Crossing the Swiss Alps
By “Awake!” correspondent in Switzerland
IF YOU look at a map of Europe, you will have no difficulty in locating the Alps, which form a crescent-shaped curve from the Mediterranean Sea to Switzerland before turning east. With an overall length of about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers), this mountain system extends from France across Switzerland, Italy and Austria into Yugoslavia. In Austria, it attains a maximum width of 125 miles (200 kilometers).
If your map is a fairly detailed one, you will notice that in Switzerland several peaks of this impressive mountain system rise to more than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), though the highest peak, Mount Blanc, 15,770 feet (4,807 meters), is in France. The Alps cover over three fifths of the surface of Switzerland, and about one tenth of the Swiss Alps is buried under ice.
In the heart of the Alps rises the towering St. Gothard massif, known as Europe’s water tower because three great European rivers have their source there: the Rhine (flowing toward the North Sea), the Rhone (emptying into the Mediterranean Sea) and the Ticino, the main tributary of the Po (terminating at the Adriatic Sea). If you follow their courses, you will see that the Alpine valleys of these rivers facilitate east-west communications. The Rhone and Rhine Rivers separate the Swiss Alps into four main ranges, two on each side of the Gothard. But the transverse valleys, allowing for trade between northern Europe and Italy, are the most important, as far as crossing the Swiss Alps is concerned.
A Brief Outline of Transalpine Roads
Long before our Common Era, travelers, primarily traders, crossed the Alps on their way northward from Italy. But the construction of the Swiss road network dates from the time of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the Romans, for military reasons, were the first to build international roads across the Alps. For them, the Great St. Bernard Pass in western Switzerland was Mons Jovis, or Mount Jupiter. They built a temple there to honor their god of that name.
This difficult route, rich in history, was taken by many armies, notably by Napoleon in the year 1800. Nowadays, a road suitable for motor traffic climbs to a height of about 8,100 feet (2,470 meters) and enables motorists to drive down to Italy during the period from June to mid-October. To get an idea of the rugged climate in this impressive region of the Alps, consider the fact that a lake near the pass is frozen for an average of 265 days in the year.
For the Swiss, the Gothard road, in the heart of the Alps, is their lifeline, for it links central Switzerland, which is German-speaking, to southern Switzerland, where Italian is spoken. The present course of the road dates mostly from 1830, though the work of improving and widening it continues. As it is the shortest link between northern and southern Europe, this road is intensely busy during the short period when it is open, and strings of vehicles often stretch for several miles. Though normally blocked by snow from November to June, the Gothard Pass (altitude about 6,900 feet [2,100 meters]) is opened for the Easter holiday period by means of powerful snowplows.
The modern motorist may feel that the Gothard road goes through rather gloomy mountain scenery, though it crosses a central massif having eight large glaciers. From there 17 valleys radiate outward in all directions. For centuries viewed by the Swiss as the symbol of their freedom and independence, this massif in the heart of the Alps owes its name to a chapel erected around the year 1230 in honor of “Saint” Gothard, bishop of Hildesheim, Germany.
As early as the late 13th century, the German emperor was aware that the Gothard Pass would play an essential role in European politics and north-south trade. However, the Swiss soon realized that it was in the interest of their independence to keep foreign armies off the pass. They annexed the south slope of the pass in the year 1331, in order to prevent convoys from being plundered and merchants and pilgrims from being attacked. A document dating from 1370 testifies that foreigners and natives could go “body and goods” from the Gothard to Zurich without running any risk. In this connection, as early as 1240, the Gothard is mentioned in certain chronicles as the “usual way for pilgrims going from the north to Rome.”
For centuries, travelers would use a mule track some 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) wide, made of flat stones and slabs of granite. Moreover, crossing the Gothard involved many unforeseeable risks—snowfalls, avalanches, falling stones, thunderstorms and gales, all of which caused delays and loss of life and goods. In wintertime, the pass remained closed for many months. Indeed, the Gothard was the most dangerous of all the Alpine passes.
From the year 1831, stagecoaches were able to cross the Gothard Pass, thanks to a road that had taken 10 years to build. It took 22 hours to travel the 95 miles (153 kilometers) from Fluelen to Lugano, “the land where the lemon tree blooms.” On May 31, 1882, the day the Gothard railway was opened with a tunnel passage, the stagecoach crossed the pass for the last time, and because of the tunnel, silence enveloped the snowy summits, though not forever.
Today the Alpine roads, though greatly improved, are dangerous in summer because of the intense traffic and countless bends. In autumn and in spring, the peril is increased by snow and ice. Approach roads can be cut off abruptly by landslides or avalanches. But now provisions are made so that the motorist can be sure of driving conditions by inquiring at automobile clubs or by merely dialing a telephone number. Only recently, in 1975, the Swiss passes remained closed longer than in other years because of heavy snowfalls in May.
Farther west on the map of the Alps, the Simplon road was the first transalpine highway built in modern times. It was Napoleon who gave orders for this pass to be opened up to allow cannons to be taken through. Its comparatively low altitude of about 6,600 feet (2,000 meters) and its relatively small snow layer led to this choice. The 26-foot (8-meter) roadway had a maximum gradient of one in 10. Nowadays this pass is open throughout the year, although formerly it was blocked by snow from December to May. No one could fail to be moved by the beauty of this road, which is well adapted to the topography and is rich in picturesque sites.
In 1974, the Swiss Alpine road network totaled 682 miles (1,098 kilometers). About half of it has been modernized. The passes are too numerous to review individually. However, before speaking of other possible ways of crossing the Alps, we should mention the yellow postal coaches that wind along the mountain roads. Their three-toned horn reminds everyone that these buses have the right-of-way.
With the advent of the railway, the Gothard soon became “Europe’s turntable.” Italy and Germany joined Switzerland in 1869 in order to bring about the shortest rail link between northern and southern Europe. Ten years were needed to bore the nine-mile (15-kilometer) Gothard rail tunnel, which reaches an altitude of 3,790 feet (1,155 meters). Trains have thundered through the tunnel day and night since 1882.
The Swiss are proud of “their” Gothard line, which is completely electrified, as is practically all the Swiss rail network. On the one hand, travelers admire the technical achievements and the numerous approach tunnels. On the other hand, they never weary of the wealth of landscape to be discovered in four or five hours’ travel aboard the comfortable trains. Often the weather is dull or even rainy at the northern entrance to the Gothard Tunnel. Then, what a surprise to come out of the tunnel under a radiant blue sky! A few more miles, and behold! Vines, chestnut trees, fig trees and peach trees, all testify to the mild southern climate, which is quite unknown north of the Alpine range. Truly, crossing the Gothard by train is an unforgettable pleasure.
In 1906, the Gothard Tunnel was supplanted as the longest by the Simplon Tunnel, which was to provide a more direct link between France and Italy across Switzerland. Construction began in 1898 on the first gallery, about 12.3 miles (19.8 kilometers) long, and it was opened to rail traffic in 1906. The second gallery, 20 yards (18 meters) longer, was begun in 1912, but could not be opened until 1922 because of the first world war. The Simplon Tunnel, which is the longest in the world, is situated at an altitude of 2,300 feet (700 meters), and the maximum depth of rock above the tunnel’s vault is 7,000 feet (2,135 meters). Boring this tunnel was a particularly delicate operation, for seepage forced work to be abandoned on several occasions.
Not a few Swiss nostalgically recall the “Simplon Orient Express,” an international train put into service in 1919 as a leg of the trip from London to Istanbul. This train that rumbled through the Simplon Tunnel took about 60 hours to cover the longest European rail distance of 1,881 miles (3,027 kilometers), starting at Paris, passing through France, Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, and terminating in Istanbul, Turkey.
Among several Alpine road tunnel projects under way, two are open to traffic, the privately built Great St. Bernard Tunnel in the west and the San Bernardino Tunnel in the east. The St. Bernard Tunnel, inaugurated in 1964, is a toll tunnel 3.6 miles (5.8 kilometers) long. The San Bernardino Tunnel, over 4 miles (about 6 kilometers) long, has been open since September 1, 1967. Being a part of the Swiss national road system, it is toll free.
At present, work is under way on the Gothard road tunnel, near the railway tunnel. Having a length of more than 10 miles (16 kilometers), it is expected to be the longest road tunnel in the world. It was scheduled to be opened by 1977, but, because of difficulties, a delay of 16 to 18 months was forecast.
Pending the opening of other road tunnels, motorists can cross the Alps by putting their cars on the train. Thanks to special flat trucks, the drivers and their passengers can stay in their vehicles. The Swiss federal railways gets them through the long Gothard rail tunnel in just a period of 15 minutes.
Of course, if the traveler is in a hurry, there are now several air routes open in practically all kinds of weather. More than 250 flights are made daily. But if a person wants a really awe-inspiring journey, he will have his highest expectations amply fulfilled by traveling in train or automobile.