When the snow leaves you no choice and pushes itself in front of the mountains like a white chiffon curtain, there can be no more beautiful place to listen to stories from another time and let the grand hotel, bursting with old luxury, take effect on you. A visit to the Waldhaus Sils in the Upper Engadine.
Sils-Maria in the Upper Engadine in Switzerland is often referred to as the quiet antipole to the sophisticated St. Moritz. Sils-Maria stands for deceleration and serenity at an altitude of around 1,800 meters. The Waldhaus has belonged to one and the same family since 1908. A Family Affair since 1908 is the motto of the house and not just a pretty subline in the logo. It is definitely lived. There is no check-in at the Waldhaus, there is a handshake at the Waldhaus. Every guest is personally greeted and also seen off by a member of the Dietrich family.
The founding couple, Amalie Giger-Nigg and Josef Nigg, chose the location for the castle-like house from among three possible options with care and foresight. A one-year measurement had shown that the rock on which the Waldhaus has stood since 1908 has the most hours of sunshine. When we arrive, meters of fresh snow lie in front of the main entrance. The light in the lobby glows warm and inviting. It’s nice to know you can drop right into one of the velvet armchairs in the salon-bleu.
Carousel ride on one of the most beautiful railroad lines
Even today, one’s own journey to the Waldhaus Sils can be given a maximum historical-atmospheric charge. All it takes is the Rhaetian Railway. The Albula line, one of the most spectacular railroad lines in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been in existence since 1903. It runs for over 60 kilometers in the canton of Graubünden from Chur to St. Moritz. The railroad line is a masterpiece of engineering and a wonderful carousel ride. Railroad lovers can even book a ticket for a ride in the driver’s cab with the Rhaetian Railway.
Stone viaducts line up one after the other. On the way, the trains of the Rhaetian Railway cross more than 140 bridges and pass through 42 tunnels. This is another reason why the Albula Railway is one of the most impressive narrow-gauge railroads in the world. The train overcomes 700 meters of altitude by means of helical and spiral tunnels. Several times the Albula line crosses itself in the process. Four times the train changes the mountain side. Arriving at St. Moritz station, the Waldhaus is reached by the hotel’s shuttle service. Automobiles were forbidden in Graubünden until 1925. The horse-drawn carriage was the means of transport without choice. This was because the coachmen had a strong lobby and were able to prevent their own displacement by progress for quite some time. As a result, guests at the Waldhaus felt “wheeled” in the truest sense of the word for a long time after their arrival. A condition, which evaporated however already after short time in this place again.
Waldhaus Sils – a place of thought
The Waldhaus Sils is a nostalgic place and is full of stories of its illustrious guests. Often they stayed for a long time and returned regularly. Stays of one or even two months in the summer resort were common. Marc Chagall stayed at the Waldhaus Sils five times, Hermann Hesse met here with his publisher Samuel Fischer, Gerhard Richter was a frequent guest and left two small paintings, Friedrich Dürenmatt wrote in the guest book and it is said that Thomas Mann had a lot to complain about. Many personalities of contemporary history, literature and art could be added. One who was never here, but whose stays made the tranquil Sils Maria a place of thought, was Friedrich Nietzsche, about whose life and work there was an exhibition in the Historical Museum of Basel.
Nostalgia and careful renewal
It snows incessantly. Maria Dietrich leads us into the bar, the original since 1908. In front of the large window, the larches bend under the snow load. Maria Dietrich tells us about her childhood in the hotel. About the months without guests, when the corridors belonged to the children and badminton was played in the entrance hall. She also tells how long it took to heat up the house after the winter. That often the pipes burst and one was already glad if it did not happen again in one of the upper floors and thus the water damage was somewhat smaller. The old, which is so appreciated today, could be preserved by the continuity of a family business.
In times of crisis, there was often no money for innovations, but just enough for the necessities. Today, the old telephone booth in the Waldhaus is a cell phone retreat for the benefit of all guests who want to use the lounges and many other places in the house to read, play, talk or think. Pleasant times when the phone was located in its own booth and not in everyone’s pocket.
Lack of money, they say, is the best preservation. Maria Dietrich shows the currency in which a hotel measures success. Sensitive as a stock price reacts to events in world politics, overnight stays per year on Maria Dietrich’s chart move through the past century. Dramatic is the decline in overnight stays due to the two world wars and the Great Depression beginning in 1929. By 1914, the hotel had about 15,000 overnight stays. In the summer of 1914, however, not a single guest stayed at the Waldhaus Sils. In the war years that followed, the hotel remained open and was visited almost exclusively by Swiss. Then as now, there are 140 rooms.
Modernizations with measure – swimming pool and spa
In 1908, when it opened, there were 40 bathrooms. If Thomas Mann once complained about water calamities, today he would certainly have nothing to complain about, but would lie relaxed in the Swiss stone pine bath and look up at the sky and the larch peaks. Since 2017, the Waldhaus has had a modern spa, some of which was daringly blasted into the rock. Similar to the construction of the swimming pool in 1970, which was a bold investment for the hotelier family. A hotel with its own swimming pool was almost a unique selling point in 1970 and made the hotel attractive to families with children.
Daily tea concert and Chef’s Table
In keeping with the tradition of old grand hotels, the Waldhaus runs its own house orchestra. Throughout the season, musicians play for the tea concert in the hall and in the evening for dancing in the bar. One third of the Waldhaus is public space for all guests. Even when the house is full, they say, every guest can find a cozy spot in the lounges, the bar, the library or the hall.
The Chef’s Table at the Waldhaus Sils always begins with an aperitif in the wine cellar.
Here, sommelier Oscar Comalli pours and provides information about the house’s wine stocks. Up to 40 percent of the wines at the Waldhaus Sils come from Switzerland. Followed by wines from Italy, France and Portugal. He deliberately chooses European wines. Then it’s off to the spacious kitchen. Recently lavishly renovated, the room looks like a cathedral. Chef Gero Porstein and his team prepare a dinner in several courses for the Chef’s Table, where guests can look over his shoulder.
Snow and Waldhaus adé
The curtain of snow flurries was blown aside for breakfast before we left. It was as if a member of the family had thought that it would be too bad if a guest never got to enjoy the view during his entire stay. A view of the mountains is just as important as the personal farewell greeting. The mountains rise up massively in front of the large windows. Breakfast becomes secondary, the guests at the other tables are no longer of interest. What a pity that now there is no time for a walk into the Fex Valley or to Lake Tscheppa. Fortunately, there is still the anticipation of a return trip on the Albula Railway. One more carousel ride through the Swiss mountains with powdered sugar icing.
The English aristocracy and the Swiss mountains
From the 19th century onwards, the English aristocracy’s enthusiasm for the alpine was also put into practice in their own gardens. At that time, the first wealthy Englishmen traveled through the Alps and had rocky passages, the so-called “Rockery”, built into their gardens as a reminder of the mountains. The gardens of Hotel Endsleigh offer a fine example of this. Here the Duke of Bedford even had a Swiss Cottage built.
The cost of half board was not charged by the hotel