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The canton – once the Roman province of Rhaetia Prima – is officially trilingual, known as Graubünden in German, Grigioni in Italian and Grischun in Romansh, the last of these a direct descendant of Latin which has survived locked away in the mountain fastnesses far from the cantonal capital Chur since the legions departed 1500 years ago. You’ll also come across the canton’s French name of Grisons, although there are no French-speaking communities.
Until the nineteenth century, Rhaetia was entirely separate from its western neighbour of Helvetia. As Helvetia began to experience stirrings towards independence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the population of Rhaetia also began to organize themselves, with the ideal of throwing off the feudal oppression of the bishops and lords who nominally ruled the area. The impenetrable landscape of the hinterland was on their side: as one historian of the region, Benjamin Barber, accurately noted, “an army occupying Chur no more controls Graubünden than does one in Milan or Vienna.” The 1367 League of the House of God was the first of these popular associations, soon followed by the Grey League in 1395 (formed by a band of highland shepherds dubbed “the grey farmers” for their trademark grey wool cloth) and, in 1436, the League of the Ten Jurisdictions. The three loose groupings came together in 1471 to pledge mutual assistance, and were soon able – with the spur of the Reformation – to seize political power from the nobles. Since then the people have been free, and they relish the fact more than most other Swiss. It was only in 1803 that the united “Graubünden”, or Grey Leagues, finally assented to join the Swiss Confederation, and to this day Bündners consistently vote in large numbers against joining the EU.
The canton’s resorts – headed by St Moritz, Klosters and Davos – are some of the most famous names in the Alps and offer world-class skiing and top-quality hiking, but they’re far from the whole story. The beautiful Engadine valley runs for almost 100km along a southern terrace of the Alps, bathed in glittering sunlight that pours from blue skies for well over 300 days a year. This is the heartland of Romansh culture, and once you get out of the main German-speaking resorts, Romansh language, style and architecture pervade Graubünden’s far-flung corners. South of the Alps, three of the canton’s most enticing valleys – Bregaglia and Poschiavo in particular – are entirely Italian speaking, filled with a Mediterranean lushness in their flora and cuisine that could easily tempt you to leave the mountains behind and just keep heading south.
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