At the Swiss hamlet of Andeer, the narrow upper Rhine cascades through a rocky gorge. Outside a cheese shop, a sign (freely translated) reads “Milk, cheese, curds and cream, help our people get up steam.”
The message is hardly surprising, but the language is unusual. It is Romansh, an ancient tongue now spoken by less than 1 % of the Swiss population.
Nearby Zillis has a 12th century Romanesque church. Some 153 painted wooden panels adorn the ceiling, each portraying supernatural creatures or scenes from the lives of Christ or Saint Martin.
Zillis, too, was once mainly Romansh-speaking. With subsidies for its teaching and publication of school books, Romansh remains one of Switzerland’s four official languages, and is still the primary school language for thousands of children in the sprawling southeastern canton of Graubünden.
My wife Annie and I are visiting a couple of dear old friends who live in Graubünden. They drive us around, and we make side trips by train.
We had expected beautiful mountain scenery and a prosperous land of clean efficiency. But we had never imagined the full diversity of the Swiss cultural tapestry, the quirky and endearing coexistence of the traditional and modern, and the way history is cherished and kept alive.
In the vibrant, Italian-speaking southern canton of Ticino, we visit sultry, almost Mediterranean Lugano. Palm trees thrive and the Italian Renaissance architecture is unlike that of the Germanic Swiss north. Cave-like grotto restaurants serve liver, tripe and horse steaks. The countryside has countless backyard vineyards.
At nearby Bellinzona, Julie, our personal guide, says that her brother-in-law is typical. He grows his own grapes, makes wine and has it distilled into about thirty liters of powerful grappa a year. American born, Julie says Ticino has the best of both worlds, combining the zest and flair of Italian culture with Swiss order, competence and reliability.
She takes us to three impressive 13th to 15th century castles that dominate Bellinzona, built by the dukes of Milan to command a strategic river valley and to tax trade along the passes leading northward. One castle hosts an annual medieval festival, with jousting, period costumes, and roast pig eaten from wooden bowls.
Another day, we ride the narrow-gauge Bernina Express over the Alps, through tunnels blasted more than 100 years ago. Some spiral like corkscrews deep within the rock and emerge to cross tongue-bitingly high viaducts.
Our destination is Poschiavo, an enchanting village in another Italian-speaking region. We stay at the historic Albrici hotel, built in the 17th century. The 10 bedrooms feature antique furniture but no phones or TV.
We dine outside on the cobblestone piazza, between two ancient churches. The owner recommends regional main dishes. I enjoy flavorful buckwheat noodles in a creamy sauce. Annie savors the tasty spinach dumplings (gnocchi) with melted cheese.
Lingering over wine, we also drink in Italian village life on a warm evening. Families stroll through the piazza. Across the way, patrons sip drinks or espresso at a cafe. Suddenly, both church towers burst into a concert of pealing bells. The moment is romantic and sublime.
Even within the German-Swiss majority, there are minority subcultures. Our friend Andres is a Walser, the proud member of an alpine tribe that numbers about 20,000. They originated in the south-central canton of Wallis, and began an outward migration in the 13th century. They were attracted by empty high-elevation lands to settle and privileges offered by feudal lords in exchange for patrolling the mountain passes.
Unlike the mainly Romansh-speaking lowlanders, who were serfs leading restricted lives, the tough Walsers were true pioneers, free to move, establish independent villages, till the uplands, raise animals, and worship and marry as they pleased.
Andres tells stories of his upbringing on a subsistence farm high in the Praettigau Valley, just east of Chur, where he now works.
Like his neighbors, his family had only a few cows, which he helped to feed and milk in winter; in summer they were moved up to higher grazing pastures. A few men milked everyone’s cows collectively and made cheese every day.
The cheese was brought down in autumn and divided up; this remains an annual festival. Each family also had a vegetable garden and perhaps a pig, chickens and rabbits. Yet they eked out a livelihood. Andres hiked, or sledded in winter, down to school in the larger village below.
Andres and his wife Margit drive us up switchback roads to a scenic Walser village, Tenna, overlooking the Safien valley. There is a two-room school, a cheese-making shop, and a church dating to 1524.
Houses have huge stacks of firewood. Cows and sheep graze nearby; in May, they have not yet been moved to higher slopes. Andres greets an elderly couple, who recognize his dialect. You must be from Praettigau, they say, and they are too. They have retired to this distant, yet also Walser, village.
It is a highly traditional place, but modern as well, with the world’s first solar powered ski lift. Photovoltaic panels line the slope. In the snow-free season, excess power is sold to the national energy grid.
Another evening, we attend a concert in Praettigau, in a village where one of Andres’ sisters now lives. He is the only one of five siblings who has left the valley. Between songs, the band tells jokes in Walser-German. Andres laughs along, but German-born Margit hardly understands a word.
If we were expecting Tirolean um-pa-pa music, we were mistaken. The popular local trio treats us to klezmer, gypsy, tango, blues and Celtic tunes. The sister is leaving for a cycling trip in Ireland. Everyone is from the valley, but they are well educated and speak remarkably good English. This is 21st century Switzerland. They are locals, but by no means yokels.
If You Go:
Swiss National Tourist Office