Monday, August 1, 2011

A Really Swiss Experience (Our Trip to Lower Engadine)

Any time I meet friends from home, or whenever I meet people for the first time, they ask me how I like Switzerland. I always say I love it! and they always look at me quite confused. You have to understand the cultural background a bit.

First off, Hungarians tend to focus on negative aspects of anything, and the Swiss tend to count their chickens only when they're hatched, roasted and eaten. Second, people find it incredible that my infatuation with the country is still at such a peak.

In my defense, I have to admit that I'm an all time optimist and usually refrain from having my good mood ruined. But, and this is my main point with this post, I also find the country drop dead gorgeous. Just the other day, when we were doing a short hike in the Jura, we agreed that if we happen to ever move and leave Switzerland, our new destination wil have a lot to make up for. Because, though I don't believe you can find paradise on earth, this little place is as close to it as can be. Especially, if you go to places like the Lower Engadine.

I know it's all subjective. What I find beautiful and marvelous may be OK or even dull to someone else. I'll take the blame for being a mountain addict and a gourmet and go ahead with this little review. Who knows? Maybe there are people out there who, like us, love eating and hiking, and will find it helpful.

This year we decided to (or rather, were forced to) split our holidays. So we took two separate weeks off, and chose two very different destinations. Our July holidays, thus, took us to the Lower Engadine. The Engadine Valley is in the easternmost part of Switzerland, in the canton of Graubünden (Grison/Rischun). If you're looking at the map you'll have to think the way Egyptians did, as the Lower Engadine is actually the northern one of the two valleys.

It was easy for us to choose our destination, as a friend recommended the area, and after realizing that the southern valley boasted such glitzy resorts as St Morritz, it went without question that we'd opt for the more rural, off the beaten track part. After that, it took me some time to find out that cottages or chalets are never built for two, and what we actually needed was a hotel garni, where we could rent a room without paying for half a dozen beds -- and still enjoy the traditional alpine atmosphere.

It was probably a little late (and many of the accommodations were already taken or not really suited to our needs), but we were lucky with the Hotel Chasa Nova in Samnaun. They had a beautiful double room for us, facing south, with a view on the forest and the mountains, for CHF 120 a night (including all charges and breakfast). I loved the hotel, with its wonderful location and super friendly staff, the delicious buffet breakfasts while admiring the view, and its traditional Engadine looks. Due to a Samnaun summer deal, we had open access to the spa in Samnain-Ravaisch, as well as unlimited access to the cable cars in the area.

We spent our time hiking and eating :), with occasional breaks of playing boardgames or sleeping. ;) So let's see some of the activities I would recommend.


We did a number of hikes in the area. First we scaled the Stammerjoch (took us around 90 minutes to reach the summit from the village and around an hour looping back to the hotel), which was a good warmer and showed us some of the most beautiful views. We took the Val Maisas treck up and the Val Chamins one down, the easier option I think, and had a marvelous afternoon.

Then we spent a day in the National Parc, walking through the valley of Champlönch from Parking 1 in Ova Spin, then up to Alp Grimmels (a little clearing, where you can occasionally spot marmots, but I think it's become all too popular with families, so the animals must be avoiding it...) with cool views. (On the way down my wallet -- with all our money and cards -- slipped from my pack, and we were just about to walk all the way back when the family we passed earlier told us they'd found it like 2 kms back... Awesome people!) We continued to Il Fuorn (Parking 6), where we had the most delicious tomato cream soup at the little inn (courtesy of the found wallet!). We felt it was a bit early to return, so we decided to walk to Parking 4 and take the bus from there. So we took the trail that starts between Parking 5 and 6, in the direction of Munt la Schera. We didn't have time to go all the way to the top, so after around 30 minutes we took a break at the refuge at Alp la Schera. Beautiful views of the Lake Livigno and the mountains around! It took us around 40 minutes to reach the parking and take the hourly bus back to our parking lot. Actually, this is so well organized; you can reach any of the parking lots by taking the bus that runs through the park (through the Ofenpass) at least once an hour in each direction (demi tarif/Halbekarte reductions apply!).

Well, strictly speaking this was no hike, but we also took the cable cars to the highest point between Switzerland and Austria. We didn't descend into Ischgl but walked around a bit and took the cable car back to Samnaun. But the views were totally worth our time and, well, it was for free. :)

Sadly the good weather didn't hold out, so our trip to the Val Taschna (or Taschna Valley, a beautiful hike from Ftan or Ardez) was drowned by the rain, and we had to head back after 30 minutes. We tried to cheer up visiting Guarda, a famous Engadine village, but that attempt was also doomed to fail. Whether because it was still raining from time to time, or because we couldn't find a restaurant where both the staff was nice and one could have a vegetarian dish (instances of each were to be found but not a combination of both)... I could not say. But overall the pace seemed lovely enough, though locals seemed to be quite under the weather. I guess the area's been suffering from the economic crisis quite badly, as most of their visitors come from the EU. Well, this year not many of them were coming, it seems.


Bad weather could quench our desire to explore the wild, but never our appetite. And in Samnaun we found many good places to try local specialties. Our favorite, by the end of the week, was definitely the restaurant of the Hotel Chasa Montana (I believe it's called La Pasta). Their menu is full of local dishes, and even vegetarians can find a number of treats to meet their special needs. Prices were nowhere as high as in Geneva. I distinctly remember the Apfelstrudel with vanilla sauce costing CHF 8. And, actually, theirs was the best in Samnaun! (Believe me, we tried a couple. :)) The interior is very stylish, a mix between traditional Engadine architecture and moden elegance, and staff is all hospitality. And the food is to dies for. ;) They have a good wine list too, and I saw a good number of the savvy filling the tables and people spinning their glasses at the bar. ;)

At a similar price range, but not as unbelievably delicious, you can dine at the Schmuggler, where the interior is sure to enchant anyone. Gorgeous farmhouse furniture (centuries old, I bet!) makes this gem a really cozy place, where you're served by ladies and gents in leather shorts and flower-embroidered shirts, woolen socks and hats included. Food was good too, but if you've already soaked in the atmosphere, not necessarily something to return for.

The restaurant of the Hotel Alpina serves local dishes as well, and they have the lowest prices in Samnaun, as far as I know.  Food was good, especially for the price, and the servings were filling. Their style was more towards the rural, if you know what I mean. Simple, yet comfortably spicy, they reminded us of childhood memories in the Hungarian countryside.

We ate at a couple of other places, but as I seem to have forgotten their names, the couldn't have been very important. :) If you're planning to visit the region, you can expect to eat well here. It's not really like your French cuisine, though pizzas and Italian pasta can be had almost anywhere. But if you're in for something special, think rösti and dried meat, sausages and strudel. If not for the distance, I'd still be going back once in a while for an apfelstrudel...

So I hope that was helpful. If you have any questions, please let me know and I'll do my best to answer them. ;) 
I'll be back soon with more news about our little life in Switzerland ;)
We still have our Italian trip ahead of us, and school starts in September, so that's also very exciting!
But there are many things to do till then. ;)
And, finally, the weather is more summery... So I'll go and have a look at the festivities -- because it's Switzerland's biggest national holiday today.



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