Way up in the snowy Alps, the border between Switzerland and Italy has shifted due to a melting glacier, putting the location of an Italian mountain lodge in dispute.
The borderline runs along a drainage divide — the point at which meltwater will run down either side of the mountain toward one country or the other.
But the Theodul Glacier’s retreat means the watershed has crept toward the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a refuge for visitors near the 11,417-foot Testa Grigia peak — and it’s gradually sweeping underneath the building.
Frederic, a 59-year-old tourist, opens the narrow wooden door to enter the refuge’s restaurant, the light coming in from outside.
The menu is in Italian, not German, and priced in euros rather than Swiss francs.
Nonetheless, at the counter, he orders a slice of pie and asks: “So — are we in Switzerland or in Italy?”
It is a question worth asking, as it has been the subject of diplomatic negotiations that started in 2018 and concluded with a compromise last year — but the details remain secret.
When the refuge was built on a rocky outcrop in 1984, its 40 beds and long wooden tables were entirely in Italian territory.
But now two-thirds of the lodge, including most of the beds and the restaurant, is technically perched in southern Switzerland.
The issue has come to the fore because the area, which relies on tourism, is located at the top of one of the world’s largest ski resorts, with a major new development including a cable car station being constructed a few meters away.
An agreement was hammered out in Florence in November 2021 but the outcome will only be revealed once it’s rubber-stamped by the Swiss government — which won’t happen before 2023.
“We agreed to split the difference,” Alain Wicht, chief border official at Switzerland’s national mapping agency Swisstopo told AFP.
His job includes looking after the 7,000 boundary markers along landlocked Switzerland’s 1203 mile border with Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein.
Wicht attended the negotiations, where both parties made concessions to find a solution.
“Even if neither side came out winners, at least nobody lost,” he said.
Where the Italian-Swiss border traverses Alpine glaciers, the frontier follows the watershed line.
But the Theodul Glacier lost almost a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010.
That exposed the rock underneath to the ice, altering the drainage divide and forcing the two neighbors to redraw around a 100-yard-long stretch of their border.
Wicht said such adjustments were frequent and generally settled by comparing readings by surveyors from the border countries, without getting politicians involved.
“We are squabbling over territory that isn’t worth much,” he said. But he added that this “is the only place where we suddenly had a building involved,” giving “economic value” to the land.
His Italian counterparts declined to comment “due to the complex international situation”.
Former Swisstopo chief Jean-Philippe Amstein said such disputes are typically resolved by exchanging parcels of land of equivalent surface area and value.
In this case, “Switzerland is not interested in obtaining a piece of glacier,” he explained, and “the Italians are unable to compensate for the loss of Swiss surface area.”
While the outcome remains secret, the refuge’s caretaker, 51-year-old Lucio Trucco, has been told it will stay on Italian soil.
“The refuge remains Italian because we have always been Italian,” he said.
“The menu is Italian, the wine is Italian, and the taxes are Italian.”
The years of negotiation have delayed the refuge’s renovation — the villages either side of the border haven’t been able to issue a building permit.
So the works won’t be completed in time for the scheduled opening of a new cable car up the Italian side of the Klein Matterhorn mountain in late 2023.
The slopes are only accessible from the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt.
Skiing is still possible throughout the summer on the slopes of Zermatt-Cervinia, even though such activities contribute to the glacier’s retreat, while some mid-altitude resorts are preparing for the end of Alpine skiing due to global warming.
This area needs to be improved because it will undoubtedly be the last to go, according to Trucco.
The solid pink Swiss border remains a dashed line as it passes the refuge on Swisstopo’s maps for the time being.