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High time in Davos

All eyes turn to Davos once a year when it hosts the world's elite at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting. But the town is a thriving community whose residents think it's a special place all year round.

From the town at night, small lights can be made out moving slowly up the mountainside. They belong to about a dozen snow tractors making use of the hours of darkness to groom the nearly 200 kilometres of ski slopes below the Weissfluh peak.

There's a weather station just below the peak belonging to the Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. It's the temporary home of doctorate student, Hans Grassl.

Grassl rises at dawn, puts on his ski suit and climbs on to an observation platform behind the building. He looks at the sky. Despite the presence of sophisticated electronic measuring equipment, he uses his trained eye to judge the amount of cloud cover and visibility.

"We also have to measure the depth of any new snow by hand, and also the total snow depth," Grassl explains. "Then we measure the density of the snow and the snow and air temperature."

The information that he and nearly 100 other observers across Switzerland gather daily is processed at the Davos institute where avalanche bulletins for the entire country are issued.

At eight o'clock every morning, Armin Egger, the new tourist director of Davos, steps into his office. He's responsible for ensuring that tourists continue to crowd on to the ski slopes below the Weissfluh, and that the town remains a centre for research and conferences.

Davos hosts the World Economic Forum's annual conference, and countless other business meetings each year. It's also home to the avalanche institute and medical research clinics, and still attracts thousands of people from around the world who hope the dry mountain climate will cure their respiratory ailments.

It was the 19th century German doctor, Alexander Spengler, who discovered that the Davos climate could help cure tuberculosis.

A portrait of Spengler dominates Egger's wood-panelled office. Like Spengler, Egger is a foreigner - and the only one heading a Swiss tourist office. A native of Austria, he has been brought in to help Davos shake off a certain amount of complacency.

"Quality is often misunderstood, especially in tourism," he says. "When many people talk about quality they refer only to five star hotels. But quality has to extend to youth hostels as well. Quality has to be a red line through everything."

On a quiet side street not far from Egger's office, 85-year-old Luzio Consoli prepares lunch in his small flat. Despite his advanced age, he's only been retired for a few months, ending a 69-year career as a shoemaker.

He was the last of his kind in Davos and his entire workshop has been put on permanent display at a local museum in honour of his long years of service to the town.

"People walk around in winter now in their running shoes. That's hard for me to understand," Consoli says. "That's why I was happy to stop. If someone asked me to repair their running shoes, I would tell them that my machine would only sew leather, and not plastic!"

Consoli has witnessed a century of change. He saw many of the prominent writers, artists and political dissidents who came to Davos, and even counted some as customers. Among them was the German expressionist painter, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

"In the 1930s, my father used to say: 'look, here comes the mad one!'." Consoli laughs. "That's what people said about him at the time."

Today, the Kirchner museum on Davos' main street houses the world's largest collection by the German artist.

Kirchner has provided inspiration for many contemporary artists including Davos' current mad painter, Thomas Spielmann. "The clarity of the colours around Davos is incredible," he says. "Kirchner was able to portray that - such as how the snow turns to pink as soon as the sun sets."

It's the end of the day and Spielmann locks up his dental practice and heads for his atelier. He climbs a ladder and pours fresh colour over a crumpled piece of painted canvas.

The canvas is a previous work that he has ripped out of its frame and placed on top of a long metal stand.

His current approach to art is not a destructive process, he explains, but an artistic reflection of the personal changes he has experienced. He describes his newly transformed works as an archive of his soul.

Like many residents, past and present, Spielmann is not a native of Davos. "The town is a melting pot of the most diverse people - Swiss and foreigners who've found a home here.

"That makes Davos very attractive," he says. "It's a very liberal place, where people can do most anything they want, if they set their mind to it."

by Dale Bechtel

audio: 8233

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