At the other end of the tunnel: Val Bever
It's held to be one of the most unspoilt valleys in Graubünden: Val Bever at the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage site. From the source of the Beverin river, around one kilometre to the east of Piz Picuogl, it stretches first in a north-easterly direction to Spinas, then east-southeast to the small settlement after which it is named: Bever. Contura explored this idyllic area with Hanspeter Lötscher of the canton's Office for Nature and the Environment (ANU), asking: just why does it get so cold here?
It's still pitch black – and bitterly cold – when we leave the Gasthaus Spinas in the early hours of this winter morning. Something like minus eleven degrees Celsius, we reckon. The snow crunches loudly underfoot – the sound magnified by the absolute quiet. The sky slowly starts to change colour: from black to dark blue, growing ever lighter until the first peaks of the Albula mountain range emerge, gently bathed in pink light. We hear a noise in the distance, a soft murmur. The first train? We listen. But it has gone quiet again. Was it just the wind? Or the Beverin, the river that flows through the valley? No, there it is again, that whirring sound, which is now becoming distinctly more of a rattle: the first train from Bever is on its way to Spinas.
A hamlet from bygone days
The Bever Valley lies on the Albula Line, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage route. RhB links the small settlement of Spinas, situated right next to the southern portal of the Albula Tunnel, with the village that gives the valley its name – Bever, the gate to the Upper Engadin. The road between the two is closed to cars and only passable by horse-drawn carriage – adding to the generally unspoilt impression. In the early hours of the morning especially, there is barely a sound to be heard – apart from the gentle babble of the Beverin river. As the sun rises, the red RhB trains whizz back and forth through the valley. It's then that the first winter hikers or cross-country skiers start to make their way through the idyllic landscape. Spinas lies at 1,815 metres above sea level and is sparsely populated: apart from the inn, Gasthaus Spinas, there are only four houses here – and the railway station. During the building of the Albula Tunnel from 1899 to 1903, when Spinas served as temporary home to many of the construction workers, the place was much livelier: of the 1,316 men who worked on and in the Albula Tunnel, up to 400 – twice as many as the entire population of Bever at that time – were housed in makeshift wooden barracks. Most of these labourers came from Italy and sometimes included fathers with their under-age sons. The work was hard, a typical day inside the mountain lasting up to twelve hours, and life simple. Cut off from civilisation, the men relied on the infrastructure that was provided to them by the site management: alongside the primitive wooden huts, Spinas had a post office, a restaurant and a laundry. There was little free time and little to do in it. At most, a traditional game of boccia was a rare Sunday treat for the Italian construction workers. The first train passed through the Albula Tunnel to Spinas on 4 April 1903. When work on the tunnel had finished and the workers had gone back to where they came from, peace returned to the hamlet. However, that's all about to change again – at least temporarily: the old Albula Tunnel needs to be replaced by a new one. The ground-breaking ceremony in June 2014 marked the start of construction work by RhB.
The coldest spot in Graubünden?
Just a short distance outside Spinas things become even more rustic: as soon as we have left the station behind us, we are captivated by the natural surroundings. Larches dominate the landscape, but there are also many Swiss pine growing in their shade. Thanks to the clear, still cold air, we feel wide awake even at this time of the morning. "The Upper Engadin and its Alpine side valleys are among the coldest populated high valleys in the Swiss canton of Graubünden," Hanspeter Lötscher of ANU confirms our suspicions. No measurements are taken in Val Bever, but in Samedan – barely 2.5 kilometres further south-west, where MeteoSwiss has a weather station – the average annual temperature is just two degrees Celsius. "In January," Lötscher continues, "the mean minimum temperature is minus 17.1 degrees Celsius. But on certain days temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees Celsius have been recorded." The Bever Valley: the coldest spot in Graubünden? Given data like that, even without actual measurements from the valley itself, it is thoroughly imaginable.
We have now been walking for a good 30 minutes. It's a distance of four kilometres to Bever, the little village at the end of the valley. In the meantime, it is no longer just the peaks of the Albula range that are bathed in golden light – a large part of the Bever Valley is enjoying glorious sunshine and the temperature is rising with every step we take. But just why does it get so cold in Val Bever – and in the Engadin in general? It partly has to do with the altitude of around 1,800 metres above sea level and partly with the pools of cold air that form here, explains Hanspeter Lötscher: "That happens when the cold air settles just above the valley floor or spreads into hollows." And the cold air comes from the northwest: "At night, it's quite common for winds to flow downhill from the mountains around Piz d'Err. These fall winds arise when a mass of air is forced to cross a mountain – the force of gravity then carries this high density of air down the slope on the other side as a katabatic, or fall, wind."
… but all the more spectacular
The winds may be able to cross the Alps easily enough. But precipitation from the north and west does not usually reach the Engadin. And even rain from the south tends to fall over the Bernina range – only a small part travels further on: "Upper Engadin occupies a very sheltered location within the Alps," according to Lötscher. The area thoroughly deserves its reputation for sunshine. But what about snow in this winter paradise? "Owing to the low temperatures in winter, the Engadin sees less snowfall than other areas, as you only tend to get sizeable masses of snow at temperatures of around zero," our expert tells us. The Upper Engadin therefore has a below-average number of precipitation days: rain or snow falls on just 89 days a year – just compare that with Chur, which experiences 104 precipitation days annually. So the fact that it's so cold here is actually a good thing. It means that the snow lies for many weeks allowing cross-country skiers, winter hikers and snowshoe tourers to explore this winter wonderland at their leisure. We, on the other hand, are pleased to emerge from our one-hour early morning trek through nature and return to the comforts of civilisation in Bever: we feel we've earned our steaming cup of coffee from the Restaurant da Primo at Bever station – at least more so than the other diners who have just arrived on the train from Spinas.