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GRAUBUNDEN: A SWISS ENCLAVE WHERE TIME STANDS STILL

Story by Caroline M. Jackson
Photos by Hamish Jackson

Traveling south from Zurich Airport, my husband and I had little idea of what lay ahead of us. Ignoring the sophisticated brochures promoting Interlaken, Lucerne and Lugano, we were on a mission to find a pocket of Switzerland which lay on a road less trammeled - a land of remote valleys and rugged gorges where foreign visitors are more the exception than the rule.

Bordered by Austria, Lichtenstein and Italy, the region of Graubunden, the largest of the Swiss cantons, is tucked into the southeastern corner of Switzerland. Our scenic three-hour train journey took us past famous ski resorts such as Klosters and Davos through to our first destination, the small sub-alpine town of Scuol in the Lower Engadine.

After unpacking, we decided to explore this picture-book town on foot. Our unplanned route took us along cobbled streets and between Engadin-style houses with facades elaborately decorated with sgraffito designs of whorls and arabesques. On one of the well-worn wooden benches built into each front entrance, we ran into a local rheumy-eyed octogenarian who was enjoying his pipe in the late afternoon sun. He nodded and acknowledged us with the typical friendly greeting: "Allegra!" which means "Be glad". Romansh (a derivative of Latin) is traditionally spoken in the Lower Engadine and depending on which valley we visited, we heard German, Romansh and Italian being spoken. As we continued our stroll past deep-set arched doorways, and flower-decked oriel windows, we only saw one moving car. It was as though we were in a time-warp. We were also intrigued to find out that driving is not permitted after 10 pm.

Situated on the mountainside leading down to the River En (or Inn) from which Engadine got its name, Scuol is famous for its many mineral springs. In each town square we came across a fountain with twin spouts flowing into a divided basin. The first one I dared to taste was from an iron-rich rusty bowl while the other side produced salt water known to act as laxative.

The best way to experience these health-giving waters is to visit the famous Engadin Spa Scuol. Deciding to pamper our jet-lagged bodies, we opted for the most popular Roman-Irish bath which blends the traditional European bathing cultures enjoyed by the classical Romans and the Irish. When my husband was told he would not be able to bring his camera, it didn't immediately occur to me that the reason was because the guests prefer to swim sans apparel.

However, to my relief, I didn't need to shelve my Scottish modesty after all; I was handed an authentic toga on arrival. We were given a diagram of the ultra modern aquatic facilities and over the next two hours, we showered at differing water temperatures, subjected ourselves to an enervating soap-and-brush massage, languished in mineral pools and steamed like clams in a sauna. The grand finale was a dip in icy water but, not being much of a polar bear, I grabbed my toga and headed for the elegant spa bar where local champagne and crystallized fruits were on offer. Feeling totally rejuvenated, we ambled down the hill to enjoy an evening meal at our cozy Hotel Gabriel.

Over the next few days, we explored the storybook villages and castles of the River En before heading out to our final destination: the Benedictine Convent of St. John, a UNESCO World Heritage Site close to the Swiss/Italian border.

Since no trains traverse this mountainous route, we took a spectacular one-hour Post Bus journey through the Swiss National Park, Europe's oldest nature reserve. Our driver skillfully negotiated hairpin bends, crossed wooden bridges and edged along precipitous gorges. Later the countryside opened up into a spacious green valley dotted with picturesque farming villages.

On arriving at the walled convent, one of the Sisters directed us to our accommodation via the adjacent farm. With a cumbersome key in hand, we trundled our cases through a quadrangle past an odiferous manure pit, a squealing sow, a frisky goat and a cow byre. The large wooden door opened into a dark stone-flagged courtyard and for a fleeting moment I wondered if my on-spec Internet booking had been such a wise idea. But things improved. The building boasted a modern elevator, which whisked us up to our comfortable and meticulously clean bedroom. The silence was broken only by the tolling bells in the adjacent 8th century church with its exceptionally well-preserved Romanesque frescoes. The meals served in a communal dining room included local cheeses and fresh home-grown produce from the convent garden and orchard. Our days passed all too quickly with walks to local villages, picnics and Post-Bus trips across the border into Tyrolean Italy. When it was finally our turn to leave the convent community, I knew with certainty that we would someday return to this part of Europe, which had become our home away from home.

IF YOU GO:

Switzerland Tourism: http://www.myswitzerland.com
Convent of St. John: http://www.muestair.ch
Engadin Tourism Office: http://www.scuol.ch
Swiss Rail: http://www.sbb.ch/en

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

Photos (by Hamish Jackson):

1 Convent of St. John
2. Two local ladies in traditional costume
3. Village of Ardez, near Scuol
4. The River En, in Scuol

 


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