Graubunden, Switzerland – Travel Review
by Richard Aspinall
Arriving into Zürich airport is always a pleasure. It is spacious, subtly lit and for a functional building surprisingly elegant: its best quality though, is its connection to the Swiss Rail Network. After arriving late in the day after a pleasant hop with Swiss Air from Manchester, the sure and certain knowledge that your train will be running on time (and not subject to a replacement bus service) is a nice way to end a journey. Indeed, trains are set dominate this trip, but more of that later.
We stayed in the small medieval city of Chur (pronounced ‘core’), which sits atop a small rise surveying the valley of the Upper Rhine and once made its living from the trade that flowed along one of Europe’s once busiest trade routes that connected mainland Europe with Italy, the Mediterranean and beyond. Chur is the administrative hub of the Graubünden canton, a region proud of its history and its Ibex mascot that bedecks public buildings. A well-preserved old town with charming coffee shops and art galleries sits comfortably aside business and municipal buildings. The art gallery is well worth a visit; as is the 800-year old cathedral and the Saturday market for a range of local products.
“Local cherry liqueur”
Chur was the home town of Angelica Kauffman, a well-respected artist whose work from the mid to late 1700s is found in many galleries today. This includes a self portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London. A more recent artist from Chur is the famous Swiss Surrealist Hans Rudi Giger who is famous for his design work for the Alien series of movies. Interestingly, he is the son of a pharmacist who kept pickled specimens in jars in his office.
Today, Chur is a neat, well-put-together city. It offers several hotels and some excellent restaurants, such as La Vita, where we enjoy delicious Italian food and superb wine. We stayed at the Hotel Stern, located a few minutes’ walk away from the main rail station. The traditional style hotel dates back to the 1600s and offers wonderfully authentic local cuisine including pieces of locally sourced air cured beef, sweets flavoured with the local cherry liqueur and the local bread flavoured with fennel seeds. The local bread recipe dates back hundreds of years when the doughnut-shaped loaves were threaded on ropes for storage and the fennel kept pests away. The tradition has remained and it is undeniably delicious.
The best way to get to know Chur is to book a City Tour Guide. Our guide, Theresia Ling-Stieger is very knowledgeable about the local area. She offers many insights into the cultural background, history, trade, architecture and artists of the city. She was also able to allow us entry to parts of the cathedral not open to unaccompanied tourists.
Chur is less famous for winter sports than its near neighbours of Davos and St Moritz. But it is very much a ‘mountain town’ and has a cable car station a few minutes’ walk from the rail station. This will take you to the heights of the nearby ski resort at Brambrüesch Mountain. Theresia was keen to impress that you could be skiing within minutes of your arrival.
Eager to see more of the eastern Alps, we traveled by rail to the nearby town of Arosa, a more traditional alpine town where the locals carry their shopping on sledges and tourists travel by horse drawn sleigh to enjoy the scenery. There is also a luxury spa and accommodation at the Tschuggen Grand Hotel where the waiters will offer you sheepskins to keep you warm as you enjoy a hot chocolate in the winter sun. There are also several traditonal restaurants where a hearty meal of the German pasta dish of Spätzle will set you up for the day; Restaurant Grischuna was very welcoming.
“Starting place for a hike”
Arosa offers year round alpine temptations. A series of well-maintained and well marked trails allow you to hike into, and more importantly, down from the mountains to explore (in season) the alpine flower rich meadows and forests full of skittish but plentiful deer. A trip up the cable car to the nearby peak of the Weisshorn at just over 2,600 metres offers a commanding view as well as a superb cafe for pastries and cappuccino. It makes an ideal starting place for a hike or a chance to watch the legions of para gliders who hurtle into the clear air when conditions allow.
Without doubt one of the highlights – and indeed a ‘must do’ of any trip to the region – is the Bernina Express by the Rhaetian Railway. This remarkable train leaves Chur and journeys through the valley eastwards. It crosses the Bernina Pass before dropping down over 1800 metres to cross the Italian border before terminating in Tirano.
The line, which has spurs to St Moritz and Davos, has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Only one of three railways to be so honoured. It is a remarkably impressive feat of engineering, even for travellers uninterested in the technicalities of civil engineering. The train rises seven feet for every thousand it travels forward. To gain enough height the line loops and twists along the valley’s contours and crosses scores of viaducts. The carriages have walls almost entirely made of glass to help you take in the spectacular scenery.
On our visit, we stopped at the utterly charming town of Poschiavo. Here the Italian influence reigns supreme. In fact, Italian is the local language. Anyone visiting Poschiavo would do well to seek out the services of a tour guide. Our guide, Agnese Iseppi is recommended by the Tourist Board. She gave us an interesting whistle-stop tour in the short time we had. She also took us to the Hotel Albrici in the town’s main square. Not only is the cuisine and local wine divine, but the building itself and the private rooms that are available for hire are exquisite. After our meal of Pizzocheri (a pasta dish made with buckwheat flour) served with a local mortadello cheese sauce, we toured the building. It has superb period furniture and paintings and is available for private parties.
A slightly gruesome sight in the town is the ossuary. Here the skulls of the disinterred (found during earlier renovations) are displayed for all to see. They are outside the Twelfth Century San Romerio Chapel. Poschiavo made its wealth through trade. One street locally known as ‘the Spanish quarter’ (so named after merchants who made their wealth in Spain) adds even more of a cosmopolitan flavour. Visitors to the Poschiavo valley can also enjoy a hike through remarkable scenery. They can take in the Giardino del Ghiacciai at Cavagla, where fantastic natural sculptures of rock, formed by melting glaciers are linked by networks of paths.
For a winter trip, with or without skis, Graubünden will not leave you wanting. You can enjoy the alpine views, the mountain air and the snow-clad forests in air conditioned comfort or on foot. When you return to the towns a rich history is awaiting you in the galleries and museums. To accompany this we would recommend the local cuisine with its cross-border influences.
All pictures © Richard Aspinall