Famous Graubünden resorts, pretty towns and villages
Graubünden is home to some of Europe’s best known – and best loved – winter sports destinations, including St. Moritz, Klosters and Davos. Yet alongside the glitz and glamour of these resorts, tucked away in the mountains and along the lake shores are many unspoilt hamlets and villages. Here is a little more detail on some of the most notable places worth visiting on a trip to this beautiful region.
St. Moritz – Synonymous with celebrity and royalty, St Moritz has been enticing the wealthy jet set for around 150 years, with its fine restaurants and host of designer boutiques. But the real draw of this upmarket town is, in fact, its stunning natural beauty and the excellent opportunities afforded to both winter sports enthusiasts and walkers. Considered by many as the winter sports capital of the world, the ski slopes here are magnificent; and when the snow melts, in summer the trails become a hiker’s paradise. Just two of the highlights here include the Corvatsch Wasserweg (water trail), which links six mountain lakes and the imposing Mt. Piz Nair (3,057m/10,030ft) which boasts the most amazing views down to the valley below.
Chur – Switzerland’s oldest city, which was first settled in 3000 BC, is quite unique as it’s the only Swiss city where hiking and winter sports can be directly accessed from the city centre, via a cable car up to Mt. Brambrüesch (2,200m/10,030ft) – the starting point for a number of excellent walks. Although not an obvious destination for holidaymakers, it is worth spending some time exploring the region’s capital, which has a great atmosphere. Much of the architecture may look a little weary – because a fire in the 15th century almost destroyed the city – but the charming old town boasts some lovely Medieval features, such as ornate building fronts, grand fountains, hidden courtyards and an imposing cathedral. Chur is handily close to the beautiful villages of Lenzerheide and Valbella, which flank Lake Heidsee, and offer a number of great walks through woodland and mountain terrain, and the famous resort of Arosa, which lies just south east of the town.
Davos and Klosters – Davos is the highest town in Europe, stretching for 4km (2.5mi) along the Landwasser Valley – and one of the best places in Switzerland for a walking holiday. With some excellent transport links, it is easy to reach a myriad of hiking trails via train, bus or cable car. Walkers can enjoy varied scenery here, from quaint mountain villages to breathtaking panoramic views and lush forests. One interesting feature here is a unique double-decker 140-seater Parsennbahn mountain funicular. This takes walkers to the higher reaches of Mt. Weissfluhjoch at 2,663m (8,737ft), and from here it is possible to climb higher still by taking another cable car to the top of Weissfluh at 2,843m (9,327ft). Nearby Klosters, in contrast to bustling Davos, has a more tranquil feel to it but the opportunities for hikers are equally as good.
Arosa – Tucked away in a sunny but isolated valley is the atmospheric resort of Arosa. The ski slopes here, although not plentiful, are considered some of the finest in this region. In summer, it’s hiking which takes centre stage, with the towering peak of Mt. Weisshorn (2,653m/8,704ft) the main focal point. Other fine mountains to marvel at are Mt. Hörnli (2,512m/8,241ft) and Mt. Brüggerhorn (2,401m/7,877ft).
The journey to Arosa is an adventure itself. One long, winding mountain road, which passes through some gorgeous villages, affords the most incredible views of the surrounding alpine grandeur. As tempting as it is, you are advised not to gaze too long at the views. The succession of hairpin bends (244 of them) combined with the rapid rise in altitude is likely to induce serious travel-sickness. If you don’t tolerate car travel too well, then you may prefer to take the train. There is a frequent service from Chur to Arosa; there is even a ‘Park and Rail’ offer whereby you can leave your car parked in Chur. Once in Arosa, it’s easy to get around both on foot and by using local buses. Most of the Arosa hotels will meet you at the airport or there are plenty of taxis at the station.
Flims Laax Falera –This area lies 18km (11mi) west of Chur and is popular with locals, but something of a well-kept secret among overseas visitors. Flims has two distinct parts: the old, original village (Flims Dorf) and a newer part, set among pretty woodland (Flims Waldhaus). Laax is located around 5km (3.1mi) south of Waldhaus, and tiny Falera can be found up a 3km (1.9mi) branch road. These villages make a lovely base for discovering one of the Alps’ most varied walking areas. In winter, fantastic skiing and snowboarding can be enjoyed at the Flims Laax Falera area.
The Engadine Valley & Swiss National Park (Parc Naziunal Svizzer)
The famous resort of St.Moritz is actually located in the Upper Engadine region, which is generally much better known to overseas travelers.
Many would argue that the greatest highlight in all of Graubünden is the Swiss National Park – the country’s largest conservation area and the one and only national park. It is so well protected that little has altered in the landscape over the past 5,000 years. Covering an area of 172 sq km, the park encompasses alpine terrain which varies in height from 1,400m (4,593ft) to 3,200m (10,499ft) above sea level. This is a wild and colourful blend of towering peaks, glistening glaciers, larch woodlands, verdant pastures, cascading falls and turquoise lakes. The visitor centre in Zernez is a great starting point for exploring the park as you can find out lots of helpful information on walking and other outdoor pursuits. It is also possible to access the park via the villages of Scuol, Zernez and S-chanf.
The Swiss National Park is a wonderful place to spend a few days. It still feels very isolated and gives you a good view of how the Alps used to be, before tourism took hold. There are several lovely walking trails in the park, covering around 80km (around 50mi). It’s a haven for wildlife, so take your binoculars. If lucky, you may spot a golden eagle, a bearded vulture, a marmot or ibex. The park is fiercely protected, so be sure to always stick to the well-marked paths and respect the regulations which prohibit camping, fires, cycling and picking flowers. Please note that the park is closed to visitors during the winter. Visit the Swiss National Park website to find out more.
The Swiss Grand Canyon (Rhine Gorge)
A result of 10,000 years’ erosion by the Rhine, this stunning ravine with its curious rock formations and crops of pine trees captivates every person who passes it – whether they be walkers, rafters or train passengers – as there is a Rhaetian railway which passes right past the Canyon on the Rheinschlucht – Versam – Ilanz route. If you want to step off the train and marvel at it a little longer from below, then alight at Versam.
You can take a bus from Chur to Flims Waldhaus and there is a very pleasant hour-long walk through picturesque forest which leads to the “II Spir” viewing platform in Conn. Here you can enjoy stunning panoramic views of the mighty Canyon, from above.
The Via Mala Gorge
Every visitor to the region should try and see this natural phenomenon, which lies between Thusis and Andeer in the Hinterrhein Valley. Take 321 stone steps down into the depths of this narrow gorge, where you can enjoy some wonderful views as you gaze upon sheer cliffs which rise as high as 300m (984ft). In times gone by, this was a feared and reviled place, known as the “Bad Path”. People viewed it as an unsafe environment which, in spite of its beauty, was a dangerous yet necessary passage to reach the Alpine passes of Spluegen and San Bernardino. With cliffs reaching up to 300m (984ft) high, the ‘Hinterrhein’ flows through this spectacular ravine.
Müstair – Close to the Italian border, historic Müstair is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Strategically located close to the Ofen Pass, this intriguing village was something of a centre for Christianity from the 8th century onwards.
World-Famous Railway Journeys
Train journeys in Graubünden are not just a means of getting around – they are a delight to behold. Most are operated by the Rhaetian Railway (Rhätische Bahn) – and each of the red, narrow-gauge trains passes through the most incredible scenery. A large section of the main route between Thusis and Tirano has been declared World Heritage site by UNESCO.
One particularly wonderful journey can be enjoyed on the ‘Glacier Express’ – Europe’s most popular long-distance train journey which links the two famous resorts of Zermatt and St. Moritz, via Davos and Chur. The views are outstanding, from beginning to end.
It’s genuinely hard to pick out favourites because there are just so many fabulous routes to choose from: the Bernina Express from Chur to St. Moritz, then over the high Bernina Pass to Tirano; the Heidi Express from Landquart to Lugano via Klosters and Davos, the Aqualino from Landquart through Klosters to Scuol, the Arosa Express from Chur to Arosa. All of these routes are an experience in themselves.
The Post Bus routes are also pretty spectacular, reaching dizzying heights over the Alpine passes and reaching deep down into remote valleys. You can even take a bus up to the hamlet of Juf, at 2,126m (6,975ft) the highest settlement in Europe. It has been continuously inhabited for nearly 800 years.
The Bernina Pass
This long, winding route, in all its Alpine splendour, surrounded by mighty mountains and stunning glaciers, reaches heights of (2,323m (7,621). Also referred to as ‘Passo del Bernina’ in Italian, the route zig-zags from Celerina southeast to Tirano in Italy, linking Val Bernina and Val Poschiavo. Driving here takes a steady heart and stomach, so you may prefer to take the train. The stretch of railway line here is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Bernina Line and it runs from Chur and St Moritz via Pontresina, on to Tirano in Northern Italy. Built in 1910, it is one of the world’s steepest narrow-gauge railways, and undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable rides on the planet, with so much to marvel at along the way.
Languages of Graubünden
German language areas:
There are five different dialects in Romansh.
Sursilvan is the most widely-spoken variant and is used in the Vorderrhein valley, including the Val Lumnezia, Foppa, and Cadi.
Vallader is the next most common dialect, spoken in the Lower Engadine valley and the Val Müstair.
Surmiran is spoken in the Julia and Albula valleys, including Surses and Sutses.
Putèr can be heard in the Upper Engadine valley, in the land west of Zernez.
Sutsilvan is the rarest form of the language, spoken only in small corners of the Hinterrhein valley (Plaun, Heinzenberg, Domleschg,and Schams).
Italian language areas:
What is a Maiensäss?
A Maiensäss Is a special mountain pasture which has been deforested and contains a form of simple, rustic accommodation – usually with at least one small house and a barn, sometimes a small crop of buildings. It feels very much like a tiny, remote mountain village. Altitudes of the Maiensäss range from around 1,200m (3,937ft) to 1,600m (5,249ft).
The Maiensäss can make for a very special walking holiday in the Graubünden. Centrally located on the sunny slopes of the Alps, yet far away from the hustle and bustle of the resorts, what could be better than waking up amidst unspoilt nature and fresh mountain air? A number of excellent walking trails start from your own doorstep.
Traditionally, the Maiensäss were used as homes for Swiss farming families in the spring; the stage when cattle grazed on the middle mountain. In autumn, the farmers returned with their cattle back to mountain pastures below the tree line and stayed there until just before the onset of winter.
Today, many farmers rent out their idyllic mountain huts and pastures to guests who want to experience a traditional and authentic holiday in the Swiss mountains. These mountain pastures are either no longer in agricultural use and therefore used as a holiday home, or only available at certain times of the year. In summer, these mountain pastures make a highly attractive starting point for hiking, while in winter due to their elevation, they may become inaccessible.
History & Culture
Graubünden has been a fascinating region throughout its 13,000 years of human settlement. It is rooted in strong traditions, many of which live on today. For example, the ancient festivals of “Chalandamarz“ in the Engadine valley and the “Pschuuri“ in Splügen, are still celebrated to this day, bringing together locals and visitors. The colourful, mixed culture here is partly down to the fact there are three native languages: German, Romansh and Italian.
The canton of Graubünden is the country’s largest, covering approximately one-sixth of Swiss territory. Yet it is also the most sparsely populated. The town of Chur, a 5,000-year settlement, is one of Switzerland’s oldest.
History at a glance
15 BC – Graubünden conquered by the Romans
8th century AD – Charlemagne incorporates Rhaetia
1000 AD – Currätiens is gradually Germanized
13th century – Walser migration
1352 – Werdenberg-Belmont battle
1512 – The Valtellina defeated
1524 – Constitution of the Three Leagues
1618-1639 – Grison turmoil during the Thirty Years’ War
1803 – Demise of the Free State and affiliation with the Confederation
1815 – Valtellina lost permanently after Vienna’s Congress
1830-1870 – Period of change
1854 – New constitution, division of cantons into districts, counties, and municipalities
1880 – First tourists arrive
1926 – Car traffic approved
1938 – Recognition of Romansh as fourth national language
The Graubünden canton, as a former Free State of the “Common Three Leagues”, only became a part of Switzerland in 1803.
Partly populated since the Middle Stone Age, the region was conquered by the Romans, who recognised its strategic and commercial value, in around 15BC. It belonged to the Raetia Prima province of their empire. This Roman influence, with its strong roots in Christianity, is still evident today; historic Chur, which has been a diocesan town since 451 AD and the continued existence of the Romansh language are just two examples.
Switzerland became a de facto independent Church state from the seventh century under the indigenous dynasty of the Victorians and joined East Franconia (which later became the German Reich). However, the Bishop of Chur and the abbot of Disentis, both in charge of the Emperor’s critical mountain passes, built largely independent feudal states.
In 1367, the Bishop of Chur faced an uprising from a group called the League of God’s House (Gotteshausbund). This group formed an alliance with another called the league of the Ten Jurisdictions and in 1395 together they joined forces with the Grey League (Grauer Bund), sometimes referred to as Oberbund, in the Upper Rhine valley. This combined force assured independence and peace in the region. However, there was further upset in the 17th Century and Graubünden was once again the subject of many battles. French and Austrian armies went to war over the Graubünden’s vital passes. The Helvetic Republic confederation divided the Leagues in two once again until, in 1891, Napoleon declared union with Switzerland. Finally, Graubünden was officially named a Swiss canton upon the mediation of 1803.
The beautiful, mountainous landscape, which for so long was viewed as hostile and inaccessible, is now a thriving region. Tourism has flourished both because of its excellent sporting pursuits and improved transport networks which make travelling around the region a delight. There have also been some interesting findings about the health benefits of Graubünden’s mountain air and mineral springs.
Geography, Flora & Fauna
Graubünden’s rugged landscape is characterised by a combination of Alpine mountains and glaciers, and high pastures.
There are Alpine ranges in both the Eastern and Western Alps – often referred to locally as the Grison Alps – and a number of significant peaks, including Mt. Tödi (also called Piz Russein) at 3,614 m (11,857 ft) and the highest peak Piz Bernina at 4,049 metres (13,284 ft).
This is a land where time seemingly stands still. The mountain scenery is nothing short of breathtaking with its magical beauty, which alters dramatically with the changing seasons.
At the heart of the region is the Swiss National Park. This is a haven for rare plants and colourful wildlife (as, indeed, is most of the area). Deer, chamois and ibex can often be seen grazing on the slopes. Bird-watchers will delight in spotting golden eagles and bearded vultures. And that little whistling sound you hear may well be a marmot.
The Ibex (or Capricorn in Romansh language) can be seen everywhere; not only in high, remote areas of Graubünden – it is also the canton’s official logo. You’ll see a picture of the ibex on the cantonal shield, on car licence plates, on emblems on building walls, in the name of several hotels, restaurants and, of course, in the great outdoors – in the higher, more remote mountain regions.
However, the ibex has not always been so prevalent. By 1650, it had almost become extinct in Graubünden. A lack of fear of humans and medicinal properties of its horns both contributed to its demise. Then in the early 20th century, two of the last remaining ibex were stolen from a herd belonging to the Italian king Vittorio Emmanuele III and in 1920 the first ibex bred from this pair were released into the National Park. Today, around 300 ibex thrive in the Swiss National Park.
Bearded Vultures in the Swiss National Park
Bearded vultures (Lammergeiers) ceased to live and breed in this region in the late 19th century. Numerous attempts were made to re-introduce them, but they repeatedly failed because the birds would not breed in captivity. However, when this hurdle was finally overcome, the captive-bred young were released and there are now more than 100 Lammergeiers flying in the Alps again. In April 2007, history was made when the first chick was hatched in the wild in over 100 years.