Charmed by Chur
It pays to have a woman along. My wife and I had gone to look at the new Church of St. Martin (completed in 1491 after the original, built in the eighth century, burned down) but it was closed for a wedding.
We saw the bride arrive, veiled and clad in a long white gown, a baby cradled in the crook of her left arm.
At this point, like most men, I was ready to amble off and look around this beautiful, ancient town, the oldest in Switzerland, if my wife hadn’t said with wifely logic, “We have to wait for them to come out.”
While we were having a beer at a café, a couple trotted up on horseback and dismounted, then held the horses’ bridles for the newlyweds, who were emerging from the church in a shower of confetti and soap bubbles. The bride, now babyless, hoisted her skirt to her knees and herself into the saddle and cantered off down one of Chur’s many car-free cobbled streets, the groom close behind.
It was a first for me.
Chur abounds in such sudden, delightful surprises. The first impression from its railway station is of an almost Soviet gloom. But go one block beyond and its boutiques and salons and department stores – some 500 inll, making it the most elegant and well-stocked shopping scene between Zurich and Milan – tempt shoppers with eye-catching, wallet-opening displays.
Wander into the Old Town toward the church and the 800-year-old cathedral. Shopfronts and inns are bright with intricate murals or sombre with graffito – dark-brown geometric patterns etched into the wall’s pale stucco.
At the Viniculture Museum, the temptingly named Tree of Drunks turns out to be a wine press 14.5 metres long. For the more temperate, the water that flows from the tap in your hotel room comes fresh from a nearby mountain spring.
The Hotel Drei Koenige (Three Kings) dates back to 1793. The original shield bearing its name still hangs outside. It once served as a seat of government and even as a monastery served by nuns, with a secret tunnel to the bishop’s palace.
Chur’s oldest choir, the Mannerchor, has been practising here for 125 years. The hotel’s green-tiled stove, still in use in winter, is the same one that warmed the city executioner (the last execution was in 1846). Benito Mussolini slept in room four. Chur’s contemporary favourite son, H.R. Giger, who won an Oscar for designing the sets and monster in the movie Alien, was born in the house next door; room 57 is dedicated to him.
Framed on the wall beside me in the dining room (where some 30 orderly Swiss teenagers went through dinner without a single bun being tossed) was a 1939 menu from the Grand Hotel Belvedere in Davos, signed by British Columbia’s Trail Smoke Eaters, winners of the world hockey championship there.
In 1996, the trend-monitoring magazine Wallpaper gave Chur third place in its list of “urban havens” and noted that it’s the capital of “the canton (Graubünden) that houses the holy trinity of winter sports: St. Moritz, Davos and Klosters.”
Chur has its own winter resort, the 2,176-metre Dreibuendenstein, reached by cable car from the Old Town. At 1,600 metres lies the Brambruesch, Chur’s summer resort, with a sun-baked terrace and walking trails. One of these trails leads to Pradaschier, where what’s billed as the world’s longest toboggan run hurtles 3.1 kilometres down into the valley.
When the Romans came, saw and conquered in 15 BC, the human settlement here was already 3,000 years old. Some experts think it may go back 8,000 years before that. Set strategically in the valleys linking southern and northern Europe, it was at the centre of a prized trade route. The cathedral stands on the site of a Roman castle and Roman chariots clattered along the street now called the Obere Gasse in the Old Town.
The first written reference to the name Chur was found on a Roman map made in AD 280. Chur was fought over, occupied and re-occupied by the Ostrogoths, by the Franks, ruled by Charlemagne and even, in the late 12th century, came under the imperial rule of its own bishop.
Now, it’s a peaceful city of 35,000, with more than a third of its 2,800 hectares covered in forest. It boasts an annual rainfall of less than 850 millimetres and claims much more sunshine than its neighbours.
Its slogan to lure tourists is “Keep khur!” a phrase from a Swiss song made popular by an alpine farmer who, in his 70s, went on to become a rap artist. Roughly translated, it means, “Stay cool.”