Standing the test of time: ancient stone huts

Standing the test of time: ancient stone huts - Tradition

Valposchiavo, in the south-east corner of Graubünden, is home to a centuries-old tradition not to be found anywhere else in the Swiss canton: the 'crot' – dome-shaped stone shelters – served as cool storage rooms and sometimes even houses. These stone huts have withstood the test of time.

"There are more than 200 'crot' in Brusio – ranging from the valley floor to the mountain pastures, right up to more than 2,000 metres above sea level. And we’re still finding new ones," explains Dario Monigatti, former teacher and local councillor, now a member of the cantonal parliament in Chur – and local historian. Nine of these stone igloos stand on a meadow right in the middle of the village. "I’ve done a lot of research on the 'crot' and found photos of them, for my own interest. But the exact origins of this type of construction remains a mystery to me." While similar stone buildings can be found in Ticino, Italy, Greece, Albania, France and Ireland – it has never been established where this simple yet highly effective construction has its roots. "I can imagine that papal troops brought this construction method to us from Italy via Valtellina. We have found records from the year 1800, but I suspect that this way of building is much older," explains Dario Monigatti.

«Inside the 'crot', it’s a constant four to five degrees all year round.»
Dario Monigatti

An old-style refrigerator
But however the 'crot' found their way to Valposchiavo all those centuries ago, they now stand in the municipality of Brusio as witnesses to a past age. Many of them have been owned by the same families for hundreds of years and some of the 'crot' are still in use today. What for? As cool storage rooms, just like in the past. That’s why most of the doors are locked, but one can be opened. It’s dark inside – and really cold. "The 'crot' are ancient refrigerators that work without electricity. The temperature inside remains at a constant four to five degrees Celsius throughout the year." For this to work, you need to find the right location: in the shadow and preferably on a slope. Once you’ve chosen your spot, you have to dig down a few metres. "There are even 'crot' with a small stream running through them. In the old days that was particularly practical when it came to cooling the milk up on the alp." Today, the stone huts are used to store potatoes, vegetables, wine or meat hung on metal bars in the air to dry. Apparently, some 'crot' were even used as living quarters: according to Monigatti, "People used to live in the two big 'crot' in Viano and Cavaione above Brusio."

Standing the test of time
The 'crot' are built using the corbel system in which the rings of stones overlap on each course, creating a 'false arch'. The stones are laid in a double layer from top to bottom on a circular plan – a construction technique that doesn’t require any mortar at all. The stones of the inner wall are arranged precisely in such a way that no rain can penetrate them; instead, it flows down between the two layers of stone. This technique keeps the stone storage room dry, yet at the same time cooled by the water. While large, heavy pieces of stone are used at the bottom, these grow smaller as you move up the 'crot'. A large, heavy stone slab is placed above the door to create stability. The door itself – made of wood – is small and low, visitors have to stoop to enter the spacious, high space inside without banging their heads. "The doors are deliberately small to prevent too much heat from getting in and too much cold from getting out," explains our man from Valposchiavo. This traditional construction method is very stable: "Our 'crot' here in Brusio needed renovating a few years ago because centuries of exposure to the elements had eroded them on the outside.
But they were still completely intact inside." Although the local authorities were granted subsidies for carrying out the renovation work, the families that own the 'crot' also invested around 10 to 15 per cent.

A fascinating construction
The technique used to build a 'crot' attracts lots of interest and is widely admired. Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, even had a stamp created in honour of this special construction in 2012. "Architects also come here to have a look at our 'crot'," says Monigatti. Building these stone houses is an art that has to be learned: it takes a highly trained eye to prepare the stones correctly and fashion them into the right form. "For the restoration work, we found an Italian living in Valtellina who was still familiar with this technique. But sadly, he died just before the job was completed. Anyone who knows the 'crot' can tell relatively quickly which ones he renovated and which were done by the new workers." Incidentally, one of the 'crot' in Valposchiavo stands right next to another attraction: the Brusio Circular Viaduct.