- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

CHUR, Switzerland — So you want a vacation featuring culture, restaurants and night life but with easy access to the great outdoors as well?

It sounds like a tough combination. Big cities are hardly known for their fresh air and uncluttered views — just as resort destinations often have little in the way of local culture.

Chur, a charming city with a medieval ambience in the heart of the Swiss Alps, is a jumping-off point for mountain hikes and ski slopes, but it has all the buzz of a big city. It’s less than two hours from the Zurich airport.

“Its importance as an Alpine center has left behind many traces in the town, and these are documented in our museums — art, nature and history,” says Peter Laube, head of the city’s tourist office.

Chur was settled more than 4,000 years ago as a provincial Roman capital, making it one of the oldest towns north of the Alps.

The current population is just 35,000 — small fry on a global scale, but it also claims the highest density of restaurants per person in Switzerland and feels almost like London, New York or Paris to those who have just come down from an extended spell in the isolation of the surrounding mountains. “Chur may be described, with complete justification, as a center of Alpine culture,” Mr. Laube says.

The cobbled streets of Chur’s old town are perfectly suited to an aimless wander, as are the banks of the river Plessur, which burbles between steep banks on its way to the Rhine — with the surrounding heights providing a stunning new backdrop at every street corner.

The Gothic St. Martin’s Church in the center of town faces a square that is surrounded by pedestrian-friendly streets full of cafes and restaurants.

A steep hill rises behind the church to the onion-domed cathedral, seemingly on the very edge of the city. On the other side of the road, walking paths lead through vineyards to forested slopes beyond, with access to the mountains and fine views back over Chur and across the Rhine Valley to neighboring mountain ranges.

Back on the valley floor, Chur also has a diverting art gallery in the middle of the main shopping district. It features offbeat temporary exhibitions — such as the importance of snow to the local economy — as well as landscapes, portraits and other works by local painters.

The quickest way to get to the mountains is to hop on a cable car direct from the city center up a ridge with three peaks, called the Dreibundenstein, that offers walking, a medium-sized ski area and paragliding — as well as the world’s longest summer sled run.

In winter, the town bustles with skiers and snowboarders heading for the cable-car base station, creating an atmosphere almost like a ski resort.

Because of its relative isolation from other major cities, Chur is also a shopping center, with brand-name retailers and department stores as well as outlets for local specialties such as wine, crystal, handicrafts and thin-sliced bundnerfleisch — beef that has been hung to dry in a farmhouse attic.

The surrounding area of the Graubunden canton has more to offer, from traditional and isolated mountain villages where everyone knows one another to world-famous resorts, many of them a short trip from Chur.

The Arosa resort is a scenic hour’s train ride or drive up the Plessur valley, while Klosters resort — known as a favorite holiday spot of Prince Charles — is just a little farther.

Davos is bigger and brasher than Klosters — with which it shares a ski area and lift pass — while snowboarders may prefer the Flims resort, which is just as easily accessible in the other direction.

Those who wish to venture a bit farther afield can take one of the most spectacular train rides in Europe to the glitzy resort of St. Moritz, at the top end of the stunning Engadine Valley, while to the west of Chur, transport connections climb through the dramatic sheer rock walls of the Rhine gorge. If Chur doesn’t feel cosmopolitan enough, Zurich — which bills itself as the “smallest big city in the world” — is just back up the road.

• • •

Chur has plenty of sunshine year-round, so choose snow and winter sports, or summer warmth. Spring and autumn offer milder temperatures but more changeable weather.

Chur is less than two hours by car or train from the Zurich airport. Rental cars are expensive in Switzerland, but public transportation is clean and efficient and can get you almost anywhere, including mountain resorts. For the Swiss rail timetable, visit www.rail.ch.

The old-town area is packed with character-rich hotels, restaurants and bars. Top of the range is Romantik Hotel Stern, with double rooms from about $150 and an excellent restaurant downstairs. Midrange options include the comfortable and friendly Hotel Freieck, with doubles from about $120 and a youth hostel for budget travelers.

The classic regional dish is bundnerfleisch — beef hung to dry (similar to prosciutto) and served in thin slices. Good-value, traditional local cooking — largely based on pork or beef with potatoes and fresh vegetables — can be found at Drei Konige or Alten Zollhaus in the city center.

Wander the quiet cobbled streets of Chur’s old town or lounge at a sidewalk cafe. Beyond the cathedral on top of its small hill are walking trails through vineyards and forests up the first mountain slopes.

A cable car from the city up to a ridge with three peaks called Dreibundenstein, with good walking and skiing trails, costs about $17.50. Larger and more famous resorts — such as Arosa (www.arosa.ch), Davos (www.davos.ch), Flims (www.alpenarena.ch) and Klosters (www.klosters.ch) — are within an hour’s drive, train or bus ride. Two trips down the Pradaschier sled run (www.pradaschier.ch) cost $25, including a chairlift back to the top and a bus ride back to Chur.

More information is available from the Chur tourist office; visit www.churtourismus.ch or call 41/81-252-1818.

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