All roads lead to the Rhine
Romansh is a mysterious language for most French speakers. It's a Latin language, not unlike my own, but still distinct, born in valleys I always thought to be German-influenced. So let's take a look for ourselves, starting in the west of canton Graubünden, where the Romansh variant Sursilvan is alive and kicking. But to reach it from this side of the Alps, you need a head for heights. The Rhone Glacier and the Furka Pass show the kind of natural defences that separate alpine valleys (pictures and text, Bernard Léchot, swissinfo).
An inn at Tschamut
After following the Urseren Valley and dropping down from the Oberalp Pass, I enter Surselva, the valley along the anterior Rhine, the longest in Graubünden. It's wide and green, less steep and untamed than the rocky outcrops I encountered on way over. The first village I reach is called Tschamut, where the first building is an inn or ustria in Romansh. But there's a sign on its walls in German indicating the way in (through the garden). Is Romansh slightly schizophrenic?
Kissing for two weeks
Time for a coffee stop in Sedrun, the main construction site for the new Gotthard base tunnel. The town's traffic signs are in Romansh, but the language is not everywhere. "Sweetness from the summits" is written in French on the patriotic chocolate that accompanies my coffee, while "we spend two week kissing during our lifetimes" is the German message on my packet of sugar. Rather than being schizophrenic, Romansh is a multilingual language. And apparently a sensual one too.
From Portuguese to Romansh
My next stop is the town of Ilanz-Glion. I hear Romansh being spoken on the streets and in the shops. But in the old town, the first person I speak to is... Portuguese. Teresa Batista has lived in Ilanz for 15 years and is fond of Romansh. "It's like our language when you speak it. It's a bit different for writing. But lots of words are the same and one certainly understands Romansh better than German." Nevertheless her daughter Inês, who speaks Sursilvan with her friends, goes to a German-speaking school. "I think this will be more useful for her," says Teresa.
What has struck Teresa the most is the mentality in the region. "People are a bit withdrawn here. When they talk about people from Zurich, the Valais or Geneva, it's as if they are talking about foreigners, I come across this every day. It seems a bit odd to us, because we Portuguese are a people with one culture, even if some things vary from region to region." The view from the mountaintop doesn't always take one as far as you might think...
I meet Sascha Cahenzli, who works in Ilanz but lives in another village nearby. He speaks Romansh and German equally well. But although he appreciates Romansh, he doesn't believe in its future. "More and more young people go to live in Zurich. And even here, they prefer speaking German to Romansh." Sascha listens to DRS3, the "youth" station for German-speakers in Switzerland, but he doesn't tune in to Romansh radio. He says there aren't any good Romansh groups – or at least not in his favourite style, hard rock.
From Ilanz I head up a side valley and travel southwards to Val Lumnezia. Here the countryside is a patchwork of gentle slopes and has a quiet atmosphere. I go through several villages, each with its church and family-run hotel, but no big tourist establishments. Is this why the area is one where Romansh is spoken the most? According to statistics from 2000, in Vrin, which I reach after 20 kilometres on the road, 95.6 per cent of the village population consider Romansh to be their strongest language (29.9 per cent in Ilanz.)
When I ask Lorenza Caminada-Solér, who has always lived in Vrin, if she has noticed whether German has made inroads, she almost has to suppress her laughter. "Oh no, not here. Romansh remains our language and we hope that this won't change," she says. She listens to the radio in Romansh and reads the Romansh newspaper, La Quotidiana. Does she feel closer to the German or Latin mindset? "What can I say," she says hesitantly, perhaps for fear of upsetting the customers in her restaurant. "I feel closest to Italian culture," she admits.
The old church in Vrin looks surprisingly luxurious nestled in this village of mostly old wooden houses. The bell tower continues to ring out, giving residents the time of day.
Alongside Val Lumnezia is the Vals valley, which is famous for its water. As you climb up towards Vals you meet a long line of lorries transporting their liquid cargo down into the plain. Despite being neighbours, the valleys are home to two separate cultures with little in common... The upper part of the Vals valley was colonised in the Middle Ages by the Walser, who came from the upper reaches of the Rhone Valley. They also emigrated to the region around Davos, taking their own German dialect with them.
Edelweiss and Alpenrose
Apart from a mineral water factory, Vals also has some magnificent thermals baths designed by Graubünden architect Peter Zumthor. The building is covered in dark grey quartz from the region, but is unfortunately lost in the midst of lacklustre hotels. In the old village centre, which is set along the "Valserrhein", the restaurants have names like "Edelweiss" and "Alpenrose". Graubünden is a region of contrasts. Just 15 kilometres as the crow flies to the south you are in Moesano, one of the Italian-speaking parts of the canton. But by car, it takes a good two hours to get there, beyond the mountains...
I head back towards the anterior Rhine valley and bear east. The place names are now in German, with Romansh subtitles. I reach the valley's most touristy area: Falera, Laax and Flims, popular for skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer. I don't hear a single word of Romansh in Flims. Only the street names and the names of old houses, such as "Casa Flem," "Casa Pistget", remind you that you are in Sursilvan territory. It feels a bit nostalgic, or perhaps quaint? But in Laax, a banner proposes intensive Romansh lessons...
After the two Rhines meet in Reichenau, the valley spreads out and brings you to Chur, the cantonal capital. The old town is charming, but the rest of Chur is rather ordinary. Are we in Basel, Bern or Lucerne? It feels like German-speaking Switzerland here. There is hardly any Romansh, except from time to time in corporate names: the cantonal bank, a bookshop. You can also see Radio and Television Romansh (RTR) written on the windows of the broadcaster's headquarters. Even it has had to set up shop on German-speaking soil.
The RTR headquarters are also where I meet Ursin Lutz, born in Ilanz, but now editor of Punts, a monthly youth magazine in Romansh. I ask him how his friends view his work promoting Romansh. "There are two extremes, enthusiasm and irony," he replies. "At the football club people say it's not really worth it. But in other circles, people say, 'great, keep on with it!'" There seems to be a paradox, with this old, deeply rooted rural language facing extinction while the intellectual elite fight for its survival.
I've reached the end of my journey. What are my impressions of Romansh? The tone, of course, of this Latin-based, sing-song language, of which I have caught a few words in passing. And the realisation that for some - I'm thinking of Lorenza here - Romansh is still alive and rooted deeply within a culture. This at a time when for some it has become quaint or simply a tourist gimmick. For others, Romansh is a challenge when faced with new developments. Can one fight against a globalised world? Yes, this farmer seems to say, standing alone with his pitchfork on the Graubünden horizon...
A French-speaking journalist on the road through Surselva.
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