The nutcracker darts among the frozen branches, a flash of speckled brown in a white scene. He settles briefly, sending a shower of snow to the forest floor, then swoops down, foraging for pine cones from which he will source seeds for a tasty lunch. This is his kingdom and I am an intruder. It seems almost intimate for the silence to be so deep that I can hear his wings rustle as they flap. On this flawless day in Switzerland’s Upper Engadine, the sky huge and blue above the marzipan-smooth U-shaped valley, he’s my first encounter of the walk.
A winter walk was impossible to resist when, as I peered out of my hotel window at the onset of dawn, I was greeted by a flawless Engadine day. The region, which stretches from Maloja to St. Moritz in southeasternmost Switzerland, is one of the country’s sunniest. In winter the sun glows almost silver, splashing the shoulders and cornices of the mighty yet low-slung mountains in a bluey light. Google Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler to get a good impression – he captures the beauty in his 1907 work Schnee im Engadin.
Winter walking is one of the best ways to enjoy the landscape: it encourages you to move so much more slowly than in summer, at a pace that allows you to appreciate every frosty berry and natural ice sculpture. Today’s walk started out in one of the region’s quintessentially pretty hamlets, Bever, where stocky houses bright with cheerful sgraffito huddle together against the cold, their rooftops seeming to bow under the weight of layers of snow, crinkly like millefeuille.
From the edge of the village, the path climbed into a panoramic meadow. Tumbling before me was a patchwork of frozen fields, tinged silvery blue in sunlight so bright it appeared white. Under my feet that satisfying crunch, the kind you get on a properly prepared winter path. As I climbed, the snow banked like walls along the sides of the path and my pace became slower. I soon entered ancient forest of larch and pine, the trees casting blue shadows on the ground.
There are more than 150 kilometres of winter trails in the Upper Engadine, but across the Alps villages have large networks of specially prepared paths. Some of my favourites in Switzerland include Sils, further up the Engadine Valley, where you can walk along the shores of the eponymous lake, and Kandersteg. The latter, a traditional village that sits like a pearl in a shell of sheer rock faces, has natural 40-degrees-Celsius thermal pools where you can soak after your day’s exertions.
Back on the Bever path, I’m nearing my destination: the train station at Spinas. We’re not far from the Albula Tunnel – at more than 1,800 metres above sea level, one of the highest tunnels in the Alps. When the tunnel was built in the early 1900s, Spinas was home to a small army barracks, but all that remains today is a clutch of historical buildings, among them the former post office, now home to Gasthaus Spinas. I think I’ll just go and see if it’s open: I wouldn’t mind a hot chocolate before setting off on the return leg of the walk.