Travels & Traditions: Graubuenden, Switzerland - #315

BURT WOLF: The Swiss call their states cantons, and Graubuenden is the largest. It's located in the southeast corner of the country, and includes many of the most famous mountain passes that connect central Europe to Italy. These were the trade routes that controlled commerce for thousands of years. Mountain passes may no longer be the keys to Europe's commerce, but they are still at the center of Graubuenden culture, and very important to tourists. The base for my visit was the town of Davos, and my first trip out of town was the high road to the Sertig valley. From the center of Davos, I took a cable car to the top of Jakobshorn Mountain. The first leg takes you to the station at 6300 feet. A quick change to the second car, and up to the top at 8500 feet. 

I bid farewell to my loyal Sherpas, and began the descent to the valley floor below. Actually, it's just a very pleasant three-hour hike through a dramatic, beautiful and romantic landscape. And like so many of the dramatic, beautiful and romantic relationships of my life, it's all down hill.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That’s the top of the mountain where I started about two and a half hours ago, and that is the village of Sertig Dorfli, where I'm heading. 

BURT WOLF: It's a little isolated mountain village, situated at the top of a valley. A valley surrounded by three remarkable peaks--Mittaghorn, Plattenhorn and Ducan. The reason I was heading to Sertig Dorfli was the food, and the view from the Walserhuus Restaurant. This is the perfect place to taste the traditional specialties of Graubuenden. Start with a plate of dried meats, including Bundnerfleisch, which is air-dried beef. Pieces of meat that have been marinated in herbs are pressed between two wooden planks, to give them a brick like shape, dried in the open mountain air, and then shaved into thin, translucent slices that are almost fat free. 

Then a bowl of thick Gerstensuppe, made from barley and vegetables that’s studded with slices of sausage. The main courses to try are Maluns--grated potatoes, sauteed in butter, until they form crisp nuggets, and served with whipped cream and farmer’s cheese. Capuns--ground meat, mixed with cheese, wrapped in leaves of Swiss chard, and served with a light cheese sauce. And Pizzokel--sauteed buckwheat dumplings, topped with cheese and fried onions. These foods were clearly designed to meet the nutritional needs of an Alpine farmer, burning about two million calories a day. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Considering my age and occupation, I should have the discipline to climb back up that mountain, and burn off some of those calories. But while I was in the States I bought something called a Swiss pass, and it gives me free travel on buses, and trains, and boats all over Switzerland, and you know, I’ve really got to use it.

BURT WOLF: My next post bus ride took me to one of the north-south passes that have been in use since the time of the ancient Romans. It's a stretch of road that was once so bad, that it became known as the Via Mala. The bad road. 

But the word bad is not nearly strong enough to describe this place. You can see the old path running along the side of the mountain. Posts were stuck into the sheer rock face, and a narrow balcony hung out over the gorge. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: If you look scared, the guides would give you a couple of stiff drinks and tie you to a sled, and uh, drag you along. You know, the path was off the wall. I think the people who used it were too. 

BURT WOLF: Nine hundred feet below, the water rushes between giant rocks that have fallen from the face of the gorge. Women were carried in sedan chairs with covered windows, so they couldn't see what was going on. Today there's a staircase running from the road to an observation deck, and visitors can descend to the base, and look at the water as it heads for the Rhine River. Above is the Via Mala Bridge, built in 1739. 

In 1849, the Swiss government set up the original Swiss postal service. It was a highly efficient network, based on horse drawn carriages that carried the mail throughout the nation. But in addition to the mail, the post service also carried passengers. By 1913, thousands of horses were pulling thousands of coaches, from one end of Switzerland to the other. And when the winter snows arrived, they switched to horse drawn sleighs. Almost two million passengers came to consider the postal carriages an essential form of travel.

At the end of the First World War, the postal service purchased the trucks that had belonged to the military, and expanded their service for goods and passengers. They also developed the first post bus routes, which were designed to take tourists through the most beautiful parts of the Alps.

To make sure that other traffic on the road knew they were about to encounter a post bus on a tight curve, they introduced a distinct three-note horn that is still used today. A C sharp, an E, and an A major. The tune comes from the overture to the opera “William Tell”, by Rossini. Only fitting. William Tell is Switzerland's national folk hero. Today the post bus system has over 700 routes that will take travelers through the most beautiful parts of the country. 

Many of the trips have been designed for tourists, and offer specific themes. I took three different trips through the Alpine passes, one through the mountain lakes, and one through the romantic villages of the central plateau. Which leaves me about 30 other post bus trips for next year.

BURT WOLF: Another way to see an Alpine pass is on the Bernina Express. The train makes one of the steepest climbs of any non-cog railway. The National Geographic picked it as one of the ten best train rides in the world. If you board the train in the city of Chur, which is the capital of Graubuenden, and get off four hours later, in the Poschiavo Valley, you will have traveled through all of Europe's climatic zones. I used my Swiss pass, got on at Pontresina, and reserved a seat in one of the panoramic cars. The windows run up into the roof, and give you a great view of the surrounding mountains. You might also get a look at the local herd of Ibex. The Ibex is the official mascot of Graubuenden, and if you don't see one on the pass, you can always see one on the cantonal flag. 

On the other side of the valley is the Piz Bernina, the canton's highest peak--13,280 feet above sea level. The highest point on the rail line is the Bernina Pass, 7,381 feet. The waters that melt down from the glacier flow in two different directions. On the south side they run down into Italy's Po River, and out into the Adriatic Sea. Waters on the north side flow into the Danube, and then into the Black Sea.

VOICE-RECORDING ON TRAIN: We are approaching the viewing point at Alp Grum, 2,091 meters above sea level. On the right is the Palu glacier, and the peak of Piz Palu. 

BURT WOLF: At this point, the train begins a slow decent to the valley of Poschiavo, which is in the part of Switzerland that speaks Italian. The climate and the culture are clearly Mediterranean. When the train leaves Poschiavo, it travels along the local street, and stops at the little town of Le Prese, which is where I got off to have a drink at the Hotel Le Prese. 

The terrace looks out on Lake Poschiavo. Not bad. Lunch was just next door at the Ristorante Giardino. Local specialties, trout from the lake, buckwheat pasta with potatoes, garlic and onions, topped with cheese. Local wine, from the Nebbiolo grape. After lunch, a walk through the Poschiavo town square, an espresso, and back up into the mountains. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Switzerland has a very sophisticated communication system. Even here, at the top of the Alps, I can whip out my Tri-band cell phone, and use its voice activated technology to call my grandson in the United States. But Alpine communication wasn't always based on voice activated cell phones. For many years it was just voice activated, and it came in two forms, local and long distance. 

BURT WOLF: The technology for the long distance system is the Alphorn. It's a straight twelve-foot piece of carved or bored wood, that's over wound with birch bark. For hundreds of years, Alpine herdsmen and villagers have used the Alphorn to send messages. It has a natural tone range of 13 notes. It can carry for a distance of over five miles. And each combination of notes has a special meaning. The melodies they are playing now ask, how are things on your Alp, are all the cows back, and is everyone healthy? The second group is answering, things are fine, the cows are all back, everyone is feeling good. Did the Mets win? 

These seven gentlemen make up the Alphorn group known as Untervaz. They give public concerts that present old favorites, as well as new music, which they are writing especially for this instrument. 

BURT WOLF: The Alphorn was used for long distance communication. But if you wanted to make a local call, you just yodeled. Yodeling is a type of singing in which you quickly alternate falsetto and low chest notes. No one is sure how it got started, but there are a number of interesting theories. This group was formed in Davos in 1956. Their youngest member is 25, and their oldest is 75. They compete with other yodeling groups throughout the country, and often have something at the top of the charts.

BURT WOLF: If you like that sound, and would like to learn how to yodel, believe it or not, there is a yodeling course on the Internet, at yodelcourse dot com. When you have successfully completed the ten-lesson course, you get a certificate of yodeling. The certificate is suitable for framing. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And remember, yodeling is not just something you will use in Switzerland. Yodeling is part of the musical culture of Austria, China, the Pygmy villages of Africa, and the American west. Yes siree, cowboys do yodel, and you'll get a lot more use out of your yodeling skills than you might imagine.

BURT WOLF: But maybe you don't want to think about yodeling. Then how about St. Moritz? Most people who think about St. Moritz think it's the ultimate winter resort for the rich and famous. And that's probably true. It was built on the south side of an Alpine mountain. It gets 322 days of sun each year. 

As a matter of fact, it's the sunniest city in Switzerland. Its fame as a resort goes back over a thousand years. During the middle ages, people came here to sit in the healing waters of the mineral springs. And in 1519, Pope Leo X promised full absolution to every Christian who came to the spa, under the theory that cleanliness is next to godliness. 

During the middle of the 1800s, St. Moritz was a summer resort, and very popular with English tourists. But the man who owned the Kulm Hotel thought that his guests were missing half the fun by not being there during the winter. So he made a bet with some of his English visitors, inviting them for the winter season, and promising to cover all their costs if they didn't love it. St. Moritz has never been the same. Take a look.

BURT WOLF: And the summer is still pretty good too.

BURT WOLF: St. Moritz may hold the record for fun in the sun, but that's just one of its records. In 1998, the Guinness Book of Records stopped into the Hotel Waldhaus, and decided that it contained the world's largest whiskey bar. Clearly they were not talking about the physical size of the place. If you wanted to get more than 25 people in here, you'd have to start layering. What they must have had in mind was the selection. The walls of the bar are lined with roughly 2,500 different whiskeys that have been methodically arranged by nationality and distillery using the Dewey dram system. A dram, by the way, is not a precise unit of measurement, like an ounce or a cup. It's whatever the pourer wants to pour. So a wee dram is only wee in the eyes of the beholder. 

And there's much to behold here. They have 160 different Macallans, ranging from 1878 to the present, 52 Springbanks, and 36 Bowmores. And if you don't see what you like on the shelf, there's a back up stock in the cellar. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And should you be wondering why the bar with the largest selection of whiskeys is in St. Moritz, allow me to remind you that the British were the first tourists to Switzerland, and they enjoyed a wee dram of whiskey to remind them of home. Or perhaps, not so wee dram, to help them forget about home. 

BURT WOLF: St. Moritz is in a part of Switzerland known as the upper Engadine. Its culture is modern, chic and international. But a 15-minute drive from St. Moritz will take you to the lower Engadine, and the town of Zuos. Zuos is a center of Romansch culture, which dates back to the year 15 BC, when Roman troops marched into the area, and started keeping house, so they could keep out any invaders, who might want to keep house in Rome. 

They also speak the fourth official language of Switzerland, called Romansch, which is based on ancient Latin. The town itself is filled with buildings that are a perfect example of Engadine architecture. Big wooden entryways, a bench out front, which acts as an extension of the family room, and brings all the families of the town together. Bay windows, so you can see what's going on in the street, without leaving the comfort of your home, and Scraffito, which are decorative designs etched into the external walls of the house.

During the second half of the 1800s, the most popular way to treat any form of upper respiratory illness, was to head up into the Swiss Alps and cure yourself by resting. You sat out in the sun, breathed the fresh air, and sometimes you got well. And sometimes you didn't.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The most famous Swiss town for the rest cure was Davos, the ultimate resort for the unhealthy wealthy. For over 70 years, helping people get well, or helping them think they were getting well, was the local industry. And in the 1930s, doctors developed a more effective cure, and Davos had to refocus. 

BURT WOLF: Surely the clean environment, fresh air, and natural beauty could be used for more than sanitoriums. And within a decade, Davos turned itself into a center for mountain sports. The dry, dust free air, with its low pollen content, still helps thousands of allergy and asthma sufferers, but these days Davos is about skiing, and sledding in the winter, and hiking in the summer. 

While I was in Davos, I stayed at the Steigenberger Belvedere, which is the only five star hotel in town. It opened in 1875 and was the first hotel that was not built as a sanitorium for people trying to recover from an illness. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Belvedere was put up for people who wanted to have a good time, and that's still pretty much the theme around here. The building has all the charm of a building that's been up for over a hundred years. It also has all the things that a modern traveler would want. In 1980, the Steigenberger Group bought the hotel, and spent a small fortune bringing it into the 21st century. 

BURT WOLF: There's an indoor swimming pool, with whirlpool, sauna and steam rooms, and the wall painting around the pool gives you the feeling that you were off in the tropics. The cocktail lounge, just off the lobby, is the main hangout for the after ski crowd. The bistro has a sun terrace that faces the mountains. Romeo and Julia is the name of their top restaurant, which specializes in Italian food. I particularly like the giant breakfast buffet. The best way to start the day. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Each year, the world economic forum is held here in Davos, and the Belvedere fills up with big names from the world of business and finance. Often a corporate group will show up, and try to build a sense of team spirit. 

BURT WOLF: To help, the Belvedere will organize a team rope climb from the roof. We considered it, but decided we could achieve almost the same results by sharing the fondue. And the place we shared it was the Restaurant Gentiana. It's small and informal, and the food is excellent. They have a selection of different fondues but we thought a cooperative team sense would best be engendered by the classic cheese. 

The Swiss have a great respect for the classic and traditional aspects of their culture, and spend a great deal of time and effort preserving them. A perfect example is the Swiss National Park. For centuries, the mountain ranges of Graubuenden were subject to constant mining, deforestation, over grazing, and over hunting. 

In 1914, the Swiss federal government established the Swiss National Park, to put an end to those abuses, and to save the land for future generations. 

The park's founding fathers were mostly scientists, who wanted the area to run its natural course and to study its evolution. Today its 65 square miles are tightly controlled and protected. Twenty-three lakes, rare plants and animals, and untouched forests offer visitors a look at Switzerland's most natural natural beauty. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That's a look at Graubuenden, Switzerland. I hope you've enjoyed it. And I hope you will join us next time, on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I'm Burt Wolf.