You can see the full show notes for this episode, get a PDF version of this transcript and listen to the episode > here.
Welcome to the Holidays to Switzerland Travel Podcast. Your host is the founder of Holidaystoswitzerland.com and the Switzerland Travel Planning Facebook group, Carolyn Schonafinger.
On this podcast, Carolyn will be joined by a variety of guests who share their knowledge and love of the country to help you plan your dream trip to Switzerland.
Carolyn – Hello and welcome to episode 20 of the Holidays to Switzerland Travel Podcast. In today’s episode we will be exploring the largest Canton in Switzerland, Graubunden and whilst it is a popular destination for Swiss travelers, to many international visitors, it is not as well known.
To tell us why a visit to Graubunden should be part of our Swiss travels, I’m joined today by Thalia Wunsch of Graubunden Tourism.
Thalia – Thank you very much for having me.
Carolyn – It’s my pleasure to have you joining us today. So for those listeners that aren’t familiar with Graubunden, can you tell us where it is? And have you always lived in the Canton?
Thalia – So Graubunden is located in the northeast of Switzerland. That means it has borders with Austria as well as with Italy and no I have not lived my whole life in Graubunden. I only moved here five years ago. I grew up in the eastern part of Switzerland. So for me, Graubunden was also the place where I went skiing as a kid and obviously, therefore, I really loved being here, and then five years ago I moved to Chur, the capital of Graubunden. I started working here for the local tourism board and yeah, I’ve gotten to know Graubunden very well in the last five years because I travel around a lot. I spend my free time hiking in summer, skiing in winter. So it’s really, I grew very fond of Graubunden in the last couple of years.
Carolyn – Well, it sounds like an idyllic lifestyle getting to appreciate all that wonderful scenery and enjoy the outdoor activities.
Thalia – If you are an outdoorsy person, it’s really, it’s perfect here.
Carolyn – What can you tell us about Graubunden and its characteristics because it’s got some unique features?
Thalia – It does as you already said it’s the biggest canton of Switzerland and at the same time the least densely populated. That means of course that we have a lot of nature. We have the mountains and mountain lakes, a lot of different valleys and a great variety in general. It is as well the home of the only national park in Switzerland, which is located in the Engadine valley, and this is of course one of the best places to observe animals such as chamois, bearded vultures, marmots, and then maybe something that you should not see but taste is, there is the cuisine of Graubunden.
We have lots of different cultures. We have valleys which speak Italian, then we have valleys which speak Romansch and other parts which speak German and with the different languages, you also have different cultures and that is something that is reflected in the, in the typical dishes that are cooked here and there is a great variety of that. And so we should not only see Graubunden but also taste it when we visit.
Carolyn – Okay. And do you have a favorite dish?
Thalia – Yeah, I have a bit of a sweet tooth so I would say that the Bündner Nusstorte is one of my favorites. It’s a pastry dessert. You have a caramel with walnuts in it in the middle and then it’s um in the short cross pastry around it and it’s a heavy dessert, but like a tiny slice of it, that’s something very good to end the meal lovely.
Carolyn – And is that served all year round or only when the walnuts are in season?
Thalia – No, that’s served all year round because, well that’s something that you can store very well. And so, therefore, we really, we make them the whole year-round.
Carolyn – Good. So whatever time we visit, we don’t have to miss out. We can always enjoy a piece of it.
Thalia – Absolutely.
Carolyn – You mentioned that the Graubudnen are the, that some of the valleys in Graubunden speak Romansch and it’s one of the official languages of Switzerland as well, but only a tiny population of the people speak that language. So is there anything being done to keep the language and the traditions of the Romansch culture alive?
Thalia – Yeah, there’s, there’s quite a lot that’s, that’s being done to, to keep the language alive because at the moment it’s about half a percent of the people who consider Romansch their most important language which is a small minority but at the same, but at the same time as you said it comes with the culture, it comes with the heritage. So we have an institution, the Lia Rumantscha which sole purpose is to keep to keep this language alive. And I think something that makes it maybe even a little bit more difficult is that there are not only one Romansch as you would think, but there are five different kinds and they differ in speaking as well as in writing. So um yeah, we have those five languages to keep alive, but they are very much alive. So if you visit the Romansch part of the canton, you will hear it all around you and even school kindergarten, that’s all in Romantsch. So we have a lot of people whose first language is Romansch and then they later learned German, like we Swiss German learn French in school.
Carolyn – Amazing! Coming from a country such as Australia where we only speak English, although we can learn another language at school, but only usually only for a couple of years, being able to speak so many languages is a wonderful skill to have I’d imagine.
Thalia – Yeah, I think that’s something that’s special about Switzerland in general and Graubunden, particularly because I mean it’s quite a small region if you think of it. And even though we speak three languages and it’s, yeah, it comes with the culture comes with a great diversity And the reason for that is when you think back, it’s like all these valleys in the mountains. They used to be quite isolated. So you didn’t have that much exchange between people between villages and all the cultures developed a bit separate from the other. And therefore we have this great variety. And I think that comes really with a mountainous country. Where traveling used to be much more difficult in the past than it is nowadays.
Carolyn – Yeah, for sure. So it’s great that that heritage is being kept alive. So what kinds of travelers does Graubunden appeal to?
Thalia – I mean the most, the most classic travelers that we have in Graubunden in summer are of course hikers and bikers and doing outdoor sports and in winter and skiers and cross countries here. But I think it has something for everyone. Even if you like, for people who like to do road trips because we have great road passes, then there’s uh lots of things to do for train enthusiasts. We will talk a bit more about it later. And I mean also as a family if you like to be in nature to play in nature, maybe do some short hikes, visit some kid-friendly museums. You can, you have a lot of activities to choose from and break from the busy city life. And I mean as I said, so, um not so densely populated. So we have a lot of small mountain towns. And in these little towns villages, it’s time works differently. People are more relaxed. You walk to the things on foot, you just have more, you have more time. And I think that’s nice just to stay, take a step back, take time for yourself, and not even do that much on a holiday but just enjoy the peace. The nature around. You do some highlights from where you’re staying and not just run from one place to the other.
Carolyn – Yeah, that’s right, slow down and enjoy the magnificent scenery around you. You mentioned all those outdoor activities and hiking and skiing and there’s some incredible natural beauty in the Canton. What are some of the scenic highlights that people should try and see when they visit?
Thalia – I think first and foremost the Swiss National Park. That’s such an amazing place because nature is left completely to itself meaning man doesn’t do anything there. They are only allowed as visitors and just on the hiking paths. So you really see nature at its most raw form there and you can even do multiple day hikes and I think it’s really special to go there in autumn when the deer mating season is taking place. So you hear the deer and you can see them the best during that season because they’re so so focused on each other, on fighting about the best mating opportunities that they don’t care about people anymore and they don’t run away.
And then another beautiful place that I would recommend everybody to visit is the Rhine Gorge. We call it the Swiss Grand Canyon and it’s gorge that’s between Reichenau and the Ilans, it’s quite close to to the capital, to Chur. And you can drive by train or then you can go hiking and it’s really lovely. It’s not steep, it’s, yeah, quite a comfortable stroll through there and yeah, it’s nevertheless the landscape is great.
And then of course we also have glaciers here in Graubunden in which I can highly recommend visiting overall the Morteratsch Glacier which is in the Engadine Valley and there’s a path leading up to it where you can see where the glacier used to be. So I think it’s a really interesting way to experience what climate change has done to the glaciers. Then at the end, you arrive at the glacier and you see it and it’s really a thing of beauty
And last but not least maybe our mountain lakes and there’s lots of it. We have over 600 mountain lakes here in Graubunden. So if you go hiking you can really like plan your hikes accordingly that you will pass a mountain lake where you can go swimming in it because the water is safe and crystal clear. Just take a break along and look at this beauty.
Carolyn – That’s one of the things I noticed when I was doing a bit of research before our interview. Not only is there over 600 lakes but also 150 valleys and 937 mountains, if I remember correctly from your Graubunden website – just amazing. All that in one canton. Also in Graubunden, as well as all that natural beauty, there are also some pretty impressive man-made attractions. I’ve seen pictures of the Landwasser Viaduct which the famous Glacier Express travels across. And also there’s the Albula Bernina line. So what can you tell us about those?
Thalia – So now we’re talking about our Rhaetian Railway here in Graubunden and the Landwasser Viaduct is part of the Albula Bernina line and this is one of them, I dare to say one of the most beautiful train rides in Switzerland and it is also um part of the UNESCO World Heritage as only one of three railway lines worldwide. So it is that the line between Thusis and Tirano which goes over to two passes and through several valleys and it’s the constructions they are made in a way and put into beautiful nature. You have all those bridges, you have two different tunnels, then you have the landscape changing around you while you’re sitting on the train. So I think traveling by train, I mean in Switzerland in total, it’s a great experience and here in Graubunden especially because you just see you see so much only sitting in there, only sitting in the train.
Carolyn – Yeah, you sit back and relax and look at those panoramic windows and the beautiful scenery just passes by.
Thalia – As you mentioned we have the panoramic trains running on the Glacier Express line from St. Moritz to Zermatt, as well on the Bernina line from Chur to Tirano.
Carolyn – Yeah, so there’s plenty of choice. Now, I’d like to ask you about some of the towns in Graubuenden. Can you share some information and highlights about some of the popular destinations with our listeners?
Thalia – Yeah, that would be lovely. So I think I’ll start with my home, with Chur, which is the capital of Graubunden. And it’s a small little town with a beautiful Old Town, which is car-free. And then you have lots of different restaurants, bars, cafes, as well as an interesting art museum. And I think it’s a bit unexpected. You have really great street art in here in Chur because it’s something that the city has put some effort in it. So you have walls where artists are allowed to spray their work and you have a city walk about this topic. So that’s really the, let’s say, the modern side of Chur and I think staying here is great when you want to do train rides because it’s just a great place to go in all in all different directions.
Then I think we talk a bit about the classical destinations, for example, St. Moritz, which is of course known for their jetset. But I think it’s much, it’s much more than that. It does not do it justice if you just think about the jetset destination because it has one of my favorite skiing areas for winter. Corviglia is so huge. I think you can ski there for the whole day and never do the same pistes twice. And in summer it’s a beautiful place to go hiking or biking. You have this huge valley which is wide with lakes in it and once you go a bit away of Sankt Moritz like, which is the best-known places, you have so many charming mountain towns and valleys which are isolated, car-free to do outdoor activities.
And then the next one will be Davos to talk a bit about. I think this is known a bit as our city in the mountains which offers everything that you need there. And then at the same time, it’s really a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts from hiking to biking to water sports, trail running, you name it, you can do everything there in summer and it’s a bit the same story with St. Moritz, it’s known, it’s just only the big destinations but if you walk a bit around go a bit of way of that you find you find small mountain towns there as well which are much more isolated which offer peace as well. So I think you get a really big variety.
And then maybe last but not least to destinations which are close to close to Chur. Again that would be Arosa Lenzerheide which is one destination which are two towns that are separated by the mountains. They now are, in winter, they are connected through a skiing area but if you want to go to one or the other it’s a completely other way meaning you have to go around with the car. And I think these two destinations are really good for families because in Arosa that we have our first bear sanctuary. So they built a really big enclosure there in the mountains where they rescue bears from who were treated badly in the past in other countries like for example in circuses and stuff and so they take them there and bring them to a more natural, back to a more natural way where they’re living. And I think that’s a really interesting thing to visit with kids and there are lots of activities around it about bears and they really cater to families.
Carolyn – Mm, lovely. So there’s, yeah, there’s plenty to do whether you’re into outdoor activities or whether you just want to appreciate nature or look at street art.
Thalia – Yeah definitely. Something for everyone.
Carolyn – So what about some of the smaller villages? Because you sort of touched on there that you can get away from places like Davos and St. Moritz and go and see some of the smaller villages. Um, do you have any favorites? I know in episode 16 I spoke with Kevin from the Most Beautiful Villages in Switzerland Association and one of the villages that we chatted about was Tschlin. So have you got something that you can add about that and maybe a couple of the other villages that you really enjoy visiting?
Tahlia – So Tschlin is a very nice village, in the Lower Engadine and this was one of the hardest questions. I think choosing from so many mountain villages that we have and they’re all special. They’re all different. That was, that was really hard for me. And I mean I would like to stay in every one of them. So I decided to choose one from every language region.
Carolyn – Wonderful.
Thalia – The first one which I chose is really close by to Tschlin. It’s called Guarda and it’s about a bit the same as Tschlin. So it’s an Engadine mountain village meaning that it has this really big and heavy houses and of course, central fountain because you need that central fountains are essential because that’s where all the important stuff like the village chatter happens. You have a central fountain that used to be the place to be in the past, I’m told so. And but it’s really, it’s located on a, on a terrace high above the valley and when you drive up there by car or by Post Bus, its, you arrive in this village and it’s like, yeah, that’s Switzerland. That’s like I understand everybody who falls in love with Switzerland when they visit these places because they look, they look like out of a picture book.
Carolyn – Yeah.
Thalia – And then I’ve chosen one from the Italian part of Switzerland, not of Switzerland, of Graubunden, which is Soglio that’s located in the Valley Bergell. And it’s also located on a terrace, I seem to have a knack for villages and terraces and it’s, I mean, it’s about the same. It’s just a representative of this region with the houses with the stone roofs like the narrow streets in between where you can’t pass with the car. So, therefore, it’s also, it’s car-free. You can just walk around and enjoy sceneries, also has fountains and look above the valley. So that’s, that’s a really beautiful place and there’s a nice hotel there as well. The Palazzo Salis, which is in a historic building. So that’s a really beautiful place to stay. And this village is surrounded by chestnut forests. So it’s nice to go there, go there in autumn when all the trees start to turn red and you have all these chestnuts on the floor and they are collected and used to cook specialties down there.
And then my third pick would be Vals in the German speaking part of Graubunden. That is a village located at the end of the valley so it’s surrounded by high mountains and it’s a bit known for its spa built by a famous Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor, which is straight lines, sharp edges, so a really beautiful place to visit and just to relax and soak in this mountain air, the mountain water and be surrounded by all these natural elements.
Carolyn – Aah, you’ve won me, they sound wonderful. Now here’s another question for you. If you, you mentioned that you’ve only lived in Graubunden for five years, so you probably know what it’s like to explore the area for the first time. So if you had a friend coming to visit you and they hadn’t been to Graubunden before, what, where would you take them? And what, what would you encourage them to do?
Tahlia – I think it would depend a bit on the friend and depends on how fit they are and if they are really experienced hikers or not. So I had some friends over last summer, they’re here for the first time and one of them was a fit hiker. So um, I decided to do the tour to theJöriseen in Davos Klosers with him, which is about, it’s a day hike, so you need to be into hiking. But I think if people would visit me who would be a bit more laid back, who just want to enjoy it and maybe not such a fitness enthusiast, I think I would take them to the Viamala Gorge, which is a really beautiful gorge. You have stairs leading down and then you see the water and all the washed-out rocks. And this place is close to one of my, my favorite hotels and restaurants here in Graubunden, which is in Wergenstein, another tiny, tiny village upon them up on the mountains where you can drive up by car and they have a beautiful terrace overlooking the whole, the whole valley of the Viamala.
Carolyn – And what’s the name of the hotel and restaurant?
Tahlia – That’s called Hotel Restaurant Capricorn, like Ibex in German.
Carolyn – Okay.
Tahlia – And if somebody would visit me who has a bit more time than just like for a day excursion, I think I would take them on a road trip and go from one mountain pass with an extended day hiking and exploring around and then sleep on the pass because I think that’s something quite special in Switzerland and most passes you have small hotels where you can stay the night and these passes are busy during the day but then like once you have the evening the road gets less busy, fewer people stay there and in the end, you really have the mountains all by yourself and you are in the middle of the mountains and you can drive there by car so that I think is a cool thing.
Carolyn – Incredible.
Tahlia – Yeah.
Carolyn – Okay, so before we finish up and it’s yeah, it’s been really interesting getting all your tips and advice, so thank you very much for that. Do you have any other final tips that the listeners should not miss?
Tahlia – I do have one final tip and that’s just one of my favorite things to do and that’s to go hiking or walking for multiple days. I think just traveling on foot because you’re so much, you just slower so that slows you, that slows you down naturally because your pace is just a different one than when you’re traveling by car, by train, and you can hike from one mountain to the next which is then of course for the more experienced hikers. But they are also beautiful trails which take you from one hotel to the next and normally on easier paths and then you even have such a luxury as transportation of your luggage meaning you just take like your small, your small backpack with you for the day and your suitcase is carried from one hotel to the next. I think that’s a really easy way of experiencing this, this multi-day hiking and for also people who are maybe a bit less used to the mountains. But for me the best thing is, to go from one mountain to the next, to spend the whole day just in the mountains just walking. And I’m happiest when I don’t even have a cell phone reception because then you just leave the, you kind of just leave the world you live a daily life behind.
Carolyn – Well, thank you. If you’re going to visit such a beautiful destination, you do want to get out there and just appreciate that nature so I can understand why your big tip is just to do those multi-day hikes and get out there and soak up the beautiful surroundings.
Tahlia – Yeah, it’s really, it’s my most favorite thing to do and I at least go to one of these hikes every summer because I enjoy it so much and, it does so much for me to yeah, just to get out of everything and be in nature.
Carolyn – Yeah. And I guess you, you can probably do every single hike and not have to do one twice if you don’t want to because there’s just so much variety.
Tahlia – I think for at least 40 years! You’re spoiled for choice.
Carolyn – Well, thank you Thalia for joining us today. I hope that we’ve given enough information to our listeners to make them want to include Graubunden in their travels, like myself. I’ve passed through several times and I’ve only ever actually stayed overnight in the Canton once. So that’s something else that yeah, I plan to do in the future, to stay longer and enjoy some of those hikes and some of those smaller villages that you’ve talked about.
Tahlia – It was really lovely chatting with you, Carolyn. Thank you for having me and for giving me this opportunity to talk a bit about my, my home, and Graubunden.
Carolyn – My pleasure. Now in the show notes I’ve linked to the Graubunden Tourism website and I’ll also mention some of the places that we’ve talked about today so that if our listeners would like more information, they can look that up and all those show notes will be available at Holidays to Switzerland dot com forward slash episode 20. So thank you again for joining us and until we can travel again, we’ll say take care and hope we can see you soon.
Tahlia – Thank you very much and see you soon.
Carolyn – Bye bye-bye.
Thank you so much for listening. For more great resources on planning a trip to Switzerland make sure you visit Holidays to Switzerland dot com, where you’ll find trip planning tips, destination guides, information on transport, including Swiss rail passes, and much more. You’re also encouraged to join the Switzerland Travel Planning group on Facebook, where you can ask questions and chat with other past and future travelers to Switzerland. You’ll find show notes from today’s episode at Holidays to Switzerland dot com forward slash podcast and be sure to subscribe to the Holidays to Switzerland Travel Podcast, so you never miss an episode.
You can see the full show notes for this episode, get a PDF version of this transcript and listen to the episode > here.