Engadin Scuol in the Lower Engadine Valley of Switzerland has taken a smart approach to tourism, pioneering 'barrier-free' holidays – Justine Tyerman dines at one of 30 guaranteed lactose and gluten-free restaurants where those with food allergies and intolerances can eat to their heart's content.
My gluten-free daughter and celiac friend would love this place, I thought as I surveyed the extensive menu through the eyes of Sophie and Nicki who would normally find very little they could enjoy, worry-free, at the average restaurant.
Engadin Scuol in the Lower Engadine Valley is the first region in Switzerland to offer guaranteed lactose and gluten-free restaurants where those with celiac disease or other food intolerances can fully relax and eat to their heart's content. There are more than 30 lactose and gluten-free restaurants in the region.
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Our lunch at the Oasa da Wellness was a perfect example of this concept in action. We had a delicious array of dishes starting with an autumn salad with marinated wild mushrooms and cranberry vinaigrette, then tender veal with salsa verde, potato gratin, grilled tomatoes and zucchini, followed by a variety of homemade sorbets. Had I not seen the guarantee on the menu, I would not have known they were all lactose and gluten-free dishes.
The cuisine at the Belvedere Hotel where I stayed also had an emphasis on health and nutrition. Our Mediterran Vitello dinner began with a 'Green Power' smoothie made with banana, kiwifruit, apple and spinach, followed by giant prawns with venere rice and broccoli, and finished with (a not so healthy treat) crème brülée with pomegranate topping.
I found myself looking forward to breakfast at the Belvedere, a meal I usually skip at home. There was such a wonderful selection of fresh fruit, yoghurt, muesli, cheeses and pastries not to mention all the cold meats and cooked options.
Engadin Scuol has taken a smart approach to tourism, pioneering 'barrier-free' holidays where obstacles to the full enjoyment of the experience are removed - such as providing wheelchair-accessible accommodation options which have been tested by the Swiss Paraplegics Association.
It's all part of developing the area as a unique wellness destination. In fact, Engadin Scuol has been a wellness destination for centuries, ever since the discovery of mineral springs over 650 years ago, and probably before that in Roman times, but only recently has the region been allowed to call itself a 'Gesundheitsregion', a wellness and health region.
As one would expect in Switzerland, there are strict criteria to comply with before an area is permitted to trumpet itself as a purveyor of wellness. Engadin Scuol joined Switzerland's exclusive club of six Wellness Destinations in 2008 and since then has been developing a unique destination based on the 20 ancient mineral springs that bubble up from the nearby Inn Valley.
The springs, first mentioned in 1369, carry the strongest mineral waters in Europe. At the end of the 19th century, when drinking therapies were very much de rigueur, the region was a tourism hot spot, a mecca for those seeking cures for a variety of ailments.
My introduction to this exquisitely-beautiful region in the eastern Swiss Alps was a thrilling gondola ride to the top of Motta Naluns, 2142m. While feasting on healthy gastronomical delights at the Motta Restaurant, I drank in the breath-taking panorama of the Swiss National Park and the Engadin Dolomites dominated by the highest peak Piz Pisoc, 3173m. It towers above the dark green forests and deep valleys that cut deep into the terrain of the national park.
Made up of five communities with a population of 8500 people, Engadin Scuol is a region still largely undiscovered and consequently not overrun by tourists with selfie sticks. A tranquil, peaceful, relaxed atmosphere prevails due to the influence of the local 'Pachific' philosophy which is all about a calm, stress-free mental outlook and a healthy mountain lifestyle.
Philipp from the local tourism office said the people here don't care about politics, big business and what's happening in Zurich or Geneva. So a holiday in the Engadin Scuol region is an antidote to the stressful, high pressure, technology-driven lives that many people lead in the cities where performing 24/7 at 100 percent capacity is the priority. Swiss love the area for precisely this reason - because it offers respite from the modern work and consumption-driven society.
Unlike the glamorous spas and resorts of St Moritz, Bürgenstock and Bad Ragaz which attract the rich, the famous and the titled, Scuol and its neighbours Zernez, Valsot, Val Mustair and Samnaun are popular holiday destinations for those seeking a pure, unspoilt, authentic Swiss alpine experience where nature and healthy outdoor pursuits are the focus rather than the extravagances of five-star luxury hotels. Excellent hotel, lodge, spa, rehabilitation, medical and hospital facilities are all available in the region but in less glitzy, ostentatious packaging. There are no nightclubs, discos or casinos, so often the only sounds you hear at night are the tinkling of cow bells.
Guide Niculin took us on a walking tour of the pretty village of Scuol where there are buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. Many Italian workers lived in the village in the 18th century and brought with them their exquisite sgraffito art to decorate the walls of their dwellings. The technique involved applying layers of coloured plaster to the walls then scratching patterns in the plaster with iron tools. The designs depicted waves, dolphins, fish and dragons, all highly stylised and symbolic.
The houses were built small windows to limit heat loss and deep sills that funnel the light and sunshine into the rooms. The main doors were wide to allow wagons loaded with hay to pass through them.
They cluster around a square with a fountain in the centre where everyone used to congregate to collect water and catch up on the local gossip. The fountains have three levels – the top level for drinking water and the bottom for washing.
The region has a wealth of unique attributes. The magnificent unspoilt natural landscape of the Swiss National Park, impressive spa facilities, the strongest mineral waters in Europe, an extensive array of winter and summer activities, high-quality organic products, lactose and gluten-free restaurants, the richly-colourful Romansh culture and language, and the tranquil mountain lifestyle with its 'Pachific' worry-free outlook on life . . . combined with the determination to remove all barriers to the full enjoyment of the area.
The accessibility concept extends to retail therapy too. Samnuan, one of the 25 villages in the region, is a tax-free island thereby making shopping considerably cheaper and more enjoyable. Now that's clever.
"Our aim is access for all – we aspire to be the masters of accessibility," said Philipp.
Knowing the Swiss, I'm sure they will.