A Portrait of a Mountain Village


Once again, we have spent a couple of weeks in the Lower Engadin region of eastern Switzerland, right out towards the Austrian border, where the Alps laugh at any concept of political borders and dominate everything from the later sunrise to the earlier sunset and beyond.

 Far away from the superficial glitz and glamour of St. Moritz in the Upper Engadin, the area we come to has retained a lot of its original features, both architecturally and in the people who live here. It’s not a place for the spoilt, soft modern citizen, but somewhere one very much has to choose to live unless born to it. A climate that ranges from six months or more of heavy winter weather to a short, warm, rainy summer in valleys between mountains that refuse to be dominated by mere humans means that the people who settled here were hardy and tough, willing to put up with extreme hardship, and who thereby also preserved their own language in this difficult-to-reach region, tucked high up in the Graubünden peaks. For a long, long time, there were only narrow traveller’s paths up through the crags and along the valley floors, often with precarious ledges around the rocks or on rock faces. It was the discovery of tourism, initially by the British in central Switzerland, that changed this, along with the rediscovery of the health-giving aspects of spa waters (known to the Romans) that triggered the great travellers of the 18th century to make their way to such remote places, in this case, following the river En (which later becomes the river Inn at Innsbruck). It was still very hard work getting up here – the roads weren’t made for carriages and wagons, much walking or riding on mules was involved, not to mention the luggage deemed necessary for such a sojourn, often lasting for months rather than weeks. Something for the very brave and adventurous. How strange these people must have seemed to the robust and healthy mountain folk!

   The gardens of the Villa Wilhelmina, built 1886/87 for Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, who stayed there with Princess Juliana…

Stranger still the enormous, elegant hotels they went on to have built for themselves – huge, impressive and elegant buildings with enough sparkle to attract the very richest guests, eventually even a mountain railway to bring them to take the waters and stroll the gardens elaborately constructed around the luxury accommodation, well away from the huddle of village houses and commoners with their rough habits and lives. A Gothic appreciation of nature and mountains helped, as well as the ambition to be strong and healthy in times where to be anything else was fatal – mountain air, intense sun, spa springs, icy stream water and a wealth of health-giving herbs and plants in an age where medicine was so random and the Industrial Revolution as well as sheer poverty and lack of hygiene were detrimental to the most robust of men, however rich. Over the mountain at Davos was the specialised treatment of TB, known as “consumption” for its wasting effect, with no real known cure except fresh air and sunshine, and perhaps some coincidence. Here, it seems there was more a bolstering of good health at the spa and as the genteel accommodation provided more and more luxury after the advent of the railway, a certain amount of showing off one’s grandeur.

   Such dashing outfits – though probably not quite as warm as our modern ones!

Perhaps this was all very fortuitous. The tourists went on to discover that the summer spa experience could be extended to winter entertainment and from the turn of the 20th century they began to take up winter sports, bringing year-round income to this and other little mountain villages. The inhabitants were happy to have their meagre farming efforts supplemented by the foreigners’ demands for tour guides, spa workers and skiing teachers, sleigh drivers, caterers and hotel staff and it gave some of the younger generation opportunities to move away with the upper classes to fulfil those same and other demands at lower altitudes[1]. Of course, nowadays, with “organic” being the buzz word, the rusticity comes into its own with anything produced at altitude claiming special properties, be it honey, milk, ice-cream or whatever.

And yet the villages and customs remained largely unaffected. Here in the village, the square, squat houses with enormously thick foundations and walls, often made of stone quarried locally and then plastered and decorated in the typical style of the region still stand solidly where they were built – many of them in the 16th or 17th centuries (a very few wooden and/or stone buildings or towers are older) and not looking any different 400 years on. The small windows (to keep the heat in) are set deep into the walls, usually shuttered and occasionally the shutters are as wide as the walls are deep, so that they lie in their niche rather than against the outer house walls. Inside the large, arched, wooden door, there was usually a vaulted, pebble-floored hallway that would include the main cooking stove or fireplace (sometimes connected to the tiled oven) and indoor wood storage, soon blackened by the smoke that was emitted pretty much constantly. The cellar for winter storage would also be at this level, kept at an even temperature by the sheer thickness of the stone walls. Upstairs, the rooms were often wood-panelled, frequently Swiss stone pine (Arve – pinus cembra), a wood known to have health-giving qualities in its essences – it certainly smells fantastic over centuries! Of course, this type of panelling would have been a sign of prosperity to some extent, so that it became significant to show a certain amount of decoration – wood carving being a good way of filling those long winter evenings. Over time, elaborate dressers were built into the panelling, sometimes even providing a small basin and tap from a hidden tank for hand-washing. Crucial for this particular luxury was the main heating source – a large built-in oven traditionally made of hard soapstone (lavezzo) from the local and North Italian quarries, which stores heat remarkably well. This behemoth dominated the small, panelled living quarters, providing not only simple warmth but enough for the women to be able to sit and spin linen or wool, weave, sew, embroider or knit, the young children to survive the icy winters and the older children to work or play, as well as for the men to carry out handicrafts or repairs when housebound by the weather, not to mention the drying of laundry or herbs and the heating of upper chambers via hatches cut into the ceiling. A bed or bench alongside or above the oven were often an integral part of this construction – probably reserved for the oldest, frailest members of the family.

This is my favourite – perhaps because it’s the same colours as The Little Wash House?!

It’s remarkable that the outside of the houses was so elaborately decorated. Known as sgraffiti in its purest form, the artwork on the plaster façades is fantastic. Often geometric, it can become floral or more intricate, depending on the artist and style of the individual villages and some of the 20th century renovations display more contemporary interpretations of the art, almost always very tasteful, if recognisable as such. Again, it would have been a sign of affluence to have the “best” sgraffiti in the village on one’s house. How lucky we are that so much has been preserved!

Part of the building would have housed a barn. For all that the terrain is agriculturally demanding, most would have been used for animal grazing, mainly sheep, goats and cows, with sure-footed donkeys and mules for pulling and transport. The alpine meadows provided the grass and herbs for strong cattle and rich milk (for cheeses necessary as winter nourishment) as well as huge mounds of vital hay for winter feeding and therefore considerable storage was needed. In these integrated barns, large arched doorways, high above ground level, have slatted “fillers”, allowing plenty of air in to aerate the piled hay. Presumably they provided the main access at haying time. Other wooden barns are built in such a way that the slatted walls are made to similarly provide good air circulation. Some beautifully and sensitively renovated buildings are simply glazed behind the slats, leaving the rustic look to the façade, all the while providing modern (insulated!) living quarters indoors, loft-style.

Another feature of these higgledy-piggledy villages tumbled onto the mountain valleys are the centrally-located fountains. A small “square” with a fountain, surrounded by the house frontages is a very typical sight. This water source was obviously vital for survival but also served a social function. While children might be sent to fetch water for cooking or washing in buckets, women of all ages would no doubt come together here for other water needs such as laundry, maybe taking the opportunity to pass the time of day. Many of the houses also have a bench (or two) fixed at right angles to the main entrance – surely young and old took advantage to take the weight off their feet, enjoy what little sunshine might reach the valley in the colder months, to sit and supervise babies and small children (the attraction of that water fountain LOL!), knitting or sewing or carving in hand or pipe firmly fixed at the corner of the mouth…

 The language spoken up here is fascinating to listen to, as well as to read. One of the Romansch dialects, a knowledge of French, Italian and German means I understand maybe a quarter or third of what is said, making me curious for more! German has been the language of schooling for some time and for those involved with tourists – i.e. most of the village – German, Italian and English are no problem. Recently, there has been a move to re-introduce the local dialects into primary schools in order to preserve them. An attempt to create a centralised form of the language in the 70s appears to have failed to a great extent, perhaps luckily for the various dialects which almost died, although it still means there is difficulty establishing a Bündner identity for the whole region. Or perhaps the failed attempt resurrected the dialects and has shown people how they must be used so as not to be lost – in any case, there seems to be no shortage of young families and children speaking the local version around here! Whether on the main village street, on the bus or on the slopes, Romansch Vallader abounds.

In Scuol, the (Protestant) church stands on its own little promontory down on the banks of the En river, with the village assembled at its feet but not completely dominated by it. The top of the small hill is just large enough for the church itself and a small walled cemetery overlooking the Clemgia gorge.

Other traditional events have been upheld alongside those of a religious nature. At the beginning of February, there is the heathen-based Hom Strom – piles of straw collected by the village youth and burned as a bonfire to ward off the winter and encourage the spring, while the villagers sing. Another typical event, made famous throughout Switzerland by Alois Carigiet’s Schellenursli illustrated children’s storybook, takes place on March 1st, originally to celebrate the beginning of the year and chase away bad spirits… It varies depending on the village, but usually involves the youngsters ringing cowbells, using whips, congregating at the fountains and singing. Since snow is an integral part of an Engadin winter, sleighs and sledges are often a part of these processions and there is a particular design of sleigh typical for the region which allows a young woman to sit decorously while being pushed along by her suitor, with the time-honoured colourful costumes and decorations providing much colour.

Here, then, a portrait of a village and an area we have come to love and appreciate for all its possibilities and qualities, its versatility and variety, its culture and its language, its hospitality and yes, even its hardy, individual Swiss-ness. It’s a 14-year love affair that we hope will go on a good deal longer because there’s simply something for everyone!

Grazia fich, a revair!


[1] Many Bündner (people from Graubünden) left the area for economic reasons, and many became well-known and well-versed as pastry chefs, some returning to their home valleys at a later date as “Swiss patissiers”. I was amazed to discover this year that the typical “Bündner Nusstorte” is not actually from here, but was developed by Bündner pastry chefs: walnuts didn’t grow up here! Another speciality, “Bündnerfleisch”, dried meat, is also no more Bündner than I am – most of it is Argentinian beef. Sigh. However, I am sure dried and cured meat did form part of the winter diet; perhaps it was more likely to be goat, venison, mutton or donkey?!

5 thoughts on “A Portrait of a Mountain Village

  1. thank you for the wonderful photos and historyabout this area. I truly enjoyed reading about the architecture, people, and development of the area. The lovely homes you photographed allowed me to escape for a moment to a gentler rythm. I put it on my list to visit one year soon.

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