Report: 7. Lower Engadin

The Engadin is in the canton of Graubünden, the largest canton and the only one in which Romansch, a minority Romance language, is spoken. Graubünden takes up the entire southeastern area of Switzerland, and the southeastern half of the canton itself is the drainage basin of the Inn river, which flows northeast into Austria. The Inn valley in Graubünden is called the Engadin from the Romansch name of the river, En. The area is divided into two very different subregions. One is the Upper Engadin, where the valley is broad and is bordered by particularly high peaks. It is home to a few well-known resorts such as St. Moritz and Pontresina. The other region is the Lower Engadin, which is where I spent my time. Here the valley is narrower, the river is rougher, and one finds mostly smallish villages.

I stayed in the town of Zernez, the site of the confluence of the river Spöl with the En. Zernez is a spectacular location; in three opposing directions, valleys stretch out straight ahead, while between them rise high, wooded, mountainous slopes. The setting felt like an Italian town in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. I came there from my stay in the Emmental, and the change was shocking. At the time I thought it was the most rugged place I would see on the trip, that is, until I subsequently rediscovered just how rough the Lötschental landscape is. It was also fascinating to be in Romansch-speaking territory, to hear the language everywhere (it coexists with Swiss German) and see it on all the signs. Romansch sounded to me like some sort of mixture of Italian and Portuguese. A particularly neat experience for me was to be eating pizza out one evening and hear a Romansch conversation to my right and a Swiss German conversation to the left.

Zernez, of all the towns in the Lower Engadin, has the most Italian or neoclassical look. This is because most of it burned down in a great fire in the early 20th century (like Wiler in the Lötschental), so that most of the distinctive Engadin farmhouses were destroyed and the town was rebuilt in a more straightforward Italianate style (44, 45). Many of the buildings, as you can see in those pictures, have almost flat roofs. This is one of the many differences between Zernez buildings and traditional Lower Engadin buildings.

44. View of Zernez from a nearby bluff, looking up the En valley.

45. A typical Zernez building located at the head of the town square.

While the Zernez style was different from anything else I saw in Switzerland, the traditional Lower Engadin style is different from anything I've ever seen. Before I explain, I'll just say that in a typical Engadin farmhouse (as in Appenzell, this is the most commonly seen traditional building form, containing both living quarters and barn) the house part is masonry and plaster-sided, while the barn is supported by thick masonry corner posts but has wooden walls:

46. Barn end of a traditional Engadin farmhouse, in Ardez. Note the wooden sides (but masonry corner posts) of the barn, and the plaster-walled living quarters at the right end.

The roof has a slope similar to that of Blockbau chalets, and the front end is often divided in half, with the half containing the front door recessed from the other, probably to provide extra protection for the entry area:

47. Typical divided façade, Susch, Engadin.

While the structure itself is highly distinctive, the most unusual and noteworthy element of the Engadin style is sgraffito. This is a kind of decoration of the exterior walls of a building; it consists of carving through a newly applied layer of exterior white plaster to reveal the gray plaster underneath, making designs. A wonderful example is a farmhouse in the curiously named high town of Ftan:

48. Sgraffito design above a window in Ftan.

49. More sgraffito on the same house.

50. The entire house. Note that sgraffito is everywhere, including in seemingly random places on the wall.

Sgraffito, along with wall painting, is found on the bulk of traditional Lower Engadin buildings, and indeed can be found on many new buildings in the region as well. Wall decoration ranges from quite simple (51) to incredibly intricate (52). It now even finds use as commercial signage (53) in addition to decoration, which itself has evolved more modern varieties (54, 55).

51. Detail from a house in Zernez.

52. Perhaps the best-known example of Engadin artistry: the Adam and Eve House (you can see them at the lower right) in Ardez.

53. Gas station sign, painted on a wall. Zernez, Engadin.

54. Modern application of sgraffito. Zernez, Engadin.

55. Modern wall painting. Scuol, Engadin.

The oldest villages, such as Guarda, Ardez, and the old part of Scuol (the central town of the Lower Engadin, with a fair amount of modern construction), are even more surreal than the Emmental, with narrow, often steeply sloped cobblestone streets (see below) densely flanked by house after house covered with sgraffito. In addition, there are many fountains, often wooden and with a distinctive elliptical shape (see also below) in all the villages; some are very old, others have been reconstructed in their original form. Lavin in particular has fountains in great number.

56. A square in Ardez, with fountain.

A quick side note: a bonus of the hotel I stayed at in Zernez was that, unlike my previous accommodations, it had a TV, which I enjoyed watching mostly to hear Swiss German. I can speak German and used standard German constantly on the trip, but Swiss German is basically an entirely different language. With my interest in linguistics, it was fascinating to try to pick up as much Swiss German as possible, and often the most ready source was the TV. At least once, in Zernez in fact, I successfully spoke Swiss German for an entire grocery transaction. (It helped to know how to say the numbers.) Later I bought a textbook on Swiss German, written in standard German. The language challenge was one of the great unforeseen fun parts of the trip.