A Swiss secret, tucked away in the heart of Alps

Imagine a mountain landscape speckled with rustic villages whose residents speak an ancient, isolated language. Centuries-old stone dwellings with mysterious renderings of wild men and mountain goats are etched into white facades. Panoramic views are so clear and stunning you have to rub your eyes to make sure you’re not in a Hollywood epic.

This isn’t Middle Earth. It’s Switzerland’s Lower Engadine, a remote, rugged, near-forgotten valley in the country’s easternmost corner. Here, in the central Alps, the En river (which becomes the Inn in Austria) cuts a deep crevasse into the landscape. It’s also an extension of the much better-known Upper Engadine, where St. Moritz’s luxury culture has long attracted skiers and celebrities – but, in some ways, it couldn’t feel farther away.

My travel companion and I were here to ski on the last of the spring snow and hike along the still-muddy Via Engiadina trail. Our holiday rental house sat 1,675 meters above sea level, and I expected new cultural experiences – this is, after all, one of the last areas in which Romansh, a language described to me as “street Latin,” is predominantly spoken.

But mixed in among the natural bounty was something even more surprising: high culture. During our visit, we found top-notch contemporary art galleries, hotels hosting concerts and art happenings, a sculpture park, and even a microbrewery. Most of these venues have appeared in the last five years or so.

The artistic tradition in the Lower Engadine (or Engiadina Bassa in Romansh), however, didn’t emerge out of nothing. “You can feel the energy of all the creative people who’ve come for centuries,” said the St. Moritz-based architect Hans-Jorg Ruch, who has, for the last 20 years, updated historic buildings in the Upper and Lower Engadine and beyond, converting them into private homes and art galleries.

“Philosophers, authors, artists always came here, but it was usually to the upper valley,” said Ladina Florineth, owner of Villa Flor, a charming seven-room hotel that opened last summer in a renovated patrician house in the town of S-chanf. “Now people are discovering the lower part, which is becoming more important for those who want something authentic,” she said.

While St. Moritz has hosted famous art world names like Beuys, Warhol and Schnabel, the Lower Engadine has started to attract its share. Two years ago, Eva Presenhuber, a Zurich-based blue-chip gallerist, built a sculptural holiday house in Vna. The Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor was apparently so taken with Tschlin, a tiny village on the Lower Engadine’s eastern edge, that he designed a hotel for it. The hotel didn’t come to fruition, but the Swiss curator and art-world star Hans Ulrich Obrist plans to establish an archive and artist’s residency in the same town.

And the enigmatic, peripatetic artist Not Vital (pronounced “note vee-TAL”), a native of the region, owns several properties that display his own sculptures and works by other artists. On the western edge of Sent, where he was born, he spearheaded a hilly outdoor sculpture garden called Parkin Not dal Mot. In nearby Ardez, he runs a foundation that displays art and makes mission of collecting and archiving books and publications written in Romansh.

Despite all this, the Lower Engadine has so far escaped overdevelopment largely because of its inaccessibility. Old traditions abound. There are those intriguing inscriptions, called sgraffiti, etched into the thick-walled buildings, a decorative custom imported from nearby Italy in the 16th century. There are even farmers who still share their houses with livestock. And then there’s the landscape. “This valley’s rugged beauty, its shifts from warm to cold, dark to light, attracts creative people looking for contemplation,” said Hans Schmid, a local hotelier.

Schmid would know: He gave up a job as culture director of the Swiss canton of St. Gallen to run Hotel Piz Linard, which opened in a historic building in 2007. Standing pink and pretty on the village square of Lavin, it has become a cultural draw for both locals and visitors, hosting a mix of weekend concerts, film screenings and exhibitions.

Other hotels also cater to culture vultures yearning for both quality and authenticity: In Vna, a village of 70 residents, a few entrepreneurial locals established a foundation in 2004 to renovate the town’s cultural center, a building that had fallen into disuse. In 2008 the center became Hotel Piz Tschutta, which now hosts recitals and offers a charming restaurant and guest rooms. Beyond the building, more rooms are dispersed throughout the village.

Then there’s the glamorous Hotel Castell – a fortress atop a mountain overlooking Zuoz. Built in 1912, it reopened in 2004, with the art collector Ruedi Bechtler as a primary shareholder, and the Swiss art dealer couple Iwan and Manuela Wirth as additional partners.

Now packed with works by some of today’s biggest artists, Castell is like a contemporary art center with an Alpine backdrop. Highlights include James Turrell’s “Skyspace Piz Uter,” from 2006, a cylindrical, chapel-like space on the hotel grounds. And at the curved red bar designed by Pipilotti Rist, bottle labels display the Swiss artist’s video projections.

Castell is also a site for a late-summer event called St. Moritz Art Masters, in its third year, which now spills into the Lower Engadine with a series of art walks, talks and exhibitions.

In Tschlin, Markus Miessen, a Berlin-based architect, is collaborating with Obrist on yet another new art venue. “We researched the whole area, driving around, and these villages are really birds’ nests,” he said, explaining a plan to use the town’s vacant school building and a farmhouse to house Obrist’s vast archive and create the artist’s residency. “We wanted to find a place that was difficult to reach, so the fellows wouldn’t just be passing through,” Miessen said. (Located on a frighteningly steep road at more than 1,525 meters above sea level, Tschlin is a town that few just pass through.)

Presenhuber, the Zurich-based gallery owner, made a somewhat unlikely comparison. “The area is like Montauk in the 1970s,” she said. “First artists and people without so much money settled there. Now, 30 or 40 years later, it’s hyped. I think the Lower Engadine will be the same way in 10 or 20 years.”

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