Take a detour to an alpine getaway on the road less traveled between St. Moritz and Chur.
By Nikki Goth Itoi
Swiss Alps Retreat
It is easy to overlook the village of Bivio on a journey through Switzerland's Graubünden canton. The Bernina Express train route that connects Lugano to Chur won't take you there. Bus service is infrequent, at least by Swiss standards. And most guidebooks, including Lonely Planet and Rick Steves, omit Bivio entirely from their coverage of the region - which is exactly why you should go.
Situated at the junction of two historic mountain passes - the Julier and the Septimer - at the edge of the Engadine preserve, and just 22 km from the famed ski resort of St. Moritz, this alpine village of 260 residents offers convenient access to some of the most spectacular hiking, wildflower blooms, and ski touring found anywhere in the Alps. Backcountry skiers do overrun the town during the winter high season, but they are primarily Swiss, German, and Austrian visitors, not Americans.
Summer brings hikers, mountain bikers, and motorcyclists to the winding roads and rugged terrain. (Also among Bivio's regular guests are herds of cows that arrive by train from farms near Bern to graze the surrounding pastures in summer - no wonder the milk chocolate tastes so good.) And in the spring and autumn shoulder months, you have the place all to yourself.
In Roman times, traders en route from Milan to Munich stopped over in Bivio (which means Parting of the Ways) to replenish supplies before or after crossing the Alps. The town was formerly known as Stalla (Stall) for the number of horses that passed through. Accordingly, Bivio's founding families are Italian, but German is the language of business, and many locals understand at least some English. In typical Swiss fashion, conversations begin with a Grützi, blend Italian and German interchangeably, and end with Mercí or Ciao.
Early settlers built the Catholic church St. Gallus in 1518, and it features a Gothic alter created by a famous wood carver from Memmingen, Germany, named Yvo Strigel. (The church is only open during regular Sunday services, and a sign outside reminds visitors that it is a place of worship and not a museum.)
After much disagreement among Bivio's founding residents, a Protestant church followed in 1671. According to the agreement, however, the new church was not allowed to add a bell tower for a period of 100 years. Aside from these two churches and a community swimming pool, there are few indoor attractions in Bivio - the point, after all, is to enjoy the outdoors.
Today, most travelers arrive in Bivio from the train stations in Chur or Tiefencastle. Drivers can follow the breathtaking Julierpass out of St. Moritz. (Bus service from St. Moritz is seasonal.) A handful of hotels, restaurants, and shops line the main street through town, with a few dozen homes and vacation rentals set back on side streets. You can get everywhere on foot, or by bicycle (for rent through the tourist office).
Bivio is surrounded on all sides by waterfalls, lakes, fields, and forest. Wilderness trails begin just steps from every guestroom in town. Strategically placed benches overlook the village, so you don't have to wander far to be rewarded with a view. For a short excursion, follow the 12-station Vitapars course, a popular fitness route for locals. Or hike part of the Stallerberg trail, which begins directly behind the Hotel Solaria.
The most popular outdoor route for cyclists and hikers is to follow the Septimerpass, which begins near the Hotel Post at the north end of town. The road is paved for about a mile and then turns to dirt as you pass a few outlying farms. Soon, you begin to climb, and the route continues along a steep but not technical path, gaining 600 meters in elevation at the summit. Thankfully, the scenery - waterfalls, wildflowers, and snow-capped peaks - distracts you from the physical challenge at hand.
An easier way to cover more ground is to travel the pass by horse. From June to October, Giancarlo and Genny Torriani, who run the Hotel Solaria, lead horseback trips to a valley called Bondo on the other side of the pass. Despite the alpine location, a micro climate warms Bondo to Mediterranean temperatures that are perfect for an evening of cooking on the outdoor grill and dining in the garden of a historic family farmhouse. Overnight visitors stay at the guesthouse and return to Bivio the next day. One-day trips over the Septimerpass and evening rides to the nearby Alp Natons for wine and views are a good alternative for travelers with less time.
For ambitious hikers, an alternative to the Septimerpass is to summit the Stallerberg and then descend to the 20-person settlement of Juf, reportedly the highest elevation village in all Europe. The hike begins directly behind the Solaria and takes about two and a half hours each way. (Stock up on lunch supplies at the bakery in the Hotel Solaria.) You can also drive to Juf by heading north to Tiefencastle and then back south on a parallel road, but the journey would take almost as long as the hike.
Bivio has a handful of hotels and many more vacation rentals, some of which are only available during the winter ski season.
Run by Giancarlo and Genny Torriani, the Solaria is in every way a family business - from the friendly vibe at the front desk to an all-around do-it-yourself work ethic. Giancarlo's grandfather opened the Solaria as a small hotel in 1935, and the original building retains a rustic charm. Despite several renovations and expansions over the years, the family has preserved the original floor in the lobby, made of a local gemstone called serpentinite. An arched stone, which Giancarlo's father found along the Septimerpass and presumed to have come from an ancient Roman chapel, hangs on the wall near the front door. Black and white family portraits add to the timeless feel of the place.
With an endless display of energy, Giancarlo replaces a light bulb in a common area one moment and repairs a stone step in the entryway the next - all the while wearing his white chef's coat - for he is, first and foremost, a professionally trained cook. That he is also a former Swiss bobsledding champion adds yet another layer of character to the operation.
Though the hotel has only 36 rooms, it is almost entirely self-sustaining, with two restaurants, a bakery, a bar, wine cellar, laundry facility, bowling alley, and even a bocce ball court on the premises. Most guestrooms have a balcony or terrace, along with phone, radio, minibar, and TV. The décor is basic but immaculate throughout. Additional amenities include a small sauna, excellent homemade cuisine, and numerous terraces for outdoor dining.
Rooms in the original house (Stammhaus) are the least expensive but also among the most charming, with low ceilings and small baths. Number 202 is relatively large, with a beamed ceiling and spectacular mountain views. Number 203 is smaller, but with a pine ceiling, windows on three sides, and access to equally impressive views.
Family rooms in an adjoining 1970s-era building are darker and less attractive, although several have lofts. The Solaria's newest rooms, including Number 309 and Number 310, are found in the Valetta addition that was built in the early 1990s. During the early summer runoff, you can hear the river roaring into the valley from some of these rooms. They are tastefully designed in natural pine and white bath tile, with heating racks in the tubs. Low pile industrial carpet was installed presumably to handle the winter slush. For a special occasion, book Number 311, a corner suite on its own mezzanine floor, facing the Julierpass. The pitched ceiling, sofa, and balcony create a private and romantic hideaway.
Daily Rates: Summer singles CHF 70-95, doubles CHF 140-190; winter singles CHF 80-125, doubles CHF 160-250
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20
Hotel & Restaurant Post
Of all the guestrooms available in Bivio, those at the four-story Hotel Post have the most character. As with most of the businesses in town, the Post has been in the Lanz family for several generations.
A sprawling yellow façade marks the beginning of town at the bottom of the Julierpass. Enter through a slate floor lobby with arched doorways and relax in the cozy sitting area that adjoins the reception desk. In winter, a small fireplace warms the room. Arven pine walls and furnishings create a warm environment throughout the hotel, from the guestrooms to the banquet hall. Most rooms have relatively new furnishings, carpet, and bath fixtures, and are exceptionally clean.
For the best rooms in the house, reserve one of the junior suites. You can watch (and hear) cars descend the Julierpass from Number 55, a corner suite. The room is done in a French motif, complete with a vase of dried lavender on the desk. The planked ceiling is painted white to contrast a French blue carpet and floral linens. A pine bed frame and antique-looking chairs complete the look. A large, elegant bath has off-white tile walls and a marble floor, with a separate bath and shower. And there is an additional half-bath near the entryway.
Also beautifully furnished, suite Number 54 features a pale-green color scheme and a loft area for the double bed, plus a rose-colored sofa and pine wardrobe. Number 53 on the same floor has only one window that faces the Septimerpass and a smaller bath, but is still a top pick. Cozier rooms on the fourth floor have rough-hewn beam ceilings and a more rustic décor. Number 16 is a basic, single room with a full-size bed and a small bath.
Amenities include a sauna/solarium, elevator, and TV upon request. With wall-to-wall windows on two sides framed in Arven pine, the spacious breakfast room is a great place to start the day.
Across the street are a handful of cozy rooms in the Chesa Lanz, also featuring Arven pine décor (singles CHF 78, doubles CHF 128-168).
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 82-97, doubles CHF 138-168, junior suites CHF 228
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 15/20
Norbert Elsa wears two hats in Bivio, overseeing the Hotel-Restaurant Grischuna and serving as the main tourist office contact. A third-generation property, the original part of the Grischuna was built in 1940, with a western addition tacked on in the early 1960s. Today, the hotel has 37 guestrooms, with balconies on the southern side, facing the Julierpass, and numerous outdoor terraces for relaxing in the mountain air. Number 32 has light wood furnishings, a small but clean private bath, and a balcony with views.
All rooms have a bath tub or shower, as well as a TV, radio, and safe. There is an elevator for transporting heavy suitcases to the upper floors, and you can rent well-tuned mountain bikes from the hotel reception desk.
Daily Rates: Summer singles CHF 67-92, doubles CHF 52-77 per person; winter singles CHF 89-129, doubles CHF 74-99 per person
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 11/20
Sylva and Fritz Guidon-Andreoli have five basic rooms with pine furnishings above their roadside restaurant. All five rooms share a bathroom down the hall. The building is unremarkable, but the food downstairs is appetizing, and if all you need is a place to crash, the price is right. Across the street is a building with two four-room vacation rentals and one three-room unit, all of which were renovated in 2003. Rooms are on the dark side, (particularly on the ground floor), and the location on the main thoroughfare can be noisy in summer with motorcycles passing by.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 50-59, doubles CHF 50-59 per person; vacation rentals CHF 85-110
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 14/20
Fresh grilled forelle (trout), cordon bleu, wild mushrooms, colorful mixed salads, and Italian staples are some of the culinary delights you'll find on Bivio menus. There are only a few restaurants in town, however, so if you plan to stay more than a few days, you may find yourself venturing to St. Moritz for a little variety. Alternatively, consider renting a vacation home and cooking some of your own meals. A small convenience market stocks a decent selection of groceries; a better idea would be to stock up in Savognin or Chur.
At the elegant Restaurant Post, you'll find traditional Swiss cuisine blended with Italian and French influences, along with an impressive wine cellar. Dine in the ambiance of Arven pine walls and mountain views. Although closed in the off-season, the Post will do for an apré ski drink or complete gourmet dinner
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 14/20
Chef Giancarlo Torriani can serve up to 200 people on a busy night, between the Restaurant Solaria, Pizzeria Valetta, and upstairs banquet hall. The main menu includes a mix of traditional Swiss and Italian dishes - such as a pork Schnitzel served with a delicate mushroom sauce - as well as several vegetarian options. Culinary themes vary weekly during the high season, with emphasis on Chinese, Spanish, or other international foods.
Pizzas are cooked in a wood-fired oven, and the highlight of the pizzeria is an old-fashioned Swiss-style bowling alley, which can provide an evening's worth of entertainment. (Bring coins.) Several additions to the original hotel have created sheltered terraces for outdoor eating, all year long.
When the evening's cooking is complete and guests have moved on to dessert, Giancarlo often makes an appearance to chat with old friends, as well as first-time visitors. On quiet nights, locals drop in for a cigar at the restaurant's cozy bar.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20
The swift-flowing river of the Julierpass carves a path through the meadow behind the Hotel-Restaurant Guidon. A popular stop for motorcyclists, the restaurant has ample parking in front, and riders can dine on the outdoor terrace while admiring the row of bikes from above. The daily menu features Swiss and Italian fare for CHF 17-19, as well as Cordon Bleu with fries and saffron mushroom risotto. A delightfully fresh mixed salad included red cabbage, pickles, shaved carrots, and bell peppers with a light thousand island dressing. Main dishes range from CHF 30-35, and the kitchen opens daily at 6am. The onsite Könditorei is a plus.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 11/20
Dinner at the understated Grischuna was a treat, with the day's fresh catch (forelle) presented on a platter and filleted at the table, with slivered almonds on top. A stuffed tomato, green beans, and lemon wedge completed the dish. The menu here is eclectic, with everything from chicken curry Kashmir and lamb cutlet Provençal to veal cordon bleu, which is prepared with a cornmeal crust and dusted with paprika. Choose from 17 different wines by the glass from France, Italy, and Spain, as well as the local Fendant, a heavier white wine that tastes something like a Viognet. Finish the meal as the locals do, with a shot of kirsch. On warm days, Norbert Elsa can be found tending the wood-fired grill on the lawn beside the hotel.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 16/20
Located at the mid-station of the main ski lift, this on-mountain dining area is open only in winter, from 8:45am until 4:30pm. Enjoy close-up views of the surrounding peaks from the sun terrace (tel. +41/081 833 0674).
For evening entertainment, head to the Lanzio Bar, across from the Hotel Post, for billiards and disco music, or La Trapla Bar at the Hotel Solaria (winter and summer weekends only).
Information current as of July 2005.