Davos in Switzerland

Selection copyright © 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This edition may not be reproduced or redistributed to third parties without permission of the editor.


[From Our Life in the Swiss Highlands, 1892; first published in The Fortnightly Review, July 1878.]


It has long been acknowledged that high Alpine air in summer is beneficial to people suffering from lung troubles, but only of late years, and in one locality, has the experiment of a winter residence at a considerable elevation above the sea been made. The general results of that experiment are so satisfactory that the conditions of life in winter at Davos, and the advantages it offers to invalids, ought to be fairly set before the English public. My own experience of eight months spent at Davos, between August 1877 and April 1878, enables me to speak with some confidence; while a long previous familiarity with the health- stations of the Riviera — cannes, Bordighera, Nice, Mentone, and San Remo — furnishes a standard of comparison between two methods of cure at first sight radically opposite.

Accustomed as we are to think that warmth is essential to the satisfactory treatment of pulmonary complaints, it requires no little courage to face the severity of winter in an Alpine valley, where the snow lies for seven months, and where the thermometer frequently falls to 10 degrees or 15 degrees Fahrenheit below Zero. Nor is it easy, by any stretch of the imagination, to realise the fact that, in spite of this intense cold, the most sensitive invalids can drive in open sledges with impunity, expose themselves without risk to falling snow through hours of exercise, or sit upon their bedroom balconies, basking in a hot sun, with the world all white around them, and a spiky row of icicles above their heads. Yet such is a state of things which a few months spent in Davos renders quite familiar.

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The method of cure is very simple. After a minute personal examination of the ordinary kind, your physician tells you to give up medicines, and to sit warmly clothed in the sun as long as it is shining, to eat as much as possible, to drink a fair quantity of Valtelline wine, and not to take any exercise. He comes at first to see you every day, and soon forms a more definite opinion of your capacity and constitution. Then, little by little, he allows you to talk; at first upon the level, next up-hill, until the daily walks begin to occupy from four to five hours. The one thing relied upon is air. To inhale the maximum quantity of the pure mountain air, and to imbibe the maximum quantity of the keen mountain sunlight, is the sine qua non. Everything else — milk-drinking, douches, baths, friction, counter-irritant applications, and so forth — is subsidiary. Medicine is very rarely used: and yet the physicians are not pedantic in their dislike of drugs. They only find by long experience that they can get on better without medicine. Therefore they do not use it except in cases where their observation shows that it is needed. And certainly they are justified by the result. The worst symptoms of pulmonary sickness — fever, restless nights, cough, blood-spitting, and expectoration — gradually subside by merely living and breathing. The appetite returns, and the power of taking exercise is wonderfully increased. When I came to Davos, for example, at the beginning of last August, I could not climb two pairs of stairs without the greatest discomfort. At the end of September I was able to walk 1000 feet up-hill without pain and without fear of haemorrhage. This progress was maintained throughout the winter; and when I left Davos in April the physical could confirm my own sensation that the lung, which had been seriously injured, was comparatively sound again, and that its wound had been healed. Of course, I do not mean that the impossible had been achieved, or, in other words, that what had ceased to be organic had been recomposed for me, but that the disease had been arrested by a natural process of contraction.

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It is a great injury to any new system to describe it in too roseate colours, or to withhold the drawbacks which it shares with all things that are merely ours and mortal. No candid advocate can conceal the fact that there are serious deductions to be made from the great advantages offered by Davos. First and foremost stands the fact that life in a confined alpine valley during winter is monotonous. It is true that the post comes regularly every day, and that the Swiss post for letters, books, and parcels is so admirably managed that almost anything a man desires can be had within forty-eight hours from London. It is true that the Alps, in their winter robe of snow, offer a spectacle which for novelty and splendour is not surpassed by anything the fancy can imagine. it is true that sledging is an excellent amusement, and that a fair amount of skating can be reckoned on. It is also true that the climate enables weak people to enjoy all opportunities of rational amusement without stint or hindrance. But, in spite of this, life is monotonous. The mechanic pacings to and fro, which are a condition of the cure, become irksome; and the discontented invalid is apt to sigh for the blue Mediterranean and the skies he remembers on a sunny Riviera shore. Then it cannot be denied that a great deal of snow falls in the winter. The peasants concur in telling me that it is rare to have four fine weeks together, and my own experience of one winter, not exceptionally bad, leads me to expect two snowy days to three fine ones. Snowfall is, however, no interruption to exercise, and I never found that my health suffered from bad weather. On the contrary, I had the exhilarating consciousness that I could bear it, harden myself against it, and advance steadily under conditions which in England would have been hopeless.

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The gradual approach of winter is very lovely at Davos. The valley itself is not beautiful, as Alpine valleys go, though it has scenery both picturesque and grand within easy reach. But when summer is passing into autumn, even the bare slopes of the least romantic glen are glorified. golden lights and crimson are cast over the gray-green world by the fading of innumerable plants. Then the larches begin to put on sallow tints that deepen into orange, burning against the solid blue sky like amber. The frosts are severe at night, and the meadow grass turns dry and wan. The last lilac crocuses die upon the fields. Icicles, hanging from water-course or mill-wheel, glitter in the noonday sunlight. The wind blows keenly from the north, and now the snow begins to fall and thaw, and freeze, and fall and thaw again. The seasons are confused; wonderful days of flawless purity are intermingled with storm and gloom. At last the time comes when a great snowfall has to be expected. There is hard frost in the early morning, and at nine o'clock the thermometer stands at 2 degrees. The sky is clear, but it clouds rapidly with films of cirrus and of stratus in the south and west. Soon it is covered over with gray vapour in a level sheet, all the hill-tops standing hard against the steely heavens. The cold wind from the west freezes the moustache to one's pipe-stem. By noon the air is thick with a congealed mist; the temperature meanwhile has risen, and a little snow falls at intervals. The valleys are filled with a curious opaque blue, from which the peaks rise, phantom-like and pallid, into the gray air, scarcely distinguishable from their background. The pine-forests on the mountain-sides are of darkest indigo. There is an indescribable stillness and a sense of incubation. The wind has fallen. Later on, the snow-flakes flutter silently and sparely through the lifeless air. The most distant landscape is quite blotted out. After sunset the clouds have settled down upon the hills, and the snow comes in thick, impenetrable fleeces. At night our hair crackles and sparkles when we brush it. Next morning there is a foot and a half of finely-powdered snow, and still the snow is falling. Strangely loom the chalets through the semi-solid whiteness. Yet the air is now dry and singularly soothing. The pines are heavy with their wadded coverings; now and again one shakes himself in silence, and his burden falls in a white cloud, to leave a black-green patch upon the hillside, whitening again as the imperturbable fall continues. The stakes by the roadside are almost buried. No sound is audible. Nothing is seen but the snow-plough, a long raft of planks with a heavy stone at its stern and a sharp prow, drawn by four strong horses and driven by a young man erect upon the stem. So we live through two days and nights, and on the third a north wind blows. The snow-clouds break and hang upon the hills in scattered fleeces, glimpses of blue sky shine through, and sunlight glints along the heavy masses. The blues of the shadows are everywhere intense. As the clouds disperse, they form in moulded domes, tawny like sun- burned marble in the distant south lands. Every chalet is a miracle of fantastic curves, built by the heavy hanging snow. Snow lies mounded on the roads and fields, writhed into loveliest wreaths, or outspread int he softest undulations. All the irregularities of the hills are softened into swelling billows like the mouldings of Titanic statuary. It happened once or twice last winter that such a clearing after snowfall took place at full moon. Then the moon rose in a swirl of fleecy vapour clouds above, beneath, and all around. The sky was blue as steel, and infinitely deep with mist-entangled stars. The horn above which she first appears stood carved of solid black, and through the valley's length from end to end yawned chasms and clefts of liquid darkness. As the moon rose, the clouds were conquered and massed into rolling waves upon the ridges of the hills. The spaces of open sky grew still more blue. At last the silver light comes flooding over all, and here and there the fresh snow glistens on the crags. There is movement, palpitation, life of light through earth and sky. To walk out on such a night, when the perturbation of storm is over and the heavens are free, is one of the greatest pleasures offered by this winter life. It is so light that you can read the smallest print with ease. The upper sky looks quite black, shading by violet and sapphire into turquoise upon the horizon. There is the colour of ivory upon the nearest snow-fields, and the distant peaks sparkle like silver; crystals glitter in all directions on the surface of the snow, white, yellow, and pale blue. The stars are exceedingly keen, but only a few can shine in the intensity of moonlight. The air is perfectly still, and though icicles may be hanging from beard and moustache to the furs beneath one's chin, there is no sensation of extreme cold.

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