This week is a busy one, what with your debates and your people dying and your big speeches. But we must not let those things obscure what should be our real focus: the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of the haves in Davos, Switzerland.
Davos, you may not have been aware, is a place, not a thing – much as Google is a website, not a verb. I know this, because I have been there. My wife, you see, once worked for the aforementioned Forum; a few years back I forewent the Super Bowl so that I might join her for a visit.
In the interest of edification, then, or so that you might imagine yourself to be George Soros, allow me to be your tour guide to the city that, were it not for Mssrs. Obama, Paterno, Gingrich and Romney, would be at the tip of everyone’s tongues this week, save many other more interesting topics.
We’ll do this CIA World Book style, for ease of perusal.
Switzerland is in Europe.
Further, it is smallish (comparable to Vermont and New Hampshire, combined) and enclosed by France, Germany, Italy and Austria. If you ever see a movie about a family of Austrian singers escaping the Nazis, it’s likely that they are escaping across the border into Switzerland. And that they are doing so in the summer.
For you see, the mountains that spread across the Swiss-Austrian border are no joke. In the winter, they’re blanketed by multiple feet of snow, making passage nearly impossible. Which, of course, is why the world’s richest and most influential chose Davos, a small village, or dorf, (not to be confused with a short unfunny comedian, or Dorf) therein for their annual winter gathering. If you’re standing on a snowbank in Switzerland, it’s quite possible that Davos is currently located about eight feet beneath you.
Getting to Davos.
Assuming you’ve flown into Geneva, which lies at the lower left corner of habitable Switzerland, or Zurich, the apex of the triangle the three cities form, you have three options. In increasing likelihood of being chosen by the extremely rich: you can drive, you can take the train, or you can take a helicopter. When I arrived in Davos, WEF participants were just heading out, and every few minutes you could hear another chopper pass overhead. If you’re partial to the Korean War, think Radar O’Reilly; if partial to Vietnam, think embassy evacuation.
I took the train which, as its reputation might suggest, was awesome. The only thing that is as punctual in America is Tim Tebow on Sunday morning. I’m also one of the select nostalgists who has (multiple times) taken the Amtrak cross-country (for which delays are measured by the season) so I was particularly awe-struck.
The train runs through beautiful country: along the Zürichsee (a lake into which mountains dip their toes), through bucolic countryside riddled with Helvetica lettering, and finally into the Alps. At about this point, in fairness to accuracy, I fell asleep due to lingering red-eye effects. But I bet it was super cool.
As a tourist from America, I didn’t know anything about the history of the town up until I just looked it up on Wikipedia. It has, it seems, been home to various winter sports competitions, spas and resorts. And, as you may remember from your high school Extremely Obscure History classes, it was home to the League of the Ten Jurisdictions in 1436.
Language and culture.
Switzerland has a French-speaking side (near France) and a German-speaking side (near Germany and Austria). Davos is on the German-speaking side, as you may have noticed. So forget your “ooh la la”s and bone up on your “Ja”s.
Arrival in Davos.
Davos has two train stations. You’ll want to get off at the Davos Dorf stop (pictured), unless you want to get off at the other one (Davos Platz), which I didn’t.
Said station is at the northeastern end of town, just off the Bahnhofstrasse Dorf. Inside is a pleasant little welcome center at which they speak English and do not make fun of you for not speaking German. Across a parking lot, a small restaurant – though, if you can’t wait to be seated, they also have a chicken truck. (Pictured below, rather obviously.) Once filled with chicken, and pointed in the right direction, you’re ready to hit the town.
[A word of warning. The distance between the bathtub and the towel rack in some of the rental houses in Davos is slightly too far to make it easy to grab your towel, and you may, particularly if jet-lagged, fall out of the shower and land heavily on your arm, rendering it useless for half an hour or so. Should this happen, do not call your wife, who is busting her ass working on a major international conference, to indicate that your arm might be broken. She is too busy for such nonsense.]
What there is to do: winter sports
A few paragraphs up, I mentioned snow. When I was there in January, the view from our apartment looked like this:
That white stuff is snow, feet deep. (In front of our building, some kids had built a snow fort with walls taller than my wife.) If you look in the background, you’ll notice the snow-covered mountains – buttressed, at the upper left of that picture, with anti-avalanche barriers.
In the winter, there are two things to do. The first – attending major invitation-only conferences – is probably not for you. So there’s the second – sports.
You name it. There’s an ice skating rink just south of the main road. There are, of course, ski runs. You can snowboard. You can sled. It’s this bounty, legend has it, that drew the conference to Davos in the first place.
Allow me focus on sledding for a moment. Growing up in Rochester, New York, in the heart of the Snowbelt, I used to sled regularly, on hills around our neighborhood. My wife grew up in California’s Central Valley, better know for its orange crop than its luge courses. But we were both taken aback when we decided to go sledding in Davos.
First, you have to take a funicular up the side of the mountain. About halfway up, you arrive at a beautiful hotel, behind which is the sled run. And then you sled down the side of a goddamn Swiss Alp. There’s no fence separating you from rather substantial cliffs – just a small berm of loose snow. It’s breathtaking and a lot of fun – and very, very few people are killed doing it. (None that I know of. But I wouldn’t be surprised.) When you get to the bottom of the hill, it’s about a ten minute walk just to get back to the place from which you rent your sled.
You may recall my mentioning above that the sled run started halfway up the mountain. In the picture of my wife sledding, you can see how far halfway up the mountain actually is: that town in the distant background is Davos. There are actually two more funicular stops before you near the peak of the mountain. From that high, the view looks like this:
(You’ll pardon my skepticism that a nun and ten children schlepped across this, Rolf on their tails or not.) The object in the lower left of the picture is the covered funicular, with a staircase over it to allow skiers access to the other side; the photo itself was taken from the patio of a restaurant at the summit. Well, still a stop beneath the summit itself, which was closed due to inclement weather, and by “inclement”, I here mean “exceptionally frigid and windy.” Have fun skiing!
What there is to do: the town
In theory, Davos has shopping (primarily along the main drag named, appropriately, Promenade), an art museum, and restaurants. Each of these things leave much to be desired. My first night there, we went to get a bite, and everything was closed, save a little cafe in a hotel which didn’t seem to want to sell us food. Quite literally. The exchange of money for goods was somehow distasteful at that late hour – strange for a town that was playing host to the cream of the capitalist crop.
Then again, Davos is a resort town. The center of attraction isn’t fine dining or beautiful sculpture – it’s skiing. So, like the towns near summer vacation spots, these amenities get short shrift. I can plug one aspect of the dining: the fondue joints. The Swiss, who invented the stuff, know how to make a mean melted cheese. Don’t be put off by the smell upon entering a fondue restaurant – years of serving warmed wine mixed with cheese has an impact.
To summarize: if you don’t like winter sports and dislike dipping bread into things, Davos doesn’t have much to recommend itself, at least in the winter.
What there is to do: major international summits
If, however, you’re one of the 1,500-odd folks fortuitous enough to get an invite to the Forum’s conference – different story. In that case, there’s plenty to do, from schmoozing, to participating in discussions, to observing the discussions of others, to piano bars. They take the invitations seriously – when I was there, the day after nearly everyone had left, the Congress Center (pictured on the map) was still ringed by two levels of chain-link fencing and patrolled by armed guards who are essentially members of the local police force.
The reason for the security is obvious – heads of various countries regularly attend, as do protestors. For the residents, though – what few don’t head out of town – the two main streets running through this long, narrow town are knotted up, right in the middle. The disruptions fan out from that knot, encompassing the hotels on the outskirts of the secure area, the restaurants that serve them, the stores selling “I went to Davos and…” t-shirts. When the claim is made that the city is taken over by the conference, that is meant literally.
I have to say, by the way: the conference gets a bit of a bad rap. Yeah, the headlines are about the celebrities and CEOs and heads of state. But there are also hundreds of people from companies and non-profits of a range of sizes for whom this is a remarkable opportunity to talk about their work and learn about global issues. Is it always framed I would choose? Probably not. Can one justifiably question the gathering’s ability to positively impact global finance? Yes. But conversation is a good thing, is it not?
Our last day there, we saw Jet Li walking down the street and then we rode up to the top of a mountain.
And that’s Davos.
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