Memories Of The Gotthard Pass

I’ve just caught up with last Monday’s Cycle Show on ITV4 which contained an interesting piece on cycling up to the Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps. Some stunning images and it’s worth watching on the ITV Player just for the views (although if you do, be quick as it will no doubt disappear in a few days time). It reminded me of course of my own climb to the Gotthard Pass some 100 kilometres to the west of the Stelvio. My ride was not as smooth as the three guys’ experience in the The Cycle Show (the cobbles & spoke problems I had put paid to that) but it was still a memorable high point in the trip from England to southern Italy. This is how I described my ascent. To read about how I got on on the way down, find the full story in Good Vibrations: Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie

Cycling Day 16:

Wednesday 4th August: Andermatt to Bellinzona

6 hours 0 minutes in the saddle, 96 kilometres

“There are views, there are great views and there are views beyond description. The one upon which I was feasting my eyes on the morning of the 4th August was one of the latter but I’ll have a go anyway. The valley ahead of me was V-shaped. In the far distance it was cut off abruptly by a second valley and beyond that towered the snow-capped peaks of the high Alps. The valley sides in Andermatt were still green with grass and vegetation but as my eye travelled along the valley, the flora retreated and the browns and greys of bare rock became predominant. The sky was a rare blue with only a few high clouds in the east and these were far from the threatening dark clouds of the previous few days. But this view was just as much about what I couldn’t see as what I could; it was also what it represented and how it made me feel when I woke and stood by the tent that bright and clear summer morning. This, I thought, was going to be the high point of my Eurovelo 5 trip both physically and emotionally. It was the point at which no one could turn around and mock me for stopping my journey should I decide to do so. I had already cycled well over 1,500 kilometres to that point and I had achieved something quite special, something of which I was justifiably proud.

In fact there were other things that I wasn’t able to see in that view apart from my emotions. I wasn’t able to see the St. Gotthard Pass itself. My view down the valley was looking towards the south west, not the south. Once I arrived in Hospental, a village some three kilometres from Andermatt, I would turn to the south and head up and along the valley for another eight kilometres before arriving at the pass. Not forgetting of course the small matter of climbing 700 metres, most of which was to be done between Hospental and my destination.

I was coaxed out of my valley gazing by a long zipping sound. It was being made by my neighbour and fellow cyclist on the camp-site who was just about to appear from his palatial tent. I assumed it would be a youthful traveller; his bike was modern, as was his tent; some adventurous, impetuous gap-year student who was escaping the rat race even before he was part of it. The zipping continued and eventually an entire segment of his tunnel-like tent was removed from the inside. The gap revealed a bearded man in his sixties, puffing on a cigar. Not quite what I had been expecting. We exchanged nods and I offered a ‘morgan’ to which he replied ‘good morning’ with a slight German accent. Perhaps he had been creeping around in the night and had found the small Union Jack sticker that was part of Reggie’s frame. Or more likely, perhaps my morning greeting was just too English. He clearly hadn’t left all his camping gear in a hotel somewhere as I had in Luxembourg and was busy putting it all to good use, boiling water in a pan for some coffee and opening up plastic containers in which were stored the cereals and milk that would eventually constitute a hearty breakfast. I was impressed even though he was putting my camping efforts to shame. I asked him (stupidly as on reflection there weren’t many options) where he was going and he said he was heading for the pass just like me. His name was Claus Zimmermann and he was a teacher from southern Germany who had escaped the clutches of his wife for a few days and had journeyed into the Alps. It wasn’t the first time he had cycled up to the pass and he sketched out the route for me verbally. I asked if he knew whether there was anywhere to camp at the top and he said there wasn’t unless I wanted to risk a cold night of wild camping. The next camp-site was in a place called Bellinzona some 60 kilometres down the valley on the other side in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. That seemed the most likely place to head for but I put aside thoughts of finding somewhere to sleep to mentally prepare myself for the last push to the top. I packed away my chattels and said good-bye to Claus although I suspected we would be seeing each other again at some point between Andermatt and the pass.

My own breakfast was taken back at the shed which was not just the reception to the camp-site but also a make-shift transport café for any passing traveller. You couldn’t fault the owner’s sense for smelling out a commercial opportunity. Once fuelled up with croissants and a black coffee, I set off down the long, flat road leading to Hospental. I didn’t notice whether Claus was ahead of me or not as I trundled along the easy-to-pedal route which was trying to lure me into a false sense of security. It wasn’t succeeding however as I was more than acutely aware of the trials that were awaiting me once I turned left and headed south.

Leaving Hospental the road was much quieter than it had been on the previous evening as I had cut backwards and forwards up the cliff to Andermatt. What’s more, the road was almost free of switchbacks. It clung to the right-hand side of the valley some fifty or so metres above the stream that was heading in the other direction to me and Reggie, curving gently around the mountains passing slowly from one line of contour to the next. I stopped occasionally not so much to catch my breath as simply to take in the view back down the valley that I was unable to appreciate while cycling. Invariably when I did stop, Claus would overtake me and then after a few minutes of cycling again I would catch up with him, exchange nods and make my way into the distance. It wasn’t so much a story of the hare and the tortoise, more a tale of the tortoise and the even slower tortoise. I’m sure that at one point when I stopped to look back I could see Claus puffing on his cigar.

About half-way up the valley from Hospental, the road split and I paused. Forking off to the left was the modern road. The road to my right was the old road to the top that I had read so much about prior to my trip. Its key feature was that it was cobbled. 

As I mentioned when I was back in Lucerne, the St. Gotthard Pass (named, incidentally after the patron saint of passes himself) was first breached in the 13th century but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the first horse-drawn vehicle was able to get to the top (and, one imagines and hopes, down the other side). About a hundred years later, efforts were made to get things through the mountain rather than over it and in 1872 the first railway tunnel was started. When opened to traffic in 1882, trains were able to travel from Göschenen in the north to Airolo in the south but it had come at a cost; for 15 kilometres of tunnel, 277 lives had been lost. At least that very same tunnel is still in use so the workers didn’t die in vain and it transports five million people and twenty-five million tonnes of freight from one side to the other each year. In 1980 a road tunnel was opened which at the time was the longest road tunnel in the world (it has since been surpassed by the Chinese and the Norwegians). It has a reputation for very long queues at either end and in 2001 was closed for two months after an accident involving two trucks in which eleven people were killed. Efforts to conquer the mountain haven’t let up in recent years. In 2002 construction started on the Gotthard Base Tunnel. With a length of 57 km, trains should start passing through it at the end of 2016 and it will become the world’s longest tunnel, subject to those pesky Chinese and Norwegians beating them at their own game of course.

Some 600 metres above the level of construction of the base tunnel is where I paused to make my decision; new road or old. The new road offered a smooth passage to the top albeit at a slightly steeper incline. It was now mid morning and quite a few (faster, leaner and more Lycra-clad) cyclists had started to catch up with me and Claus (wherever he now was). They were all bearing left and up along the new road which in itself encouraged me to take the older, gentler road. However, that ‘gentler’ road was cobbled. I got off Reggie to inspect them carefully; compared with the brutes back in Lille, these were mere kittens, with flat tops and very small gaps between each one. I would take the cobble challenge of the old road and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of what was, in effect, a cycle track by any other description. Off I set only bumping very slightly as Reggie made his way over the stones. The road wiggled from side to side a little bit more than it had been doing up to that point but the ride was a delight, well away from the petrol heads who saw the main road as an excuse to speed up, apply their brakes sharply and slow down at every turn before hitting the accelerator once more. The only slight disturbance was from, ironically, a gleaming German car that was being driven repeatedly up and down the cobbles. It was presumably for an advertising campaign, being snapped by some unseen photographer hiding in the hills, or perhaps being filmed for a high-octane television car show. No doubt Claus and myself have since been air-brushed from the scene.

Eventually the road started to flatten out and the two roads, old and new, merged back into one. Ahead I could see a craggy outcrop of rock. Next to it a few cars had been parked and several people were sitting on the rocks overlooking some small ponds. I must, I thought, be there. If nothing else, there was no more land above the rocks in front of me which surely indicated that I had reached the pass. Indeed I had. Just past the rocks, the land opened out into a large, flat mountain-top expanse with two small lakes to my left and a much larger lake to my right. At the end of the lake was a collection of buildings and what looked like a white pyramid. A sizeable and full car park filled the area between the water and the buildings and tall plumes of wispy smoke were emanating from what looked like a couple of shipping containers on the left of the scene. First impressions were mixed.

This was an iconic moment on the trip. It had only taken me about one and a half hours to cover the 13 kilometres from Andermatt. I was so pleased with my decision to cut the trip from Altdorf to the pass into two leaving myself with what had been a relatively easy climb to the summit that morning. Trying to ignore the people, cars and activity around me, I placed Reggie next to the sign that informed everyone that this was indeed San Gottardo and that we were at 2,091 metres above sea level. I took his photo lest anyone later be suspicious that I had just given up the cycling back in Lucerne. The sign was covered with stickers from the four corners of Europe if not the World attesting to the fact that this cycling racing team or that classic car touring club had made it to the top. One sticker consisting of a line drawing of a dove stated simply that ‘World peace is possible’. That’s always good to know. Having shamelessly forgotten to pack my ‘Reggie and Andrew do the Eurovelo 5’ sticker, I wasn’t able to add my own words of wisdom to the collection.

It seemed a world away from the classy tourist trap of Lucerne up there at the Saint Gotthard Pass. It was more in line with the disappointing array of entertainment that you can find at Land’s End or Stonehenge back in the UK. There was a museum which, if it had been free I would have wandered around. Unfortunately the first exhibit, which I could see just beyond the entrance desk consisting of some waxwork figures of the first people to cross the Alps complete with animal skins, didn’t shout ‘come in and pay a small fortune to spend half an hour with us in here’. I gave it a miss. Anyway, who needed a bunch of inanimate cave dwellers when there was enough amusement to be had outside watching their modem day equivalents? I sat on a bench next to one of the smaller lakes just opposite a horrendously loud Italian-speaking woman. She was, between sentences noshing on a bratwurst sausage that she had purchased from the stall at the back of one of the painted shipping containers I had noticed on arrival. It had been carefully placed just in front of a praying Virgin Mary. Nice touch. The sensory impact of the sausage stall didn’t stop at the visual; it was also possible to smell the wood burning barbecue (which in fairness was not actually too unpleasant) as well as listen to an eclectic mix of elevator music blaring from some speakers. Beyond the sausage stall there was a souvenir hut specialising in stuffed St. Bernard dogs of every possible size. Surely they had got the wrong pass. That said, there probably isn’t much of a market for stuffed St. Gotthards. To the left of all this action and downwind from the sausage stall was a cheese stand. I’m not sure whether the guy looking after it was trying to sell the stuff or was simply attempting to get it smoked on the cheap. On the far right was a collection of buildings; one housed the museum and a cafeteria, the other a hotel and restaurant but now having seen the place, I no more wanted to sleep up there than I wanted to spend a night in a pit of snakes. The large white pyramid housed some kind of temporary exhibition. It had been erected just next to an equally temporary wooden staircase leading up to a rock on top of which was a stuffed mule and what I assumed to be St. Gotthard himself. Let’s hope they hadn’t stuffed him too. Yet again, you really couldn’t make it up.” 

What do you think?