UNESCO World Heritage

Jewel on the Albula Line

Jewel on the Albula Line - UNESCO World Heritage

It is one of those buildings whose very appearance tells the secret stories of days gone by: the Kurhaus Bergün presides, in an ever so slightly lofty manner, over the village of the same name right in the middle of the UNESCO World Heritage; the art nouveau façade does not fit in with the old Engadin houses that line the narrow village streets. You immediately want to know how this jewel ended up in the remote Albula Valley. And, naturally, what has happened since.

Dina Di Luigi’s dark eyes twinkle wildly when she laughs her dark laugh. "Suddenly there was a chicken there!"; she shouts and waves her arms around as if she was still annoyed about it. The Portuguese woman has worked in the Kurhaus Bergün since 2005 and has seen quite a lot. For example, a chicken living in one of the breakfast kitchens. The owners had not found anywhere else for it to stay and so, at the last moment, took their pet on holiday with them using a banana box as a temporary home. Housekeeper Dina Di Luigi was not impressed: "We quickly converted an unused room in the basement into a hen-coop. And that is where the chicken spent his holidays." Dina Di Luigi has lived in Bergün for 25 years now. In the past, when she went for walks with her children, she was, "almost frightened of the Kurhaus. It looked like a haunted castle." Sometimes she dared to peek inside. What she saw was dark. 

Acclimatising in Bergün
In the past, that was before 2003. Because from 1952 to 2002, the Kurhaus belonged to the Basel Association for Family Hostels. And as current hotel director Christof Steiner explains, they never at any stage had enough money to invest in repairing the faults. What luck for an establishment which has now been restored to its former glory. But let’s start at the beginning: at the end of the nineteenth century, Bergün benefited from the guests who travelled to Engadin on the stagecoach. Chur was a further day away – and Bergün the perfect place for an overnight stay. More tourists were expected with the opening of the Albula Line of the Rhaetian Railway on 1 July 1903 and in 1904 the Vereinigte Hotels Bergün A.-G. commissioned Zurich-based architect Jost-Franz Huwyler-Boller, who at the same time was building the Hotel Cresta Palace in Celerina, to build a hotel.

The Alpinism initiated by the English flourished; this was the great era of Swiss hotel architecture. Jost-Franz Huwyler-Boller saw himself as an artist with an eye for the overall picture and he planned a building with considerable luxury: the rooms had en suite bathrooms, the toilets had even been delivered specially by train from England. There were electric lights, cold and hot water, central heating, a lift as well as spacious restaurants, its first brochure revealed. There would be a ladies’ salon, a men’s salon with billiard table, an American Bar, a cinema as well as its prize possession- the rose ballroom. 

From disaster to lucky charm: the Albula Line
The idea was that travellers would continue to get used to the altitude in the milder climate of Bergün and spend a few days at the Kurhaus. But the fast connection to Engadin with the new Albula Line was more attractive. The Kurhaus was at the wrong place and was too big. Bergün fought for guests – and discovered the beauty of winter sports. In the winter of 1904 / 05, the road along the Albula Line was made into a sledging track for the first time; a large natural ice rink followed for ice skating, curling and ice hockey. Today too the Albula Line is a bonus for the hotel: it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Rhaetian Railway and attracts tourists from all over the world. These now have an additional reason to get off the train in Bergün: because this is where the Albula Railway Museum tells the story of more than 100 years of rail history in the Swiss canton of Graubünden with all its details. But the Kurhaus first had to suffer a little more; the Second World War turned out to be a real deathblow – only to be followed by a fire in the roof in 1949. The community paid for an unimaginative new roof without a cupola. A faux pas that was not corrected until 2013 when a turret was put back on the roof of the Kurhaus. But the roof storey from the 1950s stayed: "It now has just as much history as the original roof," says Christof Steiner.

Saving the Kurhaus
From 1952, the new owner, the Basel Association for Family Hostels, started putting three to four rooms together to make apartments, transformed one room into a breakfast kitchen and adapted the architecture to suit the taste of the times. Ceilings were lowered to make lower rooms, art nouveau glass doors were boarded up, the cinema and the ballroom were converted into dormitories. Because of the low prices of overnight stays, they could not afford to invest much. And from today’s point of view that is a good thing because at least that meant there was no irreversible construction work. But at the turn of the new millennium, there was no way of avoiding it: the house had to have a general overhaul. In 2002, regular guests founded a public limited company. Its aim: to save the Kurhaus Bergün. With seed capital of 1.5 million francs, they started to restore this jewel to its former glory. The Chairman of the Board of Directors Heini Dalcher is an architect; the ensemble was reinstated under his leadership. A confirmation that the many hours of work were worth it came in 2012 when ICOMOS Suisse voted the Kurhaus Bergün 'Historic Hotel of the Year'.

For six years now, Maya and Christof Steiner have been running it as a professional hotel, and the plc has been in the black for five years. The shareholders simply have pre-reservation rights, "otherwise we have a freeze every year," laughs Christof Steiner. It is enough for the shareholders to be part of the success story of the Kurhaus Bergün. The success may have something to do with the concept: "We are a little bit of a grand hotel – and offer families a reduced service package at lower prices during the holidays," says Christof Steiner.

«We are a touch of grand hotel – and are also a family venue during the holidays.»
Christof Steiner

A basket full of keys
But the road to becoming a 'proper' hotel was not always easy. At the beginning, the rooms still had the old box locks for which there was only one key each. This meant that Dina Di Luigi and her team always had to go around with a large basket of ancient keys – trying out which key fit which door. "Some guests did not even bother to register," explains the head housekeeper. "They had a key with them from their last visit and went straight to their room as they did in the old days of the family hostel." In time, the Kurhaus team managed to re-educate its guests. But the family atmosphere has remained in the old, venerable hotel. "The children like helping us to clean and we know a lot of the guests," says Dina Di Luigi smiling happily. She was able to bring her own children to work whenever she wanted. They helped or played with the guests’ children. That is absolutely natural for Christof Steiner: "We want to be a social employer. And that is why we have a lot of jobs for a year – after all the establishment is open ten months a year." And that is why many employees stay at the Kurhaus Bergün longer than you might expect. Just like Dina Di Luigi; she learned German at the Kurhaus Bergün, set up a team of six colleagues and enjoys the wonderful atmosphere in exactly the same house that used to frighten her.

World Heritage Pass
In terms of civil engineer-ing and routing, the UNESCO World Heritage Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes site is truly unique, with plenty to explore. The World Heritage Pass allows you to explore this fascinating line that is now over 100 years old.
Unlimited travel on the world heritage route from CHF 56.00
www.rhb.ch/world-heritage-pass