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Polentagraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland

Though not as well-known as its counterpart Röstigraben, the Polentagraben is one of the most prominent signs of Switzerland’s cultural, linguistic, and gastronomical diversity.

The city of Lugano
The border to Ticino (the city of Lugano is pictured here), the Italian-speaking part of the country, is known as the “Polentagraben”. Image by Andreas from Pixabay

Chances are that even if you’ve lived in Switzerland for a while, the existence of the so-called Polentagraben may be news to you.

The term ‘Polentagraben’ was termed only a few years ago to describe the cultural border between the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland south of the Gotthard pass and the rest of the country – though with little success compared to its predecessor Röstigraben. The latter defines the cultural divide between the German and French-speaking regions.

The Polentagraben takes its name from the word ‘Polenta’ – a corn flour meal considered almost a national dish in the Ticino region – and ‘Graben’, which means border, gap, or rift.

READ ALSO: Röstigraben – the invisible barrier separating Switzerland

What does Polentagraben actually refer to?

In reality, it means that although they are from the same country, culturally the Swiss from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and those living in other parts of the country aren’t quite as alike as one may think.

And that is not only because they speak different languages, have different political attitudes, lifestyles, and mentality – or because Swiss-Italians have a completely different approach when it comes to handing out pocket money (Ticino parents are said to be stingier than their Swiss-German counterparts).

People living in Ticino and the southern part of the canton Grigioni call Italian their mother tongue, while people from the remaining parts of the canton Grigioni (or Graubünden, Grischun) speak either German, Romansh and/or Italian growing up.

Though Italian is taught in some parts of Grigioni as well as Switzerland outside of Ticino and southern Grigioni, the cultural divide is still present and the Swiss living in Switzerland’s German and French parts are on the whole unfamiliar with the Swiss-Italian way of life.

READ ALSO: Swiss Italian vs standard Italian: What are the key differences?

Ticino, in particular, differs from the rest of Switzerland, not only due to being located on the other side of the Alps, but also in terms of its political and economic climate. It is a historical fact that the position between the federal government in Switzerland and the canton of Ticino has had its fair share of ups and downs.

In the 19th century, for instance, it was the simultaneous establishment of state structures in Ticino and the transformation of the confederation of states into a modern nation state that led to conflicts.

The rather reserved attitude of the people of Ticino towards national unification and the centralisation of languages and cultures in Ticino led to the opinion that Ticino places local interests above those of the state – and this is still true in some part to this day.

Lavertezzo in Ticino, Switzerland, where Swiss Italian is spoken.

Lavertezzo in Ticino, Switzerland, where Swiss Italian is spoken. Photo by Radek Kozák on Unsplash

And not only that, but since the 1970s, Ticino has had a school system that differs from many Swiss-German models. Children must attend primary school for five years and middle school for three years.

In the Deutschschweiz (German-speaking Switzerland) children attend primary school for six years, compared to an eight-year attendance in the Romandie – whereas nearly all cantons state that children must attend middle school for 3 years, rather than the five mandatory in Ticino.

So, is it a serious border?

The short answer is, no. However, though the term Polentagraben has never quite garnered a fanbase as large as the Röstigraben – neither domestically or internationally – its existence can’t be denied.

Just last year, the people of Switzerland accepted the proposed increase in women’s retirement age from 64 to 65 years. Unlike the Deutschschweiz, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland backed the many women of the country in voting against the proposal – and this is nothing new.

The Swiss from the German part of Switzerland tend to have different views on public service compared to those in the Italian part. The latter tend to be more open to supporting a strong welfare state for the people.

Similarly, though the consensus across Switzerland is that all four national languages should be promoted more in schools to bring the country’s different language areas and its people closer, the reality looks somewhat different.

In fact, when discussing the promotion of teaching languages in schools and at universities in the Deutschschweiz and Romandie, many understand this to mean German, French and even English – the former being Switzerland’s two chief languages. Italian, which around 8.2 percent of the population speak either as a first language or second, is hardly ever a topic of discussion.

However, this is by no means due to a lack of interest in the language. In the summer, Ticino – Switzerland’s only fully Italian-speaking canton – is a very popular weekend destination for many Swiss, with some very lucky ones buying up second homes in top-rated tourist towns such as Ascona, Lugano and Locarno.

Similarly, the Swiss are also very fond of their neighbour to the south, frequenting Italy through much of the summer months.

So, there is hope for the Polentagraben to cease to exist yet.

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What makes Switzerland’s Alpine pasture season worthy of global recognition?

Switzerland's Alpine pasture season has been included in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But what makes it so special?

What makes Switzerland’s Alpine pasture season worthy of global recognition?

Why are Swiss Alpine pastures in the news?

On Wednesday, UNESCO announced it had inscribed 45 elements on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity during its annual session held in Kasane (Republic of Botswana).

The list comprises cultural “practices and expressions [that] help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance.” 

Among this year’s new elements were two Swiss entries, one of which is the country’s popular Alpine pasture season.

What is Switzerland’s Alpine pasture season?

As an exemplary tradition of the Swiss mountain areas, the Alpine pasture season combines traditional skills, customs and rituals related to Alpine farming in Switzerland.

The Alpine pasture season takes place from around May to October in Switzerland when various cattle, sheep and goats are relocated to high-altitude pastures (between 600 metres and 2900 metres) to graze on fresh forage and herbs that thrive in the summer months.

The Alpine farmers, or Alpacists, then look after the livestock and their surroundings, produce different dairy products, and even invite visitors to observe the animals and farming practices.

“The practice contributes to the preservation of natural landscapes and creates economic and social ties between the local populations and the Alpine farmers. It has given rise to the knowledge and skills needed to maintain the sites, as well as to a variety of social and religious practices such as rituals, prayers and blessings, traditional clothing, livestock competitions and local festivities,” UNESCO writes.

Some of these practices also include “traditional clothing, livestock competitions and local festivals” like the Alpine cattle ascent (inalpe) and the Alpine cattle descent (désalpe) where – depending on the region – the most beautiful cow of the herd is crowned.

Festivals to celebrate the herd animals heading to their summer pastures play a vital role for farmers and locals as they highlight craft practices that are otherwise rarely observed in Switzerland.

“The knowledge, skills, and customs of the Alpine pasture season, including farming and cheesemaking, are often transmitted informally, within families and their seasonal employees or among members of Alpine societies and cooperatives. They are also transmitted through regional training centres, cultural events and tourism,” UNESCO says.

READ MORE: Why are cows so important in Switzerland?

UNESCO also recognises Swiss irrigation technology

Switzerland’s cattle weren’t the only ones to join UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity this year.

Its centuries-old irrigation technology from Bern and Lucerne also made the cut.

The multinational agricultural technology was proposed for inclusion on the UNESCO list by Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and Germany, zentralplus reported.

According to UNESCO, traditional irrigation involves temporarily digging small ditches and channels to distribute water from as springs, rivers, streams, and glaciers to meadows.

This sustainable form of water supply, which serves to cultivate dry areas, also has a positive effect on biodiversity.

In Switzerland, this technology is celebrated with various social gatherings and other festivities to mark the start and ending of the water season.

UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity also includes six other Swiss entries.

These include the Craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics (2020), the Holy Week processions in Mendrisio (2019), Alpinism (2019), the Avalanche risk management (2018), Art of dry stone walling, knowledge and techniques (2018), the Basel Carnival (2017), and the Winegrowers’ Festival in Vevey (2016).

Since 2020, the craft techniques and customary practices of cathedral workshops, or Bauhütten, in Europe, know-how, transmission, development of knowledge and innovation – which include Switzerland – also joined UNESCO’s Register of Good Safeguarding Practices and falls within the agency’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

READ MORE: The 13 world heritage sites in Switzerland you need to see