This month we stay in Switzerland's Engadine, looking for romance and Romansch. We find both in two out-of-the-way high-country towns along the Inn river valley - Scuol and Zuoz.
Switzerland is known as a country of four national languages. Most of us have an idea where we'll hear the first three - German, French and Italian - and what they sound like. It's the fourth, the mysterious Latin-derived Romansch, that's the "final Jeopardy" stumper. Though it is spoken by a tiny percentage of the Swiss population, a map in the Michelin Green Guide for Switzerland, entitled Linguistic Switzerland, marks a wide area of the eastern part of the country as Romansch-speaking.
The place to find Romansch is the canton called Graubünden, known as the Engadine. Though Graubünden tourist office literature says 167,000 speak three languages, one of them being Romansch, you'll seldom hear it in the bigger towns like Chur or St. Moritz. In only a few villages is it actually the day-to-day tongue.
At the stammtisch in the stuva of the Hotel Crusch Alva in Zuoz, the mailman drops by for a mid-afternoon cup of coffee. Ten minutes later the village cop joins the group. He bears the relaxed air of one who knows serious crime in Zuoz happens about as often as the Super Bowl comes to Zürich. Soon the mailman leaves only to be replaced by a couple of road workers. And so it is all day, the everyday folk of Zuoz come and go. Their words sound strange to an American used to hearing German, French or Italian. They are speaking one of the five dialects of real, live, authentic Romansch.
Located in a high, wide valley just up the road from St. Moritz, Zuoz is a town which attracts tourists - in fairly modest numbers by Swiss standards - but one which tourism has not changed. It calls itself the best preserved village in the Upper Engadine. Streets are cobbled and buildings look much as they must have nearly five hundred years ago when the town was rebuilt after being burned to the ground by its own residents in order to check the advance of the invading Austrian Imperial Army.
Further up the road past Zernez, about where the Upper Engadine becomes the Lower Engadine and supposedly where the Italian influence is no longer felt, is Scuol (Shuls). It is much more a town of the 20th century and not as picturesque as Zuoz, though it does have its advantages. Here the valley is considerably narrower affording excellent views of the peaks of the Lower Engadine Dolomites which loom above the town. It also boasts a new $35 million spa in which the town takes great pride. Scuol is considerably larger than Zuoz, with a "regular" downtown and the usual collection of shops.
Take your choice: Zuoz is the more charming and authentic of the two but Scuol has more services and creature comforts.
The area is blessed with a number of good hotels, most of them small, family-run operations emphasizing traditional decor and service.
The decor of every hotel in the region relies heavily upon the ubiquitous, light almost bleached knotty pine. Nowhere have we seen it more strikingly used than at the Schlosshotel Chastè, whose guestrooms are some of the most richly attractive we have ever seen.
From the instant one approaches the intricately carved entry doors, steps into the rustic, antique-strewn public rooms under vaulted arches, and inhales that lovely wood smell, it is clear the Chastè is something special.
Several guestrooms have recently been refurbished and they are exquisite. Number 133, on a corner, has hardwood floors, a fireplace, a curving bank of window, a huge, luxurious bathroom with both tub and shower and a private terrace with view down the valley. Number 131 is a bit smaller but has a marble-tiled bathroom and a small adjoining bedroom. It too has a private terrace. Number 135 is in the same style but with a canopied bed. Finally, Number 136, the two-bedroom "Panorama Suite," is absolutely stunning with its cathedral, beamed ceiling, fireplace, and spacious marble bathroom with large corner bathtub under exposed wood joists and wide skylight.
In this hotel you will see no plastic, the wood is never painted nor is it, except for the floors, waxed.
This wonderful hideaway is located about 15 minutes by car up the mountain above Scuol and just beneath the Tarasp Castle. For 500 years it has been run by the Pazeller family (currently Rudolf and Daniela) and its restaurant is rated among the country's top 100 by Weltwoche.
• Schlosshotel Chastè CH-7553 Tarasp-Sparsels, phone 081 864 17 75, fax 081 864 99 70, singles 125-180 Sfr. ($85-$122), doubles 250-320 Sfr. ($170-$218), half board included. Major cards.
Schlosshotel Chastè: IV
Romantik Hotel Guardaval
The Guardaval is a splendid example of traditional Engadine construction: arched doorways, deeply recessed windows and an exterior liberally splashed with the unique plaster designs known as sgrafitto. Actually, the hotel is the result of joining two 17th century farmhouses. Inside are cozy public rooms with vaulted ceilings, antique furnishings and huge windows overlooking the valley and the peaks of Lischana.
Guestrooms, though a mixture of different styles, materials and sizes, are consistently comfortable and attractive.
Perhaps the most appealing we saw was southwest-facing Number 41 with three large windows, wood paneled ceiling, balcony, separate sitting room with a low, slanted ceiling and a large bathroom with skylight.
Another interesting room is Number 18 in the older of the two houses (they are joined). It is special because of its rustic wood paneled walls and ceilings and a spacious, new, gleaming bathroom.
The Regi family's welcome to their excellent hotel is warm and enthusiastic.
• Romantik Hotel Guardaval CH-7550 Bad Scuol-Tarasp-Vulpera, phone 084/91 3 21 22, fax 99 7 67, singles 115-165 Sfr. ($78-$112), doubles 230-330 Sfr. ($156-$224), half board included. Major cards.
Romantik Hotel Guardaval: III G
Hotel Chasa Belvair
Only four years old and in the very center of Bad Scuol, the Chasa Belvair is the only hotel physically connected to the new $35 million spa and cure facility. Modern, airy guest rooms are all alike but are nicely decorated and come equipped with TV, radio, minibar, direct-dial phone; in other words all the necessary amenities
Though lacking in country charm this sparkling new hotel is the best value we found in the region.
• Hotel Chasa Belvair CH-7550 Bad Scuol, phone 081/864 93 94, fax 081/864 99 82, singles 105-125 Sfr. ($71-$85), doubles 200-220 Sfr. ($136-$150), half board included. Major cards.
Hotel Chasa Belvair: III $
This modern, four-star hotel on Scuol's main street expends much effort providing "big hotel" services like nightly live music in both bar and restaurant. The first evening of our visit the Belvedere put on a massive and rather pricey buffet dinner (52 Sfr./$36) featuring Engadine specialities and a country music singer. As to the latter, perhaps such entertainment is welcomed by the hotel's heavily Swiss clientèle but for a couple visiting Americans it missed the mark.
But that's minor stuff; the Belvedere is a good hotel for families. It offers better than average facilities for children and its 60 guestrooms are clean and comfortable, though only eight of them are equipped with television sets.
You'll have to walk up one flight but the hotel's best rooms are in the tower. Octagonally-shaped Number 518 has angled walls, exposed wood beams and several windows.
• Hotel Belvedere Bad Scuol, CH-7550 Scuol, phone 084/9 10 41, fax 084/9 90 72, singles 106-141 Sfr. ($72-$96), doubles 212-282 Sfr. ($144-$192), half board included. MasterCard and Visa okay.
Hotel Belvedere: II
Robinson Club Hotel Scuol Palace
It is the sheer size of the Robinson Club that surprises travelers approaching Scuol from the southwest along the winding Inn river road. Looking more like a school or hospital, the Palace's huge yellow building seems a little out of place in this woodsy setting. Actually it's a 113-room "Club Med" style hotel one of 24 worldwide that features a long list of guest activities and services. With the price of the room guests get three buffet-style meals, including wine. Some of the Palace's public spaces are quite impressive with soaring ceilings, huge paintings and elegant chandeliers.
Of course, there are tennis courts, an indoor swimming pool, a nearby golf course, sauna and Turkish baths, a nursery and other facilities for families.
Guestrooms are decorated and furnished in at least a dozen styles. Number 101, a corner room, is a spacious single, and Number 116, a nice double, has a private balcony and an excellent view.
The Club Robinson is for those who enjoy this style of hotel living.
• Robinson Club Hotel Scuol Palace, CH-7550 Bad Scuol, phone 084/912 21, fax 084/9 02 21, singles 127-178 Sfr. ($86-$121), doubles 234-316 Sfr. ($159-$215), half board included. Major cards.
Hotel Scuol Palace: II
Youth, energy and charm are a can't miss combination. That, and a solid hotel background, are qualities Ernst and Sylvia Wyrsch bring to their resurrection of the Schlosshotel Castell, located on a hill overlooking the valley just outside of Zuoz.
Built to look like a castle in 1913, the hotel did not do well following its reconstruction after a 1961 fire. The Wyrsches took over in 1989 and since then have created an ambiance that fits the Castell's numerous physical attributes. Among those attributes are spacious, well-furnished guestrooms and vast, grand public rooms with handsome wood paneling, grand pianos, oriental rugs and elaborate ceilings. In the main salon the fireplace is always lit and there is a pianist during the cocktail hour.
The Wyrsches cater to families and there are special arrangements such as a children's dining room, game room and child care facilities.
The hotel is open from mid-December to mid-April and from mid-June to the end of October.
• Castell Zuoz Alpen Schlosshotel CH-7524, Zuoz, phone 082/7 01 01, fax 082/7 31 20, singles 80-142 Sfr. ($54-$97), doubles 152-340 Sfr. ($103-$231), half board included. Major cards.
* Castell Zuoz: III G
Above the massive stone arch that frames the blond, wood front door of the Hotel-Café-Restaurant-Confiserie Klarer on Zuoz's main square, are two dates. The first, 1565, is the year in which the building was re-constructed after the village was burned in 1499. The second inscribed date, 1926, is when the Klarer family began renting out a few rooms to travelers who began to arrive in greater numbers when the railroad was built after the war. The Klarer's had come on the scene shortly after WWI and for several years operated only a bakery on the premises.
Though the current patriarch started out in that bakery, Herr Klarer is now a full-time hotelier. And you'll be hard pressed to find a more pleasant and welcoming one. Thanks to a few years spent in Canada, he speaks excellent English.
There is still a tempting pastry and candy shop on the premises and the Café's vaulted ceiling, carved wood paneling and indirect lighting make it a snug place to dawdle over coffee and cake
Guestrooms are simply but comfortably furnished. The larger doubles, like Number 12, have a separate sitting area with comfortable chairs.
• Hotel Klarer CH-7524, Zuoz, phone 082/7 13 21, fax 082/7 12 14, singles 70-110 Sfr. ($48-$75), doubles 140-220 Sfr. ($95-$150), half board included. Major cards.
Hotel Klarer: II G
Hotel Crusch Alva
Kitty corner from the Klarer is another typical Engadine building housing the Crusch Alva. Its interior is all stone arches, bleached wood ceilings with big beams and paneled walls.
Young Silvia and Peter Jörimann are especially proud of the hotel's restaurant which has been recognized by Gault Millau. The couple offer "refined" regional cuisine in their 300 year-old, paneled dining room. Though we missed the formal restaurant, a light lunch of risotto in the stuva was excellent.
Number 18 is typical of the dozen or so guestrooms. On a corner, it has a carved wood bed and a large bathroom with its own window.
The hotel has no elevator but is the best value in town.
• Hotel Crusch Alva CH-7524, Zuoz, phone 082/7 13 19, fax 082/7 24 59, singles 70-80 Sfr. ($48-$54), doubles 140-160 Sfr. ($95-$109), half board included. Major cards.
Crusch Alva: II $
More private home than hotel, the Bellaval features 13 clean, airy guestrooms and a pleasant wood-paneled restaurant.
Room Number 12, with its oversized bathroom and private balcony, is the hotel's most requested. Number six has a balcony with a terrific view and Number 14 has a big skylight, a wooden ceiling and a marble tiled bathroom.
An outdoor pool is heated in summer.
• Hotel Bellaval CH-7524, Zuoz, phone 082/7 14 81, fax 082/7 31 41, singles 65-90 Sfr. ($44-$61), doubles 130-180 Sfr. ($88-$122), half board included. Major cards.
Hotel Bellaval: II
Elevation: 4,081 feet
Approximate distances from:
* Geneva 471 km 291 miles
* Zürich 196 km 121 miles
* Innsbruck 164 km 102 miles
* Munich 244 km 151 miles
* Tourist Office
* Scuol Tourist Office
* CH-7550 Scuol
* phone 084/909 44
* fax 084/909 45
Scuol offers 80 km/50 miles of prepared downhill ski runs including one 10 km/6 mile run. They are served by 16 cableways and lifts.
The town's new spa is open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Entrance fee is 17 Sfr. ($12) for adults and 13.5 Sfr. ($9) for children.
Green fees at Vulpera's nine-hole course are 40 Sfr. ($27) Monday through Friday and 50 Sfr. ($34) on Saturday and Sunday. A week's pass is 230 Sfr. ($156).
Elevation: 5,561 feet
Approximate distances from:
* Geneva 475 km 295 miles
* Zürich 199 km 123 miles
* Innsbruck 148 km 92 miles
* Munich 228 km 141 miles
* Tourist Office
* Zuoz Tourist Office
* CH-7524 Zuoz
* phone 082/715 10
* fax 082/733 34
There are marked bike trails in the Upper Engadine and bicycles can be rented for 12 Sfr. ($8.50) per day at the Zuoz Tourist Office.
There are four ski lifts in Zuoz with about 20 km/14 miles of slopes of all levels of difficulty. Cross-country skiers will find some 40 km/25 miles of trails.