As Switzerland slowly roused from nearly two months of soft lockdown, the urge to escape the city and flee into nature’s arms grew stronger and ever more persistent. Cautiously, we followed the sirenic call of the blankets of forests and silent stone villages. As the sun rose from its cot behind the hills on Ascension morning, we boarded the train from Zürich, finally arriving four hours later in the remote heart of the Upper Engadine Valley.
From swanky St. Moritz, it was a thirty-minute ride by bus to the village of Maloja, where the start of the Via Engiadina could be found paces away from the postal office. After a short mosey through farmland and thicket, we emerged onto the open terrace overlooking the valley floor. Snow covered the mountains like rivulets of spilled cream while a whispering spring breeze kept us cool under a radiant sun.
“Allegra!” A trio of bikers took us by surprise, swishing past on the well-worn trail across the mountain saddle. Even as a national language, Romansh is a rarity and a seldom encounter in Switzerland, its usage limited to only pockets in the most easterly canton of Graubünden. A shortened form of the loftier greeting “Dieu t’allegra—May God give you joy,” the modern salute has become a condensed burst of pure joy, one which instantly lifted our spirits as we roamed through the alpine tundra in the direction of a cluster of cottages below the grevas alvas, or white scree.
High-altitude hamlets like Grevasalvas provide shelter to farmers who practice transhumance, driving their cattle up the Alps every summer to graze on elevated pastures. Today, many of these rustic buildings have been transformed into agritourism attractions and holiday homes. Those staying overnight in Grevasalvas, however, must fully embrace the pastoral lifestyle: with no running water, residents and guests must fetch their own water for cooking and cleaning from the communal well.
We continued along the Via Engiadina, pausing ever so often to indulge in Séb’s favorite pastime of preening the cliffs and crags for stout-bellied marmots. Eventually, the rocks gave way to the dense drape of the woods, and we found ourselves bathing beneath the lime light of towering larch trees.
The descent down to the col of Silvaplana offers scintillating views of the jewels of Upper Engadine: the green thumb of Chastè Peninsula and the bordering village of Sils Maria—Segl in Romansh. Nestled between two lakes with the appearance of a floating sheet of ice, here is where the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spent seven summers and completed the drafts for several parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Inspiration incarnate, a walk along the Via Engiadina reveals why Sils and the Engadine Valley has, time and again, attracted Europe’s most luminous artists and philosophers to its majestic grounds.
Now I have my beloved Sils Maria in the Engadin again, the spot where I hope one day to die; in the meantime, it gives me the best motivation to live.—Friedrich Nietzsche, 1883