By Sarah Ridley
The Engadine, in eastern Switzerland, is astonishingly beautiful. Entering the valley, I really did feel as though I was stepping into another world. The villages, framed by high mountains, are like something straight out of a fairytale, their pretty houses seemingly identical, with colourful window boxes dripping with flowers, deep-set windows enhanced by delicately painted patterns and frescoes (sgraffiti), and wide, wooden doors next to which are benches where elderly people (who speak Romansch between themselves) sit and watch the world go by. I admit that it took me a while to realise what made the Engadine villages so different to other Swiss villages I had visited in areas such as the Bernese Oberland, but it finally clicked: the traditional houses in the Engadine are built of stone, whereas those elsewhere in Switzerland are usually wooden.
We travelled most of the way from Zürich airport to Guarda by rail, a scenic journey that took us higher and higher into the mountains. Guarda itself is absolutely exquisite; the sort of place you never want to leave. The Hotel Meisser is completely in harmony with its wonderful setting, and is absolutely lovely, with service to match from two generations of the Meisser family. As there were few other guests, I was lucky enough to be given one of the bedrooms with a balcony and superb views across the valley. These views are shared by many of the public rooms – breakfast (a wonderful spread of cereals, 'proper' muesli soaked in yogurt, fruit, cheeses and a range of fresh breads and jams) is served in a panoramic gallery room or on the terrace in the garden, which also looks to the mountains. Dinners of dishes such as medallion of venison with chestnuts and red cabbage, and dates in a sauce served with hazelnut ice cream, are taken in the gorgeous restaurant complete with arched windows, panelled walls, sculpted ceiling, parquet floor, crisp linen tablecloths and fresh flowers on every table and seemingly in every nook and cranny.
We recommend two circular walks from Guarda, an additional reason – if one were needed – to do as we did and add an extra night (or two or three – there are many more walks possible) at this delightful spot. The first is a gentle walk to the village of Lavin which leads down through the valley past gushing streams. The flowers were marvellous, the gentians, large buttercups and other flowers colouring the lower meadows yellow and purple. Lavin is a workaday but nevertheless very attractive village. We paused for a drink and a cake at the small patisserie before crossing the covered wooden bridge (something I'd only ever come across before in New England) and continuing the walk along the valley floor. Up above me, on the other side of the valley, the train between St Moritz and Scuol, which you can use to travel from A to B on any days that you don't feel like walking, snaked its way across the slope at regular intervals. Just as the beginning of the walk had involved a steady descent, so the last part of the walk required a steady ascent back to the Meisser, but it wasn't long before we were ensconced at a table on the hotel's veranda, happily sipping at a beer to reward our efforts while enjoying the views.
The second circular walk proved to be the highlight of the week. It's considerably more demanding than the walk to Lavin, but certainly worth it. We climbed first through woodland, then through meadows which looked like something out of Heidi (it is claimed that she in fact lived further along the valley in a small village near Sils), finally reaching the hut at Chamanna Cler (2,478 metres) just after midday. It felt like we were on top of the world, and it was with a great sense of achievement that I dug out my camera from the bottom of my knapsack and carefully took a series of photos to capture the panorama of snowy peaks. After that, it was of course all downhill, past clusters of wild crocuses and a couple of marmots which bounded across the grass in front of us.
It was with some regret that we packed our suitcases the following morning and left them in reception before heading to the village station to travel by rail along the valley. Setting out on foot after alighting from the train, we followed the Via Engiadina, a series of good tracks that wind through meadows and woodland. As it was early in the season, the waterfalls created by the melting snow added extra drama to the scenery, and the River Inn at the bottom of the valley was a constant companion. About four hours after leaving the station, we emerged from the last in a series of woods, and finally, ahead of us, we could see Zuoz on the valley floor. The village was just as handsome as I had imagined it to be, and though the cobbled streets and delicately painted houses were by now a familiar sight, I was still awed by the beauty of the village.
Zuoz's Hotel Engiadina is completely different to the Hotel Meisser in Guarda. Whereas the Hotel Meisser has quite an intimate atmosphere, the Hotel Engiadina is typical of the large Swiss hotels of the late 19th century. With its high ceilings and huge lounges, it feels very grand, and it was no great leap of the imagination for us to picture upper-class Victorian travellers sipping tea in one of the salons or sampling the Swiss cuisine in the chandeliered restaurant.
Again, we had an extra night in Zuoz. For our first circular route, we kept fairly low, walking through woodland to Bever, from where we followed a path back along the banks of the fast-flowing River Inn. The second was one that I particularly enjoyed. The path took us across the valley and then zig-zagged quite steeply uphill, first through woodland and then through open pastureland up to a hidden lake. It was incredibly peaceful, a perfect place to stop for a leisurely lunch before returning to Zuoz.
The walk from Zuoz to Sils started with a train ride to St Moritz. Walking through this famous, glitzy town was an experience in itself – with its huge hotels and its boutiques boasting names such as Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent, it is certainly very different to traditional Guarda and Zuoz! From St Moritz, we walked along the valley slope, keeping more or less the same gradient for most of the way. In theory, the walk to Sils should only take three hours, but we found ourselves taking far longer as we stopped so often to admire the views, which were breathtaking. When we eventually drew closer to Sils, its two neighbouring lakes came into view. The scene was somewhat clichéd – glittering lakes set at the foot of green, snow-capped mountains framed by a cloudless, vivid blue sky – but very beautiful nevertheless.
Idyllically located between the two lakes, Sils is an Italianate village. We stayed in the Hotel Privata, run by the lovely Giovanoli family. Frau Giovanoli is particularly genial and is full of energy – she’s one of those people who seem to be able to talk without ever pausing for breath. The hotel is an intriguing old building, crammed full of bric-a-brac: old wooden skis, paintings of the valley, butter churns, well-worn old furniture, and the medals that Herr Giovanoli won as a skier. Dinner is served promptly at seven each evening, the guests having been called to the dining room a couple of minutes earlier by the ringing of a bell. The Italian influence is very evident in the menu, with a wide choice of risottos and pasta dishes. We even finished off one of our meals here with tiramisu.
Our last day was thoroughly enjoyable. Accompanied by the clanging of cowbells, we headed away from the lakes, past gushing streams and through one of the isolated villages (a jumble of wooden houses clustered around an old well) where it is claimed that Heidi lived. We then descended to the far end of the lake and walked along the south shore back to Sils, gaining a new perspective of the mountains. As it was only early afternoon by the time we returned, we walked to the nearby Fex Valley, an unspoiled place dotted with tiny hamlets and isolated churches, one of which was beautifully decorated with flowers in preparation for a wedding. Feeling quite peckish, we stopped at a gasthof for coffee and nusstorte (nut and honey cake) and wrote a few postcards to people back home – better late than never!
Note: Tickets for the train journeys mentioned are included in the holiday price. Since Sarah travelled to the Engadine, we have found an even more enjoyable walk between Guarda and Zuoz which takes you up the Trupchun Valley into Switzerland’s only National Park, where you may be lucky enough to see deer, chamois or even a golden eagle. Another change we have made is to include a third night in Sils, giving you a full day to explore the Fex Valley.