A new walking trail in the Swiss canton of Graubünden offers a blend of mountain views and Alpine architecture
Swiss hiking trails often lead you into and over colossal mountains, out of the tree line, up towards snowy peaks, but a newly created route in the spectacular Graubünden region sticks close to the tumbling river Flem, travelling through sedate valleys and wooden ravines as well as Alpine pastures. In addition, seven impressive and elegant footbridges over the river have been created for a new architecture project, designed by Switzerland’s pre-eminent bridge engineer, Jürg Conzett, making a walk along the new Trutg dil Flem Wasserweg (Water Way) a cultural as well as an active experience.
For someone heavily involved in sustainable architecture, with a passion for the Graubünden in particular, this was the perfect opportunity for some late summer hiking. After spending a night in Laax, I was dropped off by the local bus for hikers and set out from the isolated Sesgneshutte, where the Water Way’s official beginning was marked by yellow signposts and red-and-white paint marks.
Up on the plateau, grey and sandy rivulets spread across the fluvial bed, patterning the boggy land. Scree lay ahead, and – far away on the other side of the Upper Rhine valley – huge mountains.
Above me was the foreboding, craggy spectacle of the 250-million-year-old saw-tooth Sardona peaks. Instead of reaching for these, the path descended towards some small upland Swiss firs.
Among these was the first of Conzett’s bridges, an oversized ovoid pebble over a deep, gurgling gorge. Crickets and the reassuring sound of Swiss cow bells tinkling away, not too far off, accompanied the downward pull, but these were soon drowned out by the roar of the water over rocks, while in the pasture iconic edelweiss, miniature buttercups and other Alpine flowers were still flowering in the early autumn. A short distance away was a second, timber, bridge, giving another view of the gulley waterfall.
Further bridges appeared as I continued, including a steel and concrete mushroom and, later, close to the end of the trail, the beautiful waterfall bridge.
The walk was relatively short, as mountain hikes go: six hours of undemanding, family-friendly hiking to Flims. By then, the Alpine mountainscapes were firmly lodged in my mind, along with the bridges – delicate additions to the pretty scenery.
As the Water Way’s founder, Guido Casto, later told me: “We wanted to make a small intervention, but it must never be too much, otherwise you lose the spirit of the mountains.”
Guido, a local restaurateur who had been involved in other local architecture projects, had the idea for the bridges while hiking in 2009. Although the area’s mountain path network was well developed, there were no trekking routes highlighting the river, nor paths through its wooded, ravine sections and hunters. So he took the idea to the town council, and after enrolling Conzett (and following many consultations and negotiations with landowners) the go-ahead was given, by the council at a cost of almost £500,000.
Today, Graubünden’s architectural profile is gaining international recognition, which should help to encourage more holidaymakers to a region which is still unfamiliar to most British travellers.
Despite being Switzerland’s largest (though least populated) canton, the places that people are most familiar with in Graubünden are the flashy ski resorts of Davos, Kloisters and St Moritz. Elsewhere, the canton, located in the east of the country, is rich in Alpine beauty and the laid-back charm of simple lives.
And even if there are no peaks to match the Matterhorn, Eiger or Jungfrau, destinations such as Disentis, Ilanz, Thusis or Zernez (gateway to the national park) deserve to be better-known. Likewise the canton’s main hub town, Chur, which was once a Roman stop-off.
After my walk, I visited other significant architecture projects in the area, including Vals Thermal Baths, by the Pritzker prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor, and work by Gion Caminada, a village architect who builds only in his tiny upland village of Vrin, attempting to stem the tide of rural decline there. As one local said: “There won’t be any ski lifts in Vrin as long as Caminada is around.”
Down in the valley town of Ilanz is the first rammed-earth- walled cinema in Switzerland, and indeed the world, designed by Gordian Blumenthal and Ramun Capaul, both of whom hail from the mountains.
A growing network of modern Swiss Alpine Club mountain hostels add to this architecture-meets-the-wilds movement. From Vrin, a mountain walk on to the Greina, the high plateau and ancient highland pathway which begins a few hours above the village, leads to them.
Caminada’s Terri Hut can be reached in a day. Hikers can continue walking from there to Medelserhutte (+41 8 1949 1403, medelserhuette.ch, rooms from £53 half-board). Or from Disentis, further up the Surselva Upper Rhine valley, it’s a similar hike to the recently opened Alp Glivers hostel (+41 7 9220 4435, amarenda.ch, rooms from £51 half-board), by Conrad Pally, an architect-carpenter.
According to Guido, and others I met, summer/autumn tourism in the area is on the increase, aided by these projects, and by the creation of new paths – including a series of old mountain trails from the western Surselva valley, or the Via Mala, running from the north to Splugia in the south, which are historically part of the local Romanisch culture.
For anyone wanting the exhilaration mountain walking brings, plus an intriguing cultural dimension, Graubünden and its unique architectural culture is the place to head for.
• The trip was provided by Switzerland Tourism (myswitzerland.com), which provided flights from London to Zurich, two nights’ hotel accommodation and a four-day train pass. EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies from Luton to Zurich from £27.99 one way. Swiss railways (sbb.ch) runs a half-hour service from Zurich to Chur. From Chur there is an hourly service along the Surselva valley to Ilanz and Disentis, where you can change onto another local train over the Oberalpen pass to Andematt. The Glacier Express (glacierexpress.ch also travels this route, though it’s more expensive. There is also the Bernina Express route myswitzerland.com, which runs into the Hinterrhein, through Thusis and near to the Via Mala route to St Moritz. More information on holidays in the area from en.graubuenden.ch
Oliver Lowenstein runs the Fourth Door Review architecture magazine
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