We were enjoying one of Switzerland’s great scenic train rides, The Glacier Express, when we passed by a mountain region and heard about the unique language spoken by less than 1% of the population.
Switzerland, a country about twice the size of the state of Massachusetts, has four national languages. Since it is surrounded by Germany, Austria, France, and Italy, it is not surprising that German, French and Italian are the three official languages.
But what about the fourth national language — Romansch? How did it come about and survive to this day? We decided to travel to this area to learn more.
Graubünden, the largest, easternmost and most sparsely populated of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, was long isolated by the eastern Alps. It is known for its respect for tradition and independent spirit. In fact, Graubünden did not join the Swiss Confederation until 1803.
The growth of Graubünden’s tourist resorts like St. Moritz, Davos and Kloster led to the development of modern-day roads, railways and communication, and most of the canton is German-speaking. However, in more remote mountain villages and hamlets, Romansch, the language left behind by Roman conquerers, lives on.
We planned our route to Val Müstair. To get there we took the Rhätische Bahn railway to the end of the line at Zernez. En route we practiced some basic words and phrases like allegra (welcome), bun di (good morning), buna saira (good evening), a revair (good bye), per plaschair (please), grazia fit (thank you), anzi (you’re welcome) and viva (cheers).
Many houses in this region are elaborately decorated in a style known as sgraffito.
A yellow Postbus was waiting at the station to take us on a spectacular journey through the alpine wilderness known as the Swiss National Park and the high alpine pass known as Often Pass before heading to the villages in Val Müstair. The bus stopped to drop off mail, hikers and cyclists along the way.
Our destination was the Hotel Chalavaina Romansch for Calven, a short walk from the Clostra Son Jon (Convent of St. John) bus stop. The two crossed swords of Hotel Chalavaina’s sign proudly commemorate the military victory against German Emperor Maximilian and the Austrian Hapsburgs that led to Swiss independence. Orders for the Battle of Calven were given from the hotel’s terrace in 1499 by Benedikt Fontana, Commander of Graubünden (Grison) forces.
Bricked-up light slits in the foundation indicate that the inn was built before 1300. The large stable was constructed when guests arrived with mules and horses. The fresco on the balcony wall, painted in 1497, depicts the Madonna and a plague-stricken St. Rocco. Medieval pole weapons known as halberds lean against the wall in the entryway that also features a family tree that traces the owners’ lineage in Val Müstair to the 14th century.
The fresh mountain air was filled with the soothing sound of bells from local cows and, at prayer time, from the convent. Meals are served in a room with walls of fragrant local pine known as arven (dschember in Romansch) and are prepared using local foods, including vegetables from the garden.
Alpine cheese, local meats, yogurts and freshly baked traditional rye bread were staples of breakfast. Dinner one evening included local wild boar.
Nearly all foods and farmers are organic, referred to here as biological or bio. The Swiss were known for their concern for the environment long before sustainability became a marketing buzzword. Nowhere is it more evident than in this UNESCO Biosphere reserve area.
It was in the village of Tschierv that we found the essence of the area in a bottle. There were many secrets Luciano Beretta shared with us through a translator when we visited his distillery, Antica Distilleria Beretta.
Mr. Beretta has won numerous gold medals for his products, which are made entirely from ingredients found in the valley. “Nature gives me everything I need,” he said, “and there is no waste. Everything goes back to nature.”
His wife’s family has owned rights to produce special liqueurs since 1792. They are the only ones in Graubünden with this privilege.
The first secret is the grain, high quality Gran Alpin from the convent, that he preheats to retain aroma and flavor. The lower high-altitude boiling point for his clear distillate base prevents the alcohol from burning off and, he says, is the secret to his gold medals.
The color comes from the flavorings he adds — things like pine cones, nuts, apples and flowers such as edelweiss and hayflowers that are collected at altitudes above the cow pastures to ensure a clean product. He also makes the labels and wooden stands.
Mr. Beretta’s Alpiner Heublumen Likör, a hayflower flavored liqueur, was awarded 20 points, which is a perfect score. He distributes 1100 bottles annually to Scuol and St. Moritz, where gourmet chocolates flavored with his Gran Alpin distillate are also sold. High-end distributor Glattfelder sells his Gran Alpin in a distinctive 500 ML translucent bottle at Badrutt’s Palace for over $200.
Group tastings and opportunities to see the production are offered, as are meals of local fare, all with advance reservations.
Which is Luciano Beretta’s favorite? We don’t know. He doesn’t drink.