The scenic way to Engadine
The Engadine valley runs 100 kilometres along the southern slope of the Alps. I am hoping that a visit to the area - traditionally a strong centre of Romansh - will help me understand more about this mysterious language and its culture. I take a Rhaetian Railway train from Graubünden's capital Chur to St Moritz, enjoying the dramatic scenery through the windows of the panorama coach. Once we have passed into Upper Engadine the train announcements are made in Romansh as well as in German and English. (Pictures and text: Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo)
Glitz in St Moritz
Although more lively in the winter, there's still plenty of evidence of St Moritz's jet-set reputation in the summer. The rapid rise of international tourism over the last past 100 years has meant that the now mainly German-speaking resort has developed differently to its neighbours. Here the focus is on its "champagne climate" of 322 days of sun a year, winter sports and chic clientele. Such is its fame that the name St Moritz has even been trademarked. At first glance, there does not seem to be much left of San Murezzan's Romansh heritage...
St Moritz summed up
Moving into the town centre, it becomes apparent that the language of the area, Puter, has not been totally forgotten. Many hotels use the Romansh word "Chesa" and many street names are in Romansh. The square in front of the school is known as "Plazza da Scoula", but the "no parking" instructions are given in German. However, the tourist information sign is purely symbolic, allowing instant comprehension by every tourist whether Japanese, German, American or Italian.
Celerina - Schlarigna
A few minutes train ride from St Moritz takes you to the village of Celerina and a total change of pace. A walk round its streets reveals many fine old Engadine-style buildings. These typically have thick cream walls, sunken windows and "sgraffito", verses or pictures etched into the paintwork. But despite its very Romansh air - the village is known by both its German and Romansh names, Celerina and Schlarigna - German seems to be the main language of communication on the streets.
Tourism on top
Tourism is very important in Celerina. Many hotels or bed and breakfast establishments use Romansh names but information is mostly given in German and Italian, reflecting the area's main markets. At the tourist office I am told that although tourists are very interested in the Engadine's architecture and culinary delicacies, there's not much interest in the Romansh language and culture, so it is not part of the resort's offer.
Preserving a threatened language
Romansh does have its very own defender in Celerina, in the form of Annemieke Buob, president of the Uniun dals Grischs, an organisation which promotes the language. "Romansh is becoming a minority in the community," she tells me. "The school is bilingual, the children learn German and Romansh from kindergarten. About 20-30 per cent of people speak Romansh, but it changes depending on the population. Tourism and industry account for its demise, she says.
Unpopular Rumantsch Grischun
Annemieke Buob's organisation runs a bookshop which mainly stocks works in Puter. There is a large selection of novels as well as a huge and colourful array of children's books. But there is only one small corner devoted to Rumantsch Grischun, the standard version of the Romansh which was introduced in the 1980s. "Hardly anyone buys these books, people don't want Rumantsch Grischun," says Buob, explaining that people fear the variant will spell the end of Puter.
A two-hour train journey takes me to the more remote Lower Engadine, Passing through the rugged valleys, it is easy to imagine how Romansh could have survived, isolated, over the years. I arrive at the main town of Scuol. It is a spa resort, with a charming old town, complete with typical Engadine houses and cobbled streets. Here the houses are called "Chasa" signaling that I have arrived in a Vallader-speaking region. I am told that the Romansh of Upper and Lower Engadine are similar enough for people to understand each other (but not necessarily the other Romansh idioms).
Times gone by
The old town houses the Lower Engadine local history museum, set up 50 years ago to preserve the disappearing old rural lifestyle. Lüzza Rauch, director of the museum's foundation, gives me a tour, starting in the kitchen. "At the turn of the century we had about 1,500 farms in Lower Engadine, now it is 300," he tells me. "Farming hardly changed over hundreds of years and the museum shows the original lifestyle of this inner alpine region."
A walk through the main shopping centre makes it clear that Romansh is the first language in Scuol. Nearly all the signs, such as this one "Cuafför Donnas", "ladies hairdressers", are exclusively in Romansh and it is spoken freely in the streets. However, everyone is bilingual and German can be heard in hotels and restaurants, signaling the influence of tourism. Around 50 per cent of the population classify Romansh as the language of which they have best command (70.3 per cent if limited to the spoken language).
Time for a break and what better way than by trying the Engadine speciality, nut tart (all in the name of research, of course!). Traditionally, Engadine farmhouses used to bake a "fuatscha grassa", a fine shortcrust pastry, as a Sunday treat or for guests. Engadine confectioners refined this specialty, adding creamy caramel and walnuts. Delicious, but not for the faint-hearted!
Looking at Guarda
Not far from Scuol is Guarda, which is situated high above the valley on a sunny terrace. The stunning views give the village its Romansh name, which means "Look". The unmanned station is situated lower down the valley, so you need to take the post bus up to the village. The area is also a popular base for walkers, keen to take advantage of the mountain scenery. On reaching isolated Guarda, it is immediately clear that this is a Romansh heartland.
Pride in Romansh
I hear Romansh being spoken in the post bus. Willy Flurin, the driver, explains that it is the main language of this village of 150 people. "Romansh is very important to us and we feel our identity as Romansh speaking people. Children learn it at school first and then German. You automatically speak Romansh here," he says. He is not worried about Romansh dying out in Guarda, but does see threats to the language in bigger spa towns where other languages are also spoken.
Time standing still
A walk round the quiet streets of Guarda reveals a place which has preserved its traditional Romansh way of life. A typical Engadine village, it has been designated a place of national and historical significance due to the abundance of its sgraffito buildings. Doors are left open to show that the villagers are up and about and even tourists are greeted with a "Bun di", "Good Morning" in the streets.
Goodbye – A revair
Time to say goodbye to Scuol. Reflecting on my journey, it seems the differences in the Engadine sum up the challenges facing Romansh. The language is disappearing in Upper Engadine, due to the influence of German and tourism. But people make an effort to keep it alive in Lower Engadine. Part of the problem is that Romansh is rooted in an old rural lifestyle and is now mostly used in social rather than work situations. Speakers also still prefer their own idioms to Rumantsch Grischun. Finally, people hope Romansh will survive, but not all believe that it will do so...
An English journalist travels through the Engadine.
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