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Swiss toss stones to escape modern angst

Written by: Staff

INTERLAKEN, Switzerland, Sep 10 (Reuters) Sturdy men hurl a giant boulder through the air and wrestlers grapple with each other to win a bull as onlookers yodel: at the Unspunnen festival, Switzerland turns emphatically towards the past.

Held every 12 years, the medieval-style festival in Interlaken is a celebration of age-old traditions, but it has also been hit by the divisions of the present, with separatists twice stealing the iconic rock thrown by competitors.

As well as offering a link with the past, the stone-throwing and yodelling extravaganza also offers a welcome respite from the pressures of modern Switzerland, a thriving economy and home to a large number of multinationals.

Sabina Schwarzenbach, a spokeswoman for the government's Pro Helvetia culture foundation, says this need to reconnect with the past to deal with the present has been growing.

''It is an effect of globalisation. There are many foreign influences and people are now paying increasing attention to what they see as their own culture,'' she said.

At this year's festival in early September, around 100,000 gathered to enjoy that colourful culture.

Burly men hoisted a slab of granite -- an 83.5 kg emblem of Swiss nationality -- above their heads, sprinted forward and tossed it through the air for the stone-throwing event.

Thomas Marty, a 37-year-old farmer from Toggenburg, watched with his toddler son, both dressed in the national costume: a bright red waistcoat and richly decorated suspenders.

''We're wearing it because we enjoy the tradition. But there's only 10 percent of the population left who do so. Or maybe just 5 percent,'' he said.

STEALING THE STONE The first Unspunnen celebrations are seen as marking the start of Switzerland's tourism industry.

The first was held in 1805 and was organised by the upper classes in the city of Berne to stop peasants from revolting in the unstable era after the French Revolution.

It didn't work: a second festival was held in 1808 but then the locals rose up against the elite anyway and the festival did not take place again until 1905.

The festival's links with conflict did not end there.

In 1984, the original slab of rock used in the competitions -- the Unspunnenstein -- was stolen by separatists from French-speaking districts who want to break away from the German-speaking canton of Berne.

Despite its diminuitive size and multilingual population, Switzerland is split by a cultural gulf between the Germanic majority and French minority.

The stone was later returned, but the rebels had carved their emblem into the granite, so that it could not be used for the sport anymore. It was on display in a hotel for a while, but was stolen again last year.

But the show must go on and a second stone, made to look exactly like the first is now in use and is locked away in the vaults of a bank between matches.

This year's stone-throwing contest was won by Markus Maire with a new festival record. Maire is proud of this Swiss tradition and cares little if others do not understand it.

''I've never sought attention from the media. I've known right from the start that stone-throwing is a good, natural thing to do for somebody from Switzerland.'' Reuters DKA VP0835

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