Trails and Trains in Switzerland&'s Val Engadin
...Paraffin Pathfinder, 8th October 2013 So often the first image of a foreign land is through the window of a railway carriage. Well this picture can hang on my wall any time. Within minutes of leaving Zurich’s main station, the view across the Zurichsee revealed much of the promise for which Switzerland is famous. The place names that whizzed by were synonymous with understated Swiss legends of wealth and influence, Davos, Klosters and the eventual destination – St Moritz.
Zernez: The Ofen Pass
The first night stop was the quiet and orderly town of Zernez , gateway to the National Park. The modern Visitor Centre contrasts with the square white tower of Schloss Wildenburg opposite. Inside the information office are maps, advice and a wildlife exhibition. Hikers, delayed by the Aladdin's Cave of delights, tumble from the Centre to the nearby bus stop for the post bus On disembarking at Buffalora, a trail sign greets the walker. This example stood at a nexus of pathways, but once on the trail, these posts shrink to something much less intrusive. Following guidance for Il Fuorn, the path immediately demands a sharp climb up the bulk of Munt Chavagl, and crosses into the National Park at a huge boulder. The Swiss National Park is the oldest in central Europe and approaches its centenary in the Autumn of 2014. It forms part of the UNESCO Biosphere reserve and is visited by 150,000 people a year. A centre for research into longterm changes in the natural environment and famous for its flora and fauna, the park is closed in winter. The walker treks across a high pass as the terrain opens up to the South, looking across the Val de Gallo as a snake-like ribbon of water, Lago di Livigno, is straddled by the moody Italian peaks of Cima Paradiso (3028m) and Cima del Fopel (2928m).
Lago di Livigno is a reservoir. The strategically placed arched dam at Punt dal Gall traps the waters of both the River Spol and the Aqua del Gallo and marks the border between Switzerland and Italy. The customs post is accessed by a three kilometre tunnel, some four hundred metres beneath the path across Munt la Schera and almost visible at the far end of the lake, lies the duty-free town of Livigno . Descending through wooded slopes, the walker looks down on the buildings of Punt la Drossa which marks the opposite entrance of the tunnel and then continues to the Hotel Nazional Parc, Il Fuorn and a welcome drink whilst waiting for the bus back to Zernez.
Zernez: Val Trupchun
A short walk to the station begins the day to the most frequently visited trail in the Parc Nazionel, Val Trupchen, and yes, you can expect the bus to operate to the minute. On arriving at the park entrance, numerous routes seem available yet essentially there are only two directions – up the valley and back down. The Swiss step from language to language as easily as they tread the high alpine trails and in this region the signage is definitely “Romansh” . The route today is the “Via Sur Val Trupchun” and in the modern era, the attraction is the wildlife. At Alp Trupchun rest area, picnics and binoculars are the order of the day and sightings of marmot, ibex, deer and chamois are gleefully shared amongst the watchers. The old hands arrive early as the more the humans gather, the further into the high pastures the animals retreat. A lammergeier, the bone eater with digestive juices stronger than battery acid, flies low overhead and provokes an aggressive response from a golden eagle. The board at the mobile information bureau on the way back educates the walker on the local fauna in six languages. Scanning down the list of species, the predators feature strongly – the brown bear in particular making a high profile comeback – but it is the entry at the bottom that highlights the most viscous killer that ever stalked this region.
This virgin tranquility was once fortified with military emplacements and partially flooded to deter incursions by the foreign powers that lay beyond the ridge line at the head of the valley.
Pontresina: The Bernina Pass
Pontresina is an elegant town with a history that dates back to medieval times and its location has tied its fortunes to the Bernina Pass. Invaders, travellers and railway engineers have all passed through but it is the tourist who now dominates. The Bernina Railway is the highest rail crossing in Europe, one of the steepest adhesion (ie not relying on cogs or cables for traction) lines in the world and has been powered from its inception in 1908 entirely by dedicated hydro-electric generation. Its construction is such an achievement that is has earned a place on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
On leaving the station at Alp Grum, the train commences an immediate spiral descent en route towards the Italian town of Tirano on the other side of the distant Lago di Poschiavo. So effortless was the thirty-five minute ride up the Pass, past glaciers and snow capped peaks, that the visitor forgets that they have climbed 450m, yet rash is the walker who fails to pack gloves, hat and wind proof jacket. During the shoulder season the wind whips across the milky blue waters of Lago Bianco, the head water of the hydro-electric system, flecking its surface with white horses as numb fingers fumble with zips and hoods. The walk to the mountain hut of Sassal Mason is short and rocky, the coffee very welcome and the view spectacular.
Snow fall flickers in the corner of the walker’s eye, the station of Alp Grum is clearly visible with its promise of refreshment and a silky train ride back to Pontresina.
Pontresina: The Klimaweg
By the end of the 19th Century, the ibex had been driven to extinction in Switzerland but was successfully reintroduced after prominent Swiss figures commissioned poachers to steal kids from the Aosta Valley in Italy.
One hundred years later, in 2006, a symbolic gift of Swiss ibex was made to Italy to atone for the illegal activity. Now, the largest colony of Swiss ibex, approximately 1600 animals, inhabits Val Languard. Just a few minutes from our very excellent Hotel Muller , the chair lift at Alp Languard hummed with its human cargo for the sheer slopes behind the town. Floating above green pistes, it felt strange not to be encumbered by skis and the steady hand of the lift attendant was reassuring as the chunky tread of the walking boots precluded the slick dismount of the skier. From the entrance to Val Languard, the route veers up the unforgiving flank of Piz Muragl and the Klimaweg route became narrow and demanding. To casually look around was not an option whilst on the move and over some stretches, it was necessary to use the permanent fixtures of steel hawsers as hand holds. The path wound its way upward on the edge of vertiginous drops, and although never far from Pontresina, it seemed a long way down. For many, the more gentle Panaoramaweg would be the better option today. Nevertheless, the toil was amply rewarded as the ridge was mastered and the view from the Segantini mountain hut promised a thrilling day’s walking yet to come. Val Roseg stretches away into the distance.
Giovanni Segantini was an artist of unusual background. Born in Austria in 1858, he was orphaned at an early age and was cared for by his much older half sister, Irene. In a desperate attempt to improve their lot, Irene relinquished Austrian citizenship to move to Milan but failed to make proper application for Italian nationality and she and her brother remained stateless for the rest of their lives. By aged seven, Segantini was a runaway on the streets but a reformatory chaplain noticed his ability to draw and encouraged him. A career path through photography to art led Segantini to fame and a life in Switzerland and work such as “Mittag in den Alpen” was acclaimed for its clarity and colour. Having refused Swiss citizenship in life, after he died in the alpine meadows of the Engadine, he was granted the privilege posthumously. Leaving the hospitality of the Segantini hut, the trail falls away over a rough surface and descends into Val Muragl, the pinnacle of Piz Languard sharp against the sky.
The funicalur station at Muattos Muragl is more than just a means of transport, there is the Hotel Romantik and Restaurant as well. The sustenance provided reflected the effort of the walk!
Pontresina: Val Roseg
Breakfast at the Hotel Muller sets up the walker in royal fashion. The relaxed stroll out of Pontresina crosses the main rail and road connections towards the Bernina Pass and turns into the woods of Swiss pine that flank both sides of the Roseg Valley. The wide earthen trail climbs higher than the vehicle track and the bubbling waters of the Ova da Roseg, whilst the trees bind the earth to the mountain. Sporadically the woodpeckers can be heard at work and the occasional red squirrel makes a welcome appearance. Bigger game lives here too but it is shy of human presence with canine company. Dog walkers and joggers relish the crisp atmosphere, yet the further the hiker treads the stronger grows the feeling that they have these woods to themselves. The gradient is tame and the atmosphere serene: this quintessential alpine environment offers everything expected of a Swiss valley.
On approaching the head of the valley, the view opens out from the terrace of the Hotel Restaurant Roseg Gletscher, offering the perfect respite before the 750m climb to the mountain hut at Fuorcla Surlej. This valley is not to be missed and for those who do not relish the two hour hike uphill, the return to Pontresina is just as beautiful either on foot or by less common transport.
The ascent from Roseg has to be taken at your own pace, but the thrill is up lifting.
A glacial skeleton is gradually revealed in a side valley and the braided River Ova bleeds down its spine. The Tschierva glacier, a shadow of its parent, clings to existence amongst the high peaks, its regression startling and disconcerting.
Ahh, worth every step – at the mountain hut at Fuorcla Surlej sustenance is at hand. From here it is an easy walk to the Corvatsch Mittlestation and a smooth descent by cable car and on to St Moritz Bad by bus.
St Moritz Bad: The Panoramaweg & Wasserweg
Away from the lake side, St Moritz Bad is new, neat and clean but it lacks the homely, family feel of Zernez and Pontresina. It was a pleasure to head up the Corvatsch cable car in spite of the weather: the navigation wasn’t difficult but it did require a little more care. St Moritz is reputed to enjoy over three hundred days of sunshine per year, however the ski season was only weeks away, perhaps a grey day was inevitable. Nevertheless, Lake Silvaplana and the village of the same name still managed to show their best side.
The Wasserweg is best known for the Lejins, six tiny lakes high above the main valley and mostly named after minerals: Cristal, Magnetit, Malachit, Rhodonit, S-chaglia and Epidot.
Hampered by the diffuse light and rippling water surface, this was not the best day to capture the essence of the Lejins but the aura of the high pasture was calm and pleasing. Quiescent ski slopes and button lifts awaited the fun and frolic of the snow season, stainless steel snow cannon stood ready for duty. The last of the walk, around the big bowl of the winter wonderland of Furtschellas La Chudera, couldn’t compare with the scenery to date yet the hospitality at the cable car station excelled.
This holiday had been walked as provided however, from the very outset, it had been obvious that there was a myriad of options to vary the itinerary. The Engadine Valley boasts the organisation, the service and the location that can satisfy a wide range of taste and ability – if you have already tried it in the winter, it's time to come back in the summer.
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