March 21, 2013

Driving the Swiss Alps: Passing Through

Everything you have ever heard and seen about the beauty of Switzerland’s alpine regions is true. Surrounded by the mighty alps and filled with rivers, alpine meadows, quaint centuries-old houses and steeples from the many churches that fill the valleys, how could it not be?

By Michael Travers

This year more as a convenience than a conscious decision as I was in Germany and had to drive to Italy. Switzerland was right in the middle and therefore the path of least resistance. Not wanting to waste the chance to experience Switzerland, though, I aimed to drive through one of its most famous alpine throughways, the 2,106-metre-high St. Gotthard Pass, and overnight at the 13th century Ospizio St. Gottardo, one of the oldest hostels I think you will find anywhere in the world.

The St. Gotthard Pass is the quickest route between Zurich and Milan and many of the mighty rivers of Europe such as the Po, the Rhone, and the Rhine are all born here high in the mountains. The pass has been in use as a trade route since Roman times, but it wasn’t until the 1200s when the turbulent and almost impassable Schollenen Gorge was bridged that mule traffic could penetrate the full length of the valley to the pass and down the other side to Milan and thus opening serious amounts of trade between the two regions.

After crossing the German border late in the morning and paying the seemingly excessive 60 Swiss Franc road toll (US$65, but understandable seeing as most people just use Switzerland as a shortcut without stopping to buy even a Toblerone), the first part of the trip was a somewhat dull assortment of motorways, suburbs and industry, totally in defiance of the carefully marketed Swiss postcard industry of rolling pastures, cowherds and milkmaids with blonde pigtails. Once passing out of the northern plains, however, the mountains started to rise out of the summer haze and become what I had always imagined them to be; the majestic geographical barrier that has shaped much of European history.

We left the main highway at Andermatt and drove off into the mountains on a road that became more windy and remote as it made its way up the steepening valley. Exaggerated hairpin turns and tunnels make it possible to ascend the steep terrain and all around are massive and humbling engineering works that have been painstakingly designed to ward off avalanche danger. The higher up the valley we got the more imposing the terrain became as we approached the ominous Schollenen Gorge.

Several bridges have been built across the gorge over the centuries, but the most famous has to be Teufelsbrücke, the ‘Devil’s Bridge’, a crossing which has had several incarnations in its lifetime. According to legend, building a bridge was deemed impossible, so a local goat herd made a pact with Satan to build it in exchange for the eternal soul of the first to cross it. Unfortunately for the Prince of Darkness the wily herdsman sent a goat across the bridge first, thus cheating him out of his rightful payment. Satan became so angry at being cheated that he hurled a massive rock at the bridge to destroy it. He missed, but the rock still stands to this day in a nearby meadow. We stopped to walk across the more modern man-made bridge and looking at the ferocity of the river and it was easy to see that the goatherd really did have no other option than to play with brimstone and fire.

By now it was getting a bit overcast and chilly so it was onwards and upwards to unpack, eat and drink something. While the main road is an engineering masterpiece, a few kilometres shy of the top of the pass is a turn off to the old cobbled road, which offers a much quieter and more picturesque drive up to the pass itself. It requires a slower driving speed but this high up in the alpine meadows there really is no other way to experience the Alps. At the top of the pass is a small mountain lake and a cluster of stone buildings including a museum and our destination, the Ospizio San Gottardo.

Recently renovated by architects Miller & Maranta, the Ospizio San Gottardo was originally built in 1237 to accommodate weary travellers and pilgrims. Over the centuries it has played host to many of Europe’s famous artists and luminaries and the rooms of the hotel are all named after the likes of Goethe, Balzac, Dickens and Victor Hugo. These days it is a warm and inviting place to stay with a mix of accommodation and is a perfect fusion between antique and modern.

Warmed by green energy, thanks to a thermal pump, the heavy use of conifer gives it a very alpine feel, perfect for mountain surroundings. Lucky for us the hotel was a very warm place to be. We whiled away the evening inside the hotel’s neighbouring restaurant and dined on warm mountain fare and cold Swiss beer as the rain settled in outside and never let up till morning, turning to an electrical storm that flashed and thundered its way around the towering peaks throughout the night.

The next day the sun was back and after breakfast we headed down the mountain road. From the pass, most traffic follows the new road down to Airolo, but, once again, the old cobbled road that snakes down behind the hotel off the back of the pass is spectacular, with terrific vistas all the way down into the Val Tremolo the “Valley of Trembling”, perfectly apt after last nights thunder and lightening. Paved in granite cobbles it is considered Switzerland’s longest historical road monument, and one of the most photographed, and a most beautiful zig-zag climb down the mountainside into the north of Italy.

Two hundred years ago crossing the St. Gotthard Pass was an exhausting and grueling journey that lasted many days and was fraught with danger and hardship. Today, it’s as easy as buying a Toblerone and an experience that everyone should try at least once in their life. FR

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