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View south-east from Chalet

SWITZERLAND - LAND OF DREAMS

 

SWITZERLAND is a country of dreams.  Dreams of snow-capped peaks, country chalets, castle ruins, lush meadows, rapid rivers, shimmering lakes, dark forests, precipitous canyons and gorges, half-timbered inns, colorful festivals and banners, chic sports resorts.

Yet, the Swiss people themselves, though they too may often dream, are a practical and industrious people, fiercely independent and freedom-loving, knowledgeable in scientific, commercial and financial matters as well as in the management skills that have made Switzerland also a land of recreation, sports, holidays and relaxation. Theirs is a land uniting the powerful and industrial cities of the northern and western plains to the almost unimaginable beauty and sublimity of their mountainous south and east.  They have learned to use their power and industry without spoiling their natural treasures.

Nowhere is this blend of values more evident than among the residents of Switzerland's  largest and most rugged Canton, the "GRISONS".  Despite their Canton being, now and for millennia past, at the cross-roads of trade between northern and southern Europe, their determination to preserve their Eden has helped create an environment unmatched anywhere, even in the rest of Switzerland, for the flourishing of people without marring the land.  The name "Grisons" , English and French approximations for the German "Graubünden",  the Italian "Grigioni" or for a common transliteration of the various forms of Romansch "Grischun", reminds us of the "Grey" and other Leagues, once clusters of small kingdoms or fiefs, one of the last regions to be integrated as a canton within the Confederation.  Drawing on a rich history dating back to Roman times and beyond, the region was once where commerce throve between the mining and other resources of regions to the North with the highly developed regions to the South.  

Ancient Romans used the Grisons as a hub for their salt and marble trade, accessible from the plains of Lombardy through high passes, such as the Septima and the San Bernardino, following the nascent Rhine through the Via Mala, establishing a "Curia", or Court, in what is now known as "Coira" or "Chur", the cantonal capital,  mining the rose marble of that remote mountain spot now known as "Arosa", brokering the salt from Austria's regions. The mines have been silent for centuries now and easier means of North-South access have been built through neighbouring Austria and the Alps to the west, saving the region from the grime and pollution of intensive transport but, unlike some other by-passed regions, the Grisons haven't just winked out !   

Since the beginning of the 19th century, the Grisons' population centers have become the gathering places for excursionists and sportsmen from all corners of the British Empire, the diplomats of Bavaria, Prussia and Austria-Hungary, celebrities from the United States, and other travelers from the world over.  Davos, the "place behind" the mountain, regularly hosts meetings of diplomats from the world's powers.  Major sporting events in places such as  Pontresina, Flims and St. Moritz, to name but some, and a year round appeal to vacationers and sports people alike help now sustain the region's economy. A limited but economically successful clean industry provides year round jobs and tax revenues. 

Still, despite the hype and publicity attendant to this influx of sophistication, the Grisons remain largely uncrowded, unsullied, unexplored, unpretentious, pristine and restful.   The harshness of the modern world did not quite as swiftly reach, as it has in the west and south, the numerous little valleys nestled between population centers and many of the villages seemingly hooked atop the Grisons' rugged crags.  

These little valleys were largely inaccessible to all but experienced locals and remained inaccessible till well into the 20th century. During the last 50 years, new, comfortable roads have been built to open them up, but there are still many little side paths, vestiges of medieval access, frequently leading to nowhere but some verdant grass patch.  There, a few cows will pasture, a "Bündner" mountain man will be mowing his clover, a tiny village will balance on an escarpment, and a chalet or two, festooned with flower boxes and variegated shutters, will betray the arrival of newcomers, perhaps newly marrieds, sons and daughters from burghers in a larger village below.

Thus, the Grisons, despite their reputation as hosts to international diplomats and sportsmen, are much unlike the more palpably internationalized center, west and south regions of Switzerland, where places like Basle, Geneva, Zurich, Zug, Gstaad, Montreux, Interlaken, Villars, Verbier and the many smaller towns around them, have morphed, in the minds of foreign travelers, the model of  financial centers and resorts for the very wealthy and the sophisticated.  With the exception of St. Moritz, whose internationalization dates back many decades,  the character of most of the Grisons countryside is still local, prices are still reasonable, and family names are still meaningful.  Macro-tourism, with its disfiguring malls, fast food restaurants and high rise hotels grasping for the Chalet image, has not yet arrived. 

Several varieties of Romansch, as well as German and Italian are spoken, but you will find the people are eager to understand you, even if Urdu is the only language you know. Not having been overwhelmed by wholesale tourism, the Grisons are still the least culturally globalised of all the cantons, still a place where smiles are genuine and a hand extended is meant to be shaken, and not palmed.  No, you won't find too many dirndl's and lederhosen, or other signs of kitsch, though you can still buy large, decorated cowbells  from a bemused farmer, who has opted for radio collars instead.  They're honest,...but not retarded !

The Grisons  are the essence of Switzerland: its people couldn't be more Swiss. Find the outline of the Grisons canton on the Swiss map: it looks a little like a miniature of the entire land, a kernel of the country of dreams.

MORISSEN  

MORISSEN, where the Chalet is located, is in the "Surselva" part of the Grisons, half-way between Chur, the capital city in the east of the canton, and the famous  Gotthard Pass to the west. The village clings to the side of the 3000 meter high Piz Mundaun.  It has a panoramic view of the "Val Lumnezia" (the "Valley of Light").  Historically a producer of timber and milk, it is at least 700 years old, having passed, over the centuries, from Bishopric to Bishopric, from German kings to Burgundy dukes, to serve as a waystation and an inn on the way to the great Alpine passes of Oberalp and Lukmanier.  Named to honour St. Mauritius, the patron saint warrior, Morissen is now a village of about 250 inhabitants, and at least as many cows and sheep, producing fodder and milk.  It is proud of its ancestral, wily women who duped an Austrian army into ignoring the valley, thereby saving their men from conscription or carnage, and to whose honour a special monument, the Women's Gate, has belatedly been built on the road to the village. 

Morissen has its own little castle with moderate historical significance, nonetheless giving a certain cachet to the village. There are several very old houses, but otherwise, it is a fairly typical mountain village whose population significantly increases with the influx of holiday-makers during the "high" seasons of summer and winter.  It is a working village where, in the spring and fall, the cows and the sheep will trundle through the streets on their way up or down from the pastures above, orchestrating a mild cacophony of bells, bleats and moos.  The view from just about every spot in the village is panoramic. It has a substantial complement of holiday chalets but a surprisingly high number of other houses are home to permanent residents.  A post office and bus terminal, a mini-market, a dairy, an administrative center, a school, a fire department, a hotel-restaurant, and a Church provide for much of the villagers and vacationers' needs, while quick trips to the railhead 10 kms away provides access to the shopping malls of Migros and Coop. Though it has its own mayor ("Präsident"), Morissen is administratively dependent of the regional center of Vella, a mile away.  Chalet Nov' Arcadia is located in a cluster of villas on the outskirts of the village and is largely protected from the wind by the small forest adjacent to it. 

`  NOV' ' ARCADIA  `

  WHAT'S IN A NAME ?

 Nov' Arcadia is the name we have given to the Chalet, an Estate our family owns . It was not chosen out of thin air but rather as the representation of our continued interest in restful quality living. Before being bestowed on this Swiss Alps property, the "Arcadia" part of it had been given as a name to and reflected the beauty of older estates that were managed and/or owned by some of our parents and other ancestors for several generations.  

Of course, our families did not invent the name.  Many people know that "Arcadia" was originally a mountainous region of ancient Greece,  in the central part of the Pelopponese, inhabited by "Arcadians", a people mainly of shepherds, among whom poets and balladeers had woven fictions of innocence and happiness into their tales of everyday life.  People in various walks of life, in many western countries, have at various times chosen to give this name, or a variation of it, to their properties or even their culture. There is, for instance, an "Arcadia University" in South Carolina.  In ancient times, the region was home to sculptors such as Damophon, known for the colossal heads of Greek goddesses Artemis and Demeter he carved from the local pink marble. The French classical painter, Nicolas Poussin, exemplified the idealizing mood  in the name called for in his versions of "Les Bergers d'Arcadie". The lure of pastoral peace inspired several others to bask in the romance.

 In Elizabethan times, Sir Philip Sydney authored an ode to his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, singing the praises of  "Arcadia". Shakespeare alludes to it in his plays. Jacopo Sannazaro, of Naples, in1490, broke new ground in his "Arcadia", a kind of romance, interspersed with eclogues written in Italian.  John Milton, in his "Arcades" softly tells us:

O're the smooth enameld green
Where no print of step hath been,
Follow me as I sing,
And touch the warbled string.
Under the shady roof
Of branching elm star-proof,
Follow me,
I will bring you where she sits
Clad in splendor as befits
Her deity.
Such a rural Queen
All Arcadia hath not seen

Whitman, Wordsworth, Wilde and Yeats likewise wrote poems about it.  In "The Burden of Itys", Oscar Wilde comforts us:

And sweet to hear the cuckoo mock the spring
While the last violet loiters by the well,
And sweet to hear the shepherd Daphnis sing
The song of Linus through a sunny dell
Of warm Arcadia where the corn is gold
And the slight lithe-limbed reapers dance about the wattled fold.

But not all was peace, innocence and happiness. In 1605, Samuel Daniel wrote "The Queenes Arcadia" which he called a "Pastorall Trage-Comedie". More recently (1993), Tom Stoppard wrote the drama "Arcadia". In the lore of antiquity, there was a river Styx, of melancholy fame, in Arcadia. Hercules is said to have frightened and slain, as his fifth labour, man-eating birds from a lake in Arcadia.  Famed Latin poet Vergil describes an allegorical Arcadia, as an occasion to celebrate the greatness of Rome, flattering his Emperor, and predicting a golden age. More jocularly, Robert Greene (1590) , in his "Arcadia", thought of its breeze in those words "Thy Breath is like the steame of apple-pyes". We pass over many other authors of dramatic pieces and novels which continued, in some fashion to celebrate the pastoral purity and insouciance of a long bygone era, in order to court or otherwise serve the interests of their contemporaries or benefactors. 

Why the name was chosen by long deceased members of our family to decorate one of their country assets is unknown, but the name has remained with us and, in a certain sense, been treasured as the meaning of home, a restful and rustic place, by successive generations. Most recently, some 10 years ago, it was given to a country house, we built on the edge of a vine-enchanted necklace of hills and valleys surrounding it in West Sonoma County, California. Before that, it was given to a hacienda owned by the maternal side of our family, in South America. In 1986, when we arranged for the Chalet to be built, we gave it that name too, adding the Romansch word "Nov' " to it. 

Our purpose in using the word in the Chalet's name was to emphasize the essentially local, Romansch, character of the property, a structure newly built from local rock, local stones, local timber and local labour. "Nov' " means "new" in English but  in "Nov'Arcadia", it is only new in the sense that it applies to a renewed and, we hope, fortunate transformation of rock, stone and timber that had previously graced the countryside nearby.

We hope you will find your stay at  Nov' Arcadia as pleasant and inspiring as we and many of our guests have found it during these cusp-of-the-millenium years, and that you will come back, from time to time, to renew your own ties to a peaceful and poetic past. 

Yvon & Teresa Heckscher, your hosts.