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Different Paths Through the Swiss Alps

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Stall writes about politics for The Times

I had come to the Engadine Valley at the suggestion of Peter Walker of Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures in Colorado. Peter has hiked, skied and climbed every corner of the Alps for two decades and spends his summers leading hikers up valleys, over passes and into delightful hidden corners of the mountains of Switzerland.

But of all the stunning mountain territory he has traversed, Peter says he considers the Engadine the finest region in Switzerland for hiking, wandering and savoring grand mountain scenery and villages that seem frozen in time.

In contrast to the deeply cleft valleys typical of the Alps, the Upper Engadine is a broad, U-shaped trench abutting the eastern border of the country. The valley is open and airy and laced by a succession of sparkling lakes. The mountain walls on either side are carved by glaciers into lateral valleys that offer hundreds of challenging hiking routes.

This would be my fourth trip to Switzerland since 1990, including a weeklong trek led by Walker and his wife, Karen. This time I was traveling solo and looking for new territory, a different experience that still featured the awesome drama of the mountains and the serenity of high Alpine meadows.

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Peter’s passion for the Engadine persuaded me to come here.

The Upper Engadine begins at Maloja Pass near the Italian border and runs northeast along the En River for about 50 miles. At a natural geographical break where the Val Bernina slices in from the jagged Bernina Alps to the east, the towns of St. Moritz, Pontresina and Samedan form a triangle of about five miles per side, creating an especially sublime setting of open meadows, forested slopes and snowcapped peaks.

Everyone knows about St. Moritz, the winter and summer playground of the rich and royal. In its way, St. Moritz’ posh reputation may discourage visits to the Engadine by people who shrink at the idea of a $300- or $400-a-night hotel room.

But St. Moritz is the exception in a vast, isolated region that can only be reached by one of five mountain passes. Away from St. Moritz, prices are more typical of the rest of this part of Switzerland.

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In fact, I was determined to make this an “economy” vacation in a country where the high cost of travel had been exacerbated by the declining value of the dollar versus the Swiss franc in recent years.

I had it all worked out. I would make my base at Pontresina, the hiking center of the Engadine, smaller and more relaxed than St. Moritz. I would make two- or three-day excursions into the mountains, hiking up alongside roaring waterfalls into the high peaks, backlighted by a dazzling sun set in an azure Alpine sky.

At day’s end, I would reach a rustic hut or mountain hotel perched on a lofty ledge, eye to eye with the high peaks, have a hearty supper with fellow hikers, share the day’s experience over a glass of wine and sleep soundly beneath the rough wool blankets of the dormitory-style room.

After breakfast of sliced meat, cheese and bread, I would set out again, perhaps cross a glacier, see a steinbock with its long tapered horns, rest on a grassy, wild-flowered slope and greet other walkers with the traditional, Gruss Gott! (roughly, “Go With God”)

Mountain-hut lodging may be rustic at times, as basic as a thin mattress on bare boards, a wool blanket and a pillow. Bathing and sleeping accommodations can be a little too communal for some travelers.

But a night’s stay in a hut operated by the Swiss Alpine Club, which anyone can join, can run as little as $25. Most huts serve breakfast and supper at reasonable rates. The private “berghotels” can be more pricey, but still are only a fraction of the valley resort hotels.

Of nearly 40 mountain huts and hotels in the Pontresina area, a dozen are SAC huts. The rest are privately run hotels and restaurants. Many of the hotels have both private rooms, some with bath, and dormitory-style lodging similar to hostels.

That was the plan. Here was reality:

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On the next-to-last day of my visit last fall, I sat at a table by the panoramic window of the Diavolezza mountain restaurant and gazed out toward what I knew to be one of the grandest scenes in all the Alps. And all I could see was an opaque wall of cloud on the other side of the window pane.

Pure white-out cloaked the Bernina Alps, from the summit of 13,285-foot Piz Bernina down to the bottom of its glacial skirts outside the window. The mist swirled just enough to offer an occasional teasing glimpse of the lower ridges of the Bernina and its 12,812-foot neighbor, Piz Palu. Then the snowy curtain would slip shut again.

The waiter brought my lunch--a pork chop, French fries and zucchini--as I looked around at the empty pine tables. In a restaurant that could easily seat several hundred, I was the only customer.

Just a few nights back, this restaurant anchored to a ridge at 9,754 feet above sea level was jumping, the scene of the graduation ceremony for 40 new Swiss mountain guides, families and friends.

That had been a perfect Alpine evening, capping one of the few truly sunny days during my 10-day visit. The setting sun sprayed the peaks and glaciers with a golden glow, the sort of scene that inspires poetry and film purchases in bulk.

I spent the night in one of the hotel rooms added recently to the Diavolezza. It had the inevitable blond pine wood, dazzling white tiles and a puffy white duvet on the bed. It was impeccably Swiss, with the brisk scent of fresh laundry drying in the sun. The room, with bath and breakfast, cost about $36 in September.

For even less, I could have slept on one of the bunks of the Diavolezza’s dormitory. Yet here I was, no more than a dozen miles from St. Moritz, one of the priciest resorts in the world.

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But that sparkling evening and morning was the exception on this trip. The rule was drizzle or rain in the valley and snow at higher elevations, which one morning was just a few feet above the roof of my Pontresina hotel.

Alas, the weather mostly foiled my quest for a true economy vacation. With all that snow in the mountains--10 feet of it on the high peaks during my stay--nearly all the huts that I had planned to stay at were inaccessible and closed. I was forced to spend most nights in a Pontresina hotel and find alternate activities on the rainiest days.

With better backup planning, I still could have economized considerably. Even in the towns, there is housing available that is clean, private and comfortable that does not cost an arm and a leg. These accommodations are often overlooked because they do not make it into the tourist guidebooks or the listings of the Swiss Hotel Assn.

One of these in Pontresina was the bright, clean Hotel Garni Alvetern (garni means the hotel does not have its own restaurant). Although I didn’t stay here, I wish I had from the looks of it. The Alvetern offered a double room without bath for less than $50, or rooms with private baths--some with balcony--for $60 to $75. The price included a buffet breakfast.

Also, apartments are available in most of the larger towns with a range of rates comparable to those in a U.S. mountain resort.

The best way to learn about the types of lodging available is to contact the tourist office in each town by telephone, letter or fax. Addresses and phone numbers are listed in most Swiss guidebooks and are available from Switzerland Tourism.

As for dining, most restaurants in small Swiss towns are in the hotels. But many hotels have, in addition to a formal dining room, a separate area known as a Stubli that is akin to our bar and coffee shop. This is where the locals will often go when they eat out. Evening meals in a Stubli can run $15 to $20, including wine and tip, about a third less than in the main restaurant.

Once you work through all the semi-familiar schnitzels and wursts and aren’t sure what to order, try an omelet. They invariably are excellent and modestly priced. Also, it’s hard to go wrong with a hearty soup and lots of bread.

I had a delicious mushroom and cheese omelet with a glass of wine and coffee for lunch in St. Moritz one rainy day for less than $10, including tip. Another day, a steaming bowl of minestrone, bread and wine in a hotel in Maloja cost about $6.

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Despite the bad weather, my expectations of the Engadine were more than fulfilled. The hiking ranges from gentle, level valley walks to Ben Gay specials amid the high peaks and passes. The Engadine is unique because of its Romansch culture and language that survives from the ancient civilization of Rhaetia, dating from pre-Roman times.

I learned that about a third of the residents of the canton (a canton is similar to a U.S. state) of Graubunden speak Romansch, Switzerland’s fourth official language after German, French and Italian. Most of those who still speak Romansch live in the Engadine, part of Graubunden. In area, Graubunden is Switzerland’s largest canton, but also the least populous.

The presence of another language is not a handicap. The most exposure visitors will have to Romansch is on local maps and signposts. Lakes are Lej rather than the German See, although they quickly become Lago as the traveler nears Italy. Rivers are Ova, peaks Piz, and bridges Punt.

I was in the Engadine a full week before I heard anyone speaking American English, a testimony to the fact that annually barely 1% of the visitors to Pontresina are from the United States. These Americans were a couple in the seat in front of me on the bus to Maloja. Their Midwest twang caught my ear.

Few Engadiners speak English except in the busiest tourist centers, and I was suffering language deprivation. Eager to connect with a fellow American, I leaned forward to make small talk, asking: How long have you been in Switzerland?

Fifteen minutes later, as she headed out the bus door at their stop, the Energizer woman from Des Moines was still reciting an inexhaustible litany of anecdotes of their six weeks in Switzerland.

The bus door closed. I settled back in my seat and relaxed, content to listen to the other passengers chatting cheerily in lyrical Swiss-German punctuated by the repeated “Oh-yah, yah-yah.”

It was the sound of music.

So what do you do when you go to Switzerland to hike and it rains?

Well, you hike anyway. The Swiss and the Germans do, with Gore-Tex jackets, hats or umbrellas--and determination. The footing on the trails, in most cases, remains firm. There usually is a mountain restaurant somewhere along the way for drying out and refreshment.

Or go shopping--even on a modest budget, even in St. Moritz. There is a great book and gift store called Wega in Schulhausplatz, the center of St. Moritz.

One day I took the bus over the Maloja Pass, at the head of the Upper Engadine, and down the other side toward Italy into the Val Bregaglia . Here you can see high granite peaks such as Piz Badile and walk in the largest chestnut tree forest in Europe.

Near the Italian border, there is a fine hike up to the storybook medieval village of Soglio, with an Italianate bell tower and a castle that is now a hotel.

There are cable cars up to Piz Nair and Corvatsch and a cog railway up to Muottas Muragl above Pontresina, for lunch and hikes and panoramic scenery that flows from Switzerland into Italy and Austria.

On my final day in the Engadine, I took one of the mandatory local tourist hikes near the base of the mountain where the Diavolezza is perched. It was a 45-minute walk up to the terminus of the Morteratsch Glacier. The weather was overcast, cold and drizzly.

The walking was easy and not crowded. At the end of the trail was the snout of the glacier, grimy in rock dust and pock-marked with stones. Hikers, ignoring warning signs about falling icebergs, poked the melting ice with umbrellas.

Afterward, I took the tram up into the mist to the Diavolezza. As I finished lunch, snow began to fall. I went down the tram as the only paying passenger and boarded the train for Pontresina.

This seemed a desultory way to end the trip, spending the afternoon alone in the clouds at Diavolezza and thinking about peaks I couldn’t see and trails I couldn’t hike.

Now, though, I look back on that afternoon as special. There is something awesome and serene about solitude in the high mountains, even in a modern restaurant in what amounts to a fortress built on the Alpine bedrock.

I remember thinking that the snowflakes that were falling then would become part of the Morteratsch Glacier. Someday, maybe someone would poke them with their umbrella down at the mouth of the glacier.

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GUIDEBOOK

Entering the Engadine

Getting there: Swissair flies nonstop five days a week from LAX to Zurich, the best jumping off point for the Engadine Valley area. (Monday and Saturday flights stop in Geneva. Advance purchase round-trip fares begin at $1,166. American flies direct with one stop, and United and Delta have connecting service, as do numerous European carriers. Various package deals called “Swiss Vacation Planners” can help cut the high price of flying there; call (800) 688-7947 for more information. By train from the Zurich airport to St. Moritz/Pontresina is four hours, with a change of trains in Chur. I used a Swiss Pass during my visit, which is good for all train, bus and lake steamer transportation throughout the country. As an example of price, an eight-day pass this summer costs $220 per person for second class, or $316 each for first class. When two travel together, the companion pays half-price until Oct. 31.

Where to stay: The Swiss Hotel Assn. guide contains accommodation and rate information for most major hotels throughout the country, available from Switzerland Tourism (see below).

The clean hotel/restaurant I stayed at that sits on a promentory in the Bernina Alps, the Diavolezza (tel. 011-41-81-842-6205, fax 011-41-81-842-6158), cost $36 for a private room last September. In Pontresina, The Hotel Garni Alvetern (tel. 011-41-81-842-6467, fax 011-41-81-842-7516), which looked promising, listed its room rates as $50-$75, including breakfast, last fall.

Swiss Tourism also has information on joining the Swiss Alpine Club. For details on apartment or condo rentals, pensions and mountain huts and smaller hotels, contact local tourist offices in individual towns.

Where to hike: The Pontresina tourist office has maps and information on hikes in the area, as well as all other recreational activities. More ambitious high mountain treks can be arranged through local mountain guides (contact Bergsteigerschule Pontresina, tel. 011-41-81-842-6444.

Tour operators specializing in hiking trips in the region include: Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures, tel. (970) 728-6481; Mountain Travel-Sobek, tel. (800) 227-2384 and Swiss Hike, tel. (360) 754-0978.

The best hiking guide is “Walks in the Engadine” by Kev Reynolds, available from Chessler Books, $19.95; tel. (800) 654-8502. “Footloose in the Swiss Alps” by William Reifsnyder (Sierra Club, $19.95), is an excellent source on the use of mountain huts and hotels.

For more information: Switzerland Tourism, 222 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 1570, El Segundo 90245, tel. (310) 640-8900, fax (310) 335-5982. Pontresina Tourist Office, Ch-7504 Pontresina, tel. 011-41-81-842-6488, fax 011-41-81-842-7996.


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