Little did New Zealanders Justine and Chris Tyerman know what lay ahead of them when they went hiking in the mountains surrounding the little alpine village of Tschiertschen in the Swiss canton of Graubünden/Grisons.
The Swiss don’t set out to tell tall tales… but they do it, unintentionally, all the time. Especially the alpine folk. Here’s a perfect example:
‘How long does it take to reach this lake?’ I asked, pointing at the blue dot below the mountain peak on the wanderweg (hiking) map.
‘About two and three quarter hours,’ replied Heidi, the delightful receptionist at the four-star Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa in the exquisite little alpine village of Tschiertschen, the correct pronunciation of which still eludes me.
The best I could manage was ‘tear-chin’ which seemed to get a flicker of recognition and an amused smile from the locals.
‘Ok, that sounds manageable. We’ll do that tomorrow,’ I said as we checked into the four-star resort high in the magnificent Bündner Alps of Switzerland.
‘You can hike an extra 45 minutes from the lake up to a restaurant on the top of Hörnli mountain for lunch if you like,’ Heidi added helpfully. ‘Or take the gondola from Arosa.’
‘Three and a half hours to the top?’ I replied. ‘And lunch at a nice restaurant? We’ll hike up there, no trouble. We’re Kiwis (New Zealanders). We don’t need to take a gondola.’
The prospect of a restaurant at the top of the mountain intrigued us. When hiking in New Zealand, we always joke about there being a cafe or lodge around the next corner. But there isn’t. The summits of our highest mountains are devoid of any habitation. Except for our ski resorts.
With the next day all sorted, we were escorted to our salubrious suite at the Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa where we did a quick change into hiking gear and embarked on Heidi’s ‘one-hour’ familiarisation hike. That was a real eye-opener and the first indication of the Swiss tendency to seriously under-estimate hiking times. The ‘easy’ amble turned out to be a strenuous two and a half hours of puffing uphill.
But the landscape was so beautiful, we were not complaining. We walked through autumn forests, past pretty waterfalls and meadows of friendly cows playing ding dong songs on their bells as they ambled around the green hillsides. The day was eye-wateringly clear, crisp and sunny – perfect conditions for hiking – and the views of the mountains and valley were glorious.
Important learning curve
Not only did we love every second of the hike, it was also an important learning curve for us – we discovered the Swiss who live in the mountains are super-fit and acclimatised to the high altitude. They sprint up steep mountains as if they are mere hillocks.
We realised that any estimated hiking time from a Swiss alpine-dweller needed to be viewed with the utmost scepticism. That’s what I mean when I say they tell tall tales… without intending to.
Amateur travel guides
Another thing we learned was that most Swiss are excellent amateur tour guides. They are so proud and knowledgeable about their country, they are eager to share their favourite hikes and must-sees with overseas visitors.
This happens at railway stations, bus stops, restaurants – anywhere there is a map of mountains and hiking trails. Which is everywhere in this abundantly-blessed country crowded with peaks and crisscrossed with tracks.
Having learned these invaluable lessons early on in our alpine holiday, henceforth we roughly doubled all hiking times and managed splendidly.
Having doubled Heidi’s hiking estimate, we abandoned our plans to hike to the top of Hörnli and decided to catch the train to Arosa and take the gondola to the restaurant for lunch.
Rather than backtracking by bus to Chur, we walked down to the train station at St. Peter Molinis. Even that turned out to be much further than anticipated with a steep climb up to the station at the end but the hike was well worth the effort.
En route, we came across an old sawmill operated by hydropower from the Ruchtobel River, a cute wood shed with flower boxes, wild deer in the forest and pastures with cows so tame they were happy to be patted.
Vital piece of information
At the station, we met a young woman who explained that at St. Peter Molinis, trains only stop if you push a button. A vital piece of information. She also told us all her favourite places to hike.
The train trip was gorgeous – deep gorges, turquoise rivers, power stations and high viaducts – and the lakeside village of Arosa was like a jewel surrounded by a necklace of majestic mountains.
We took the gondola to the top of Hörnli where there were alps as far as the eye could see. The 360 degree panorama was staggering, the horizon bristling with mountains. A telescope told us the names of all the peaks and ranges from Zermatt to St Moritz and far beyond.
We basked in warm autumn sun while lunching and drinking chilled rosé at the splendid restaurant. We celebrated life and how privileged we were to be in such a beautiful part of the world.
As we walked back down the mountain track, there were patches of snow where the snowmakers had been hard at work, laying down a base for the coming ski season.
The return trip to Chur by train and Post Auto bus to Tschiertschen was just as stunning the second time around.
Arriving back at the Alpina after hiking in the mountains, the staff were so friendly, it felt like we were coming home to family.
After relaxing in the sauna and having drinks in the bar, we dined in the scenic Panorama Restaurant overlooking the valley and mountains.
High above us on the dark horizon, we could see the twinkling lights of the restaurant at the top of Hörnli where we had lunched that day. We’ll hike up there one day, we promised ourselves.
Getting to Tschiertschen
Tschiertschen (1340 metres above sea level, population 240) may look and feel delightfully remote and tranquil but it’s only 25 minutes by regular Post Auto bus service from Chur and one hour and 45 minutes from Zurich Airport.
We caught an early train from Zurich and sped through countryside that looked like a never-ending series of beautiful postcards. When we disembarked at Chur, there was our Post Auto bus, clearly marked Tschiertschen, pulling into the station at precisely the time it was scheduled.
We headed 10km (25 minutes) up a steep, windy mountain road to a village straight from a Swiss Tourism brochure. I had to blink several times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Tschiertschen is a quintessential tiny Swiss alpine village built on a mountainside, untouched by commercial tourism.
Fell in love in an instant
The historic Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa, one of only two hotels in Tschiertschen, sat proudly above the village bathed in sunshine. I fell in love with the place in an instant.
The friendly driver deposited us at the bus stop from where we planned to walk to the Alpina. It looked like a short distance on the map but it was straight uphill so we got all our exercise in one strenuous hit, lugging our cases up the steep main street.
Had we phoned, the hotel’s courtesy car would have collected us, ‘No problem,’ said Heidi as we arrived out of breath at reception where cool drinks and alpine nut cake awaited us.
Tschiertschen – a paradise all year round
In the summer, Tschiertschen is a hiking paradise, the ideal starting point for many beautiful day and half-day excursions. The 70km network of trails takes walkers through unspoiled natural landscapes devoid of man-made interference like tar-sealed roads, cable cars and snow cannons – an increasingly rare thing these days.
Tschiertschen is the first stop on the famous six-day Schanfigger Höhenweg, described as ‘the most beautiful mountain hiking path in Graubünden’.
The village is also the perfect base for mountain bikers. And for those who need an extra boost uphill, the Alpina has the latest, greatest, off-road, cross-country e-bikes for their guests’ use, the ‘Flitzerli MONSTER eBike’.
Winter in Tschiertschen
Winter in Tschiertschen is a dream come true for skiers and snowboarders seeking to escape the crowded slopes of Switzerland’s better-known ski resorts. There’s 32km of excellently-prepared pistes of all degrees of difficulty, 100 percent natural snow, no crowds, no queuing for the modern four-seater chairlifts and ski lifts and no loud music blasting across the slopes.
Just beautifully diverse downhill runs through forests and gullies with terrain to suit everyone from beginners and families to experts like local resident and three-time world champion ski acrobat Mia Engi. There’s also plenty of challenging terrain for free-riders, powder hounds and off-piste skiers.
The ski school meeting point is right behind the Alpina Hotel and the valley station of the lift can be reached in just one minute. There’s also a free ski bus from the village car park to the bottom of the chairlift.
And if you are looking for a new thrill on the snow, the Alpina will lend you a gögel, a mono-ski/toboggan combo.
Organised winter events include guest ski races, night skiing with torches, guided ski tours and ski safaris, gourmet evenings and plays, exhibitions, readings and chamber music concerts.
Wine and food
The Bündner Herrschaft area, often called the ‘Burgundy of Switzerland’, ranks among the best regions for red wine north of the Alps. The vineyards, where 45 grape varieties flourish in warm conditions, are just 20 minutes by car from Tschiertschen.
The picturesque wine-growing villages of Fläsch, Maienfeld, Jenins and Malans are worth visiting at any time of the year. Winemakers mature their finest wines in oak barrels and secure top international awards for them.
Tschiertschen is renowned for its ‘AlpenHirt’, high-quality dried beef made from cattle grazing high alpine pastures. The meat is marinated in a mixture of red wine, natural salt and herbs and left to dry in the mountain air for eight to 16 weeks rather than being preserved in pickling salt with additives in a smoke chamber.
Guests can also sample richly-flavoursome Alp Farur cheese.
Tschiertschen holds a Farmers’ Market every Saturday afternoon selling alpine cheese, alpine butter, eggs, meat, Graubünden nut gateaux, home-made Graubünden pear bread, jams, liqueurs and aperitif platters directly from the local farmers’ wives.
Just 20 minutes away from Tschiertschen on the Post Auto bus, lies the city of Chur (population 34,880), the capital of the eastern Switzerland canton of Graubünden/Grisons.
Chur boasts a car-free medieval Old Town, the wonderfully-restored 13th-century, three-naved Cathedral of the Assumption in the courtyard of Bishop’s Palace, the Graubünden Museum of Fine Arts, the Rhaetian Museum, Graubünden Natural History Museum, art galleries and theatres with classical and jazz concerts… not to mention excellent shopping.
Unique, unspoiled, authentic
Tschiertschen has a wealth of unique natural attributes. A world away from the glitz and glamour of Switzerland’s world-famous resorts, the village offers a tranquil, close-to-nature, unspoiled, authentic, alpine experience, a welcome respite from the stressful, high-pressure lives that many people lead in the cities these days.
But comfort is not compromised. The Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa pampers you with romance, history, gourmet cuisine, fine wine, spa facilities, salubrious suites and impeccable service. Unique, unspoiled, authentic. Go there before the secret is discovered.
Justine and Chris Tyerman stayed at the Alpina Mountain Resort & Spa, Tschiertschen