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Ticino, long a poor, rural buffer area between the Swiss German cantons north of the Alps and Italy to the south, was absorbed by the Swiss in the late 15th century after centuries of changing hands between the lords of Como and the dukes of Milan. In earlier days it had been a loosely controlled Lombard fiefdom and, before that, a Roman frontier stronghold.

When the founding cantons of the Swiss confederation, Uri, Scwhyz and Unterwalden, had secured their independence of Habsburg Austrian control, they decided to move to protect the soft Alpine underbelly to the south. This they managed to do with surprising alacrity, defeating a superior Milanese force at Giornico in the Valle Levantina in 1478 and taking fortified Bellinzona in 1503.

Napoleon came to upset the Swiss apple cart in 1798 and ended Swiss German domination of Ticino. For a while it became an independent republic, then in 1803 it entered the new Swiss Confederation concocted by Napoleon as a free and equal canton.

Only since WWII has it been able to emerge from its struggling rural slumber, and nowadays the region thrives as a services (mostly banking) centre and tourist attraction, especially for Swiss Germans looking for a little Italian style without leaving home. The establishment of a university at Lugano in 1996 was a significant step, as the Italian-speaking population had long been caught between two hard options: study elsewhere in Switzerland in another language, or overcome bureaucratic hell to gain admission to Italian universities.

The region has its problems. With such a small percentage of the Swiss population, it counts for little in big national decisions. Wages are lower than in most of the rest of Switzerland. Ticinesi are attracted by big brother Italy, but often suffer a sense of indifference, when not inferiority (not aided by the parading Gucci brigade that pops up from Milan on weekends), next to their southern cousins. Staunchly (but independently) Swiss, they don't readily identify with many political choices made north of the Alps, although recently Ticino has swung to the right on subjects like immigration and the debate on how far to become involved with the EU (answer: as little as possible).