Before I left home, I told friends I had booked a hotel room in Switzerland over a bakery so I could wake up to the smell of fresh baking. The friends immediately offered to help me carry my suitcases.
Well, my room here is indeed over the Hotel Albris’ bakery. And I do indeed wake up to the smell of fresh baking … at 2 a.m.
“Our bakery staff have to come in early because we supply the 20 other hotels in town as well as our own hotel and bakeshop with close to 1,000 loaves of 45 different types of bread everyday,” said Claudio Kochendorfer who, with his sister Stephanie, is now the fourth generation of the family to run the hotel.
The pastry section also makes 25,000 of the hotel’s famous Engadinatorte a year—a cake layered with kirsch vanilla cream topped by a crisp almond caramel—which it has shipped as far away as Canada and Australia.
Dreaming of all the bread and pastries awaiting me at breakfast a few hours later, I had no trouble drifting off to sleep again.
My last visit to Switzerland was 24 years ago. Returning to find unchanged the picture-postcard-perfect mountain scenery, organized way of life, clean and comfortable facilities and friendly people reassured me that sometimes you can go back—and ahead: New adventures on this visit were to include a progressive lunch at three alpine railway stops and a naked spa experience.
I started my trip in Scuol, at the eastern and less populated end of both the Engadine region and the country as a whole, which has Switzerland’s only national park.
After doing my usual Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.com research, I was pleased to find I agreed with the LP Author’s Choice of Hotel Engiadina as the place to stay.
The stone and knotted pine room ($160 a night in the shoulder season, including cold buffet breakfast) was renovated 10 years ago but looks like new. The restaurant serves a delicious lunch and dinner, the food attractively presented; a small supermarket is a few cobble-stoned steps away.
Shops throughout Switzerland typically close between 12 noon and 2pm; many non-food stores stay closed on Monday. And some resorts and attractions close between the winter and summer seasons.
Here in the Engadine, s-graffiti (words and other graphic decoration) adorn houses which typically have flower-filled window boxes. Mountains, still snow-covered in mid-summer, rise steeply from the valleys which themselves are around 1,800 metres above sea level.
Scuol is known for its “bad” or spa—in particular, its two and a quarter hour Roman (steam baths of different temperatures)-Irish (hot dry air) bath experience which, Lonely Planet warns, is “all done naked.”
Undeterred, I handed over my $70 (book in advance through your hotel) and traded my bathing suit for a toga, loosely draped to cover vital parts during the short walks from one room or pool to another.
However, the toga also came off when a friendly blonde—female—attendant motioned me up on to a massage table for a rubdown. Lying on my back, I passed on the honey and the yogurt options in favour of a soap and brush scrub, tensing slightly as the scrub-brush approached and barely skirted those vital parts.
I left the Lower Engadine valley and took the train toward trendy and upscale St. Moritz. Tennis star Boris Becker was getting married there the day I arrived but somehow had forgotten to include me on the invitation list. So I stayed in nearby Pontresina, where I indulged myself with all the fresh baking.
Depending on the season, the Albris Hotel, like many others, provides guests who stay at least two nights with a pass good for free travel on many alpine railways, chairlifts and gondolas as well as some public transportation – definitely a good deal as a single trip to a mountain peak can cost $10-$30. (If you plan to use public transport extensively throughout the country, check the Swiss passes that offer fare reductions on buses, boats, trains and lifts.)
The Swiss (and other Europeans) take their walking, hiking, climbing and mountain biking very seriously, with thousands of kilometres of trails in even the most rugged terrain. Perhaps they need to balance not only the chocolate and pastries but also their other national dishes like fondues and geschnetzeltes kalbfleisch (thinly sliced veal in a cream sauce) with rosti (fried grated potato).
For example, Dorta Restaurant in Zuoz features Engadine specialties and offers a tasting—and tasty—selection of items like hay soup, capuns (dumplings wrapped in dark leafy green chard), pizokel (buckwheat pasta) and plain in pegna (baked potato hashbrowns with ham and bacon).
Another culinary highlight is the nine-hour Rhaetian Railway Kulinarik gourmet train trip. It has three round-trip routes and I chose the one starting in St. Moritz.
First stop was Alp Grum, with its spectacular views near the 2,323-metre Bernina Pass and accessible only by train or foot, where you can choose a soup or salad as your first lunch course. An hour later you board a train for the trip down into part of Switzerland’s Italian section and a main course in Poschiavo.
Two hours later, you take the short ride to dessert by the lake in Miralago, near Tirano and the Swiss-Italian border. Then board a train for the two-hour trip back to St. Moritz. Cost: $50-$125 depending on whether you choose to ride in a second-class or first-class carriage and whether you have one of the Swiss travel passes.
The Rhaetian mountain railway “in the Albula/Bernina landscape” was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list last year. With its distinctive red carriages, it climbs from valley floors to 2,000-metre mountain passes.
My final stay was in Sils-Maria, a sleepy little lakeside village with a surprising number of regular activities from concerts to beach parties. I checked in to Hotel Privata, another delightful, friendly family-owned hotel with a relaxing garden—the sort of place you go back to year after year.
The extra touches made all the difference: French service at dinner, with seconds if you were still hungry; a magnifying glass for the menu outside the restaurant in case you didn’t have your glasses on; instantly changing a reserved seat in the restaurant to a better position when a special friend showed up unexpectedly; mending a torn shirt pocket; inviting all the guests to afternoon tea with cake and fresh rhubarb from the garden.
Val Fex extends up from Sils, allowing car access for only local residents. You can take a horse-drawn “omnibus” either way or walk for an hour on paths through fields of alpine flowers and long grass (“please don’t walk on the fields until they have been mown”) and cows with bells (to help farmers locate those who have wandered off into the high alpine meadows).
Visit Pila, near Maloja, below a mountain-high waterfall and surrounded by alpine meadows, to find Renato Giovanoli, 75, who has been smoking and drying specialty meat products since he was 15, continuing his family’s 140-year-old business. He smokes his meats over smouldering larch and pine chips and sawdust for up to 24 hours, then hangs them in a barn to dry for up to a year. His dried venison, sliced paper thin, sells for $100 a kilo.
For a sweet finish, spend about $15 to make your own chocolates downstairs at the famous Hauser’s confiserie in St. Moritz; information at www.schoggishop.ch
Travel writer Mike Grenby teaches journalism at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast—firstname.lastname@example.org