by Lee Foster
Switzerland is a special place for civilized day hikes and walks in the fresh mountain air amidst stunning alpine vistas, but without requiring any major vertical-climbing exertion.
A hiker returns each evening to culinary artistry and comfortable lodgings. This lure is particularly strong in eastern Switzerland around the towns of Scuol and Davos, near the one and only Swiss National Park.
Unlike serious U.S. and Canadian mountain hiking, available only to the backpacker or energetic climber, Swiss hiking is accessible to people of all levels of fitness and all travel styles. The excellent Swiss Railway winds through the alpine valleys, making available thousands of miles of hiking trails from the many rail stops. At many rail stations you’ll see hikers departing.
Sites beyond the rail stops can be accessed easily by an efficient bus system, called the postal motor coach. Most hikes occur along relatively level ground, but often in spectacular alpine settings, sometimes reachable by cable cars. Lunches can be planned at restaurants along the way.
Evenings can be spent back at your hotel amidst the full comfort of quality lodgings. Swiss mountain hikers need carry only a light daypack while walking this “rooftop of Europe,” as Switzerland is sometimes called, partly because three-fifths of the country is The Alps.
The mountains around the small towns of Scuol and Davos in the Engadine province present many excellent outings. You can plan your outing with advance information from the Swiss Tourist Office. Once in Scuol or Davos, you can either hike on your own or join outings organized by hotels or by the local Tourist Office. Guides can transport you to the hiking trailhead, sometimes using taxis or the local bus systems.
A typical day of hiking from Scuol might take you to the Swiss National Park. You hike along the specified trails amidst breathtaking alpine scenery. At selected overlooks your binoculars may pick out three deer-family denizens of these mountains–the red deer, ibex, and chamois.
The weather is generally pleasantly cool from June 1-October 1, which is the hiking season. Some hikers wear Swiss-made Raichle hiking boots, but these should be purchased in advance and broken in prior to a trip. A daypack with rain gear will ensure that a hiker can proceed in all weather. The Alps in sun and the Alps in a drizzle present equally fascinating perspectives.
The fresh and clean air, the brilliant sunshine, the alternately jagged and rounded high peaks, and the ample network of relatively level trails are all elements in the landscape. Wildflowers are visible throughout the hiking season. On some walks you pass glaciers, where snow fall exceeds snow melt. From numerous springs in the mountains the water seeps out. Small streams are plentiful.
Hikes are generally leisurely affairs, walking from village to village along the hillsides, or proceeding more energetically as one wishes. Hikes take you past terraced hillsides, populated with brown cows, or through the forests of deciduous larch and evergreen fir or pine trees.
A visitor may well want to engage the services of a native mountain guide for a day or two of orientation in the region. I engaged such a guide at Scuol.
“The mountains are my life,” said my guide. “I like nothing better than to walk through them, all the while dreaming and looking for things on the hillsides.”
My guide exemplified the general healthiness of the region, with muscles like steel, a heartbeat at rest that pulsed only 47 times per minute, and a not-an-ounce-of-fat physique. Like most guides, he organizes outings that amount to pleasant walks rather than marathon climbs. However, he can arrange walks for every taste and level of expertise, including high-peak scrambling above the tree line for the physically ambitious.
We walk up the Tavru Valley for an overview of the Swiss National Park, an unforgettable experience. My guide led me to views of three prominent peaks–Pisoc, Minger, and Foraz. While I was dazzled by the alpine vistas, he set up a powerful telescope on a tripod and acquainted me with a herd of deer-family animals, called chamois, grazing the hillside a half-mile away.
Incidentally, hiking the Swiss Alps also competes favorably with some Third-World trekking opportunities because the Swiss landscape has no health problems of potable water or available food supplies. Moreover, there are no physical security risks in the Swiss Alps.
The Swiss are skilled in the arts of hospitality and welcome the foreigner graciously, with a friendly reserve and dignity. They know that many jobs in this country of 7.8 million people depend on tourism. The Swiss give good service and include the price of service and tax in all purchases, so there is no need to tip in this country, especially in restaurants and hotels, unless the service is extraordinary.
The Scuol and Davos Regions
The area around Scuol, the Engadine, is an intriguing area of Europe. Much of this fascination becomes apparent during a few days of walking. In this long, north-south aligned valley, the Germanic and Latin cultures of Europe met and mixed. The result, for example in house building, is that the wood-working skills of the north complemented the stone-masonry skills of the south. Through the Engadine runs the Inn River, a stream that eventually empties into the Danube and the Black Sea.
The Scuol region is a five-hour train ride east from Zurich. Many U.S. travelers fly into Zurich, overnight and adjust there, then take the train the next day to Scuol. The Swiss train system, rather than a rental car, is the optimum mode of transportation here, and a rail pass known as the Swiss Card is an economical way to purchase a train ticket.
Tarasp Castle is one of the Scuol area’s major architectural legacies. Tarasp is worth a hike or taxi outing to see. The castle is situated on a promontory in the middle of the valley, affording a good view for defensive purposes. Notable in the interior of the castle is the extent of the carved wood paneling for walls and ceilings, and the individual furnishings, from a grand organ in the music room to gobelin tapestries in the hallways. The perspective of the mountains from Tarasp is one of the notable scenic views of the area.
The old downtown of Scuol illustrates the style of house-building in the Engadine Valley. All the houses face the street, with a bay window to observe the comings and goings of people at the village well. The houses are small fortresses, self-contained, lodging animals at ground level, preserving a large entryway, and allowing set places for the living room, kitchen, pantry, and upstairs sleeping room. Each house stores within itself enough hay for its cattle during the winter. The house also had the capacity to hold all the animal manure of winter until it could be put out on the fields in spring. In the 19th century several of the old houses of Scuol were refurbished by their owners, families who often made their fortunes with sugar-baking operations they set up in other regions. Beyond the downtown, several trails lead directly from Scuol, including a cable car into the mountains.
Include in your hiking itinerary a visit to the small historic town of Guarda, one of Switzerland’s most picturesque villages. The town’s 80 houses were rebuilt between 1630-1720 after the Hundred Years War devastated all the structures. Like the Scuol houses, Guarda houses are all built in the same manner. The most important feature is that they all face the street and all possess a discrete bay window that allows a view of comings and goings at the town well, both the water source and the center of social life and gossip in the era before indoor plumbing and television. The houses also exhibit an interesting decorative art form, called sgraffito, in which designs are scratched in the white lime plaster of the house as the plaster dries. Elaborate trompe l’oeil effects and ornate decorations around windows and doors can be seen. A spirited citizen with a good feel for the historic importance of the village gave me a guided tour. The restaurant in the Piz Buin Hotel offers regional specialties, such as white veal sausages and potatoes. Terraces around Garda once made the town self-sufficient for wheat, barley, and potatoes, as recently as 75 years ago, but now all the terraces have been given over to dairy farming. The level road between Guarda and the small village of Ardez is typical of the area’s excellent walks with appealing alpine vistas.
The National Park, one of the main hiking areas near Scuol, was formed in 1914 to preserve one of the few remaining wild areas in the country. This is a prime walking area, with hikers carefully restricted to the marked trails. The National Park Visitor Center at Zernez is an excellent source for good maps, advice on hiking trails, and an appreciation of the geology, flora, and fauna. The Alps consist of relatively soft rock that erodes in huge tailings down the mountainsides. Spring wildflowers throughout the Alps are splendid in June, but flowering continues at high altitudes until snowfall in October. Marmots, large rodent animals, populate the Alps. All these features are well protected in the National Park, which is especially famous for its preservation of large herds of deer-family species.
Lodgings in the region are diverse in price and style. A number of large hotels were built here in the prosperous 1860-to-World-War-I period, when tourism flourished. People of means from all over Europe deemed it fashionable to come to Scuol or Davos to take the curative mineral baths or to drink the medicinal mineral water. The Parkhotel Tarasp in Scuol is a good example of these grande dame establishments. You can buy a full-service plan here, with lodging and food. The fin-de-siecle luxury of the surroundings is impressive, complete with a weekly classical music concert for guests. The manager of the Waldhaus Vulpera had a good feel for the cultured setting that prevailed at the end of the 19th century. He told me how he aimed to recreate that atmosphere today.
“Guests come here to relax, to walk in the mountains, and to enjoy the good company of each other,” he said. “Our hotel is an antidote to the hectic modern world.”
In these older style hotels the rooms are modest, meals are lavish, and the public life of people in the hotel public areas is the main emphasis.
On the other hand, modern multi-star luxury, in both cuisine and lodging, is available at the 40-room Paradise Hotel, perched high on a hillside with a magnificent view of Tarasp Castle.
Economical lodgings are possible in small hotels and in rooms rented in houses. The Scuol or Davos Tourist Offices or Swiss National Tourist Office in the U.S. can help with options, as can an informed travel agent making your arrangements.
Few foreign visitors comprehend the importance of the waters of the region in the historic development of tourism here. Two types of medical treatments for various ailments were and are popular. One treatment involves soaking in heated mineral water pools. The other treatment involves drinking various mineral water concoctions. A substantial academic medical establishment gives support to these therapeutic approaches.
A visitor should realize that the primary water-therapy approach here is medicinal rather than pleasurable or sensuous. This is not the world of the sybaritic hot tubber with a glass of Chardonnay in hand. Aside from the mineral waters for medicinal purposes, there are several tasty bottled waters for pleasure drinking, such as Valser, known to be sodium free, and Sassal, which is high in calcium.
The culinary masterpieces of the Engadine await the visitor in the evening and may even tempt for lunch. White veal sausages, venison, and thinly sliced smoked meats are specialties here. Yogurt and Swiss cereals enhance breakfast. For dinner, be sure to try a fondue, the brilliant Swiss concoction of melted Gruyere and Emmental cheese, with a touch of kirsch liquor, garlic, and spices. The Swiss, with 35,000 acres of vineyards, produce several dry white wines and some medium-bodied reds for the vinophile to enjoy. One brand to ask for is Aigle, meaning Eagle.
The most celebrated restaurant in the Scuol region, with two Michelin stars and a high Gault-Millau ranking, is in the Paradise Hotel, where rabbit and lobster are among the favorites.
“We are developing a regional cuisine here,” said the restaurant owner. “We have a French-style kitchen, but with lighter sauces and smaller portions. We use the freshest ingredients and try to revitalize the local specialties of the region, such as fresh trout with red wine sauce. Our menu is unique because you can either order a specific dish or have a dinner consisting of numerous small portions of our many specialties.”
Most tables in the restaurant are devoted to Paradise Hotel guests, but a few are open to drop-in travelers. Reservations are a must.
After a few days of walks near Scuol, some visitors choose to engage a taxi and driver or rent a car for a day to make a three-nation excursion through the nearby Alps of Austria and Italy. All this terrain was once the ancient Roman region of Rhaetia, where armies traveled back and forth. Among fascinating stops is the historic town of Resche, now inundated by a dam, except for its surviving tower peering out of the water with the Italian Alps as a backdrop. The medieval walled town of Glurns provides an informative look at historic town building. This territory, fought over between Austria and Italy for eons, transferred back to Italian control after World War I. Stunning views of the Alps, such as Mt. Ortler, are possible from the Fuorn Pass. Typically, where a lovely view is possible, you will find an engaging restaurant, such as the Panorama Hotel Restaurant in Fuorn Pass. Consult the Scuol Tourist Office for maps and information if you plan to make this trip.
The other small town in eastern Switzerland that makes a good hiking base is Davos. Davos is a community of 12,000 situated at 5,118 feet, making it one of the highest alpine vacation centers in Europe. Mountains rise several thousand feet above the city. Because the city is so close to the tree line, large open spaces in the high country are available for hiking in summer and skiing in winter. Davos is a major tourism center with over 100 hotels. The Hotel National would be a good choice. There are many excellent restaurants, including the Strela-Alp, high in the mountains and accessible via cable car. Deer is the menu specialty. The Teufi Restaurant, located far up a typical hiking valley, tempts the walker with Swiss fondue.
High on one hillside, Davos boasts a Swiss contribution to church architecture. The church in question has an avalanche shield on its uphill side.
Davos emphasizes many summer sports beyond hiking, but special to this mountainous region, such as hang-gliding, soaring, and para-gliding (gliding down a mountain on a kite-parachute). All these sports benefit from the powerful thermals available on the steep Swiss mountainsides.
Over 200 miles of walking trails lead out from Davos. One extraordinary walk begins with a funicular rail trip high into the mountains. You then hike along a level trail for two hours to a gourmet restaurant. The funicular goes to an area called the Parsenn Panorama. Panorama is an apt word to describe the vistas of brittle rock, large rock slides, steep peaks, and the city of Davos 2,000 feet below in the valley. The walk takes you to the Strella Pass restaurant, where you should try the barley soup, fresh salads of tasty greens, and a hot regional specialty dish called alper maccerone, consisting of potatoes, pasta, ham, onion, and cheese, cooked on an enormous skillet. After the meal you can take a gondola back down the mountain to Davos.
The Swiss Style
The calm pace of walking for a few days in the Swiss Alps around Scuol or Davos provides an opportunity to meditate on the Swiss character as well as the world of nature.
The Swiss in this region exhibit a robust vitality, nurtured by the clean air, the habit of walking in the mountains, and the general prosperity. Collectively, the 7.8 million Swiss, living in 26 cantons, are among the healthiest people on earth.
The Swiss generally speak enough English for the typical North American traveler to communicate easily. The most common local language is a Swiss dialect of German. A few natives in the eastern part of the country speak the Romansch language, a Latin-derived tongue indigenous to the area. The four official languages of the country are German, French, Italian, and Romansch.
The Swiss are a universally friendly people, hospitable to the foreigner, although the interaction is reserved and a back-slapping first-name openness can’t be expected.
“I’ve lived in Scuol now for five years,” said one guide, an American-born woman. “The people are friendly, but it’s hard to get close to them or become accepted by them. I’m still an outsider here.”
The role of women in the Swiss world would not appeal to some women hikers from North America. Only in 1971 were Swiss women granted the right to vote.
“The woman’s place here is in the home, watching the kids,” said one guide. “The woman is expected to do the shopping and knit the socks.”
Swiss plurality of language, religion, and culture is evident everywhere. Villages side by side may be Catholic or Protestant. The Catholic churches have a cross on top, the Protestant a rooster. There is some diversity within the culture, which promotes tolerance, because there are religious, language, and national origin differences among the Swiss. The passion to develop the small country as 26 independent political entities, the cantons, suggests the Swiss desire to preserve large and small differences between communities. All the Swiss diversity takes place, however, within a framework of white, Christian, European values and tastes. The Swiss restrict migration of other racial and national groups to their country. The strength of this situation is an undisturbed cohesiveness of the community. The weakness is a certain lack of vitality that comes from a mix of races in a multi-racial society.
The Swiss can be both ingenious and practical. For example, all travelers arriving at Zurich airport laud the Swiss practice of supplying free luggage carts. Then the visitor marvels that the carts come equipped with grips that allow you to take them up or down escalators. Once you board the Swiss trains, whose windows are predictably clean, you can actually open the windows to enjoy the fresh mountain air.
Some aspects of Swiss life differ sharply from habits elsewhere. For example, many Swiss tend to buy their houses and cars with cash rather than extended indebtedness with time payments. The Swiss purchaser may save for years before buying, rather than buy and enjoy the object while paying it off. The Swiss don’t typically like to be in debt.
The Swiss operate politically and corporately with a steady promotion of officers in a predictable manner. The president is chosen by succession. All of this suggests the Swiss distrust of the young upstart, who may be overly bright or innovative.
Despite the picturesqueness of the Swiss environment, there is an earnest planning underlying everything. Every house built since 1960 has a bomb shelter and all public buildings are equipped with shelters. Every able-bodied man is part of the defensive military, from age 20-57, although this service evolves to become a social and business club rather than an army which would fire a shot in anger. Swiss neutrality spawned the International Red Cross, in the 1860s, and the organization’s flag, red cross on white, remains the reverse of the Swiss flag, white cross on red. Prior to the modern period of neutrality, the Swiss hired out as mercenaries for the various armies of Europe, sometimes fighting each other for profit.
The society is orderly, with all trains arriving punctually. The Swiss regard the National Park as somewhat untidy because the downed wood and the meadows remain untamed. There is a tendency in the Swiss character to desire orderliness, even in the wild landscape. Tight social controls are evident in many details of life. Your license plate identifies the canton from which you came, for example.
Education is universal and proceeds to relatively high levels. Over 90 percent of all adults earn some professional or trade diploma.
The country is immaculately clean, without a speck of dirt in the restaurants and hotels. The buses and trains have no graffiti to mar them. Indeed, if a teenager emerged with a spray can and began defacing a Swiss train, that teenager would be in physical danger from the citizenry. The countryside has no billboards to detract from the scenery.
For the traveler interested in alpine walking and hiking, along with comfortable lodgings and quality dining, Switzerland is a good option.
Hiking the Swiss Alps: If You Go
For further planning information, see the Swiss National Tourist Office at www.myswitzerland.com.
The season for hiking is June 1 to October 15.