Life in a Swiss Mountain Village

Watching Fall Turn to Winter in the Engadine Valley

Switzerland may be Melissa’s and my favorite country to visit. Nowhere else is the scenery so consistently stunning. (It helps that we both adore mountains.) And it’s so easy to get around. Switzerland has a vast, well-synchronized network of trains, buses, and cable cars that can take you almost anywhere—even to tiny villages or remote valleys that, in other countries, you’d never be able to reach without your own vehicle.

The downside of Switzerland is that it’s expensive. So we love finding housesits there. In exchange for taking care of someone’s home and pets, we get a free place to stay and somewhere to cook our own meals, so we don’t have to rely on pricey hotels, vacation rentals, and restaurants. That leaves us more money for things we love, like taking scenic train trips, visiting museums, and sampling local specialties.

For two magical summers, in 2017 and 2018, we housesat on Lake Lucerne in central Switzerland. If the homeowner hadn’t moved to Germany the next year, we might have kept doing that forever. In mid-November of 2022, we returned to Switzerland for a new housesit, this time in the village of Sent (population 800) in the easternmost part of the country, near the borders with Italy and Austria.

Village with tall spire on treed hillside next to snow-capped mountains

Sent is perched on a hillside plateau at 4,700 feet in the quiet, northern end of the 80-mile-long Engadine Valley. The area’s name means “valley of the Inn”—a little river that starts in the Engadine and flows northeast through Innsbruck, Austria, into the Danube River, and eventually to the Black Sea. It’s funny to think that a water droplet running down the hillside in our village could end up that far away.

Although the Engadine Valley draws few visitors from outside Europe, it was the first place I ever visited in Switzerland as a grownup. (I have some memories of the Alps from a family trip to Europe when I was 8 or 9, but they’re hazy.) Melissa and I came here in 2006 because it was a mountainous part of Switzerland that she hadn’t been to yet. We stayed in a village called Guarda not far from Sent (see the Engadine Valley 2006 photo gallery) and fell in love with the area. So when we saw a rare opportunity to housesit here, we couldn’t resist it.

Looking over snow-covered roofs of village to mountains in the distance
The view from our upstairs window after a snowfall

Views and Church Bells and Happiness

Looking out the windows or stepping out the door of our housesit, what dominates your view is a line of tall limestone peaks that feel impossibly close. They rise just on the other side of the narrow river valley. This time of year, the tops of the mountains are dusted in snow, which makes them even more beautiful (to my eye) than they are in the summer. The snow coats each crag and crevice, bringing out the details of a mountain’s shape. Throughout the day, changes in the play of light and clouds on the mountains make them look always a little different than they did an hour ago.

Sent is full of steep, narrow streets. We go everywhere in the village on foot: to the little grocery store, the bakery, the butcher’s shop, the dairy store (which sells some of the best berry yogurt I’ve ever tasted), and the village’s two eateries (a pizzeria/bar and a fancy restaurant). For longer jaunts, there’s a bus every hour that connects to the train station in the bigger, neighboring town of Scuol.

Green lawn, white house, yellow bus, and mountains in Sent
The yellow post buses that connect to virtually every village in Switzerland

Our favorite thing in Scuol is the mineral baths, a water spa with a variety of warm and hot indoor and outdoor pools and saunas. Floating in the warm outdoor pool while looking up at the snowy mountains or the stars is an idyllic experience.

There are lots of beautiful hikes in this part of the Engadine Valley. We walked the two and a half miles to Scuol on one sunny day. But during most of our stay in Sent, it was too cold or snowy or foggy for hiking. So we had a cozy time in our warm apartment—houses here are built to withstand the winter—snuggling with the two resident cats, working, reading, doing a jigsaw puzzle we brought from France, watching World Cup matches (me), and enjoying copious cups of tea (Melissa) along with apple pastries from the village bakery.

At our end of the village, the picturesque ruins of an old stone church sit atop a rock outcropping. The current church, a few blocks farther away, features a turn-of-the-last-century steeple that I find rather garish. But the steeple is the tallest one in this part of the valley and makes it easy to spot our village from many miles away.

Ruin of yellowish stone church with square tower and missing roof against mountain landscape
Sent’s former church, which burned in the early 1600s
Village houses and 1898 neo-Gothic church steeple with mountains in the background
Sent’s current church steeple was built in 1898 in a neo-Gothic style

The church bells chime the hours, half hours, and quarter hours. They ring longer peals every day at noon (time for lunch) and 1:30 (time to go back to work). With all that audible timekeeping, you scarcely need to look at the steeple’s clock—which, because this is Switzerland, always shows the correct time.

The main language spoken in Sent is Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth national language (after Swiss German, French, and Italian). Romansh is descended from the common spoken Latin brought to eastern Switzerland by the Romans starting in 15 BC. Romansh looks and sounds much more like Italian, Spanish, or French than like the other main language spoken in eastern Switzerland, Swiss German.

People in winter coats at an outdoor Christmas market in Scuol
Outdoor Christmas market in Scuol, a town close to Sent

When you enter a shop or pass people on the street in Sent, you say allegra to them in Romansh, which serves as hello and means you are wishing them happiness. Saying that always tickled me, as a lover of classical music, because of its similarity to allegro, which means an upscale tempo.

Sgraffito and Swallows

If you picture a Swiss mountain village, you may think of wooden chalets with long balconies, a style that is common elsewhere in the Alps. In the Engadine Valley, things look different. Older houses are made of stone covered in plaster and are decorated in a distinctive style called sgraffito. Around the windows and doors, under the roofline, and on the corners of the outside walls, designs are scratched into the plaster, exposing a different color of plaster underneath.

Traditional Engadine houses are decorated with an etching technique called sgraffito

Many of the designs are simple borders or geometric shapes. But some are more elaborate and include monsters or mountain animals, such as bears or ibexes. Many houses have a bible verse inscribed on the outside, and older families also display their coats of arms in sgraffito. Other inscriptions frequently record the year a house was built and the year the sgraffito was last redone. The oldest houses we’ve seen in Sent date from the 1600s. This style of decoration withstands the winter weather better than painting does. Judging from inscriptions, sgraffito can last for more than 50 years before needing to be touched up.

Traditional Engadine houses are big, with living quarters for an extended family, plus barn and cellar space for farm animals (whose presence in winter helps warm the house), wagon storage, workshops, and a hay loft. Many houses have two arched doorways in front. The higher one leads to the main hallway and living quarters; the lower one goes down to the storage cellar (now often a garage).

Some of the older houses in Sent have that traditional Engadine style. But others have a different style that you find nowhere else in the valley. That’s because of Sent’s unique historical connection to Italy.

In centuries past, when the Engadine region was poor and jobs were scarce, many men from Sent traveled to nearby Italy in search of work, walking through the same Alpine passes that the Romans had used. Those emigrants were called randolina, which means “swallows” in Romansh, because like the swallows, they returned regularly to their village.

Sgraffito etching on a house in Sent of a walking man leading an ox cart full of bread loaves
This etching on a house in Sent recalls the generations of residents who traveled on foot to Italy in search of work

Some randolinas found success in Italy as pastry bakers and confectioners and made enough money to build large homes back in Sent. Compared with traditional Engadine houses, those homes show Italian influences, such as a rectangular shape, a flat roof, straight rows of large windows, wrought-iron balconies, or sometimes even columns. The most un-Engadine house in Sent has towers with crenellations on top exactly like ones we saw in Trento, Italy, and neo-Baroque designs painted on the outside. Today, some Italian-style houses belong to Italian descendants of the randolinas and are so ill-suited to Sent’s cold winters that they can only be used in the summer.

An Italian-style house in Sent, complete with columns and rows of big windows
A house in Sent with tower crenellations like those in Trento, Italy

As testaments to the Sent–Italy randolina connection, our little village boasts a first-rate bakery (with traditional Engadine nut tarts and fruit breads), an award-winning confectioner, and an authentic Italian pizzeria. Not bad for a village of 800 people in a remote corner of the Alps.

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