It’s a convent now, not a monastery. It’s been a nunnery for much longer than it ever was a monks’ place. But it’s the word monasterium that lent its name to the town of Müstair, and to the valley it lies at the end of. It’s the easternmost municipality in Switzerland, located in the southeast corner of the canton of Grison (Graubünden in German).
Even though there’s a through road into Italy, and bikers, cyclists and sports car drivers all vie for road space further up the valley as they blast their way up the Umbrail and Stelvio passes, this place today feels like a dead end, and it’s all the better for it. A rare thing for an Alpine valley of any significance, it has no railway, and the valley stream, the Rum, or Rom, or whatever other vowels the local languages and dialects can throw at it, is left completely unchannelled and undammed.
When Charlemagne traversed this valley in 776, after defeating the Northern Italian kingdom of the Longobards, it was very much a crossroads of civilizations. To the south lay Italy, to the west Charlemagne’s traditional power base, the Frankish Empire, and to the north and east the Duchy of Bavaria – whose rulers, like the Longobards, were linked to Charlemagne by marriage, but all the same found themselves at the receiving end of his strategic planning not much later.
The founding myth of St. John’s monastery at Müstair says that Charlemagne got into trouble in a snowdrift on his descent down Umbrail pass, and when he finally made his way down to the valley floor safely, he thanked God by pleading to found an abbey. St. John’s perfectly shows the dichotomy that is Charlemagne: a brilliant and often brutal warlord, the monastery’s strategic location certainly wouldn’t have escaped him. Yet it is also a key example of the Carolingean Renaissance – the focus that King, and later Emperor, Charlemagne placed on education, unification of the Christian faith, the arts, and the rule of law.
The valley may be remote, but its beauty and significance are getting noticed. The monastery, of which church and chapel date back to the 700s, is a Unesco World Heritage site, and the whole valley, along with the Swiss National Park further up the road, has been declared a Unesco Bio Reserve.
The Swiss National Park – the country has only one, so that’s what it’s called – was created just over 100 years ago to preserve the Alpine ecosystem, not to showcase any particular bit of scenery. The authorities probably nominated this remote chunk of the country as the rest was already overtaken by mass tourism – Matterhorn was first ascended in 1865, and the opening of the narrow-gauge railway all the way inside and to the top of the Jungfrau (which ironically means virgin) in 1912 may have confirmed the decision.
The result is a pristine Alpine valley. The National Park, and areas beyond, offer great day hikes. The Müstair valley focuses on sustainable tourism and the network of postal buses that serve trailheads offers lots of one way hiking opportunities. Hiking signposts out in the woods even indicate which destinations are served by bus. The valley appears to have relatively little holiday apartments owned by absentee city dwellers, and many of its inhabitants run bio-responsible farms.
Judging by the number of “Gruezis” and “Allegras” (Allegra is the cheerful Romansh greeting) you hear on the trails and in the towns, this part of Switzerland is not yet overrun by package tours from overseas , but mainly serves the Swiss themselves. You could do worse than take their hint – the Swiss know a thing or two about natural beauty.
Added bonus in the lower part of the valley around Müstair is that all your pictures will be photo bombed by the crenelated silhouette of St. John’s monastery, and that the progress of your hiking will not only marked by the bells hung around the necks of cattle and goats, but also by those of the abbey.