You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. (The Third Man, movie by Carol reed, script by Graham Greene, 1949)

When the movie came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks, as the clocks are native to the German Black Forest. Writer John McPhee pointed out that when the Borgias flourished in Italy, Switzerland had “the most powerful and feared military force in Europe” and was not the peacefully neutral country it would later become (recounted in Wikipedia).

I would like to add: Le Corbusier, Herman Hesse, Paul Klee, Alberto Giacometti, Cuno Amiet, Giovanni Segantini, Jean Tinguely, Giovanni Giacometti, Hermann Scherer, Paul Camenisch…all Swiss.

Almost every year we go to Switzerland, usually to the Engadin, or Engiadina as it’s called in the local language, Rumantsch (Romansh). Engiadina, the valley of the Enn people, is located on the southeastern edge of Switzerland, bordering Italy and Austria. The river Enn (Inn), flows through the valley, later joining the Danube. It’s source is the Lunghin watershed near Maloja, from where also rivers are born that join the Rhine to the north and the Po to the south. From Engiadina we often make excursion to Italy: the lakes, Milano, Bergamo, Merano, Bolzano, Tirano, Chiavenna. All at a stone’s throw. Linguistically the whole area is very interesting. In parts of northern Italy a german dialect is spoken, in other parts a variety of Rumantsch, like Friuli or Ladin. And the variety of languages in the canton of Grishun (Graubunden, Grisons) is bewildering.

Engiadina is divided into the higher and the lower part of the valley (Putèr and Vallader), In the Surses region Surmiran is spoken and Sursilvan in Surselva. In 2018 we made an excursion to Surselva and in 2019 we visited Surses. The Engiadina is a broad valley with big lakes and the 4k high Bernina range to the south, it oozes a majestic sternness, while the Surselva and Surses (Sursés) present a more undulating, friendly landscape with hamlets and churches scattered at different levels. Many of the churches are lovely from the outside and stunning inside. Indeed those excursions honour the title of my blog. Sur means above, selva is forest (the Uaul Grond or Big Forest near the Rheinschlucht), ses is a rock (the Crap Ses between Tiefencastel and Cunter).

Surselva, August 2018
Click on the strip to go to gallery

The trip to Surselva was rapid, leaving Samedan in the early morning, stopping in Sevgein and staying the night in Vella. Nice dinner in the Trutg restaurant! Next day visiting Vella, Peiden, Pleif and Falera. The map indicates a total driving time of little over an hour, but the many hairpins and narrow village streets will more than double the time. Ilanz is a hub from where you turn into the Lumnezia valley. The first stop is Sevgein, a lovely village on a promontory. There are two churches, the main St. Thomas (Sogn Tumasch) and the smaller Holy Grave (Sontga Fossa) chapel. From either church you can see the other but whereas the St. Thomas is right in the center of the village the Holy Grave chapel is not so easy to find. Like so many smaller churches in Surselva this chapel is normally closed but we made an appointment with the parish and they opened it. The inside of the small chapel is simple but with an impressive altar. And at the center of the altar is a heart rending, almost melodramatic pietà. The chapel and the pietà are late 17th century, and that shows.

Vella (ad Ville, aput Villam) has a nice central square with some amazing old houses and the church of St. Rochus and St. Sebastian (Sogn Roc e Sogn Bistgaun), protectors from the plague. The church was built after the plague epidemic in the 16th century.

Sogn Glieci, 1942

The next morning we had appointed with the pastor to visit the chapel of St. Luzius (Sogn Glieci) in Peiden Bad. The “Bad” suggests a spa of sorts, but there is really nothing there, apart from the tiny chapel that houses a very old pietà, dated ca. 1360. The story goes that during the reformation the main church of Duvin was taken over by protestants who threw the statue in the ravine. There it was rescued much later and brought to Chur where it was painstakingly restored by professor Oskar Emmenegger. Later it was placed in in the small chapel of Peiden Bad, which stands near the bridge over the Glogn, an affluent of the Rhine. Like the Sontga Fossa chapel in Sevgein it is a simple white chapel with an ornate altar. The pietà however is not placed in the altar but in a niche on the left wall. It oozes a primitive feel, as if made by craftsmen without tools or skills, but at the same time the expression of Maria is wonderfully tender and loving, even if the proportions seem awkward.

Back to Vella, at a stone’s throw, is the hamlet of Pleif, with a church dedicated to St. Vincent (Son Vintschegn). It is mentioned in 840 as “ecclesia plebeia ad San Vincentium”. The name of the hamlet is derived from “plebs”; in Rumantsch Pleiv refers to the church community. Though the church is very ancient it has undergone many transformations in roman, gothic and baroque styles. There is a 4×9 meter painting of the battle of Lepanto by Giovanni Battista Macholino (1656). I wouldn’t recommend a detour for this painting—what a crazy mess. But if you insist remember to get the keys to the church from the tourist office in Vella.

Sogn Rumetg, 1880

Before returning to Samedan we went to Falera. Perched high overlooking the Rhine valley at the ridge stands the Sogn Rumetg (St. Remigius) church. Its origins date back to the 11th century, but it underwent many transformations. If you read a little about churches and their history you realise that they are not static monuments but rather living entities. The clamour around the torched Notre Dame de Paris gains a different perspective when you think about this. Interestingly huge donations were pledged for restoring the Notre Dame in its pristine condition, of which only a small portion really came in. So much for words and deeds. The location of the Sogn Rumetg church must have been considered sacred since very long, there is an alignment of menhirs dating from about 1500 BCE. And the view alone would explain this! In front of the church is a graveyard from where you have the full view of the Rhine valley at your feet. The interior of the church is very interesting. Especially the wall painting of the apostles, three of them being black. Now if you have read Black Athena or Jesus is Black you may wonder if we’re facing a anti-racist interpretation of the bible. The truth is less fanciful: in the restoration a synthetic paint was used that oxidated and darkened. Even so we can imagine the hand of god supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in his typical twisted ways. And if all that is not enough the organ is played by an amazon 😃.

Surses, July 2019
Click on the strip to go to gallery

Whereas in Surselva many churches are not normally open in Surses they are. The two main churches of Savognin, a rather large village in the Ela national park, have amazing ceilings. The first is Nossadonna near the river:

The thumbs to the left are three sections of the vault. You can click on each of them and go to a high resolution version that shows full detail. This 17th century church is an impressive evidence of the cult of Mary. The panels show passage from the death, burial (A), the reception in heaven and coronation, but also a pietà (B) and the glorification of Mary (C). The vaults and walls are also larded with lines from the bible in Latin, possibly to show that not only the protestants know the bible.

It is an incredible joy to stroll around the tiny villages, visit churches, walk the mountain paths, and have lunch on the way. The Swiss make very good bread, and local produce is excellent. In 2016 I wrote about the Heutaler cheese:

The Alp-Schaukäserei Morteratsch, near the beginning of the glacier above Pontresina, is an amazing place. They actually make the Heutaler cheese here. It looks like a little cabin, with some tables and benches outside (great place to have lunch). But in that cabin, there is the greatest secret of this planet, if not the universe. There is a cauldron, just one, where the rich milk from some 50 ‘ladies of the alp meadow’ (Wiesendamen, i.e. cows) of Bernina, opposite the entrance of the Val da Fain (=Heutal [valley of hay]) is turned into Heutaler cheese. The ladies of the alp eat grass of course, but enriched by herbs and flowers resulting in a cheese that is completely matchless in its fragrance and tang, and after a little while it starts tingling the tongue in a way that would be difficult to describe.

Indeed, no cheese could ever match or even come close to Heutaler, but each of the valleys of Graubünden make cheeses that can at least haul you over till the next time you’re in Pontresina. In June the higher valleys are in full spring, fields covered in flowers and spicy herbs that will give the cheeses their rich aroma.  The mountains are still white with snow, and occasionally snowstorms may cause closing of mountain passes. All that is wonderful, but there is one problem: early in summer the cheese from last year may be finished while the cheese from this year hasn’t matured sufficiently yet.

Anyway, let’s forget about lunch and proceed to the next church which is Son Martegn (St. Martin) high above the village. The vault (1681) of this church is perhaps the most impressive of the region, showing paradise as a series of circles, by Carlo Nuvolone of Milano, nickname Panfilo, and his brother Antonio. La gloria del Paradiso, as it is called, represents the heavenly Jerusalem, in the shape of nine concentric circles that are peopled by angels, archangels, rulers, apostels, martyrs, powers, strengths, dominations, thrones, cherubs and serafs. I have great doubts whether all these really belong in heaven, but I guess it’s not for me to decide. Anyway, I prefer the meadows outside, this heaven seems very crowded with some 500 figures on 100 square meters. But it is a dazzling painting. In the central medaillon God, Jesus and Mary are riding the clouds with Joseph looking on from behind God’s cloud. Jesus looks like a local beau, Mary is portrayed as the eternally young mother. God seems a nice old man, his hair white with age, but quite abundant. These vault paintings are marvellous but I feel a bit uncomfortable. Looking at them for a longer time is really impossible, my neck starts protesting vehemently. A stretcher would be nice, those wooden church benches are useless. And what disturbs me even more is the thought of those poor painters working above their heads on the scaffolding. When we moved to Bloemendaal in 1982 I painted the roof of our flat. Such torture. Anyway, religious fervour and generalised fanaticism pulled those people through. And by the way, if you see the number of churches in the region, in villages that have a few dozen to a few hundred inhabitants you can imagine they must have been deeply religious. But then, life in these regions was very tough. Summer tourists have no idea.

I leave the church and continue my walk. Slowly my neck gets back to a normal position and the pain subsides. Savognin, like the rest of the places visited in this post lies in the enormous national park Ela, which is not only a reserve of nature but also of culture. We tend to separate them, and the tourist industry contributes to that separation. To return to the opening passage of this post Switzerland advertises as a country of mountains, with climbing, walking, mountain biking, delta gliding and the like as main attractions. You hear little about Swiss art. And city trips to Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Rome and London are not for nature. Surselva and Surses are not as glamorous as the high Alpine regions of Switzerland but one advantage is that tourism is less predatory.

P.S.: For the Hindustani music scholars: My friend and colleague Prof. Nalini Delvoye wondered when I will post the Shrutiselva and Shrutises. But the Shrutis had been been crippled long ago, and no one remembers where they have gone. Probably to the nether world.