We lower the car windows as we descend from the Ofen Pass into Switzerland’s far eastern precincts and revel in the cool breeze wafting westward from Italy’s South Tyrol. The first olfactory hit is one of Arolla pine, sometimes called “the incense of the Alps.” Soon, though, the aroma of newly-mown hay gently wins out as we curve down from the pass into farmland, and follow the Rom River from the village of Tschierv through the valley to Santa Maria. This is how we will remember mid-summer in Graubünden.

One tunnel through the Alps too far to be on most travelers’ itineraries, the “Val Müstair” in canton Graubünden offers miles of hiking trails and plentiful fresh food to replenish the body. The Benedictine Convent of Saint John provides pilgrims with another sort of nourishment. My husband and I came to the valley to tour the convent, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and discovered a year-round nature destination, its picturesque villages set in lush meadows. Our base was the Ritterhaus Chasa de Capol in Santa Maria, a living museum with a long-standing connection to the convent.

Val Müstair, Switzerland

The Müstair Valley in summer Photo: Tom Fakler

The valley is characterized by an inviting terrain, traditional “villagescapes” and a mild climate. As long ago as the Middle Ages, routes across the valley and neighboring passes were used to transport grain, wine and iron. Today, the valley is a favorite with cyclists, bikers and drivers of antique and classic cars. The principal roadway curves through villages with houses sporting sgrafitto, the surface layers of plaster incised to reveal a ground of contrasting color.

Val Müstair, Switzerland

Sgrafitto adornment on a house in Valchava, Val Müstair  Photo: Tom Fakler

Rolling hills and steep mountainsides offer myriad well-marked trails for walkers and hikers at all levels, and there is cross-country skiing in winter. The Umbrail is the highest paved road in Switzerland at more than 2,500 meters above sea level. It connects Santa Maria in Val Müstair with Bormio in Italy, and it’s a popular starting point for bike and hiking tours. Val Müstair, together with the adjoining Swiss National Park, is the first UNESCO biosphere reserve in the high Alpine region.

Graubünden, Switzerland

Cyclists head for Val Müstair in the warmer months. Photo: Anita Breland

The Swiss National Park

The Swiss National Park is the largest nature reserve and only national park in Switzerland. An alpine wonderland, its natural landscape is located at altitudes of 1,400 to 3,200 meters above sea level and nourishes a wealth of alpine fauna and flora. Founded in 1914, it was the first national park in the Alps and Central Europe. It closes in winter, so nothing is allowed to disturb the natural order of the seasons here, providing a stretch of ungroomed landscape that is rare for Europe.

Swiss National Park

Switzerland’s National Park straddles the westernmost border of Val Mustair. Photo: Anita Breland

The Convent of Saint John at Müstair

Convent of Saint John

Prioress Dominica of the Convent of Saint John in Müstair Photo: Tom Fakler

The region’s cultural high point is the Convent of Saint John, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983. It was founded as a monastery around 775 A.D., probably on the orders of Charlemagne. Monks abandoned the site in the 12th century, and it was re-occupied by cloistered Benedictine nuns. Their devotion, reflection and assistance for travelers has continued down the centuries to the present day, despite their dwindling numbers. Convent Prioress Dominica is determined that her charges contribute – and are invigorated by – a heightened level of interaction with the outside world. The Benedictine nuns of Müstair operate a gift shop, and their guesthouse welcomes outsiders for retreats and professionally guided weeks of fasting, meditation and yoga.

The convent has Switzerland’s greatest series of figurative murals, painted around 800 A.D., as well as stunning Romanesque frescoes and stuccoes. The ensemble is considered one of the most coherent architectural works of the Carolingian period and High Middle Ages and includes the most extensive cycle of known paintings for the first half of the 9th century.

Convent of Saint John in Müstair

The Convent of Saint John in Müstair has welcomed travelers for more than 1,200 years.  Photo: Tom Fakler

The Convent of Saint John at Müstair

Priceless artwork in the Convent of Saint John  Photo: Tom Fakler

The “Knight’s House”

The Ritterhaus Chasa de Capol in Santa Maria was the residence of the Venetian Polo family, who were secular administrators of the Convent of Saint John centuries ago. Now a hotel, its wide-planked floors creak with history. Originally a hospice with a refectory and private chapel in 1199, the house is a living museum of Graubünden traditions. It’s worth a stop to see the Carolingian cellar vault, rooms paneled with Arolla pine, and the 500-year-old former hospice kitchen.

Ritterhaus Chasa de Capol

Ritterhaus Chasa de Capol takes guests on sightseeing tours in a perfectly maintained 1948 Citroen 2 CV. Photo: Tom Fakler

Graubünden Food and Drink

Graubünden kitchens feature hearty farm cooking. Two must-try specialties are Grisons barley soup and capuns, spiced meat dumplings wrapped in leaves of Swiss chard and served in their cooking broth. Müstair Valley rye bread, a dark brown loaf with a soft floury crust, is the standard accompaniment. The Muglin Mall, a water-powered mill dating from the 17th-century, is the oldest still-functioning mill of its type in Switzerland and may have produced the barley you enjoyed in your soup!

The best-known wines of Graubünden come from a small grape-growing region called the Bündner Herrschaft, and these well-regarded wines, both reds and whites, can be found on menus in Val Müstair. To go really local, though, it’s worth a meal at Ritterhaus Chasa de Capol. Polenta is prepared in the traditional way in an ancient copper pot, and it’s possible to try wines made in-house and aged in the hotel’s ancient cellar. After dinner, especially in winter, Arven liqueur, another Graubünden specialty, is worth a try. This potent drink is made from cones hand-harvested from stone pine trees, and it delivers on its promise: the taste and smell of a pine forest!

Grisons barley soup

Grisons barley soup, a Graubünden specialty, is especially good after a day of hiking in the fresh air of Val Müstair.  Photo: Anita Breland

Lagrein Dunkel

Grapes for Lagrein Dunkel are grown just across the border in South Tyrol, and aged and bottled by Ritterhaus Chasa de Capol in Santa Maria. The label carries the water motif found on many buildings in Graubünden.  Photo: Tom Fakler

Arven liqueur

Arven liqueur, a Graubünden specialty made from the cones of the Arolla pine.  Photo: Tom Fakler

Practicalities

Val Müstair is a waypoint along Switzerland’s UNESCO World Heritage Trail Tour. It is also an extension to the “Grand Tour of Switzerland,” a scenic traverse of Switzerland’s most iconic landscapes. The valley is reached from the rest of Switzerland via the Ofen Pass. You can travel to Val Müstair with the extensive Swiss public transport system. If you travel by car, you can also enjoy exhilarating drives over the passes encircling the valley.

Sleeping and Shopping

A range of accommodation awaits travelers in Val Müstair. Two atmospheric options include the Hotel Münsterhof in Müstair and Ritterhaus Chasa de Capol in Santa Maria, both members of the Swiss Historic Hotels network.

Visit the Graubünden Tourism website to plan a visit to the Convent of Saint John, from booking tickets and tours, to overnight stays in the guesthouse.

For a hand-crafted memento of your visit to Val Müstair, shop at the Tessanda hand-weaving workshop in Santa Maria for tablecloths and other gift items.

The gift shop at the Convent of Saint John in Müstair sells sacred music recorded in the chapel, along with books, and a range of handmade gift items, from jams, soaps, and herbal preparations to paper goods.

Museums

The Convent Museum Müstair, located in the fortified Planta Tower of the Convent of Saint John, offers visitors 1200 years of convent, architectural and art history.

The Muglin Mall in Santa Maria is a functioning 17th-century mill, a museum of farm implements and the millworks, and a community center.

The Müstair Valley museum, Chasa Jaura in Valchava, occupies a traditional house and offers contemporary revolving exhibitions.

The Museum 14/18 is a museum (in Santa Maria) and military hiking trail (on the Italian border at Stelvio) dedicated to World War I and one of the highest-fought battles of that conflict.