I live out of a bag the size of a microwave.

Every night I unpack my life and every morning, I shove it all back in, half-hoping that I’m not forgetting something important—which I always do. I check my pocket for my passport and then forget the rest: the adapter in the wall socket, the balled-up sock that rolled under the bed, my toothbrush, a shirt on a hanger, an umbrella, my favorite hat. Like Hansel and Gretel, I leave my own trail of traceable crumbs on hotels and trains and in the backseats of taxis.

In the past month, I have slept in 24 different beds in 24 different hotels. Some are wonderfully fancy with uniformed bellhops and monogrammed slippers—others insist that shampoo and soap are the same substance—but each is special. At 11,000 feet, in the bunk bed of a mountain hut, I watched a full moon rising over the glowing white glacier. At the impressive Kronenhof, I enjoyed the magnificent spa, then checked out a bike and rode to the next village over to listen to alphorns play.

But of all my favorite homes in Switzerland, my favorite is the Hotel Lej da Staz, hidden away in a circle of pine forest at the bottom of a mountain in Engadin.

The hotel itself is very fine, yes—a dark-stained wooden chalet of just ten rooms, historic, with green shutters and fuzzy white edelweiss sprouting in the window boxes. The stairs and floorboards creak when you walk on them—there are no secrets in these halls. Downstairs in the restaurant, the chef turns out artful meals night after night and on every rough-hewn table stands sit glass jars filled with handpicked forest flowers. All of it is so very nice . . .

. . . but it’s the lake that I love most—the Lej da Staz in Romansh. I arrived before dinner and checked into my room, patted the red woolen blanket on the bed, then unzipped my suitcase to feel more at home. Dinner was at seven, so I walked down to the lake to take pictures and saw the swimmers.

A German family—mother and father, two children, jumping from the wooden dock into the water, laughing, shaking drops from their hair. The water smelled clean—like the mountain. I was dressed for dinner but walked to the edge, leaned over and thrust my hand into cold, wet lake.

So cold.

“About 18° to 20° Celsius,” one Italian boy shouted from the water. I watched him ride his bike up and lean his bike on the bathing sheds, then kick off his shoes and throw himself into the water, splashing backwards with his arms, happy.

As a child I used to swim endlessly, always watching the adults back on the beach or the edge of the pool, feeling sorry for them all dressed and dry and stilted.

Now I had become that adult, all business, dressed for dinner at seven and staring longingly at the lake, wanting. I waited a full minute or two, and then like a robot, walked back to the hotel, creaked my way up the stairs and changed into my swimsuit. Five minutes later I was back on the dock, knee-deep in the water, goosebumps on my calves, my toes shining gold from below.

18° to 20° Celsius is colder than your average swimming pool but warmer than the Atlantic in winter. I knew only that much. The sun was still there, warming my back, encouraging me to just get in already—and so I did.

A single splash, my body flung forward like a dog, hands up and out, bracing for that coldest moment, when head and hair dive beneath the surface.

And there I hung, submersed in the Lej da Staz, washed by the Alpine cold, suddenly very free.

Then a breath of air, a few strokes and one strong kick—I pushed out to the very middle of the lake, now alone in the water, jubilant.

It was my first real swim of the summer—in the outdoors, uninhibited, refreshing, floating on my back and watching the sky change from light blue to the indigo of late summer evening. The water no longer felt cold but just right—it felt like swimming in a lake in the Swiss Alps in July.

Only when I felt cool and washed and ready did I return, touching my feet on the smooth, sun-warmed stones on the bottom of the lake, drying on the dock in the slanted sunlight.

I was more than forty minutes late for dinner and despite this being Switzerland, nobody seemed to mind.

Then in the morning I did it again. Before seven o’clock—I was the first one to creak down the stairs and walk down to the lake—like the only human on Earth.

There was no traffic (private cars are not allowed at the hotel). A few birds chirped the dawn, but otherwise, I listened to the greatest silence I had known in this country. So silent I could hear the forest leaves move in the breeze. I could hear my toes dip into the water—colder than the night before—I could hear my lungs gasp when I took the plunge.

Before seven o’clock, I swam out into the middle of the lake. I watched the morning mist rise up like a hundred departing ghosts. The sunlight glimmered around the crest of the mountain, then overflowed the high ridge and turned the forest below from one dark mass into focused, individual trees.

My singular body disrupted the smoky glass of the lake into endless ripples. The ducks woke up, and with the sun, the mist disappeared completely. I swam across the lake and back, then dried off and went in for breakfast.

Inside, the other guests were waiting and watching—there are no secrets in such a small hotel.

“We saw you out swimming from our window,” they confessed. “Is it not freezing?” they wondered.

“Na—it’s perfect. 18° to 20° Celsius,” I answered while they all nodded and contemplated whether or not they would go swimming, too.

For their sake, I hope they did. It’s not “the tourists” who swim in Lej da Staz; nor is it “the locals”. Everybody swims in Lej da Staz. All day you can see folks hike or bike from nearby St. Moritz or Celerina, at lunch or after work, warm and sweaty, ready for a break. Like me, they approach the water slowly, one toe at a time, and like me, within minutes they are splashing happily in the water, feeling young and reborn.

And yet the lake seems always empty and natural, a world apart from everything else in this valley. There is no noise—only the ducks and the ripple of little lake waves hitting the reeds.

Too soon, I left Lej da Staz, my damp bathing suit stuffed into my microwave-sized suitcase that I call home. A week later, I came to the city of Lucerne and was shocked by the urbanity of it all after weeks of nothing but the pure nature of the Alps. I wandered the streets, surprised by the cars and busses and the heat of the city. I stopped by a shiny chocolate shop and stepped inside, grateful for the air-conditioning. I sampled chocolates and bought a bag to take home.

“Will it melt?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“It’s chocolate,” she said with a smile, then counseled me to keep it out of the heat.

“18° to 20° Celsius is the best temperature for keeping chocolate,” she said, then asked me why I thought this was so funny.

“No, it’s not funny—you’re absolutely right. That is the perfect temperature, isn’t it?”

We both agreed.

The best swimming pool in Switzerland, the Lej da Staz (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Comments

  1. Udita
    Mumbai, India
    July 18, 2012, 2:24 am

    You experience is so suavely simple. Loved reading this. :)

  2. Janet Brot
    Thurgau / Switzerland
    July 18, 2012, 4:03 am

    I’m American and have been living in Switzerland for almost 12 years now. I believe one could live here for decades and never finish discovering beautiful and unique places here. If you’re still in Switzerland, please don’t miss Schaffhausen (on the Rhine River) and the beautiful stretch along the Rhine River heading toward Lake Constance, and Kreuzlingen on Lake Constance. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. There’s a Rhine River ship departing several times a day from Schaffhausen to Kreuzlingen – the trip takes approximately four hours – you’ll pass awesome areas of wildlife refuge, grand medieval buildings (Stein am Rhein), monasteries – and see water birds of all description. It’s a salve for the soul.

  3. Tiago Castro
    Portugal (Porto)
    July 18, 2012, 5:39 am

    Amazing read Andrew! I’m Portuguese and I often go to Switzerland on vacations. It is just the perfect place for me because it has everything…the people, the quiet just in that moment when you really need it, the buzz on the big cities, the alps…those unbelievable mountains with so many great histories to tell and beautiful spots to wonder the magnificent nature . :) I always tell everyone to visit this amazing country, because that is one of the best words to describe it…amazing! :)

  4. TravelDesigned
    Illinois
    July 18, 2012, 7:40 am

    Andrew, you know I love you dear, but you really must refrain from mentioning the word “edelweiss” now all day the Sound of Music will be in my head AGAIN :) I can’t believe this is your first swim of the summer, what a wonderful swim! I wish I could tell stories like you. You really take me with you wherever you go. –Safe travels

  5. maq203
    http://www.hotelmanager.net/
    July 20, 2012, 2:07 pm

    Now that is the life!!

  6. Monica
    Missouri
    July 20, 2012, 6:18 pm

    Andrew, you have all the fun. Thankfully, you know how to share it in a way to make me feel like I’ve been there, too. Lovely photos! I’m like Stephanie, edelweiss automatically triggers the Sound of Music soundtrack. :) Traveling mercies Andrew! Thanks for the journey.

  7. Adolfo Gerbatin
    Rio de Janeiro
    July 22, 2012, 10:06 am

    The Swiss delightful panorama is the post card on the planet; incomparable!! thanks for this tip!!

  8. travel.willjackson.com.au
    Sydney, Australia
    July 22, 2012, 7:47 pm

    Beautifully written Andrew. Another lovely little slice of travel heaven!

    Will

  9. Alexander
    Zürich, Switzerland
    July 23, 2012, 3:25 am

    Thank you for your great story about Lej da Staz. One of my favorite places on earth…. I think you described it heavenly and I agree completely. I feel privileged to live in such a beautiful country!

  10. Jon Bollmann
    Zürich
    July 23, 2012, 4:03 am

    Very well done – I’m the editor of Transhelvetica, a young travel magazine for Switzerland, and therefore know Switzerland very well. But you obviously have the nose and the energy to sniff at the right places so you find the hidden gems – some of them were new even to me. I like that! Keep on travelling

    Jon

  11. Lynn Pearson
    Gold Coast, Australia
    August 2, 2012, 5:11 am

    I travelled with Andrew on the Glacier Express from Zermatt to St Moritz enjoying the beautiful scenery of Switzerland. I have also enjoyed reading your wonderfully interesting stories, Andrew, on other parts Switzerland. I laughed at your comments on the differences between Switzerland and Italy which I also experienced.

  12. [...] in a lake! Some of my favorite spots for a summer dip: Lake Geneva (Bains de Paquis) Engadin’s Lej da Staz, and Lido [...]