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updated 6/13/2005 2:31:34 PM ET 2005-06-13T18:31:34

So you want a vacation featuring culture, restaurants and night life, with easy access to the great outdoors as well?

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It sounds like a tough combination. Big cities are hardly known for their fresh air and uncluttered views - just as resort destinations often have little in the way of local culture.

But Chur, a charming city with a medieval ambiance in the heart of the Swiss Alps, is a jumping-off point for mountain hikes and ski slopes, but it has all the buzz of a big city. And it's less than two hours from the Zurich airport.

"Its importance as an Alpine center has left behind many traces in the town and these are documented in our museums - art, nature and history," said Peter Laube, head of the city's tourist office.

Chur was first settled more than 4,000 years ago as a provincial Roman capital, making it one of the oldest towns north of the Alps.

The current population is just 35,000 - small fry on a global scale, but it also claims the highest density of restaurants per person in Switzerland and feels almost like London, New York or Paris to those who have just come down from an extended spell in the isolation of the surrounding mountains.

"Chur may be described, with complete justification, as a center of Alpine culture," Laube said.

The cobbled streets of Chur's old town are perfectly suited to an aimless wander, as are the banks of the river Plessur, which burbles between steep banks on its way to the Rhine - with the surrounding heights providing a stunning new backdrop at every street corner.

Right in the center is the gothic St. Martin's church, on a picturesque square, surrounded by pedestrian-friendly streets full of cafes and restaurants.

A steep hill rises behind the church to the onion-domed cathedral, seemingly on the very edge of the city. On the other side of the road, walking paths lead through vineyards to forested slopes beyond, with access to the mountains and fine views back over Chur and across the Rhine valley to neighboring mountain ranges.

Back on the valley floor, Chur also has a diverting art gallery, in the middle of the main shopping district, featuring offbeat temporary exhibitions - such as the importance of snow to the local economy - as well as landscapes, portraits and other works by local painters.

The quickest way to the mountains is to hop on a cable car direct from the city center up a ridge with three peaks called the Dreibuendenstein, which offers walking, a medium-sized ski area and paragliding - as well as the world's longest summer sled run.

In winter, the town bustles with skiers and boarders heading for the cable car base station, creating an atmosphere almost like a ski resort.

Due to its relative isolation from other major cities, Chur is also a shopping center, with brand-name retailers and department stores as well as outlets for local specialties like wine, crystal, handicrafts and thin-sliced Buendnerfleisch - beef which has been hung to dry in a farmhouse attic.

The surrounding area of Graubuenden canton (state) has more to offer, from traditional and isolated mountain villages where everyone knows each other, to world-famous resorts, many of them a short trip from Chur.

The Arosa resort is a scenic hour's train ride or drive up the Plessur valley, while Klosters resort - known as a favorite holiday spot of Prince Charles - is only a little further.

Davos is bigger and brasher than Klosters - with which it shares a skiing area and lift pass - while snowboarders may prefer the Flims resort, which is just as easily accessible in the other direction.

Those who wish to venture a bit further afield can take one of the most spectacular train rides in Europe to the glitzy resort of St. Moritz, at the top end of the stunning Engadine valley, while to the west of Chur, transport connections climb through the dramatic, sheer rock walls of the Rhine gorge.

And if Chur itself doesn't feel cosmopolitan enough, Zurich - which bills itself the "smallest big city in the world" - is just back up the road.

If You Go:

GETTING THERE: Chur is located at the foot of the high Alps, on the floor of the upper Rhine valley. It is less than two hours by car or train from the Zurich airport.

GETTING AROUND: Car hire and taxis are available at the airport, but are expensive in Switzerland. Public transport is clean and efficient and can get you almost anywhere, including mountain resorts. Swiss rail timetable: www.rail.ch.

LODGING AND DINING: Chur's old town is packed with character-rich hotels, restaurants and bars. Top of the range is Romantik Hotel Stern, with double rooms from $151 and an excellent restaurant downstairs. Mid-range options include the comfortable and friendly Hotel Freieck with doubles from $120 and a youth hostel for budget travelers.

The classic regional dish is "Buendnerfleisch" - beef hung to dry in a farmhouse attic and then served in thin slices. Good value, traditional local cooking - largely based on pork or beef with potatoes and fresh vegetables - can be found at Drei Koenige or Alten Zollhaus, both in the city center. The streets around Obertor, a remnant of Chur's medieval fortifications, are full of lively bars and pubs.

THINGS TO DO: Wander the quiet cobbled streets of Chur's old town or lounge at a sidewalk cafe. Beyond the cathedral on top of its small hill are walking trails through vineyards and forests up the first mountain slopes. Chur's art gallery is in the city center; admission, $6.50.

A cable car from the city up to a ridge with three peaks called Dreibuendenstein, with good walking and skiing trails, costs about $17.50. Larger and more famous resorts - such as Arosa (www.arosa.ch), Davos (www.davos.ch), Flims (www.alpenarena.ch) and Klosters (www.klosters.ch) - are within an hour's drive, train or bus ride. Two trips down the Pradaschier sled run (www.pradaschier.ch) cost $25, including a chairlift back to the top and a bus ride back to Chur.

Chur offers a wide array of shopping for its size, with department stores as well as various specialty shops and boutiques.

WHEN TO GO: Chur has plenty of sunshine year-round, so choose between snow and winter sports, or summer warmth. Spring and autumn offer milder temperatures, but more changeable weather.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Chur tourist office, www.churtourismus.ch or (011) (41) 81-252-1818.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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