Europe 2007 - 1: Switzerland, Lower Engadin

The flight went pretty quickly. It was less than 7 hours, anyway. We crossed the night and the Atlantic in a short time and landed at 6 AM in rainy, wet Zurich.

The car I have retrieved from Europa car was Spanish Volkswagen make – Seat Leon. According the specification, it was a “medium size car”. And it maybe was, for European circumstances. For me it felt fairly small – our luggage did barely fit into the trunk. If we had more than two normal size and one half size cases, we would be in trouble. One small piece had to fit behind my seat.

The car was of course diesel and of course manual. The first feature was great – it had almost negligible consumption (somewhere around 4-5 liters per 100 km). You can more appreciate this fact considering the prices of gas ranging from 1.1 to 1.4 Euro per liter. The second was a bit stressful at the beginning: dealing with changing gears, fatigue from the flight without sleep, heavy rain and Swiss crowded highways was a bit challenge when we started.

Switzerland has excellent street system, very dense and comprehensive and pretty decent street signs (for Europe at least). Two minor annoyances were placements of the street lights – at the beginning of the junction – and street signs, which are high up on the buildings in the streets. I started to appreciate how easy is it in Canada / USA to find out where you are, as the street names are in the junctions as well. Knowledge of local Autobahn map also helps, without it you may face a challenge of “omnidirectional signs”: the Autobahn splits and left side goes to Zurich, Schaffhausen, Winterthur, Luzern, Chur, Lugano, Bern, Basel (which happens to cover every direction imaginable) and the right side goes to Zurich, Luzern, Chur, Lugano, Bern, Basel, Geneve. Now make your choice when you go to Luzern and Chur 🙂

Despite these challenges, we made it in one piece to Thomas place with quick shopping stop at Oftringen. For security reasons, I took a short nap and around 5 we were on the road again towards Chur, Fluellapass and Scuol. This is the region of Lower Engadin, very similar (only less known and little harder to reach) than more famous destinations of Davos and Sankt Moritz.

The way to Scuol takes you through amazing picturesque central Switzerland roads, with many curves and tunnels, raising up to almost two thousand meters of mountain passes. We have cheated a bit and tried the Klosters‘ car rail. You drive onto a steel road, which happens to be on rails. After that, you sit in the car and wait until the locomotive takes you through to the other side of the mountain – in about 20 minutes. There is not much to see, except darkness and the car before you in your car’s lights.

We had a bit scare during the ride – as the train accelerated, the laws of physics and not properly activated handbrake on the car before us caused that it started to move toward us. Fortunately, it was only short distance, slow speed so it softly landed, touched our bumper without any visible damage … but it was pretty scary sight, as the car before us was a full size (American full size) van, for 7 people, with Belgian plates and full of kids. So we had more excitement on the simple tunnel ride than on a Halloween’s spooky ride on Saunders farm, and for even less money – 27 francs one way 🙂

At about 8:30 PM we arrived to Scuol. Thomas booked pretty good hotel – as we discovered later, most likely the best hotel in Scuol. During the season, it is not easy to book hotel for less than a week – so if your stay is 3 days, you most likely end up with fairly expensive ones.

The cuisine in the Hotel Belvedere was excellent. I enjoyed most the breakfast, with home made special kind of Bircher Muesli and excellent selection of Swiss cheeses of all kinds and ripeness. The dinner was true work of art and culinary sophistication – probably above my capabilities of full appreciation, but very yummy and pleasantly surprising.

Hiking in Parc Naziunal Swizzera

The weatherforecast for the Wednesday was fairly bleak – rain, mist, cloudy and little (if any) sun. We took off for the trip after an great breakfast (I switched to Igor’s famous “python mode” – big breakfast and big dinner, nothing in between except some fruits and looots of water). What looked like a small walk ended up to be about 9 hour hike with highest point well over 2000 meters and almost 1000 meters absolute height difference. The lesson learned is that it is not advisable to try keeping up with fanatical mountain-biker who is in a great shape (ready for 180 km bike marathon in the mountains). I have walked few hundreds of kilometers this year around Ottawa, but the mountainous terrain is completely different ball game. Thomas’ pace of going uphill was simply too much. He started about 20% faster than my comfort zone speed – and kept on increasing speed … After few hours I found that my lungs are definitely too small for my body size, and as result me and Silvana took a shortcut back. My wife with Thomas and his wife finished the full hike – well over 9 hours.

We have experienced about 10 different weather types during the day – everything from sunny and pleasantly, through cold wind up to heavy rain, changing on 10-15 minutes intervals. I have taken a lot of pictures, selection of which can be seen here.

Thursday – Around Scuol

For Thursday, Thomas planned to take even longer and more challenging hike (up to 3000 meters) – so we decided to explore the arounds of Scuol on our own. The weather forecast was computationally complete – the weathermen have promised all the weather you can imagine – and (unfortunately) did deliver. As Thomas told us at the dinner, they even have had the snowstorm and ice pellets in close to 3000 m heights. We missed these, but otherwise we have seen rain, fog, blazing sun with perfect cloud-free sky, cloudy – all of that at least 3 times.

After short walk in the very Swiss “downvillage” of Scuol we took the cable car up to Motta Naluns (the accomodation included the free ride on cable car, buses and trains in the Lower Engadin). The view was amazing – see for yourself. There is something special in the Alp meadows, something that not even much bigger mountains do not have. I have been in Canadian Rockies, but – however they are beautiful, I have never seen anything like this there.

So while Thomas was walking up the 3000 meters pass, we were enjoying the panorama-trail on he to of and we have experienced the paragliders start and disappear in the fog – which arrived within 10 minutes from nowhere.

Pretty close to Scuol is Bad Tarasp – small village with castle and termal springs. If you drive there, the road is something special – very narrow, serpentines carved into very steep hill, just barely wide enough for single car. Bidirectional, of course – the curves have wider spots – only spot where two car can pass. We were driving it in a bus, which made the experience even more scary. Actually not a bus but “Postauto” – which looks (and also is) an ordinary bus, painted in colors of and operated by Swiss post. Nice optimization – in addition to speedy post delivery it takes care of the people transport as well.

The castle in Tarasp has very interesting history – rebuilt from a complete ruin during 1900-1915 by very wealthy German enterpreneur Karl Lingner, who made fortune on cosmetic industry, visited the Tarasp, fell in love with the place, purchased the ruin and (after sinking few millions of francs into reconstruction) brought it to it’s todays appearance. The castle contains lots of truly amazing historical pieces of furniture, some of the few centuries old, purchased from monasteries and castles all over Europe. During the years 1910-1914, with World War I looming over Europe, many people and organizations were more than willing to convert their belonging into much more portable assets than 16th century wooden bed with baldachin … Thanks to Swiss neutrality, these marvels of art survived intact here.

Unfortunately, taking pictures was not allowed inside the castle, so you can see only few shots of the castle from outside and the village Tarasp here.

Hotel Belvedere is about 200 m away from thermal bath with mineral, healing water and is actually connected to the bath by wooden walkway, which takes you over the streets of Scuol directly to the bath. There are several pools with different kind of water and the water really works wonders – as my wife can confirm. The setup is very convenient, you can put on swimming robes in your hotel room, take the elevator down to minus second floor (do not forget that the first floor is Floor 0, not one) and walk right up to the pool. This is one of main attractions of the hotel and you can tell that by amount of people in retirement age visiting (most of them were elderly ladies speaking Italian). The bath is not exactly cheap – entrance fee is about 20 francs (18 CAD) per head and visit – but it was also included as part of the accommodation deal. If you travel with kids, be warned that children under 16 are allowed to enter only after 11:00 AM – for no obvious reason. Well – rules are rules, and “Ordnung muss sein ” …

Obviously, I have not taken any pictures in the baths :-). As a curiosity, part of the service offering is the Roman bath – offering the real experience of the bath in Roman empire – naked, without any swimming suits. Despite that the entrance into Roman bath was also part of the package, we skipped this one …