Chasa Chalavaina



Cur cha’l Piz Daint ha sü chapè, schi in trais dis plova
When the Piz Daint wears a hat, it will rain in three days.
(Val Müstair proverb)

A couple of paces from the village square to the Chasa Chalavaina, across the cobble stones, in under the eaves, thoughtfully up the ten steps of the outside staircase (—your right hand brushes against the 700-year-old granite walls and feels their roughness) then at the top the Gothic archway built using differently coloured chunks of volcanic limestone, and, stepping through it (—your left hand touches the old wooden door bearing the coat of arms of the noble von Hermanin family), out onto the terrace. There is a feeling of having been transported back in time, to the time breathed by every piece of timber, every nook and cranny in the Chasa Chalavaina. The cars in the street are unreal, alien shapes from a future century. The here-and-now setting of the terrace belongs to another age.

Neighing horses, the squeal and creak of carriage wheels, would fit the scene. The calendar might show the late middle ages. For instance 1499. That year is certainly a special one for the Val Müstair because according to legend on the 21st of May, 1499, Benedikt Fontana, the commander of the Grisons forces, stood by the parapet of the terrace dressed for battle. Fontana was addressing 6,300 young men of Grisons, all unmarried. They had gathered in the Müstair village square, in front of the Chasa Chalavaina, to hear Fontana’s instructions for the impending battle. The mats, as these youths, famous for their fighting prowess, were called, were intending to throw the Austro-Hapsburg troops out of the Val Müstair. Commander-in-chief of that army was the German Emperor, Maximilian. Maximilian had declared war upon the Grisons and the Swiss Confederates in April 1499, after the failure of peace negotiations following earlier clashes. In so doing he set the scene for what we today call the „Swabian War“.

Starving children

The troops of Grisons were standing in front of a special building. It was for one thing the only inn in the whole village. At the same time its style reminded the mats, coming as they did from the Engadine, that, in crossing the Pass Fuorn (German: Ofenpass), they had entered a different valley. According to its geographical location and alignment, this valley belonged broadly to the Austrian Tirol, but it was tied politically and linguistically to Grisons. At least until frontiers were later re-drawn, the Val Müstair was therefore shaped by two cultures. Accordingly, two distinct styles were apparent in the way the houses were built: whilst the walls and windows resembled those in their own houses in the Engadine, to the mats the design of the Chasa Chalavaina’s gable seemed strange. The open space under the roof, with its exposed beams, was typical of the Tirol. It was used for drying meat, fruit and herbs.

Benedikt Fontana gave his last speech from the terrace of what is today the Hotel Chasa Chalavaina. The next day, at the Calven, a defile between the two Austrian villages of Taufers and Laatsch, the Grisons encountered an enemy army twice their own strength. 12,000 Hapsburg troops were dug in there behind a rampart. The mats were able nevertheless to outdo the superior opposing force. A detachment made a strenuous night march in order to outflank the entrenchment and attack the Austrians from the rear. After a bitter struggle, during which a great deal of blood was spilt, the Bündner succeeded in beating Maximilian’s army. The Engadine force is said to have lost 2,000 men—among them, Benedikt Fontana.

For days after the Bündner’s victory, they put the upper Etsch Valley (German: Etschtal) to fire and the sword. The villages of Mals, Glurns and Laatsch went up in flames. Paul Foffa, the Bündner historian, tells how, when the battle and the raids were over, almost the only survivors were a „herd of emaciated children, seen in a field grazing the grass like cattle“.
The Battle of the Calven went down in history as one of Switzerland’s great military achievements.

Only a few weeks after the mats‘ victory, Maximilian retaliated with a new campaign. His soldiers created the same kind of picture in the Val Müstair as had been left behind in the Etschtal by the Engadine troops; villages were completely destroyed. The Chasa Chalavaina, however survived the troubles unscathed.

The Battle of the Calven demonstrates the strategic importance of the Val Müstair. For Maximilian, the Valley was the eastern gateway to the centre of the Confederation; it gives access to passes which were crucial positions for anyone wishing to reach the heart of the country. Secondly, goods from the fertile South Tirol were carried to market via routes through the Valley. What is more, it lies on the north/south link between the Reschen Pass and the Umbrail Pass—for Maximilian an enormously important axis in keeping together his great empire. These routes have several times thrown the Val Müstair into the chaos of armed conflict.

The Battle of the Calven gave the Chasa Chalavaina its name; the Rumantsch words „Chasa Chalavaina“ mean „Calven House“. The two crossed swords of the inn-sign commemorate the battle.

Grey cloth

Maun dar e maun tor—
Give one hand, take the other back.
(Val Müstair proverb. It refers to buying and selling.
If the vendor can hand over goods with one hand and, at the same time,
take the money with the other, then no debt and no mistrust will remain.)

Exactly when the Chasa Chalavaina was built is not known. In 1499, however, the building was already about 200 years old; Christoph Simonett, in his book „Die Bauernhäuser des Kantons Graubünden“ („Farmhouses of the Canton of Grisons“), dates its beginnings in the „Burgenzeit“, on the evidence of the light-slits in the foundation walls. In other words, the house must have been built before 1300. Two of the light-slits can still be seen today in the Cafetaria, which was once the court, or large courtyard. Now bricked up, they just form niches in the walls. The court is thus one of the oldest parts of the Chasa Chalavaina. It is about 700 years old.

The function of the Chasa Chalavaina has remained the same over the centuries. The building was designed as a sust, or inn, as is confirmed by the sizeable stable, also built during the Burgenzeit, on its east side. Here the coachmen and muleteers sheltered their mules and horses after their arduous journey over the passes.
Shortly after completion of the central structure, two long narrow rooms were built beside the court, looking onto the village square. These two rooms were very important for the people of the Val Müstair, for, behind these semi-circular windows, the cloth market was held. It was here that the women exchanged the „grey cloth“ they had woven for salt and groceries. The takings from the cloth market were used by the farming families of the Val Müstair to supplement their meagre income —parts of the land were unproductive and unprofitable.
Loden of Grisons, as the grey cloth was also known, was famous for its quality and much prized by merchants. Much of it went to Lombardy and was there re-sold. The left-hand shop is now part of the Cafetaria, the right-hand one used as a store-room.

The main entrance to the building is on the terrace, but the steps up to the terrace have not always led over the right-hand shop as they do today; once upon a time, until the barn was added—now converted into the hotel’s new wing—the steps rose against the inn’s southern wall.


Minchün ha da scuar avaunt seis üsch—
Each must sweep in front of his own door.
(Val Müstair proverb)

The doorway dates from Gothic times. Over the threshold lies the sulèr, or large entrance hall. Here, thousands of people have come and gone. Though the sound of their footsteps has died away between the meter-thick walls, they are not departed. Nor is it just the worn stone floor which brings to mind countless past guests; the sulèr holds signs of the past which conjure up a picture of life as it then was. The mats, for instance, left their mark. Near the front door there are innumerable small holes in the ceiling, which, even after 500 years, show with what force the mats thrust their halberds into the beams upon their return from sentry duty. This was the most practical place to keep their murderously sharp weapons.

The marks in the timber are so clear that the Bündner might have gone out only yesterday to fight Maximilian, and the single halberd in the ceiling today, kept there as a reminder of the Battle of the Calven, might simply have been forgotten by a rather confused mat. At any moment he could come clattering up the steps into the sulèr in his hob-nailed boots, sieze the halberd and hurry after his comrades.

One of the walls of the sulèr also bears the marks of war. There is a sketch just inside the front door on the left-hand wall showing two soldiers with charicatured features. The portraits might date from the year 1499 itself but, as the Chasa Chalavaina has housed soldiers on many occasions over the centuries, the sketch could equally well be of more recent date.

There are on the other hand some words written in oxblood on the wall just to the right of the door leading to the main public room, used by guests for eating and sitting. (In Rumantsch this room is called the stür, in German: Stube.) The lines are clearly dated. They were written by an Italian prisoner incarcerated in the cellar in 1696. He proclaims his misery, to the wall and to every reader from that day to this: „I regret the past, and fear the future.“ It is not known why he was locked up.

As those parts of the wall bearing the sketch and inscription have never been renovated, they also give information about the skills of craftsmen in earlier centuries. Running a hand over these areas, it is clear to an observer that the plasterwork is much finer than on the rest of the—renovated—wall. The plasterers‘ secret was to mix the plaster with egg-white.

Ida, Carl and Jon Fasser

Chi viva in spraunza mora chejond—
He who lives in hope dies in misery.
(Val Müstair proverb. „Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.“)

The Rumantsch word for the Swiss stone-pine is „dschember“ (German: Arvenholz). It is with this wood that the stür, adjacent to the sulèr, is lined. Characteristic of the Swiss stone-pine are not only its resinous smell, but also its many knots; because of their darker colour, these are clearly visible in the panels of walls and ceiling. In contrast, the floor of the stür is made of hardwood; softer types of wood were not good enough here because they wear out so quickly. While the Chasa Chalavaina was being refurbished in 1965 and the old floor was removed, another three layers of boards were discovered underneath. The timber was so worn away that the harder knots protruded like small mushrooms.

Quite close to the front wall with its windows, a step runs obliquely through the inn, an indication of how the Chasa Chalavaina grew in stages. During the seventeenth century two storeys were added to the original single-storey shops. The step came into being during this expansion as a result of the original lay-out of the outside walls. The panelling in this part of the stür, as you would expect, is more recent. Here too —and for the same reason—there is no sign of the mats‘ having been in the stür. On the other hand, they have left their mark for ever beside the tiled stove, which seems to have been their favourite place. With a clumsy hand, they scratched spear-heads and crosses into the wood of this projecting section of wall.

In the stür we also learn about the different owners of the Chasa Chalavaina, to the extent that that ownership is known. Although there is no record of who ran the inn up to the time of the Calven battle, we do know the identity of Benedikt Fontana’s hosts. They were the patrician Hermann family. Their coat of arms hangs over the door into the stür. It is carved with artistry and shows a stylised tree, over it a helmet with a dove. According to Erwin Poeschel, author of the multi-volume work „Die Kunstdenkmäler des Kantons Graubünden“ („Works of Art of the Canton of Grisons“), the coat of arms must have been carved around 1500. The same insigniacan be seen in a rather simpler version on the door dividing the outside staircase from the terrace; the year marked is 1593.
From the Hermann family came an Abbess of the Convent of St. Johann. A massive tombstone in her memory stands just beside the entrance to the convent church, on the right.

The Pernsteiner family were the next recorded owners of the Chasa Chalavaina. Their era ended with the death of Tonet Pernsteiner in 1879. His portrait, painted in oils, hangs in the stür. With his demise, the tradition of running the Chasa Chalavaina as an inn was also lost. Farming was the sole occupation of the two peasant families who next moved in. Only when it was acquired by its current owners, the Fasser family (Val Müstair people from the fourteenth century on), did the house once again come to be managed according to its original purpose. After running the nearby „Münsterhof“ together for 30 years, Carl and Ida Fasser bought the Chasa Chalavaina in 1958. In 1965 they restored the building superbly, with help from both the Canton of Grisons and the Swiss state.

Since the death of Carl Fasser in 1975, his wife and son Jon have run the Hotel Chasa Chalavaina. Carl Fasser, apart from being a hotelier, was also a teacher, President of the Val Müstair Raiffeisen savings bank and holder of several public offices; his memory is kept fresh by a large black and white photograph in the stür.

Cuschina naira

Amur per forza nu vaglia una scorza—
Forced love is not worth tuppence.
(Val Müstair proverb)

Where today a heavy leather curtain divides the stür from the cuschina naira, the „Kunst“, as it was called, once stood. This was a tiled wall which used heat from the cooking stove behind to heat the inn. The Kunst was mainly intended for use in spring and autumn, when it was not cold enough outside to light the tiled stove (German: Kachelofen).

For centuries, food in the Chasa Chalavaina was cooked over an open fire—in large amounts, as may be inferred from the size of the old kitchen utensils. The smoke from the hearth did not however escape up a chimney, but collected in the dome-shaped roof of the kitchen, where a simple hole acted as a vent. This open fire had a lasting effect on its surroundings: the kitchen is black, as black as pitch. The soot discoloured the arched ceiling, penetrating deep into the stonework.

Until the Chasa Chalavaina was re-furbished in 1965 and the Kunst removed, the kitchen staff would pass food through to the stür via a hatch, a small opening in the wall with a sliding wooden door. The hatch has been preserved and, viewed from the stür, can be seen to the left of the leather curtain. The fireplace which these days tempts one to linger in the kitchen was put in as part of the 1965 alterations to take the place of the old open fire. The fuorn (bread-oven), on the other hand, with its door just beside the fire-place, does date from y much earlier. Rye bread was baked in this oven, the typical Val Müstair rye bread still served today at every meal in the Chasa Chalavaina.

The size of the fuorn may be judged not only by taking a look inside; it’s capaciousness is also illustrated by a nice story. The following episode took place in 1799, when a Napoleonic army was fighting Grisons–Austrian forces in the Val Müstair. One morning, so the story goes, a chambermaid at the Chasa Chalavaina was doing the rooms when she tipped a bowlful of dirty water out of a window into the forecourt, without looking. At that very moment some French officers in full dress uniform were standing below, so the slops cascaded down upon them and their splendid attire from a height of several meters. This reportedly caused quite some indignation among the officers and they rushed into the house in order to get hold of the unfortunate girl and punish her.

She, however, desperately hunting for a good hiding-place, crawled into the bread-oven. A second maid stopped the opening with a bundle of twigs. The officers eventually had to abandon their search. The hapless girl is said to have stayed in the oven for three days, leaving her hiding-place only at night in order to eat and drink Despite its scale, the oven does not take away from the space of the kitchen. Its shape can though be seen clearly, outside the Chasa Chalavaina’s eastern wall: the fuorn lies within the curved projecting section of the wall. It was constructed by building it onto the outside wall—a style still more clearly marked elsewhere in the Val Müstair, e.g., in the Haus Pitsch in Santa Maria.

The kitchen with its open fire meant food and comforting warmth in the cold winter months. It thus served its turn not only as a kitchen but also as somewhere to sleep. Big wooden boards, arranged like a great staircase over the descent to the cellar, show how the kitchen was once used for sleeping. This series of steps was designed to make full use of the space over the cellar stairs, and the wooden boards were placed upon them. Here slept the employees of travelling gentry. The spot was a popular one; it was always warm in the kitchen, unlike the unheated rooms above.

Die Kammern (The rooms)

Chi bain pierta, bain jalda—
He who shares well, enjoys well.
(Val Müstair proverb. Selfishness brings but few rewards.)

The Chasa Chalavaina has 17 guest rooms. Each has its own name. All the names have a story or meaning behind them. While la raieta—“the little queen“—is named for a daughter of Carl and Ida Fasser, another room is called la sulagliva, because it catches an unusual amount of sun. La diogena is the smallest bedroom in the house and this explains its name. Here, as one visitor remarked, you feel like Diogenes in his barrel. La stüvetta, on the first floor, has its own terrace. This offers the best vantage point for a picture painted on the north outside wall of the Chasa Chalavaina in 1467. The wall painting shows the madonna, the infant St. Rochus on her lap. Beside them stands a man suffering from the plague, with a festering sore on his leg. Rochus, upon whose hand sits a crow, was the patron saint of sufferers from the disease. He could cure those sick with the pestilence.

The subject of the wall-painting bears witness to the fact that the Val Müstair did not escape the ravages of the black death. The plague claimed countless victimes here, indeed virtually wiped out entire villages. It was rife not once but several times. The Val Müstair was most severely affected in 1630.

One of the windows of la stüvetta opens onto the terrace and it is framed by a sgraffito which dates from the same period as the wall-painting. This pattern, scratched into the wall, is among the oldest sgraffiti in Grisons.

In the old part of the Chasa Chalavaina the first floor takes the visitor unawares with its many twists and turns. They echo the building’s history and reflect alterations carried out at various times. Nevertheless, the whole jigsaw fits harmoniously together. Structural changes can be read like the rings in a tree trunk.

The walls of the meandering passageway are hung with old Val Müstair farm implements. Doors open in all directions, doors with strikingly attractive locks. The Fasser family collected them from other old houses in order to re-use them here. In the doorways the guest is obliged to lower his head.
Earlier generations were certainly of smaller stature, as is confirmed by the ancient bed-steads in the guest rooms. Every one had to be lengthened in order to meet the needs of the present day.
A woodstove stands in a corner of the passage, reminding us that cooking was once done over two fires in the Chasa Chalavaina; for almost a hundred years after the departure of the Pernsteiners, two farming families lived here.

Chasa Chalavaina

Sumbriva da stà fa uai it vainter d’inviern—
A bad summer means belly-ache in winter.
(Farmers‘ saying from the Val Müstair.
If the hay will not dry properly in the summer because of bad weather,
the resulting poor-quality animal feed may disturb
the cattle’s digestive processes.)

In the new wing of the hotel, created in 1980 in what used to be the barn, fewer demands are placed on one’s sense of direction. Seven rooms now stand where once hay was stored and hens and goats housed. On entering, the room’s generous scale reminds one of its original purpose; this was the way to the hayloft, where the forage was stored after the summer harvest. Closing one’s eyes, the smell of dry hay seems still to hover in the air, the tangy fragrance of herbs and mountain flowers. The old beams, darkened by age and sunlight, and secured only with wooden pegs, were retained to help support the new walls.

In las pullas, one of the ground-floor rooms, there is another pointer to the past. This is where the hens used to live; the opening by which they would go in and out still remains visible under the right-hand window. The chicken design in the curtains re-emphasises the identity of the room’s former occupants. In the next room, la staletta, where the goats were kept, exactly the same principle applies; the relevant animal motif appears in the curtains.

When earth under the pens was being removed during the conversion from barn to new hotel wing, the architect discovered remains of old foundations. These turned out to be the foundation walls of a house which must have been built in the time of Charlemagne, i.e. at roughly the same time as the nearby Convent of St. Johann, which dates from the end of the eighth century.

By virtue of its antiquity and historic significance, the Chasa Chalavaina has been designated part of Switzerland’s national heritage; it is listed as a monument.

„The Chasa Chalavaina is a house that begs to be discovered“, as one guest said after a tour of the building. His comment is true, but that is not the whole story. The walls, boards and beams have absorbed the sounds and smells of the centuries. The rough voices of the mats, the maid’s frightened shrieks as she fled from the French officers, can, of course, no longer be heard. It is a long time since thyme, arnica and Bindenfleisch (dried beef) were dried under the roof, and the oven is cold where once rye bread was baked. Yet these sounds and smells live on. Although they now belong to the past, they pervade the atmosphere of the Chasa Chalavaina. The past invests the house with dignity, a dignity etched deep by time.

May 21.1499