November 09, 2005

Horst and the summer snowballs

The meteorologists said it would rain today. It’s clear and sunny. Until they go to the same school that Horst went to and start getting their weather right, I’m going to stop listening to them entirely.

On a blistering July day, on our way to Samedan near St. Moritz, we stopped at Bellinzona (left), an ancient Swiss town that guards the St. Gotthard Pass. Bellinzona rates only a quick half-page in the Michelin Green Guide to Switzerland, but it should be on the cover. Almost no one stops here, but everyone should. It’s an extraordinary small city filled with exquisitely restored baroque and Renaissance squares. The place brims with arcaded walks and elaborately painted plaster and stone facades sporting intriguing designs and trompe l’oeil. Bellinzona is the capital of the Italian-speaking Ticino canton, and, as we walked through the Centro Storico, Bellinzona’s historic heart, I was happy to pack my German away for the day and try out some of the flowing, liquid Italian I’d been trying to learn.

Three castles from the 13th to the 15th centuries sit on successively higher hills above Bellinzona's twisting, cobbled streets. The smallest, youngest castle is on the highest hill. A magnificently turreted and crenellated creation sits in the middle. And the oldest, largest castle – the Castelgrande – rests massively on the lowest hill. From the Centro Storico, a space-age elevator whisked us up through a rock face and deposited us inside Castelgrande's walls. The air-conditioned elevator encased in cold stone provided wondrous relief from the heavy July heat.

We sat at a concrete picnic table at a terrace restaurant built into the castle walls and looked out over the panorama of Bellinzona below and the alpine mountainscape spreading away in the distance. A pergola of creeping vines provided spotty shade.

I began telling the kids about the Samedan hotel where we’d spend the night – the Berghotel Muottas Muragl, a sherbet-colored inn at the top of a 7,500-foot peak (2,456 meters, to be exact). We’d park our car at the Punt Muragl rail station and take a tiny mountain train to the hotel.

Suddenly a voice said, “It will snow above 2,000 meters.” Horst, a German mathematics professor who lived in Zurich and was on his way to a math conference in Ascona on Lake Maggiore, introduced himself and repeated, with certainty, “It will snow above 2,000 meters.”

Shielding our eyes from the blazing sun, we smiled at him. Snow. Sure. Let me run and get the boots and parkas. This was a blast furnace day. We were sweating bullets into our bisteca. During lunch, Adam and Horst talked math, and Horst did some career counseling, telling Adam over and over that “being a mathematician is really fun.”

Early that evening, we rode the mountain train to the top of Muottas Muragl. The stony summit was snow-free and carpeted with delicate lichen and pink and yellow wildflowers. We stood in the warm setting sun and looked across the Upper Engadine Valley to the powerful peaks of the Bernina Massif, full in our faces.

That night, while the family slept, I sat at our hotel room window and looked out on a view that included the twinkling lights of St. Moritz far below. Stars peppered the clear, cobalt sky.

Then a heavy cloud rolled right past the window. It seemed to stop and look in at me long enough to deliver a strange "I told you so" stare. Then it grew bigger and darker, and I watched as it swallowed the hotel. Flakes began to fall.

The next morning we woke to a world covered in Horst-foretold snow above 2,000 meters. The kids hooted and ran across the frosted, white mountaintop, slipping and sliding in their sneakers. They made an arsenal of July snowballs and pitched the orbs at each other and out over the side of the mountain, watching as they sailed into the green, snowless valley below.