A remote valley celebrates its unique culture

Even the barns in Val Mustair are picturesque. Dale Bechtel

Expectations of Switzerland are turned on their head if you first enter the country from Italy via the southeastern Mustair valley. Dale Bechtel took that approach, leaving behind German-speaking Italians only to meet Romansh-speaking Swiss.

This content was published on August 22, 2000 - 14:39

A Swiss border guard surveys the area. He doesn't stop many of the cars crossing the border, mostly with German and Swiss licence plates carrying tourists to or from large resorts in the Tyrolean Alps.

I'm disappointed to find out that I'm not standing at Switzerland's most eastern point. Even here on the Italian border, the Swiss, embodied in this border guard, like to be precise: "This is close to the eastern extreme of Switzerland. The easternmost point is up there to the southeast - about three kilometres as the crow flies - that's the Piz (peak) Chavalatch."

Firmly on Swiss soil, the first thing I see bedded in the narrow green valley is a cluster of low fortified buildings. They make up the Convent of St John and date from the early Middle Ages. You almost expect the fortification to be part of the border, complete with sentries peering down from the tower.

It's not the case. Archeologists now share the convent with a handful of nuns. The convent was built in the eighth century and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The archeologists are still uncovering secrets from its distant past.

The Unesco label has made it easier for the archeologists to find funding for their work. They're mapping old stone walls, photographing faded inscriptions and excavating the ground below the floors.

The convent is not the only preserved structure in the Val Mustair. The broad, squat houses in each of the valley's six villages are richly decorated with graffiti. Sgrafitti as it's known in the local language, Romansh, has a long tradition.

Floral designs and animal figures are painted or engraved around door and window frames. It's an art form people from the valley brought back with them from the South Tyrol. For centuries, the people of the Val Mustair migrated there in search of better opportunities.

Their fortunes have changed. Now, the peasant's way of life is celebrated. Chef Pierre Grond of the hotel Helvetia in the town of Mustair, recounts details of a local specialty, Bizzoccals.

"It's a very old recipe. People started making this special dish in the 15th century. It's made of flour, eggs, meat - a special dried meat. It was a very cheap meal at the time, and now it's a very special meal. It tastes good and is simple to make."

My guide through the valley is a local school teacher, Valentin Pitsch. He shows me around the shops and streets of the picturesque village of Santa Maria.

The few thousand people who live in Val Mustair still farm the land or make their living from the modest tourist trade. Pitsch confirms what I saw at the border. He says most tourists just pass through the valley, stopping only for a quick bite to eat or to stretch their legs.

That becomes obvious as we try to make our way down Santa Maria's main street, which is also the main road through the Val Mustair.

"Because of its strategic location near the Umbrail Pass," Pitsch tells me, "many wealthy people lived here in beautiful houses and now many of these houses are only used as holiday homes. The locals don't want to live here on the main street because of the amount of traffic."

Years ago, the people of Valchava, a couple of kilometres up the valley, voted to build a bypass around their village. Nowadays, it's not traffic but the peal of church bells and roar of tractors that echo through the village.

It's easy to think time has stood still here and it's fitting that Valchava is home to the valley museum. It's in a 17th century house and stands as a witness to the changes which have come about.

In one cramped room, a wooden table ingeniously folds down from the wall to provide extra dining space. The walls in the kitchen are black from the smoke of cooking fires. It was known appropriately as the "black kitchen".

The most unusual aspect of the house though is easy to overlook. Pitsch tells me that two families lived in the building, and while that may not seem very odd he said they divided the house in a unique way. The families, who were not necessarily next of kin, were nonetheless dependent on each other because they had to share a common entrance, hallway, and stable and barn at the back.

One of the few signs of activity in Fuldera, our next stop, is in the kitchen of the Staila Hotel where owner and chef Heinz Wymann is hard at work.

He says most of the ingredients for his dishes are homegrown. He selects his meat from a local farm and brings it to a village butcher. A gardener in Santa Maria provides many of his vegetables.

There's not much else besides the Hotel Staila in the sleepy village. But Wymann's guests come for the serenity. They choose to explore the Val Mustair slowly, taking to the valley's many footpaths or bicycle trails. Like me, it enables them to get a feel for life behind the white stuccoed facades of the houses.

By the time we get to Tschierv, the last village at the upper end of the Val Mustair, I begin to see the functionality behind the form of the traditional buildings, and it comes as a bit of a surprise. Pitsch points to a large arched doorway (pictured above). It's richly engraved and there are flower pots placed to the side. It's also the entrance to the barn, just big enough to let a hay wagon pass through.

Behind another door in Tschierv, welder Bruno Werner is hard at work. He's Italian from the south Tyrol. The migratory flows abruptly changed direction in the 20th century, in favour of the Val Mustair.

"Primarily we're doing wrought iron work. This is a balcony railing," says Werner. "It's really artwork, with flowers and leaves, everything asymmetrical. It's most often found on balconies in the Engadine."

Despite the Tyrolean and to a certain extent Swiss-German influences, the people of Val Mustair have held on to their language. I found unexpected evidence of this in Katherine Gilly, an Anglo-Swiss, whom Pitsch introduced next. She lives on the other side of the Il Fuorn pass in the Engadine, but also has a home here in Tschierv.

"I simultaneously learned Romansh and Swiss-German. My husband's family live down near Zurich so they speak Swiss-German but with the local people here I've found it very easy to learn Romansh and I love Romansh, and I think it's very important to keep on speaking it. One should maintain the language, it means a lot to me."

I say goodbye to Pitsch, thank him for his warm hospitality, and take the bus over the Il Fuorn pass. There's a railway here and the choice of heading west to the heart of the country or staying to explore the Engadine. The latter promises to be as interesting as travelling through the Val Mustair.

by Dale Bechtel

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