Liechtenstein to Lugano

On The Road Travel Essays

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Liechtenstein to Lugano

Leaving Vaduz  (Go a few miles south of Vaduz, and watch for the road signs for Chur, which will direct you across the Rhine on a modern bridge.) We're now in Switzerland, in the canton of St. Gallen, which is German-speaking and Catholic. The canton was formed in 1803, and adopted as its coat-of-arms a fasces, symbolizing the union of its various districts into a single canton. You'll now be in the Rhine valley again, passing the town of Sargans.

Bad-Ragaz  This city of 3,000 (about the size of Vaduz) is an old historic thermal spa, whose waters have been used since the 11th century. The hot springs are supposed to cure circulatory ailments; women seem to outnumber the men here, for some reason. (The name "Bad-Ragaz" of course, refers to these baths.) Long ago, before pipes brought the waters up to the town, it was necessary to go down into the deep Tamina Gorge by ropes! (One hopes it was worth it.) Winter skiing brings visitors to the town, who take cable-cars to the giant snowfields nearby.

Crossing the Rhine Again  The Rhine serves as the border between two Swiss cantons: St. Gallen (which you're in), and Graubunden (French: Grisons), whose capital, Chur, lies ahead. Graubunden is the largest Swiss canton in size (not in population — Zurich is). It is German-speaking and Protestant.

Chur  The capital of the canton of Graubunden. Pop: 25,000, typical of the small population of the canton as a whole (150,000). The Autobahn skirts it, but you'll see the spires and roofs of the town. Chur has long been the seat of a bishopric, and its bishop's palace is the central building. Chur used to be a mini-canton by itself hundreds of years ago; it was known as the "League of God's House". It joined with two other leagues to form the modern canton of Graubunden. The name Graubunden (Gray League) comes from one of these two other leagues, whose emblem was a shield with black and white colors (hence "gray"). There is little of scenic interest about Chur; its attraction lies in the historical importance of it bishops.

Thusis  A busy little city of 2,000, lying below the ruins of a castle known as Hohen Rhatien — where fugitives took refuge in the Middle Ages. The town is a popular excursion center for trips into the surrounding mountains, including the one we're embarking on now — the ascent to the St. Bernard Pass. The river valley we'll be following is called the Hinterrhein (Inner Rhine), and on the other side of the St. Bernard Pass, we'll be moving along the Moesa river valley. There will be a series of tunnels just beyond Thusis, and the ascent will become sharper and more winding.

Via Mala  This is the old name for the stretch of road just after the three tunnels. It took the people of Graubunden a long time to build roads through these mountains. A big road building operation was carried out jointly by Switzerland, Austria, and the Kingdom of Piedmont, and lasted from 1818 to 1823. That's when this road was first built. The people of Graubunden have always been conservative. When the road was built, they at first forbade motor vehicles to use it! By the early 20th century, pressure from automobile associations and hotel keepers forced a revision to the law: cars were OK, but only if they were still drawn by horses! So many a motorist simply strung a harness from his car to a horse, which was dragged along behind. This absurd situation finally came to an end in 1927, when cars were permitted over the roads without restrictions. This new route follows the older "Low Road" along the river valley, in contrast to the High Road (over mountains) used by the Romans and medieval Swiss. Since flat land is so scarce, the existence of this 19th-century Low Road has prevented any new Autobahn from being built. The Via Mala road is an important traffic artery between Graubunden and the canton Ticino, toward which we're heading.

Zillis  A small town on the Inner Rhein. The mountains to your right are called the Schons, and in this valley are some fertile farms and orchards, making area an agricultural basin. Villages dot the slopes of the Schons mountains, and you have a nice view of them across the river.

Andeer to Splugen  The road runs through dense fir woods. This is the beginning of the Rheinwald (Rhine Forest), and its deepest defile is the Rofflaschlucht. Typically, the Swiss have made good use of these steep gorges: you'll see dams and reservoirs at several places. After the Roffla Defile, the river broadens out into a modest lake, and you'll skirt around its northern shore. At Splugen, the tallest peak of the area is immediately to your right (i.e. due north): Teurihorn (9,000 feet).

Splugen to Hinterrhein  This is the Rheinwald mountain range, to your right. The countryside opens up a bit, allowing farms and fields, but the mountains hover severely overhead. Imagine the long winter evenings spent in these isolated villages centuries ago, and the flourishing of home-crafts (and folk stories) that resulted. It was in villages like this that Swiss life was lived until the coming of modern industry and large cities.

Ascending the St. Bernardino Pass  At the town of Hinterrhein, the road crosses the river, and starts climbing in earnest. From the bridge over the river, you have an excellent view upstream of the massive peaks and glaciers, chiefly the Rheinwaldhorn (10,000 feet). These glaciers and mountains feed the Inner Rhine, along which we've been moving. Hairspin turns bring you closer to the pass — a large ledge which hovers ahead. Notice the rounded rocks scattered about. They were deposited by huge glaciers in prehistoric times; the pebbles and earth carried by the glaciers polished the stones smooth, eliminating the sharp edges. A tunnel takes you under the highest part of the pass (6,000 feet).

Descending the St. Bernardino Pass  The road winds its way down to the village of St. Bernardino, for which the pass was named. (Don't confuse it with the St. Bernard Pass, which is quite a ways to the west of us.) Just after the tunnel (and long before St. Bernardino), the road skirts the pretty Lake Moesola, moving down plateau after plateau full of Arolla pine and fir trees: very scraggly trees, not at all like "Christmas tree" conifers. To your left, in the foreground, are mountains called the Pizzo Ucello, which change slowly until they become a spur branching off from a larger chain, called the Pan di Zucchero (Sugar Loaf).

San Bernardino to Soazza  The town of San Bernardino is the highest and most popular skiing resort in this area, boasting an old historic circular church. This section of the river valley becomes very deep. The village of Mesocco comes next, and then the massive ruins of an old castle (called Misox) visible to your left. The Castle of Misox belonged to the Counts of Sax-Mesocco. When the canton of Graubunden was organized out of the earlier three Leagues, this castle was dismantled (to prevent its being used to disrupt the new canton). It barely escaped complete demolition in 1924, when Swiss students demanded that it be left as a historic monument. The Romanesque campanile of the chapel (with 5 stories of arches) is the most noted architectural feature. The town of Soazza is a few yards beyond it, where you take the last hairpin turn, past twisted and sturdy chestnut trees.

Buffalora Waterfall  Be on the lookout for it after leaving Soazza; it's on the right. (Cascata di Buffalora.) This double waterfall is a beautiful feature of the area, illustrating the tons of water carried off the mountain peaks every day. Now look for the first signs of Mediterranean, Italian-style farming communities: plane trees, maize, vines, and (after the town of Cama — still a way down the road) figs.

Into Bellinzona  After Roveredo, the valley widens. With more flat land available, it is possible for more people to live and farm in the valleys. Bellinzona is the capital of the Canton of Ticino, which we entered just before Roveredo. Ticino is named for the River Ticino which flows through it. In Bellinzona, you'll see the fortifications built in the Middle Ages. Most prominent is the Castle of Uri, with two towers pointing up from the crenelated walls. There are actually three castles grouped loosely together, called Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwald. They are named for the original three Forest Cantons, which imposed their authority over the people of Ticino in the Middle Ages, and built these castles to maintain it. Only later did the people of Ticino form their own canton. But these castles remain as grim reminders of the stern rule exercised by the Forest Cantons. The Castle of Uri (with the two towers) is the oldest of them, built in the 13th century.

On to Lugano  A fast modern highway heads west and south to Lugano. There isn't much to point out, except to get everyone ready for the final zigzagging down to the lake and town of Lugano. This famous resort town is popular for boating, hiking, and (in winter) skiing. This lake, which is long and shoestring-shaped, juts into Italy at several points. The crystal-clear waters and brisk air add to the city's attractiveness. (Point out the pleasures of Swiss white chocolate, a novelty for most Americans. It can be obtained everywhere, and is one of Switzerland's most popular specialties.)

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