St.Moritz : 'The Gift of Stones'

Saint Moritz Travel Blog

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Donata, Lady of the Stones :D

‘People are like stones.  You just have to know what to say.  Strike them at exactly the right point and they will open up.’ - The Gift of Stones (paraphrased from the novel by Birmingham-based author Jim Crace)


- “Are you checking that the train driver it taking us in the right direction?”


The elderly lady I have sat opposite on the morning train to St.Moritz has been scribbling little rune-like entries on a pad for the last 5 minutes and has just placed a tiny little tin-pot compass on top of our window-table.

St.Moritz mountains and trains (the red ribbons were all over the rail works in my stay as they are in celebration of the recent UNESCO recognition)
  She watches intently as the feeble little needle spins, and judders uncertainly, not quite sure which way is north.  The lady tunes into the fact I have just spoken to her in English, comprehends my meaning and laughs heartily.  She has a very detailed book on the history and routes of these famous Swiss-alpine rail tracks and is using the compass to orient herself and see where we are in the journey.  All becomes clear.


Her name is Donata, a Swiss lady who is travelling the lengths and breadths of these rail routes on an unlimited 2 day rail-pass that has been issued to her as part of the regional celebration of the fact that the astonishing feats of human engineering that are the enormous stone-built viaducts that make these rail-tracks over, under (and often through) the Swiss alps possible have very recently been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status (i.

Lake St.Moritz.
e. like your pyramids of Giza, the Colleseum in Rome etc…).  She will then return to her home village, Andeer.   Whilst cradled in a deep ravine, this village apparently sits high in the Alps and is, she says one of, if not the highest village in Europe.  Later I am duly invited to stay with her and her husband there, but unfortunately my ticket on the Glacier Express to Zermatt tomorrow is already a done deal.


Donata is a fascinating lady to talk to.  Very creative.  A teacher.  She collects different minerals, and rocks from her various journeys through her mountainous homelands which she later grinds to fine powder for pigmentation that she then mixes with egg-whites to create different colours for painting.

  This I know from recent reading to be the centuries long technique for paint and painting used (in frescoes etc) before the Dutch painter Jan Van Eyck  ushered in the revolution of oil-based paint as we know it today in the ... uhh? in the?... somethin'-teenth Century.  (hey, I ain't that knowledgable - Google it yourselves ya lazy oiks! ;D) 


Most illuminating for me though is her further considerations of the nature of stones and our relation to them.  She has further stones, hard to get a hold of, that when struck together or in the right place make harmonious, musical sounds.  She has many of these and the larger ones she says produce notes of an increasingly higher register as you strike higher and higher up the stone in question.

There's a few of these snaps 'cos I loved the fab retro styling of the designs on these municipal posters :D
  She says these stones can, by a skilled enough individual be split down their invisible seams to make smaller stones of differing resonances.  She has an Italian friend who lives on the Swiss-Italian Alpine border who does this and actually makes pianos entirely out of stone!  Donata says (in a sincere and affecting manner, no shades of kooky old-lady craziness here) that it is important that “We must listen to what nature, what the stones have to say to us.”  A fascinating conversation.  I state that she should have been a geologist.   She considered it once but says that once you get to the science of it all, the chemistry, the mathematical purity of mineral and crystalline structures it gets very complicated and almost too deep within the stones - down to an atomic level - to remember why you loved them in the first place.
  Maybe it is deep within the stones, spinning out of the infinite universes contained within them from which the music spins out into the world for us to hear, should we care to listen I suggest to her. “Maybe. Maybe.”


Donata is very engaging and kind, sharing with me her book with the old monochromatic photos of the builders struggling against nature at the end of the 19th Century to build up, brick by brick the incredible railway viaducts (some of which we cross today), but the most impressive of which I will pass over on the Glacier Express to Zeermat tomorrow.  She points me in the direction of a few cultural things for once I’m in St.Moritz.  I am chuffed to have met her and am put in mind of the quote that started this entry from a novel by the Birmingham based author Jim Crace where in his novel ‘The Gift of Stones’ the narrator muses at one point about the skill of the true stone-cutter who can strike any rock or stone, precisely in the right point, directly on the seam and split it cleanly to reveal the treasure and the beauty that lies within it… and in a small way by teasing Donata and her compass, and striking up the conversation with her I feel I have managed this today, in my own small way to my great reward.

The Segantini Museum, St.Moritz.


(I am also reminded of a scene from the fabulous animated movie ‘Laputa’ (or ‘The Castle in the Sky’) by the genius Hayao Miyazaki where the two heroes having fallen into an old mine shaft meet an old lonely miner who too shows them that the stones all around them are alive with light and beauty and celestial music, if you take the time, in the dark, to listen and observe.  It’s a magical film.  One of my faves.  “Check it out!”)


Although she’s heading further on Donata disembarks with me at St.Moritz.  Quite taken with my cheery company she is keen to try and look up an old friend who lives here and she believes would be more than happy to put me up for the night.

This photo does this beautiful painting 'Ave Maria Crossing the Lake' no justice but I want to remind myself of it anyway
  “Bonus!”  Sadly once we are able to get his number from the phone book, he is not in and only a voice message to say she was in town can be left.  Shame as St.Moritz, playground of the ski-tastic rich could be a bit of an expensive evening I fear.  Anyhow Donata and I exchange contact details and I see her safely aboard her next train.


There is a light drizzle and the sky, whilst light is clouded-over and greyish misty white.  The odd glimpse of the snow peaked mountains that encircle St.Moritz and it’s lake can be gleaned occasionally.  It’s not skiing season yet and so the town is almost surreally quiet and calm.  I stroll to the Youth Hostel the other side of the lake but Reception’s not open for another few hours so I chuck my bag in one of their lockers and stroll back into town.


I am in great luck as Donata, from her various leaflets, brought to my attention the Segantini Museum in St.Moritz.  Named after a famous painter who settled in the region in the late 19th century, Giovanni Segantini, the museum today is on its final day of a 4 month special exhibition to mark 100 years of the museum’s existence and 150 since the birth of Segantini in 1858.  He is not an artist that I believe I have encountered before despite his apparent fame and renown both in his lifetime and within the general cannon of Western Art, but then I am not so broadly cultured on such subjects.  It’s my former flatmate Diana who’s the art curator.  I am however now an ardent fan of this man and his beautiful paintings! 


This is a small museum, created by Segantini’s admirers 9 years after his death in 1899 but the collection of his work on display here (only 3 rooms worth) for me is breathtaking.

  Beautiful scenes of the alpine ranges of the Engadin region, and of pastoral life in the mountains with the livestock and the shepherdesses and peasant folk.  The style of painting is mesmerizing.  A softer, more detailed fusion of the Divisionist technique of colour layering coupled with flashes of more conventional realism in paint application, but in general both in tone, beauty, colour and subject matter I feel very strongly a precursor to Van Gogh.  Magic stuff.  The centre piece of the exhibition is a huge trip-tych.  Three paintings entitled ‘Life’, ‘Nature’ and ‘Death’ (or often referred to as ‘Becoming’, ‘Being’ and ‘Passing Away’)that were to form part of a far larger panorama of alpine works to represent Swiss culture at the great Paris Exhibition of 1900, however ironically the great work was halted only having got as far as the composition entitled ‘Death’, when Segantini caught illness painting high in the mountains in 1899 and died aged 41.
Main church in St.Moritz.


 I leave the exhibition and walk through the winding, often steeply ascending and twisting hillside streets of St.Moritz Dorf (town) and then down to the edge of the lake which I stroll all the way around the clear water’s edge, still in light drizzle before getting back to the Youth Hostel and booking myself a room both for the night and at the Youth Hostel in Zeermat for tomorrow night.  It’s a large spacious and clean hostel and considering the part of the world I find myself in, excellent value at CHF48.50 (Swiss Francs: approx £24) for a good room, a 4 course dinner and breakfast included.  The inclusive meals are a real life saving surprise as St.Moritz high streets seemed nothing to me to be nothing but fine dining, 4 and 5 star hotels and shops all of which I would have to take out a new mortgage to buy even a business card in one of them! Prada sits next to Bulgari sits next to Gucci sits next to Cartier etc, etc…you get the idea.

I sneak into the late evening practice session of local ice-hockey team EHC St.Moritz.


The meal is lovely too!  But glancing over my shoulder I see that finally, the sun already having glided down behind the line of mountain tops, the clouds have begin to dissipate and unravel to create the most incredible sunset composition in the sky.  I absolutely wolf my four courses down in the blink of an eye ‘cos I really do NOT want to miss this moment and dash out of the hostel back in the direction of town as quickly as I can to get a clear view.  It is a stunning sunset moment I have to say and the finest skies I’ve yet seen in my travels.  The rain has been stopped for some time, much more of the snow-streaked mountain tops are visible now and I feel (I hope!) that this all bodes well for conditions on my special journey tomorrow! As it is I recall the words of the great artist himself, Giovanni Segantini that I had noted swiftly down earlier who loved and painted these scenes so well.

"A symphony of white and blue, silver and gold." - Giovanni Segantini
  In referring to one of his favourite painting motifs of sunset alpine skies and the hillside snow he calls it a “symphony of white and blue, silver and gold”.  A perfectly apt description of what I have been lucky to see this evening, so I will leave it at that.

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Donata, Lady of the Stones :D
Donata, Lady of the Stones :D
St.Moritz mountains and trains (th…
St.Moritz mountains and trains (t…
Lake St.Moritz.
Lake St.Moritz.
Theres a few of these snaps cos …
There's a few of these snaps 'cos…
The Segantini Museum, St.Moritz.
The Segantini Museum, St.Moritz.
This photo does this beautiful pai…
This photo does this beautiful pa…
Main church in St.Moritz.
Main church in St.Moritz.
I sneak into the late evening prac…
I sneak into the late evening pra…
A symphony of white and blue, sil…
"A symphony of white and blue, si…
Uh? Some lake on the way to St.Mor…
Uh? Some lake on the way to St.Mo…
Statue outside Segantini Museum.
Statue outside Segantini Museum.
(sneaky) photo in the main gallery…
(sneaky) photo in the main galler…
St.Moritz Lake from on high.
St.Moritz Lake from on high.
Some probably 10 star hotel in the…
Some probably 10 star hotel in th…
Lake St.Moritz.
Lake St.Moritz.
Lake St.Moritz (abstract).
Lake St.Moritz (abstract).
Hanging your... err?... paintings …
Hanging your... err?... paintings…
EHC St.Moritz in action - I even g…
EHC St.Moritz in action - I even …
Late evening over Lake St.Moritz.
Late evening over Lake St.Moritz.
Sunset (abstract)
Sunset (abstract)
Sun setting over the cloudy mounta…
Sun setting over the cloudy mount…
St.Moritz main town stretch seen a…
St.Moritz main town stretch seen …
Saint Moritz
photo by: hellenica