Engadine Ecstasy: Hiking Switzerland's Alps
by SOPHIA DEMBLING
Towering Alpine peaks are capped with snow, though it’s balmy June. Hiking under sunny skies, I’m cooled by an intermittent breeze, scented with the earthy smell of farmland, which gently stirs fields of wildflowers on both sides of my path. Again and again, I pause to raise my camera and frame the flowers in my viewfinder, and just as often I lower the camera without pressing the shutter. The view is simply too extravagant for capture on film.
The hiking in Switzerland is some of the best the world has to offer, and can be as difficult or leisurely as you choose to make it. My own choice was a (for me) challeng ing, independent three-day village-to-village hike arranged by Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures. While aching muscles and sore toes reminded me that I was really working, my six- and seven-hour treks through mountain passes and across valleys also provided ample opportunity to appreciate the spectacle of Switzerland’s southeastern and largest canton, Graubünden.
Romance of Romansch
Graubünden is home to tony resort towns St. Moritz, Klosters (a favorite hangout of Prince Charles), and Davos, as well as small farming villages in the Engadine Valley, the heart of the Romansch culture. Here live most of the one percent of Switzerland’s population that speaks Romansch, a Latin-based language and one of the nation’s four official tongues (along with German, Italian and French).
At the Engadine Museum, an absorbing house museum in Scuol, most interpretive placards are in Romansch; some include German and Italian, but none are in English. (And so I can only guess what a wooden contraption labeled “Rumpelbock” — circa 1900 — might do. Spin straw to gold, perhaps?)
Ryder-Walker offers guided hiking tours for groups, but I enjoy the meditation of solo hiking and opted for an independent trip. Having hiked in Switzerland several times before without incident or anxiety, I had no fears as a woman alone in this highly civilized country, and I encountered other lone females on the trails. I did, however rent a cell phone to carry in case I turned an ankle or otherwise hurt myself on the trail. (Fortunately, I never had to test whether I could get service on remote mountain trails.)
On its independent programs, the company makes hotel arrangements, and also includes breakfast and dinner daily. In addition, they supply maps and written directions, train schedules, information on culture and cultural quirks, sightseeing suggestions, packing lists, first-aid tips for aching feet and knees, and training tips. The route Ryder-Walker planned for me had great variety of scenery and terrain. While challenging, it was certainly never dull.
For each day of hiking, I toted just a daypack containing my Swiss Pass, which I could flash to ride trains, buses, gondolas and ski lifts (the latter two may require a small additional fee) and other transportation; a collapsible hiking stick I call my third leg; water bottle; picnic supplies; camera; basic first-aid kit; and rain gear. The rest of my luggage traveled without me on the efficient Swiss rail system. With the help of hotel staff, my bags went to the station each morning to travel alone to the town where I ended my day’s trek.
Getting lost on Switzerland’s clearly-marked hiking trails is virtually impossible no matter how terrible one’s sense of direction — and mine is bad. I proved many times that the directions Ryder-Walker supplied were not idiot-proof, yet I always ended up at the right place, even if I did climb an unnecessary mountain along the way.
Swiss trails are marked with red and white paint on rocks, trees, and fences, and as long as you walk from marker to marker, you are en route to somewhere. Signs at trail intersections indicate directions to towns, hiking times (for the fit locals), and the path to trains, buses and gondolas, should you want to throw in the hiking stick and ride.
My journey began in the Lower Engadine town of Scuol, where I boarded a gondola for Motta Naluns. The hike began in a high meadow, where the chime of church bells drifted up from the valley floor, a deer bounded down the mountainside ahead with enviable sure-footedness, and tiny lavender butterflies flitted about my feet.
The Hills Are Alive …
Eventually my path wound into pine forests, where the sounds changed to the babble of water tumbling from the mountaintop, twittering birds, and occasionally, to my delight, the unmistakable call of the cuckoo. Emerging from the forest to rugged slopes, I encountered a large flock of sheep, which eyed me balefully and parted like the Red Sea as I passed. My picnic lunch of bread, cheese and fresh apricots was eaten on a spot overlooking a small farm and rushing river.
And so the peaceful day continued, as I made my way along the region’s softly varied landscape. I encountered other hikers, but not many, and most (I blush to admit) sped past me. It was late afternoon when I reached the village of Guarda and the Hotel Messier, three 17th-century farmhouses joined to create one gracious hotel, run by the fourth and fifth generations of its founding family.
Idyllic Guarda, which sits more than 5,000 feet above sea level, is typified by narrow streets lined with tall houses decorated with typical Engadine painted plaster work. The antique village has several hotels and restaurants, some small shops, and stopped- in-time tranquillity.
After an al fresco mountain-view breakfast, I left my luggage for the hotel to send on, and wielded my Swiss Pass to board a bus to the train station, then a train to Cinuous-Chel-Brail.
The day’s hike started with a stroll through a verdant farming valley before a long climb to Alp Griatshouls, above the timber line. I paused for a picnic overlooking the peaks of Switzerland’s only national park in the company of a bevy of belled bossies who gazed at me serenely.
Though the remainder of the hike to Zuoz was downhill, I was gassed by the time I reached town in late afternoon. Other tourists relaxed at outdoor cafes while I checked into the friendly and lively Posthotel Engiadina.
My room included an enormous bathtub. At this point, given a choice between hobbling around the cobblestoned streets — however charming — and poaching my aching muscles ... well, can you blame me? I ran myself a deep bath and had a soak and a nap before dinner in the hotel’s convivial restaurant.
On my last day, the rains came. Sometimes just a drizzle, sometimes a downpour, but I donned a rain jacket and pants and rode the train to Ponteresina where my hike began. My directions assured me that this is one of the most pleasant hikes in the upper Engadine valley because it is “never strenuous.” But farther down the page, the same directions instructed me to “follow signs ... until you are above timberline.”
For a person who lives at sea level, a “non-strenuous” hike to above timber line —about 7,600 feet — is an oxymoron, but I continued onwards and upwards. Though the rain soaked my clothes, the clouds broke to reveal long views of mountains, villages, and Lake Silvaplanersee, and I was motivated anew. I stopped for a warming lunch of rösti at a mountaintop restaurant and then ... I ran out of steam. I started seeking signs to public transportation, grateful for the Swiss Pass in my pack.
I hiked another couple of hours before finding the right bus, and arrived in lovely Sils Maria in time to visit the Nietzsche House next door to my hotel in town. The writer rented this house each summer from 1883 to 1888, and worked on several of his books here. In a letter he confided, “Here one can live well, in this strong, bright atmosphere, here where nature is amazingly mild and solemn and mysterious all at once.”
The sun lowered in Sils Maria. I idled on a bench and contemplated the lake, mountain and sunset scenery that inspired the philosopher, and now invigorated me. I tucked the moment into my memory scrapbook, knowing that when life’s stresses get me down, I can recall my blissful days in Switzerland.
Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures specializes in treks and inn-to-inn hikes throughout the Swiss, French and Italian Alps. Hikes are guided or independent. For more information, call 888-586-8365 or go to www. ryderwalker.com.
For information on additional programs and tour operators, see the Activity Index under “Hiking — Switzerland.”