First Tracks in Europe

This first trip to Europe with my camera kicked my film business into high gear

By Warren Miller

In 1953, the Swiss and Austrian tourist bureaus both hosted me on my first trip to Europe. All I had to do was get to New York and carry my camera everywhere and expose a lot of 16mm film. It was a very long drive in my panel delivery truck from Los Angeles to New York on a two-lane highway. The interstate had not yet been built.

The two largest resorts in Switzerland were Davos and St. Moritz. Almost all of the hotels back then were on south facing slopes because when they were built in the 1800s the only known cure for tuberculosis was high altitude and lots of sunshine. As a result these hotels had hallways wide enough to push a bed out of the room, down the hallway and onto the balcony into the fresh air.

Even when the resorts started catering to skiers, many of them only had one bathroom per floor so you had to make an appointment with the maid to use the bathtub. One of the luxuries that these hotels offered was to polish your ski boots every night, so people put them out in the hallway by the door. The hall porter would pick them up, take them somewhere and put a brilliant shine on them.

I was able to get some great photographs of dozens of people stretched out on lawn chairs, spending their days getting bronzed by staring at the sun with their eyes shut.

Back in those days, all of the ski lifts were on south slopes because that’s where hotels were located and chairlifts had not yet arrived in Europe.

My foreign language skills were limited to “excuse me,” “hello,” “goodbye” and “can I take a movie of you since you’re such a good skier?” I had that last phrase written in French and German on cards in my rucksack.

In those days, you could find a small hotel and get a nice room with two meals a day for less than eight dollars per day. Prices varied with the proximity to the cable railway and I remember lift lines for those cable railways that were two or more hours. To get to the powder snow, you rode the cable railway to the summit and skied down the back of the mountain to a village as far as 12 kilometers away and then climbed on a train and rode back up to the cable railway and stood in line again.

I quickly learned that a cheese omelette was the best thing to order for breakfast and lunch when I was traveling in Europe. Plus it was the only thing I could pronounce.

My first stop in Austria was in Zurs at the summit of the Flexen Pass. If you needed new ski boots this was the place to buy them. The Martin Strolz family custom-made ski boots was in nearby Lech. Martin himself would come to your hotel in Zurs in the evening, measure your feet and at the end of skiing the following day would come to your hotel with a brand-new pair of custom-made ski boots for as much as $19 a pair.

That first winter in Switzerland I became well acquainted with the owner of a woodcarving and souvenir shop where I made the down payment on a magnificent carving of a shepherd. He is carrying a baby lamb under his arm and its two sheep are walking beside him. It is carved out of a single block of white oak and still stands on our mantle in our island home.

I was tired after three weeks of traveling and filming and, when I got back to New York, I was greeted by a flat tire on my red truck plus having a 3,000-mile drive back to Hermosa Beach on a two-lane road ahead of me. This first trip to Europe with my camera kicked my film business into high gear that lasted over 50 years.

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