Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2007/2 posted by hidden europe on

From Zürich it was just three hours on happily empty trains via Landquart and Klosters to Zernez in the Inn valley. There is something rather nice about entering the long tunnel at Klosters, knowing that, in a matter of minutes, one will be transported across one of Europe's great hydrological divides.

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Dear fellow travellers

Readers of hidden europe with an eye for detail will have noted that we penned the editorial for the current (January 2007) issue of the magazine in Zürich. Actually at the city's main railway station (Hauptbahnhof), where there is a desperately gaudy sculpture of a guardian angel. The angel was commissioned, we were told, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Swiss railways, and is suspended in a gravity-defying mid-air stance over the main station concourse. On the day we visited, the guardian angel was presiding over a genial Christmas market. Zürich's Hauptbahnhof is an amiable spot, a place where the hubbub of shopping, travel and religion mingle - yes... religion for the station, rather unusually, incorporates a church.

We didn't linger long in the city where James Joyce tapped out Ulysses on a borrowed typewriter. Just an hour or two to see the statue of James Joyce in Fluntern cemetery - where the writer is also buried. James Joyce might well take the hidden europe prize for the most internationally sculptured 20th century European writer: we have run across statues of Joyce in Pula (Croatia), Trieste (Italy), in his native Dublin of course, and now in Zürich.

to the Engadine

From Zürich it was just three hours on happily empty trains via Landquart and Klosters to Zernez in the Inn valley. There is something rather nice about entering the long tunnel at Klosters, knowing that, in a matter of minutes, one will be transported across one of Europe's great hydrological divides. From Klosters the rivers drain north via the Rhine to the North Sea. One emerges from the tunnel into the headwaters of the Inn valley that tumble down through the Austrian Tyrol eventually to join the Danube and reach the Black Sea. The Vereina tunnel burrows under this hydrological divide, which also is a cultural watershed - for, on emerging from the tunnel into the Engadine region, the announcements on the little red train of the Rhaetian Railway are now made in the Romansch language, too.

At Zernez, a homely sort of Engadine town - none of the glitz of St Moritz and an almost Tyrolean feel about the place - the bus for Val Müstair waits on the station forecourt. Swiss style efficiency!

Val Müstair

In the nineteenth century, the intrepid Karl Baedeker - surely Europe's most revered writer of tourist guides - described the excursion from Zernez to the Müstair valley as "fatiguing but interesting". Nowadays, the yellow Swiss post bus slides with consummate ease over the hairpins of the Ofen Pass and in no time we are descending through a forest of snow-clad stone pines into the Müstair valley.

Santa Maria is the first place of any note. No more than a village, its sgraffito-embellished buildings sit squat in the valley with audacious mountains towering around. Even in the winter snow, Santa Maria has an Italian demeanour, as well it might, for the Val Müstair drains east towards Italy and its waters flow down into the River Po and the Adriatic. This region seems to be the very heart of Europe - hydrologically speaking, that is, for the boundaries of some great drainage basins collide in eastern Switzerland.

Santa Maria, with its narrow alleys and fine Gothic church, is one of the loveliest villages in this offbeat corner of Switzerland - one of the few places in this region never reached by any railway line. Romansch and Italian accents mingle in the bars. Just a stone's throw down the valley lies the Benedictine convent of Müstair, which houses an outstanding series of murals and frescoes from the Carolingian and Romanesque periods. And an engaging stucco statue of Charlemagne, who is believed to have founded the Müstair convent in the late eighth century. Interesting, indeed, that Charlemagne made it even to this remote mountain outpost.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.