary experience I hoped for.

Sunday morning’s plan was to again cross the Bernina for brunch at St Moritz, but an overnight snowstorm put an end to that. My confidence waned the higher I climbed until eventually I lost traction, not even half way to the summit. The fallen snow had frozen to ice and with no snow chains to hand, I had no choice but to inch my way back down to Tirano.

The conditions were worsening and when I saw a tour bus slide at walking pace into the guard rail, all six wheels locked, I realised both how treacherous it had become and how underprepared I was.

Back in the valley and under sunny blue skies I set course for the Julierpass, following it to Chur, the capital of the canton of Graubünden. The Julierpass was surely conceived in heaven, a glass-smooth, mostly flowing road with several groupings of second-gear hairpins that only serve to reaffirm just why we love driving and the manual gearbox so much. The late-afternoon descent into Chur was like something out of Forza Horizon.      

The return to make my evening flight home from Milan was, by necessity, on the Autostrada, crossing under the closed San Bernardino Pass and through Northern Italy to Milan. 816 kilometres in two days and only the final stretch on the highway. Not quite as exciting as Ferrari F50s drifting on a frozen lake, but not far off it.