Fri, 23 Feb, 2018
Experiencing mountain magic in Switzerland’s Tschiertschen
Travel writer Justine Tyerman learns an important lesson in the little alpine village of Tschiertschen, Switzerland.
The Swiss don't set out to tell tall tales... but they do it, unintentionally, all the time. Especially the alpine folk.
Here’s a perfect example:
‘How long does it take to reach this lake?’ I asked, pointing at the blue dot below the mountain peak on the wanderweg (hiking) map.
‘About two and three quarter hours,’ replied Heidi, the delightful receptionist at the Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa in the exquisite little alpine village of Tschiertschen, the correct pronunciation of which still eludes me.
The best I could manage was ‘tear-chin’ which seemed to get a flicker of recognition and an amused smile from the locals.
‘Ok, that sounds manageable. We'll do that tomorrow,’ I said as we checked into the four-star resort high in the magnificent Bündner Alps of Switzerland.
The Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
‘You can hike an extra 45 minutes from the lake up to a restaurant on the top of Hörnli mountain for lunch if you like,’ Heidi added helpfully. ‘Or take the gondola from Arosa.’
‘Three and a half hours to the top?’ I replied. ‘And lunch at a nice restaurant? We'll hike up there, no trouble. We're Kiwis (New Zealanders). We don’t need to take a gondola.’
The prospect of a restaurant at the top of the mountain intrigued us. When hiking in New Zealand, we always joke about there being a cafe or lodge around the next corner . . . but there isn't. The summits of our highest mountains are devoid of any habitation. Except for at our ski resorts.
With the next day all sorted, we were escorted to our salubrious suite where we did a quick change and embarked on Heidi’s ‘one-hour’ familiarisation hike. That was a real eye-opener and the first indication of the Swiss tendency to seriously under-estimate hiking times. The ‘easy’ amble turned out to be a strenuous two and a half hours of puffing uphill. But the landscape was so beautiful, we were not complaining. We walked through autumn forests, past pretty waterfalls and meadows of friendly cows playing ding dong songs on their bells as they ambled around the hillsides. The day was eye-wateringly clear, crisp and sunny - perfect conditions for hiking – and the views of the mountains and valley were glorious.
Little waterfall in Tschiertschen. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
Not only did we love every second of the hike, it was also an important learning curve for us – we discovered the Swiss who live in the mountains are super-fit and acclimatised to the high altitude. They sprint up steep mountains as if they are mere hillocks. We realised that any estimated hiking time from a Swiss alpine-dweller needed to be viewed with the utmost scepticism. That’s what I mean when I say they tell tall tales . . . without intending to.
Another thing we learned was that most Swiss are excellent amateur tour guides. They are so proud and knowledgeable about their country, they are eager to share their favourite hikes and must-sees with overseas visitors.
This happens at railway stations, bus stops, restaurants . . . anywhere there is a map of mountains and hiking trails. Which is everywhere in this abundantly-blessed country crowded with peaks and crisscrossed with tracks.
Having learned these invaluable lessons early on in our alpine holiday, henceforth we roughly doubled all hiking times and managed splendidly.
Cows playing ding dong songs on their bells. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
Back at the Alpina, we headed for a soak in the hot pool and then had drinks on our balcony as the sun set. It was magic. I was so happy, I was tempted to yodel.
Shared Asian dinner
That evening, we were treated to a shared Asian dinner prepared by the Alpina’s highly-talented Chinese chef Tony Leung. We dined in the elegant La Belle Époque restaurant, the hotel’s historic dining room with its original parquet floor and chandeliers. As visitors from New Zealand, it was most enjoyable for us to be seated at a round table with a group of friendly Swiss folk. A 17-year-old boy, who was dining with his grandparents, did a fine job of translating for everyone. His grandparents live in Tschiertschen and they told us about the wonderful parties and balls that were held in that very dining room when they were young. They also gave us many tips about where to hike.
Justine and Chris enjoying their dinner. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
Tony’s Asian dishes were delicious and our charming waiters Eran and Jamina looked after us exceedingly well. On the menu were chicken soup with glass noodles, Sze-chuan beef, Thai chicken curry, sweet and sour shrimps, Asian vegetables with tofu, wild rice and fried rice noodles with vegetables, and lychees and icecream for dessert. I never tire of those fresh Asian flavours. The wines were delectable too. We were thoroughly spoilt that night.
We slept with starlight shining through the skylight above our bed, and awoke to the sound of tinkling cowbells and church bells. I wrapped myself in a warm blanket and opened the doors to our balcony to watch the sunrise. Nowhere is the freshness of the new day so sweet as in the mountains. The sun was slow to show itself on our side of the valley, sliding tantalisingly just below the ridge, casting hazy golden beams and long shadows across the little village. Suddenly, Tschiertschen was illuminated in dazzling light and the colours were blindingly bright. The church spire shone in the morning sun and the pastures were vividly green and as smooth as an iced cake. How do they mow the grass so beautifully on such steep slopes, I wondered.
Tschiertschen in the sunlight. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
Breakfast at the Alpina was a gastronomic highlight with a delicious array of mueslis, fresh fruit, yoghurts, cheese, cold meats, salads, juices and the best bread and pastries I've ever tasted.
Having doubled Heidi’s hiking estimate, we abandoned our plans to hike to the top of Hörnli and decided to catch the train to Arosa and take the gondola to the restaurant for lunch.
Rather than backtracking by bus to Chur, we walked down to the train station at St Peter Molinis. Even that turned out to be much further than anticipated with a steep climb up to the station at the end but the hike was well worth the effort. En route, we came across an old sawmill operated by hydropower from the Ruchtobel River, spotted wild deer in the forest and walked through pastures with cows so tame they were happy to be patted.
At the station, we met a young woman who explained that at St Peter Molinis, trains only stop if you push a button. A vital piece of information. She also told us all her favourite places to hike.
The train trip was stunning - deep gorges, turquoise rivers, power stations and high viaducts - and the lakeside village of Arosa was like a jewel surrounded by a necklace of magnificent mountains.
Langwies viaduct on the way to Arosa. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
Arosa and its Obersee lake. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
We took the gondola to the top of Hörnli where there were alps as far as the eye could see. The 360 degree panorama was staggering, the horizon bristling with mountains. A telescope told us the names of all the peaks and ranges from Zermatt to St Moritz and far beyond.
We basked in warm autumn sun while lunching and drinking chilled rosé at the splendid restaurant. We celebrated life and how privileged we were to be in such a beautiful part of the world.
Top of the Hörnli. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
As we walked back down the mountain track, there were patches of snow where the snowmakers had been hard at work, laying down a base for the coming ski season.
The return trip to Chur by train and Post Auto bus to Tschiertschen was just as jaw-dropping the second time around.
Arriving back at the Alpina, the staff were so friendly, it felt like we were coming home to family. After relaxing in the sauna and drinks in the bar, we dined in the scenic Panorama Restaurant overlooking the valley and mountains. With a strong penchant for spicy cuisine, we had another of Tony’s fabulous Asian dishes, Thai curry with cod and jasmin rice, served with a flourish by Eran who again looked after us splendidly. There was even a ‘Welcome Tyerman family’ heart-shaped stone on our table.
High above us on the dark horizon, we could see the twinkling lights of the restaurant at the top of Hörnli where we had lunch. We’ll hike up there one day, we promised ourselves.
The Hörnli restaurant. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
The Alpina Hotel: history
The Alpina Hotel, established in 1897, has a long and illustrious history. The first holiday-makers arrived in Tschiertschen in the summer of 1892, even before there was a road link to Chur. The road was opened three years later setting the scene for the idyllic mountain village with its sunny, sheltered location to become a high-altitude resort.
Soon after, Christian Hold of Arosa built the 40-bed Alpina Hotel on an elevated terrace above the village. Originally, the building had only one row of balconies but the hotel was so popular that in 1913, Hold added 20 more beds and a second row of balconies. From 1897 right through until the late 1970s, the Alpina’s La Belle Époque dining room was famous for its elegant balls and parties.
In the years that followed, the Alpina saw a series of tenants and by 1937, it had central heating and running water on all floors. During WW2, the hotel stood empty for a while, until it was used as a detention camp and refugee home in 1944-45.
In December 1946, chef Adam Stocker bought the Alpina from Hold and in 1952, the installation of the first ski lift launched Tschiertschen as a winter holiday destination.
Stocker and his wife Barbara ran the Alpina until 1973 when they passed the lease and then ownership on to their son Andreas and his wife Esther. They undertook further improvements to the hotel in 1984-85.
In 2001 Marina Sciamanna took over the hotel and ran it as a friends-of-nature house for cost-conscious Dutch guests. In 2008, she handed over management to her son-in-law, Tobias Alderliesten who steadily increased the number of bookings every year.
The hotel then came to the attention of Malaysian entrepreneur Ah Khing Teo who purchased it in April 2013. He commissioned architects and engineers to carefully restore the historic building in the style of the historic hotel. During the extensive renovation and modernisation process from 2014-15, spa facilities were added on the ground floor.
Upon reopening in December 2015, the four-star Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa has reassumed its rightful place in the tourist landscape of the Grisons. It is once again THE place to stay on the south side of the Schanfigg Valley.
The Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa today
High on an elevated terrace above the village, the white, five-storey Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa with its gables and traditional balconies is an impressive landmark. The renovated hotel now offers 27 rooms and suites, two restaurants, stylish wine and cocktail bars, a cigar lounge, library and spa zone.
Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
Our bright, sunny balcony suite on the top floor of the hotel had a large, super-comfortable bed with fluffy down duvets and soft pillows, a bathroom with a separate toilet, shower enclosure and vanity well-stocked with the Alpina’s own fragrant toiletries, a skylight window, flat screen TV, and free wifi.
I loved the warm hues of the pine walls and oak floors. But my favourite place was the balcony. I was spellbound by the stunning view of the Schanfigg Valley, the magnificent Bündner Alps and the exquisite little village of Tschiertschen with its narrow streets, sun-blackened chalets and barns and graceful stone church. Nearby was the bottom station of the ski-lift. I could just picture the scene in winter with the landscape blanketed in glistening white snow.
Village of Tschiertschen. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
A welcome card and fresh fruit from managers Michael and Marlies Gehring was a thoughtful touch along with a choice of pillows – on the menu were cherry stone, millet, pinewood, feathers or synthetic fibre balls. I enjoyed reading Marlies’ tips of the day especially her advice on how to sleep better and the health benefits of yoghurt, linseed oil and drinking lots of water.
As a historophile, it was heart-warming to see how well the herringbone parquet floor, chandeliers, wood panelling and plastered ceilings of the Alpina’s La Belle Époque dining room have been restored. Even the mirror above the piano is in the same position as it was in 1897, perfectly placed to reflect the hands of the pianist.
The Panorama Restaurant has also been renovated in keeping with the Golden Era of the 1920s. The outside terrace has spectacular views of the valley and mountains.
The cosy Alpina Bar has original wood panelled walls and floors while an intimate wine bar, the AlpinaVinothek, has been installed in the old vaulted cellars. There’s also a library and cigar lounge.
The outstanding new Shan Spa (Shan is Chinese for ‘mountain nature’) offers pure relaxation, pampering and indulgence, the perfect place to relax, destress and unwind. Facilities include an outdoor Jacuzzi, a smorgasbord of saunas, a Kneipp basin and a range of relaxing massages, beauty treatments and Asian health applications.
My husband Chris is a sauna fan so he sampled all four. The Finnish sauna has hot, dry air to enhance circulation and stimulate the blood supply to your muscles; the eucalyptus of the steam bath benefits the respiratory system, skin and hair; the bio-sauna offers essential herbal aromas to purify and warmth to revitalise the body; and the infra-red sauna is especially recommended for muscle spasms, joint pain, general fatigue and for those who do not tolerate intense heat and high humidity in a sauna. He emerged refreshed, rejuvenated and re-energised.
A highlight for me was the unique sensory shower experience of the Via Mala thunderstorm path with hot and cold mist, a storm with huge rain drops, bird song and stars, and a deluge of hot water with cool mist. I did it several times. It was quite addictive.
I also enjoyed the Kneipp basin where I sat on a warm stone bench and trod water in a stone tub which stimulated my circulation and arterial blood supply. Apparently it’s a great way to prevent varicose veins so I’ll need to keep coming back.
But at the end of a day in the mountains, I loved nothing better than lying in the warmth of the Jacuzzi, relaxing on the bubble lounger, and breathing in the fresh, sweet alpine air.
Getting to Tschiertschen
Tschiertschen (1340 metres above sea level, population 240) may look and feel delightfully remote and tranquil but it’s only 25 minutes by regular Post Auto bus service from Chur and one hour and 45 minutes from Zurich Airport.
We caught an early train from Zurich and sped through countryside that looked like a never-ending series of postcards - flickering past my eyes like the frames of an old-fashioned movie, only in glorious technicolour.
When we disembarked at Chur, there was our Post Auto bus, clearly marked Tschiertschen, pulling into the station at precisely the time it was scheduled.
Tschiertschen welcomes its visitors. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
We headed 10km (25 minutes) up a steep, windy mountain road to a village straight from a Swiss Tourism brochure. I had to blink several times to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. Tschiertschen is a quintessential tiny Swiss alpine village built on a mountainside, untouched by commercial tourism. The historic Alpina Mountain Resort and Spa, one of only two hotels in Tschiertschen, sat proudly above the village bathed in sunshine. I fell in love with the place in an instant.
The friendly driver deposited us at the bus stop from where we planned to walk to the Alpina. It looked like a short distance on the map but it was straight uphill so we got all our exercise in one strenuous hit, lugging our cases up the steep main street.
Had we phoned, the hotel's courtesy car would have collected us, ‘No problem,’ said Heidi as we arrived out of breath at reception where cool drinks and alpine nut cake awaited us.
So much to offer
In the summer, Tschiertschen is a hiking paradise, the ideal starting point for many beautiful day and half-day excursions. The 70km network of trails takes walkers through unspoilt natural landscapes devoid of man-made interference like tar-sealed roads, cable cars and snow cannons which is increasingly rare these days.
Tschiertschen and its Alpina Mountain Resort. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
Tschiertschen is the first stop on the famous six-day Schanfigger Höhenweg, described as ‘the most beautiful mountain hiking path in Graubünden’.
The village is also the perfect base for mountain bikers. And for those who need an extra boost uphill, the Alpina has the latest, greatest, off-road, cross-country e-bikes for their guests’ use, the ‘flitzerli MONSTER eBike’.
Graubünden’s most beautiful tennis court is located in Tschiertschen, directly behind the Alpina Hotel. Guests play for free with rackets and balls provided.
Winter in Tschiertschen is a dream come true for skiers and snowboarders seeking to escape the crowded slopes of Switzerland’s famous ski resorts. There’s 32km of excellently-prepared pistes of all degrees of difficulty, 100 percent natural snow, no crowds, no queuing for the modern four-seater chairlifts and ski lifts and no loud music blasting across the slopes. Just beautifully diverse downhill runs through forests and gullies with terrain to suit everyone from beginners and families to experts like local resident and three-time world champion ski acrobat Mia Engi. There’s also plenty of challenging terrain for free-riders, powder hounds and off-piste skiers.
Winter in Tschiertschen must be wonderful. Image credit: Alpina Tschiertschen
The ski school meeting point is right behind the Alpina Hotel and the valley station of the lift can be reached in just one minute. There’s also a free ski bus from the village car park to the bottom of the chairlift.
And if you are looking for a new thrill on the snow, the Alpina will lend you a gögel, a mono-ski/toboggan combo.
Organised winter events include guest ski races, night skiing with torches, guided ski tours and ski safaris, gourmet evenings and plays, exhibitions, readings and chamber music concerts.
Wine and food
The Bündner Herrschaft area, often called the ‘Burgundy of Switzerland’, ranks among the best regions for red wine north of the Alps. The vineyards where 45 grape varieties flourish in warm conditions, are just 20 minutes by car from Tschiertschen. The picturesque wine-growing villages of Fläsch, Maienfeld, Jenins and Malans are worth visiting at any time of the year. Winemakers mature their finest wines in oak barrels and secure top international awards with them.
Tschiertschen is famous for its high-quality ‘AlpenHirt’, dried beef made from cattle grazing high alpine pastures. The meat is marinated in a mixture of red wine, natural salt and herbs and left to dry in the mountain air for eight to 16 weeks rather than being preserved in pickling salt with additives in a smoke chamber.
Guests can also sample richly flavoursome Alp Farur cheese.
Tschiertschen holds a Farmers’ Market every Saturday afternoon selling alpine cheese, alpine butter, eggs, meat, Graubünden nut gateaux, home-made Graubünden pear bread, jams, liqueurs and aperitif platters directly from the local farmers’ wives.
Just 20 minutes away from Tschiertschen on the Post Auto bus, lies the city of Chur (population 34,880), the capital of the eastern Switzerland canton of Graubünden/Grisons. Chur boasts a car-free medieval Old Town, the wonderfully restored 13th-century, three-naved Cathedral of the Assumption in the courtyard of Bishop’s Palace, the Graubünden Museum of Fine Arts, the Rhaetian Museum, Graubünden Natural History Museum, art galleries and theatres with classical and jazz concerts . . . not to mention excellent shopping.
Historic Post Auto Bus. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
Unique, unspoiled, authentic
Tschiertschen has a wealth of unique natural attributes. A world away from the glitz and glamour of Switzerland’s world-famous resorts, the village offers a tranquil, close-to-nature, unspoiled, authentic, alpine experience, a welcome respite from the stressful, high-pressure lives that many people lead in the cities these days.
But comfort is not compromised. The Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa pampers you with romance, history, gourmet cuisine, fine wine, spa facilities, salubrious suites and impeccable service. Unique, unspoiled, authentic . . . go there before the secret is discovered.
* The Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa is a member of the Romantik Hotels & Restaurants International, a group of more than 200 establishments in 10 European countries. ‘The distinguishing characteristics of tradition, history, quality and warm hospitality combined with excellent cuisine, authentic local roots and tangible history unite the owner-run hotels, creating an exclusive collection to delight even the most discerning guests.’
* The Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa is included in the Guide Michelin’s list of the best hotels in Switzerland.
* Justine and Chris Tyerman stayed at the Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa, Tschiertschen, Switzerland:www.the-alpina.com
* Switzerland Tourism: www.MySwitzerland.com
* Swiss Travel Pass: www.MySwitzerland.com/rail
* Swiss International Air Lines: www.swiss.com/ch/en
* Republished with the permission of Travelmemo.com