Traditions in the Garden of the River Inn | Posted: 15 February 2013
Time your winter holiday in Switzerland's Engadine Valley to coincide with the Chalandamarz celebrations on 1 March
The handsome village of Guarda, a great base for winter walking holidays in Switzerland
Sgraffiti designs decorate many houses in the Engadine, a great choice for winter walking and cross-country skiing

Hidden away behind high snow-capped peaks – it's little wonder long-held traditions survive in Switzerland's glorious Engadine Valley.

The Engadine Valley in Switzerland is one of the highest inhabited valleys in Europe. Hidden behind a wall of soaring peaks, it was sheltered and protected from outside influence for centuries, resulting in the survival of ancient traditions, myths and legends. There’s an accepted adherence to ‘the old ways’ here and that includes the language.

The Engadine (and the wider Graubünden region) is one of the strongholds of Romansch, a Rheto-Romance tongue spoken only in certain parts of Switzerland. In Romansch, the name Engadin means the ‘garden of the River Inn’, and there’s no doubting the veracity of this statement.

The valley enjoys a dry, sunny climate, with the altitude giving especial brilliance to the sun; and the scenery is simply breathtaking – classic Alpine landscapes of flower-filled meadows beneath towering, snow-capped mountains.

Pretty villages like Guarda add to this idyllic picture, with fountains, cobbled streets and traditional stone houses with large arched doorways that are so typical of the Engadine. Zuoz is equally handsome, centred on an imposing village square with its well-kept medieval buildings.

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Villages of the Engadine

Discover Switzerland’s most traditional and idyllic valley from three delightful villages – Guarda, Zuoz and Sils – on walks through flower-filled meadows and across high slopes.

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Guarda and the Hotel Meisser

For a completely different perspective, visit Guarda’s charming Hotel Meisser in winter and enjoy the quiet splendour of the snowy scenery as you explore on foot or snowshoes along the special trails.

More about our snow holidays with a difference in Switzerland’s Engadine Valley >

However, what adds to their charm is the ‘sgraffito’ – no, not graffiti – that adorns many of the walls. Sgraffito is a scratchwork decoration thought to date from the 16th century when migrant Italian workers came here to build houses. The effect is created by applying a layer of slaked lime onto fresh plaster and then scratching in a design while still wet.

The people who live here are unsurprisingly regarded as conservative by the rest of the Swiss population – they were amongst the last to allow motorised vehicles to use their roads, the last to allow women the vote, and they still celebrate ‘New Year’ on 1 March, according to the Roman calendar.

New Year festivities centre on Chalandamarz – the Kalends, or ‘first’ of March – with much whip cracking, bell ringing and singing. The ceremony in Guarda begins in the afternoon and takes the form of a parade of boys carrying bells and singing spring songs. The boys wear blue smocks and red caps and carry bells on a wide strap around their necks, ringing the bells loudly round the village to chase away the cold spirits of winter and welcome in the spring.

They collect money and edible treats as they go, which are shared later. In some villages, the boys enter village houses and they also circle the fountains and wells to ring the bells and sing songs, often joined in the singing by girls from the village. Bell-ringing has been the preserve of boys for centuries, though nowadays in some villages, girls have been allowed to join in.

The Chalandamarz celebration in Guarda features in one of Switzerland’s best known children’s books – ‘Schellenursli’ or ‘A Bell for Ursli’ by Selina Chönz, a writer from Guarda, which was published in 1945 and which features iconic illustrations by Alois Carigiet, who used the village as the setting for her captivating drawings.

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