The Village of the Returners.
Chestnut Trees, Cameras and Blessed with Children: Soglio
By Jano Felice Pajarola
The camera: This is the identifying feature of a guest in Soglio. Whilst the locals go about their daily business, visitors here, charmed maybe by the popular Sentiero Panoramico along which they are walking, reach for their camera to record the views: the twisted alleyways, the picturesque houses and barns, the grand palazzi. I can understand them. Soglio has a prize-winning beauty. And this beauty must be maintained. It is a day in late autumn, in the copses below the village, the drying fires for the chestnuts are smouldering, feeding columns of smoke up into the air, up in the village the early quiet is being replaced by the tourist bustle gradually returning to Via Sott Paré, Via Plazza, Gassa d’Uspadera and all the other lanes and squares in the village centre. And in Gassa d’la Streccia, where I have arranged to meet two young women from Soglio, to find out from them what life in the picture postcard village is like. 20 years ago, there were those who said that Soglio would be finished in ten years, due to ageing population, and people moving away, despite all the beauty.
Elena’s surname is Giacometti, Elisa’s is Nunzi, but both were originally Giovanolis from Soglio. They are sisters, 29 und 30 years old. In the meantime, they have both started their own families, Elena in nearby Vicosoprano, Elisa in Soglio. They recall their own childhoods fondly. «We always played outside in the forest, in the village, we built dens and igloos, and put on circus performances. We all played together, older, younger, boys, girls, it didn’t matter», remembers Elisa. They went to the local school together, in the days when the village still had a school. «Everyone knew everyone, you knew everything about everyone. But then when you get older, a little village like that can also get a bit oppressive.» People were pretty much forced away for education anyway, there are few training opportunities in Bergell.
Elisa became a specialist carer and social worker, Elena an ICT and filing assistant. «But then I had had enough of the city», says Elisa. She wanted to go back to the mountains, «back to the freedom here», to nature, to the animals; today, alongside her job, she helps her parents with the goats on their farm. «Soglio wouldn’t be Soglio without the farmers», she says.
Soglio has changed and should continue to do so.
Elena chose to live where her husband came from, but she too has a close connection to Soglio, it is a small house with a stable on the Gassa d’la Streccia, bought from her great-uncle. No-one had lived in it for a century, «I then renovated it with my husband at great effort and furnished it a bit like it was when people lived here before.» La Streccia, as they named the little house, shows how simply people used to live within these walls with its cellar, kitchen, sitting room and bedroom. For three years now, guided tours have been offered together with hike leader Werner Anliker , there are excursions into the history of Soglio, and an old smithy on the other side of the street now serves as an exhibition room for historical photographs from the village. For Elena though, it is not just about purely preserving the past. «You always think that time has stood still here. But the photos show that that is not the case at all», she says. «Soglio has changed and should continue to do so, without losing its past and its identity.»
I carry on, waved off by Daniele, Elisa’s son, whose mother hopes will also move away later to broaden his horizons, but have the opportunity to return if he wants to.
At the moment there are ten to fifteen children of school age in Soglio; it would almost be worth opening the school again, the school building is still there but was re-purposed long ago, and to the left of it, in a yellow house inscribed «Soglio» in capital letters, guests can find the body care products for which the village is well-known far around. The company, built up four decades ago by two incomers, Walter Hunkeler und Martin Ermatinger, provides nearly 20 jobs in the valley today. I am meeting the son of one of them, Ivo, who is a second-generation in the village; he was born and grew up here, one of Elena’s generation, but is also a returner. Apprenticeship as a carpenter, professional examination, then studied as an industrial engineer, all down in the lowlands. He had not intended to get into the business at home– until his father mentioned it. «He once wanted to prove that you could make things sustainably in a remote Alpine valley using local raw materials and thereby create jobs», says Ivo. «that’s my philosophy too.»
I have never yet had the feeling of being at home anywhere else.
And so the way things turned out suits him. He mainly takes care of the company’s external communications, in two to three years he will take over management. «And it’s really nice to live here, much less hectic than in the city. Of course, there are lots of people in the alleyways in the summer and autumn. But then in the winter we have a lot of peace and quiet. I have never yet had the feeling of being at home anywhere else.» Ivo stresses that he is convinced that the outlook for the village of Soglio is not as negative as it once looked. «You really notice the effect of the lure of the mountains since Covid has been around, and people have been asking whether they really need what cities offer. And people increasingly choosing local and regional products, products that they know the origin of, will be a long-term phenomenon.»
Having ideas, finding niches – that also seems to be a survival recipe here and many are succeeding. A home-made chestnut bread from the Bottega of the Brügger farming family who run a Bed and Breakfast on the Plazza, a Mascarplin cheese made from milk from Elena and Elisa’s parents’ goats, that is the taste of Soglio, and Soglio tastes as nice as it is beautiful. After a quick coffee on a little table in front of the Palazzo Salis, steeped in history, it is time to go to Tosca. Tosca Giovanoli lives with her husband in a house on the bottom edge of the village with a view of the Sciora Group, the mountain silhouette that is as much an icon of Soglio as the cameras and chestnuts. Amongst other things, the 44-year-old organises the annual Chestnut festival, which takes place every October for Bregaglia Engadin Turismo. She likes this work as she can develop new ideas in it, which suits her. «I come from Promontogno, but I often came to Soglio as a child, my father grew up here», explains Tosca. «And this is where I met my husband Federico.»
Soglio is on the right path.
But she also left the valley, as her training with the Post Office took her to Thusis, St. Moritz, Geneva. «I think I would feel at home anywhere», says Tosca. «Even in the city. But I wanted to come back to start a family. It is really nice in Bergell.» Although now and then, admits Tosca, it is absolutely the tourists enchanted by Soglio that remind you of that. «That reminds you how lucky you are and makes you appreciate it», she smiles. Her two children have already left home; Gabriele, her son, is training as a chef. Does she think he might one day return? «Hard to say. He wants to see the world now, as is usual in his job.» But however it turns out, Tosca too is sure, «Soglio is on the right path.»
The village has around 110 permanent residents at the moment, «that is more than there were», states Armando Ruinelli, 66. We are sitting in his studio on the Giümella in the middle of Soglio, central, but a few crucial steps away from the tourist paths. If you ask him, the renowned architect, what the advantages of the place are, the answer is clear: the elevated location on a hillside plateau with the striking mountains opposite. The magnificent palazzi next to the simple farmhouses and stables. The southern, somewhat Mediterranean character. «But the village cannot be a theatre, not a play, no false romance. We should remember that we are in 2020, and be honest with the guests.» Village renovation is an important subject in Armando’s work, places like Soglio have to rejuvenate themselves, he thinks, «otherwise they will wither. Those who just hang on to the past run the risk of just preserving or, worse still. Imitating the old with the new. Not everything that is old is also good.» And what isn’t good should be replaced with something new and contemporary.
I’d wish to see biodiversity of employment.
He has already demonstrated that several times as an architect, and his buildings have become part of Soglio’s identity. And yes, he too, it almost goes without saying, is someone who has returned; after training as a structural draughtsman in Zürich, he wanted to think back home in Soglio about where things were going, then one commission came in, then another, then another, «and ultimately I had my own architecture business». Now he has lived and worked in Soglio for 40 years, happily, as he stresses, «though I don’t know what it would be like if I didn’t have the opportunity to keep leaving the valley.» He hopes for one thing above all else for the future of the village: no monoculture but «a healthy mix amongst the people who live here, a biodiversity of employment, so-to-speak.» Variety, in Armando’s view, is his hope.
I wander for the last time today through the alleys, evening has come, the guests have nearly all disappeared, the cameras with them, but down in the coppices, the wisps of chestnut fires still rise, and somewhere I can hear children’s laughter. No, today no-one would still say that this village couldn’t still be here in ten years. Soglio lives.
A Destination in Winter Too
There is no actual winter season in Soglio. It is very quiet in the Bergell village from November to May, and the locals see that as entirely pleasant. «In winter you see the authentic side of Soglio», says Elena Giacometti. «There are no guests from abroad, but then the locals from the valley floor come up to Soglio in the sunshine.» That’s because the sun is up for more hours in the day in good weather when the rays don’t reach the valley floor – from around 11.30 until 14.30. «The locals», as Tosca Giovanoli knows, «then all go walking at the same time, so it’s a good time window for meetings.» The busy summer and autumn, the quiet winter, the gentle re-awakening in spring: Ivo Ermatinger appreciates this rhythm, almost like nature. «You notice it more in Soglio. And those who come here in winter come for the quiet and the time they have for themselves.» A secret tip, them – and besides- you can find a bed in Soglio, even in winter, whether that is in the Brügger family’s bed and breakfast, in one of the hotels there – «Palazzo Salis», «Stüa Granda» and «La Soglina» – or in one of the holiday homes. Bregaglia Engadin Turismo will be happy to help.