Until just a few years ago, the annual meeting in January of the World Economic Forum, at Davos, Switzerland, would wind down with a mountaintop barbecue. By then, many of the influential corporate party-givers, pontificating presidents, oil-rich Arab royals, trophy wives (and occasional trophy husbands), movie stars, rock stars, best-selling authors, conscientious do-gooders and coffee-fueled hacks would have drifted away. But there was still enough of the hard core (and the cognoscenti) to spend a long afternoon on the snow-covered lawn of the Hotel Schatzalp, high above the town. This is where Thomas Mann set The Magic Mountain, his huge and troubling novel about the eve of World War I, when this straitlaced structure on this imposing slope was a luxury sanatorium for Europe’s ailing elites.
As the barbecue was going on, few people actually spent much time inside. But I was always intrigued by the hints of past opulence and present weirdness there. I once persuaded the manager to take me to the Imperial Suite, which looked as if it had changed very little since the kaisers. The vaulted ceilings of the dining room hinted at bygone grandeur, and the name of the nightclub—such as it was—the X-Ray Bar, alluded to the function it served in the old days.
After the guests had hit a few golf balls into the snowy abyss, after a few of them puckered up to blow alpine horns and after a lot of sausage and a lot of beer or Champagne, the barbecue would end with a few of us taking toboggans down the mountain, steering drunkenly around sharp curves by dragging our feet on one side or the other of the wooden racers. There were several opportunities to soar into open space—and eternity.
Over the years, I came to see the Schatzalp as a kind of refuge from the globalized frenzy in the town below, which wasn’t really about the mountains or the setting at all, but about what Mann had called “the catastrophe-smitten flat-land”—the rest of the world, moving in and out of crises economic, political, military and existential. I’d go up to visit the Schatzalp even when no event was taking place there. The Panorama Restaurant (a short walk down Thomas Mann Way) has a breathtaking view of the valley, the town and the surrounding mountains, as well as excellent food at prices no more ridiculously high than down below. There is a good hiking trail to town if you want to skip the funicular ride up or the toboggan down. I’ve walked it many times from top to bottom, and exactly once from bottom to top, but I will never forget a fox crossing my path, appearing and disappearing so silently in the snowy woods that it seemed to come from a dream.
In time, I conceived this fantasy that one day I would return to the Schatzalp when the high-and-mighty people had departed so I could commune in peace with the high-and-mighty mountains that remained. It was just sort of a pleasant daydream, the kind of thing to even out one’s temperament in the high-pressure 30-ring circus that is the World Economic Forum.
As I look back today over the many articles I’ve written about Davos since I first went there a decade ago for Newsweek, it strikes me that the weighty political and economic news of the summit was really more like coverage of a fashion show. Each year, one or two people at the center of a crisis, at the pinnacle of business fame or as incandescent as celebrities in other fields would attract a lot of attention. Then a year later, they’d be gone. Or they’d come back as sudden, sad anachronisms—their star power faded, their fame a cliché.
Klaus Schwab, the man who created the Forum more than 40 years ago, spends a huge amount of time (and makes a huge amount of money) trying to figure out just what mix will make his moun- tains magic each January. And it is telling that Adrian Monck, a seasoned journalist with a caustic wit who is head of communications for the WEF, has taken to styl- ing himself after the redoubtable concierge-manager in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. His Twitter ID labels him “M. Gustave to globalization.”
Like the guests of that movie’s fictional mountain retreat, there is a certain sameness about the faces that come and go. One year—2004, it must have been—Iranian president Mohammad Khatami was the man everybody wanted to talk to about his government’s controversial nuclear program. “Could the West stop Iran from getting the Bomb?” His answer: “We don’t want the Bomb.” About a decade later, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was the man everybody wanted to hear. Same question. Same answer. Same hard-to-read smile.
Other faces disappear forever. For a while Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, was the man to see—the supposedly sane son of a mad tyrant, the so-called voice of moderation. But now his dad’s dead, and he’s rotting in the hands of warlords in a country that’s disintegrated.
Another year, without question, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt held center stage, to what end I am not sure. They attracted a lot of attention to their causes, but still more, inevitably, to themselves. In the years afterward, one noted, the movie-star invites declined dramatically.
As at any great conference or festival, whether it’s Davos or Cannes, the most interesting stuff goes on offstage. You wind up waiting in line at a security check with an Egyptian billionaire or crammed in a shuttle bus knee to knee with Google’s Sergey Brin. Davos parties and after-parties late into the night are, yes, legendary. In recent years, Tina Brown has given spectacular dinners (the kind where you chat up feminist activists from Pakistan’s tribal territories along with Richard Branson, then turn around and trip over Mick Jagger). The after-after-party scene around the bar in the Hotel Europe goes on and on, and solutions to many of the great problems of the world have been found there, no doubt, but nobody can manage to recall them in the morning.
Lunches are more memorable, and if the measure is in the mix, the one that stands out was given by the Washington Post in 2008. The guests included, among many others, a young guy many people had never heard of named Mark Zuckerberg. There was a lot of optimism and a bit of puzzlement about these things called “social media.” But what was really striking, as I wrote at the time—this was January 2008—was the sense of impending doom. Billionaire George Soros had just declared that the economic order of the previous 60 years was collapsing. “We’re all wondering how poor we are,” a major stockholder in a Fortune 500 company said as we settled into our seats at the Hotel Seehof. And a leading economist and educator told the assembled power players at that lunch that the next American president would face “the greatest challenges since any chief executive since Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933.” So you couldn’t say that the people at Davos didn’t see the crash coming—they just didn’t do anything to stop it.
Over the years, I took to hanging out with the handful of mystics who are regular Davos invitees. Matthieu Ricard, the son of political philosopher Jean-François Revel (author of The Totalitarian Temptation, which sold well in the Reagan years, and Without Marx or Jesus ), is a Buddhist monk who wears his saffron robes at Davos just as he does around his monastery in Nepal. He talks about the need for altruism, the need to replace the fixation on gross national product with gross national happiness (his books are very popular in France), but I am afraid that his message has yet to get through at Davos. And then there is Paulo Coelho, whose The Alchemist is one of the best-selling books of all time. Coelho’s spirituality is all tied up with pilgrimages, and, reflecting on a talk we had in 2013, I finally decided to make a pilgrimage of my own. I would come back to Davos in the summer. I would walk up the Magic Mountain. I would stay in the Imperial Suite. I would, for at least a few days, forget the catastrophe-smitten flatland.
And so I did, sort of. The experience, in point of fact, was very different from my long-standing fantasy, as of course it would be. I didn’t actually walk up. It was too hot. And I didn’t get the Imperial Suite; I got the one below it. I had expected hikers in the mountains, and there were many. I had expected that the Promenade, the main street in the town, would seem empty after the snow-trudging masses during the World Economic Forum. It was. And the Schatzalp in the bright light of summer, without its blankets of snow, showed its age like a dowager without her makeup. But that didn’t really surprise me.
What I had not expected was that almost everywhere my wife and I went, we ran into Orthodox Jews—men in hats and women in wigs with flocks of children. It turns out that Davos in the summer becomes a favorite site for kosher tourism. And while the Schatzalp certainly is not kosher (many pigs have died for the daily breakfast), its grounds are a favorite destination. Among the attractions—I really had no idea that this sort of thing existed—a stainless-steel bobsled run built for plastic sleds twists through the rolling meadow behind the hotel. I lined up with the little boys in yarmulkes to have a go, relieved that I didn’t have to steer with my feet.
Finally, despite all the surprises, on the balcony of the suite at the Schatzalp, I did find what I had been looking for—the kind of peace that settles into you in the mountains if you just let it. Maybe it comes from the drama of the changing light and the quality of the air. Maybe it is the grandeur of alpine geometry—those vertical, triangular proportions, a kind of frozen music that penetrates the soul like Beethoven or, yes, Wagner. Here in the Swiss Alps, I lay in a chaise longue that looked like it might have been around in the days of Thomas Mann. Birds soared high in the distance. The Aroser Rothorn and the Lenzer Horn stood guard against massive clouds that seemed to do battle with their peaks but never quite conquered them. And I kept thinking of an anecdote my wife had come across when she made inquiries about the reason for kosher tourism.
The story is told that the hugely influential German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was asked why he was going to visit Switzerland. “When I shall stand before God,” he answered, “the Eternal One will ask me with pride: ‘Did you see my Alps?’ ” And the rabbi didn’t want to be found wanting.
Finally, for all my many trips there, I had taken the time to see His Alps as well.