Valley Girls: Meet The Ladies Of Switzerland's Engadine Valley
A few hours by car from both Zürich and Milan, the fertile Alpine tranche known as the Engadine Valley is tucked into a hard-to-reach corner of southeastern Switzerland composed of pristine little villages and anchored by the glamorous ski resort of Saint Moritz toward its southwestern end. Though the idyllic countryside around it is minimally developed and lovingly preserved—it’s also one of only a handful of areas of Switzerland where Rumantsch, a dialect of Latin, is still widely spoken—Saint Moritz is not exactly a secret. English outdoor enthusiasts and German intellectuals like Hermann Hesse and Friedrich Nietzsche flocked there around the turn of the last century, escaping cities that were growing dirtier and denser.
But it was the Niarchos and Agnelli families in the 1960s who would give the ski resort its contemporary social profile. So appealing was its lifestyle of winter sports and high-octane après-ski parties that it inspired a brand of cigarettes. (“Longer, richer, cooler” read the tagline of an ad from 1968 for St. Moritz menthols.) The German playboy Gunter Sachs, once married to Brigitte Bardot, was another key player, ensconced in his penthouse lair in Saint Moritz’s Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, where 10 of Warhol’s “Marilyns” hung in his kitchen. Today, scions have taken over—Rolf Sachs runs his father’s still-hot Dracula Club; chairlift paparazzi stalk John and Lapo Elkann—along with private planeloads of Indian millionaires, Russian oligarchs, and their assorted playmates swathed in ostentatious furs and blinding diamonds.
So far, so Gstaad—but there is a crucial difference between the two moneyed Swiss enclaves. Glitzy Saint Moritz is only one of the Engadine Valley’s abundant offerings. Low-key villages like S-chanf, Celerina, and Zuoz lure a more cerebral crowd, as likely to come for summertime hiking as for high-season dinners at Chesa Veglia in Badrutt’s Palace. Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, as well as the Etro family, have homes in the area, and “there are more serious art galleries per square foot than in any other resort region,” says the columnist and dealer Kenny Schachter, who has spent Christmas in Saint Moritz with his family for 25 years. Since Bruno Bischofberger opened his first gallery in Saint Moritz in 1963, this side of the Engadine’s social divide lays greater claim to the sellers and makers of art than to its patrons. Native talents like the 19th-century painter Giovanni Segantini, 20th-century sculptor Alberto Giacometti, and 21st-century polymath Not Vital are more likely to come up in conversation than the latest arm candy of multimillionaire Saint Moritz scenester Arun Nayar.
Susanne Thun has been coming to Engadine since the early 1990s, when she and her husband, the architect and Memphis group designer Matteo Thun, bought two adjoined duplex apartments in Celerina. “So much happens here culturally because people have time to see their friends,” she says. “It’s cold and it gets dark at 4 p.m., so what else are you going to do?” The London gallerist Stephen Friedman and his husband stay at the boutique guesthouse Villa Flor in sleepy S-chanf for a few weeks every summer. “We try to disappear in the summer, but it turns out that here I run into people I really like,” he says. Other habitués include Julian Schnabel, also a frequent guest of Villa Flor; the Brussels gallerist Xavier Hufkens; and Miklos von Bartha, who opened a gallery nearby and who pops in to have coffee every morning with Villa Flor’s owner, Ladina Florineth. To keep things lively, the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist helped launch the Engadin Art Talks in 2010, held at the Hotel Castell, in Zuoz. Just a few minutes’ drive from the elite boarding school Lyceum Alpinum, where many a son and daughter of socially prominent vacationers have been enrolled, the hotel is owned by the artist and collector Ruedi Bechtler. The bar of its pop-casual lobby restaurant was codesigned by the artist Pipilotti Rist, and works by Erwin Wurm, Carsten Höller, Lawrence Weiner, and Peter Fischli and David Weiss are strewn throughout. One of James Turrell’s most contemplative “Skyspace” structures, Piz Uter (2005), can be found just a short stroll away, up a grassy knoll where it frames the peak of Piz Uter across the valley.
The Engadine galleries aren’t hidden, but with the exception of Julian’s son Vito Schnabel’s first permanent home as a dealer, in Bischofberger’s former space on Saint Moritz’s main drag, they don’t compete with the landscape. Passing through the region, you’d be more likely to notice the pine-covered hills, glacier-fed rivers, medieval church towers, and pastel-colored houses that line the cobblestoned village streets.
The facades are festooned with decorative botanical and mythical etchings called sgraffito, and from the outside many of them seem interchangeable. Most are attractive in an unassuming way, built for the farmers, brewers, and confectioners that populated the valley before the hotels opened their doors. Venture inside for a chat with some of the owners, however, and the similarity ends.