A classic Swiss children's book, A Bell for Ursli, tells the story of a fearless boy who climbs to an alpine cabin high above the Engadine Valley in search of big cow-bell to carry, as is the tradition, in the spring parade. Ursli's family is Romansh—a people that traces its heritage to the Roman conquest. Today the Italian-like Romansh language remains the everyday tongue of about 70,000 people in the Graubünden canton in southeastern Switzerland.
Here, in a region known as The Engadine, on a winding path through a meadow and forest that connects the resort town of St. Moritz with a funicular railway and cable car that climb to the 3057-metre Piz Nair, Ursli's story is told on a series of illustrated sign posts.
It's a touching bit of nostalgia that shows there's more to this famous ski resort that money and glamour, and that a traditional Swiss culture can to be found in the mountains, meadows and villages throughout Graubünden. Here every milk-producing cow and goat still wears, in summer, the type of bell once sought by Ursli: the ubiquitous clinking sound is intoxicating. And most Swiss-style restaurants serve a delicious Roman-era dish of macaroni, alpine cheese and cream, onion, bacon and pureed apple.
We based ourselves at the Hotel Monopol in St. Moritz, dined at its Grischuna Restaurant (filet of cod with lobster sauce) and window shopped. Then flashing our Swiss Pass that allows unlimited travel on most trains (including scenic routes), funiculars, buses, trams, we set out in search of two of Switzerland's minority cultures.
First we headed east by train to Zernez, a staging point for hikers heading into Switzerland's Parc Naziunal Svizzer. A zealously protected 170-square-kilometre reserve of hiking trails, the park is still populated by horned ibex and chamois (mountain goat); foxes, hares and marmots; and vultures, kestrels, partridges and woodpeckers.
At Zernez, we boarded a PostBus, one of a large fleet of state-of-the-art yellow buses that connect Switzerland's urban centres and remote settlements. The single-lane road through the national park, to the Ofen Pass, is tortuous. Looking out, we faced an abyss; at hairpin turns, other vehicles backed up to allow the bus around the steep bend. To alert oncoming traffic, the PostBus driver employs a horn that plays the first few phrases of Rossini's William Tell Overture. First used on the horse-drawn carriages that delivered the mail throughout Switzerland in the 19th century, the horn is familiar music to Swiss ears. A shapely horn remains the PostBus symbol.
Over the pass, we dropped into the Müstair ("moosh-tire") Valley and Romansh country. "You have to speak Romansh here," said Anna-Lise, a tourism official. Buildings in the valley villages of Tschierv, Vakchava and Santa Maria are decorated with what Anna-Lise calls sgraffiti—mostly coffee-colored ornate frescos, even mottoes, etched in a white façade. The effect, suggestive of long-ago country villages, is enchanting.
The cloister of St. John of Müstair, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is just one kilometer this side of Italy. St. John was founded around 800 A.D. by Charlemagne as a monastery and resting place for travelers. Four centuries later Swiss nuns took over what became a Benedictine convent, and assumed the job of preserving the large Romanesque church, and celebrated Carolingian-era frescoes, that draw people from around the world.
Though we couldn't see them, we could hear the nuns singing in an loft above the church nave. In the new museum, filled with marble fragments that were once part of a 9th-century abbey, we chatted briefly with the prioress. An elderly lay member who showed us around the convent pointed up to her home in a meadow, high on the mountain, where she makes goat cheeses sold from a cooler at the convent store.
One of the most popular of Switzerland's scenic PostBus routes is the Palm Express, from St. Moritz to the city of Lugano in the southern Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. Dropping from The Engadine, through the Maloja Pass, and into the Bregaglia Valley, the bus passed through resort villages like Sils, where Hermann Hesse and Marc Chagall often stayed, and Sils Maria, where Friedrich Nietzsche wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra.
Down the valley, the small stone houses look as though they were built for gnomes. We drove through chestnut and mulberry forests, then crossed the border for a brief detour through Italy. The streets of a series of Italian lakeside towns are barely wide enough for a bus to negotiate. The driver tooted the PostBus horn to warn approaching motorists. Yet we zipped along at an amazing speed. In a lovely plaza in the resort town of Menaggio, some Japanese tourists got off. Then we climbed a hill for a fine view of the town's red clay roofs, before returning to Switzerland. Arriving at our destination, Lugano, the driver looked justly proud of delivering his passengers on time and in one piece.
The business capital of the canton of Ticino, Lugano is sweet blend of Swiss efficiency and Italian charm. My city guide, Rene, showed me around. A standout is Santa Maria degli Angioli (Church of St. Mary of the Angel), famous for a monumental fresco of the Crucifixion, painted in 1529, that hangs high between the nave and chancel. Opposite Santa Maria degli Angioli is lovely Lake Lugano. And back of the lake runs a network of cobble lanes that include Via Nassa, lined with chic shops and the glitzy headquarters of major clothiers like Armani (Italian businesses love the proximity of Swiss banks).
“Sometimes,” said Rene, “the wealthier German and French-speaking Swiss who holiday in Ticino can be condescending. We have a little bit of adversity with the German and French," he said diplomatically of the ongoing struggle of the Italian-Swiss underdog. "But in the end we all keep together. We're very proud to be Swiss citizens."
Story by Alison Applebe
Pictures 1 and 4 courtesy of St John of Mustair Convent
Pictures 2 and 3 courtesy of Alison Applebe
IF YOU GO: For more on travel to Switzerland, visit www.myswitzerland.com. For the St. Moritz region, www.stmoritz.ch. The Swiss Travel System is at www.rail.ch or www.raileurope.com, and the PostBus system at www.postbus.ch.
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