The perfect trip: Switzerland
Val Müstair: Best for preservation
If Switzerland is a country that grew on the principle of letting each valley do its own thing in terms of language, religion and customs, then the southeastern canton of Graubünden is a Switzerland of its own. Crossing a pass into a new valley, it’s common to see a different shape and style to the houses, while the place names could be German, Italian or even Romansch. This last language, a descendant of Latin, is spoken by around 60,000 people in Graubünden – and nowhere else.
Val Müstair is one of the valleys where Romansch predominates. Its six villages are cut off from the rest of the country, except for a single mountain road that runs through a broad belt of virgin forest that forms part of the Swiss National Park. At the valley’s end, where the River Rom flows into Italy, is the Benedictine Convent of St John in the village of Müstair – today a World Heritage site. Begun under the emperor Charlemagne around 780 AD, it shelters glorious frescoes from the 9th and 12th centuries, making it a rare window into those times.
This historical survivor is just one story of preservation in a valley where more than 90 per cent of farms are organic. Val Müstair is allegedly the only Swiss valley where all power lines are buried and where water flows from mountain springs to the border with no human interference. It also has a sunny microclimate – trees grow up to 2,300m here, where normally in Europe the tree line runs at 1,800m.
All this is music to the ears of Luciano and Gisela Beretta, who run the Antica Distilleria Beretta in the village of Tschierv. This couple – Italian- and German-speaking in the casual confusion of tongues typical of this region – have set up a distillery where spirits made from local grain are infused with mountain fruits and herbs, including lemon balm, pinecones and edelweiss.
A brook flows past the distillery, with its thick stucco walls bulging under the pressures of accumulated winters, its woodpile neatly stacked and pears left on mats outside in the sun. ‘Up here at 1,700m, water boils at 90 degrees not 100, which makes the quality of the spirit better,’ Luciano declares, pointing out the re-purposed washing machine they use to boil the water and flour to begin the fermentation process. ‘Once these were medicines,’ Gisela explains. ‘This was a closed valley, with no money for doctors – only folk remedies.’
In another house in the village, Renata Bott invites me into her kitchen to talk about a different legacy of Alpine isolation – her mother tongue Romansch. ‘It’s the fourth language of Switzerland, but for us it’s the first,’ she says. ‘The German-, French- and Italian-speaking Swiss have larger countries that speak their languages, but for the Romansch people, there is no land behind us.’ There is a proverb in Romansch she is particularly fond of: ‘Vi dal chant as cugnuoscha l’utschè – you will know the bird from its song. It talks about my love for my language.’
Small country though it may be, Switzerland always seems to find room to accommodate something wonderfully of its own kind.