This post is dedicated to my friend El and happy memories of our trip to Coop…
An Alpine town, Chur seems to be one of those places that people don’t really visit until they’ve exhausted other, more advertised attractions. The last larger German-speaking town before you start climbing up and over mountains is the gateway to the Alps and an often remote world – and yet it’s not a long drive from Zurich or Lake Constance. The capital of the canton of Graubünden, it’s not a very big town (about 35’000 inhabitants) nor is it a busy or bustling town, as a rule. Like most towns here, it has an “old” town and has then inevitably spread out and grown. In fact, it’s considered the oldest town in Switzerland – 5000 years old!
Although it is situated in the Rhine valley, the river Rhine itself is actually pushed off over to the foot of the other side of the valley and the river Plessur is the one featured when you look out from the oldest part of town, below the cathedral. There have been bishops here since St. Lucius* (rumoured to have been an English king) was martyred here in 176 AD, so quite a tradition with the first bishop Asinio being mentioned around 450 AD. The cathedral and other church buildings were erected on the Hof, a raised area which still looks down over the town. Because of it’s situation at the entrance to the mountains, it has always been a strategically important area and there are signs of this history all around town, if you care to look – they are subtly integrated and accepted as a part of everyday life (both the Magyars and the Saracens got this far west and north!).
Chur has a certain atmosphere – the Germanic (over 80% are German-speaking) but there is also a distinct sense of italianità and you can sense that the first town of the Tessin/Ticino (the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland) is just a hop, skip and a jump over the mountains… the easy pace of life, the street cafés, the cheery tone, all contribute to that holiday feeling.
The local accent is one many enjoy hearing, with it’s sometimes foreign-sounding clippedness and the strong guttural “ch” sound so common to Swiss-German becoming more of a simple “k” – where we roll the “Ch” of “Chur” (very difficult for a high German speaker!) the locals pronounce it “Kurr” and roll the “r”, instead. However, remember that this is also the first area where Romansch or Rätoromanisch is spoken (5% of the population), that elusive range of dialects that is now only spoken by 40-60,000 people. Sounding like a curious mixture of German, Italian and French and with at least 4 or 5 variations (that can be incomprehensible between themselves), this is what happens when languages “meet and greet” and borrow from each other… In the 1970s, a form of Romansch was invented to be the “official” version and taught in schools in an attempt not to lose the idiom, but these days there is once again a lot of discussion about how to preserve the individual forms, too, even though in some places it is the main language at primary school. We spend our winter holidays in the Lower Engadin (also Graubünden) that has a dialect of its own and find it fascinating to understand a good portion of what is said and almost all that is written – and yet, what would it be like to learn?! Interestingly, the language is now being kept alive by immigrants: a lot of Portuguese families have moved to the area (mainly because of the building and tourist industries) and surprise surprise, they find it very easy to learn the language, with their children adapting within a very short time frame and far more quickly than any Swiss-German kids whose parents have moved them there! That Mediterranean feel again, I suppose.
Another feeling entirely greeted me on one summer visit. Wandering the streets with a young child in a pushchair, I spied a lovely park with lots of trees and headed in to let my daughter stretch her legs on the playground and to sit in the sunshine for a while. To my amusement, there was a full-blown cricket match going on on the park lawn by a large group of Tamil Sri Lankans, smartly dressed in their whites and taking their game very seriously! But business and design have altered Chur a lot in the past 20 years. Even before that, the town had grown (if not exactly boomed) but now there are smart glass-fronted buildings which compete with and sometimes dominate the old town and the art nouveau villas that have been there for so much longer, and yet this is still a country town with quick and easy access to farm country and some of the local architecture goes distinctly in the direction of the squat trapezoid-style “Bündner” house that is so familiar higher up in the mountain resorts.
For those in search of some culture, there is plenty to see. The bishop’s palace and cathedral dominate, but there are museums such as the art museum (Angelika Kauffman, Giacometti, Hodler… but sadly again, closed until 2016 for refurbishment) and a vintner museum, as there is plenty of wine-growing in the area – head down the valley a couple of miles to the Jeninser Herrschaft and try the Jenins and Malans wines with some local specialities of cheese and dried meats…! Theatre, music and the arts are well-supported and there are both local newspapers and radio; this is, after all, the capital of what is a large canton so that it is the cultural and educational centre for the whole region, as well as having its own courts and government. Gastronomically, don’t forget to try Pfirsichsteine, a sweet almond-paste confection!
*see the book King Lucius of Britain by David J. Knight – fascinating stuff!
So if you’re ever going up to St. Moritz, Klosters, Davos or Arosa, don’t simply bypass Chur – stop in and have a look!