Switzerland is known as a lavish land of snow-capped mountains and exquisite scenery.
From the snow-packed trail, I have a mountaineer’s view of Switzerland’s Upper Engadin. Silvery frozen lakes strung along the Inn River, far below, lead my eye south-west up the valley into Italy where the setting sun swallows the details of distant peaks and clouds. This morning I was at the ocean shore for sunrise. Now I’m breathing alpine air at 2700 metres above sea level. It took some serious winter climbing to get here, though no crampons or ice axes necessary. Just a rail pass and a funicular ticket.
Such ease and speed of access to the Engadin, in Switzerland’s largest and most easterly canton of Graubünden, has only been possible since 600 or so Italians constructed this railway line around a century ago. These men also liberated the region from its wretched chicory-and-coffee-blend ways, insisting on the real full-strength deal or
niente was going to get done. This feat of brawn and brains means travellers can now effortlessly ascend 1721 metres from Zürich to the Upper Engadin’s capital of Samedan in less than three hours.
After a quick and easy train change at Chur (pronounced koor), the capital of Graubünden and reputedly Switzerland’s oldest town, I notice a distinct shift.
Villages are more precariously positioned in an increasingly dramatic landscape. There’s more snow; it fills walled churchyards and settles around the headstones. Decorative patterning etched into pastel plasterwork, called
sgraffito, is everywhere. And there’s a new language in my ears.
“Allegra,” the guard says with a smile when she checks my ticket. This is Romansch, the country’s most recently acknowledged national and official language alongside German, French and Italian. After Roman soldiers defeated the Celts here about 2000 years ago, they put down roots. Centuries of isolation saw very little change to their spoken Vulgar Latin apart from the development of dialects.
The other noticeable difference after Chur is more skiers on the train.
The sporting legacy of St Moritz
Some say winter sports were born in the Engadin. The Swiss Alps were a summertime-only tourism destination until the original owner of what is now St Moritz’s Kulm Hotel offered some English guests free unlimited winter accommodation. Months later they finally dragged themselves back to Britain, suntanned and changed forever.
Then in 1928 St Moritz hosted its first Winter Olympics, in 1929 it opened the ski school and then trademarked itself with a sun logo representing its 300-
plus days of annual sunshine. A yearly snow polo tournament has been held on St Moritz Lake for over 30 years now.
Yet Engadin traditions have survived. In a cave-like corner of St Moritz, Ludwig Hatecke presses and air-dries locally sourced meat to create bündnerfleisch.
Lesser known Zuoz was once the political centre of the Upper Engadin and remains a well-preserved Romansch village where locals embrace the quiet life. Sgraffiti-adorned Hotel Crusch Alva, built around 1500, overlooks the central plaza. Nearby, Galerie Tschudi has a medieval tower to discover above its traditional Romansch rooms.
Philosophising on a peak
But I don’t stay on the train to St Moritz with the skiers today. I change again in Samedan for one stop to Punt Muragl. Engadin transport is a spidery collection of bus, railway, funicular and even horse-drawn sleigh routes.
Punt Muragl funicular covers about 700 altitudinal metres in 10 minutes up to the Romantik Hotel and its fourkilometre Muottas Muragl toboggan run.
The hotel, at 2456 metres, puts Romansch first in its signage and is a ski-free zone. The first energy-plus hotel in the Eastern Alps, it has 16 rooms and a huge sundeck. The restaurant serves up Italian and old Romansch favourites.
I walk off my herdsman’s macaroni and nut tart along the Philosophers’ Trail and, at its height, stop to gaze out at the valley I have a week to explore. For today, though, I’ve come a long way and intend to stay on this high for a while.
03 01 View from the Corvatsch 02 Snow Polo World Cup 03 Perfect cross-country trails 04 Lights of the Upper Engadin