Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 29

Finding a Fairy Tale Valley

From May to December, Mr. Big and I have had to find an activity that keeps us in shape for the next ski season.  We are old and if we went 6 months without exercising our legs we would undoubtedly pull any number of muscles the first time we put on our ski boots and hoofed it to the ski bus stop come December.

Our chosen activity is hiking.  Well, I say “our” but I really mean “my”.  Mountain hiking is not Mr. Big’s favorite thing because it involves heights and it involves uncertainty.  Me, I love not knowing
what wonderment I might meet just over the next hill.  Mr. Big likes a well-plotted, well-posted route that has obviously been used by many, many people.  If you could eavesdrop on our hikes, this is what you would hear:

Big:  Which way?

Me:  I dunno.  It sort of looks like the right hand route leads more directly to that village down there.

Big:  Well, what does the map say?  What do the signposts say?  What IS the name of that village down there?  That trail looks pretty skinny.  And cliff-y.

Me:  I can’t figure out the map, the signposts are vague, I have no idea what village that might be and don’t step off the trail.  Now, let’s go, O Mighty King of Phobias.

I don’t know, exactly, what scares him so.  There are no wild cats or bears in Switzerland.  One can almost always see a village of some sort in the distance, where there will no doubt be a cafĂ© and a bus back to civilization.  I mean, it’s not like we are going to have to sleep out under a tree somewhere. 
And the instances of people literally falling off the side of the mountain are quite rare, so I just don’t
get it.  Yet, he still gets jittery after four years of hiking all over God and creation.

Anyway, I make him do it because it is good for his health and it is good sometimes for him to not always be so in control of everything.  Besides, the best stuff is always encountered when one goes off the beaten path.

Take this weekend for example.  We haven’t spent a lot of time up in the Suisse Allemande, or the German-speaking part of Switzerland, because, um, they speak Swiss German up there and they are
really, really strict with the rules, (like 10 times moreso than they are here in the French-speaking part, which is already bad enough).  There’s one corner of Switzerland where we have never been called Graubunden because it’s really hard to get there.  You will have heard of one ski village there called St. Moritz.  Anyone who lives in Switzerland knows to avoid St. Moritz like the plague because it is just chock full of Chinese tourists, it’s not at all authentic, it’s way overpriced and it’s full of poseurs.  (Sorry, St. Moritz, but you know it’s true).

There’s also Davos, but that’s another tourist trap which has only come into existence since the 1930’s and no actual Swiss people ever go there.  That left Klosters, which is more low key and
which, at least, has an actual village that existed long before the masses arrived to check off St. Moritz from their bucket list.

(Ok, for all of you ex-pats, forget Klosters, too.  It’s more of the same.  We stayed in Klosters because it was the lesser of three evils and the hotel was very nice and the restaurants are delicious in a very chef-y kind of way, but it’s really overpriced and, quite frankly, not that charming.  But, not to fear, I’m about to tell you where to go instead.)

I booked a room at the Hotel Alpina which is directly across from the train station in Klosters and just steps from the Gotschnabahn, the cable car which takes you up the mountain.  Because it is the
off-off-off season, the rooms were only 200 francs per night including breakfast which is a steal.  Dinner was another matter, entirely, but it was our 27th wedding anniversary, so what the hey.  Live a little, right?  (Just FYI, the same room goes for 479 francs during ski season).

Saturday morning, we took the train to Davos and then the mountain train up to the summit to begin our hike back to Klosters.  All of our preplanning had indicated that this was a five-hour hike and it did, indeed, take about five hours, plus a nice lunch on the mountain and stopping every five
minutes to take pictures.  Now, for those of you who have hiked around Zermatt and Mont Blanc like we have, you are going to be underwhelmed.  Davos is really rocky and brown.  There are no pastures filled with the sounds of cow bells.  The Klosters’ side of the hike was more picturesque but still not as breathtaking as the hiking trails in the Suisse Romande.

Being underwhelmed, I got out the maps that night after dinner in Klosters, (a shout out to the Hotel Rustica where we dined off of the Hunt Menu and conjured up visions of Thanksgiving with pumpkin
soup, braised red cabbage, roasted chestnut sauce and venison tenderloin), and started looking for REAL Swiss villages as opposed to tourist traps.

I knew that in this canton (county) of Graubunden lived the Romansch, a sector of Swiss people who speak another language entirely.  There are only about  5,000 people left who speak Romansch and they live a very
secluded life in a very secluded valley called Engadin.  I had heard that the town of Scuol in the Engadin valley was quite charming.  Looking at the map, it appeared that this valley was only one mountain away from Davos/Klosters but we would have to take a 20-minute train ride through said mountain to reach it.  Since this tunnel had only been completed in 2010, that explained why the Romansch were an isolated society, no?

Bright and early Sunday morning, I had Mr. Big up and out of bed dressed for hiking and exploring in the Engadin valley.  Destination:  Scuol-Tarasp.  End of the train line.  End of civilization.  From this
village you either retreat back into Switzerland or cross over the next Alp into Austria or Italy.  On foot.

Besides being the only place left on the planet where Romansch is spoken, the Engadin valley is known for “sgraffito”, which is ancient graffiti.  All of the old houses are decorated by etching patterns directly into the stucco.  Really, I couldn’t take enough pictures.  It was embarrassing, the amount of pictures that I took.  There was one poor woman on Sunday morning who was sitting outside of her house drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette and wearing a PINK
SNUGGIE, no lie, and I was just kind of hanging out in the street outside waiting for her to go in so I could take a picture of her house.  Her house was so cute but I didn’t want to be rude and take a picture of her in her snuggie, so I was just trying to dawdle nonchalantly around in front.  Alas, the woman never took the hint, never went back inside and, consequently, I never got a picture of her house, so I am bummed because it was the cutest house in the village.  Ah, me.

So, Scuol was precious.  But.  BUT.  Above Scuol, sits a castle.  And this castle is Cinderella’s castle,
except it is real and Cinderella’s is fake.

Me:  Mr. Big, I want to hike to that castle yonder and take some stellar pictures.

Big:  OMG, Trailing Spouse, that castle is about 10 kilometers straight up.  Is there a trail?  Is it marked?  Will we die?  Are there cliffs?   Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Me:  It’s my fairy tale and my anniversary and I want to go to the castle.  Wah, wah, wah, etc. etc. etc.

For those of you who want to do this excursion one weekend, here’s what we did:  from the church in Scuol, look to the left for the pedestrian bridge over the river Inn.  Walk through the village of Scuol, over the pedestrian bridge and stay on that side of the river, following the yellow hiking signs to Vulpera and Fontana Tarasp.  Leave the left river bank after about 3 kilometers, following the sign to Vulpera.  Follow the road through Vulpera to the base of the golf course and the Hotel Engadina where it starts climbing up to Fontana Tarasp.  (This is a climb.  Be prepared to sweat.)  Before you get to the village of Fontana Tarasp, you will come to the village of Sparsels and directly above that, the Schloss Tarasp.

Y’all.  The whole time I felt like I was Rapunzel or Gretel or one of those fairy tale damsels.  The hotels, the gardens, every little nook and cranny is just out of a children’s book.  The village of Vulpera was magical.  It takes a lot for a 51-year-old woman to gasp with delight but I was as enchanted as my granddaughter at a One Direction concert.

 Charming Daughter, if you don’t want to have your wedding at the hotel in Vulpera, I am never
speaking to you again.

As we were hiking by the golf course, Mr. Big says, “this is blog-worthy”.  High praise, indeed.   The little, nine hole course is perched on a mountainside and it only goes in one direction—down.  Even people who can’t play golf can play here.  You only need a putter.  Gravity does all the work.

The village of Sparsels is dominated by one family who own, and have owned, the only four-star
hotel/restaurant in the town, for the last 21 generations.  Yes.  You heard me.  21 generations.  We ate lunch there and I had filets de perche and it was delicious and I saw the world’s smallest hummingbird in the geraniums right next to my head.  Magical.

The tour of the castle was only in Swiss German, but I know enough High German that I was able to translate the relevant parts to Mr. Big.  The Schloss Tarasp is not owned, nor has it ever been owned,
by a Swiss person.  It was owned by Austrians and then by Germans, who still own it today and still occasionally stay in it.  The most famous person who owned it was an Austrian count who restored it from the late 1800’s to 1916.  He was famous because he owned a mouthwash empire.  Not kidding.  His mouthwash brand still exists today.  It is called Odol.  G’head.  Google it.  His name was Herr Linger.

We caught the bus back from Vulpera to Scuol to the main train station.  As we were walking from the schloss down to Vulpera, we stumbled upon the Hotel Maria, whose owner is a Swiss hoarder.  His hoard has outgrown the hotel
proper and he has expanded out onto the roadside where he has a junk shop.  Since the words “junk shop” are too downmarket for Switzerland, he, the owner, Erich, calls it Erich’s Brocki, which is Swiss German for Erich’s Junk Shop.  When Erich saw that I was enamored with his junk shop, he invited me inside the actual hotel to see his collection of angels.

Oh.  My.  Lord.  Erich, sir, you have a little problem.  Every room in the bar and the restaurant of the hotel was completely covered with angels made from plaster, plastic, wood, fiber, cloth or spit and Kleenex.   Because Erich spoke French, I was able to gather that he and his partner, also male, have found their little corner of paradise up in the Engadin valley, running the Hotel Maria and collecting a vast variety of angels in their spare time.  While waiting for the bus, I explored his hotel and shop and Mr. Big drank some wine and ate some pretzels and chips that Erich brought him to keep him entertained.  It was the best wait for a bus that I have ever had.

In sum, DO NOT STAY IN KLOSTERS OR DAVOS OR ST. MORITZ.  Hie thee directly to the Engadin valley and stay in Vulpera.  Go.  Now.  You will love it.