The legend of the Gotthard

Walking over the world’s longest rail tunnel

Which is the best-known mountain in Switzerland? The Matterhorn is the usual answer. But which one best expresses the identity of Switzerland? Most Swiss would probably say the Gotthard.

The centre of the Alps. A symbol of a nation’s desire for independence and unity. A reminder of its courage and capacity for innovation. For the Swiss, no other place is as symbolically significant as the Gotthard massif. (It is worth noting that the Gotthard is a massif, not a mountain; there is no single mountain that bears that name.)

Soon the Gotthard will be crossable in a matter of minutes. The Gotthard base railway tunnel, the longest and deepest in the world, will be inaugurated at the beginning of June 2016. To travel the 57 km by train will take 20 minutes or so. It will be 20 minutes under 2,300 metres of rock, 20 minutes under a terrain of story and myth that has shaped the Swiss identity. But who will still notice it, travelling at high speed deep in the heart of the Alps? decided to follow the traces of history and myth on foot, hiking the old Gotthard road. The journey begins in Erstfeld, canton Uri, where the north end of the new tunnel is now situated, and takes us to Pollegio, in Ticino, the other end of the tunnel, in five stages. 

Erstfeld to Wassen

It is late June. The weather forecast is for a beautiful week ahead. There is no need for a coat, just a notebook, a microphone, a camera and any other tools needed to immortalise this epic trek through the Alps.

The history of Erstfeld is closely linked to the history of the Gotthard rail line. With the opening of the line in 1882, what had been a small rural village became an important railway centre. It is not by chance that Erstfeld is home to one of the three historic storage sites of the Swiss Federal Railways. Carl Waldis, a retired teacher and a tour guide “with a passion for rail”, walks us around the carriages and locomotives, such as the legendary Crocodile, which made railway history.

But before talking about railways, we need to go back a bit further in history. For centuries, the Gotthard was just one of many passes through the Alps; it certainly was not the most important one, as Ralph Aschwanden, a historian and journalist with the local newspaper points out. A lot more in the way of goods and people crossed by way of the Brenner or the Great St Bernard. Yet compared with other passes, the Gotthard has always had one advantage. “It is the shortest route from north to south. Lake Maggiore and Lake Lucerne are only 140 km apart. This is important, since in the Middle Ages most goods were transported by boat,” explains Aschwanden. What was the hard part? “It was always a difficult terrain to cross.” The road was punctuated by steep ravines, like the Schöllenen, that were impossible to negotiate before the early 13th century.

For the locals, however, it came to mean a livelihood. “Up to two-thirds of the inhabitants of canton Uri depended on the pack-horse business,” notes Carl Waldis.

At Silenen, 4 km from Erstfeld, we pause before the building which was once the first staging point for mule trains and travellers coming from Flüelen, on the shores of Lake Lucerne. “The journey to Bellinzona was organised by guilds of muleteers, each of which managed a particular route”, explains Waldis. According to a document from the early 1700s, up to 300 pack animals crossed per day.

The need to manage the pass – and the income from it – may well have been a factor in forging the first alliances between the core cantons of Switzerland at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. These alliances sowed the seeds of what later became the Swiss Confederation. So it is not surprising that, come the 19th century, this region and its legendary heroes like William Tell and Arnold Winkelried provided the foundation myths for the new nation.

We continue along the old packhorse trail. Just above Amsteg, on the hill of Flüeli, we get to another landmark that features in the myths, the ruins of the Zwing-Uri, a fortress built in the first half of the 13th century and (according to legend, not documented) destroyed during a revolt against the Hapsburgs. The hill is significant for yet another reason: during excavations archaeologists found remains of the Middle Bronze Age (around 1500 B.C.), which suggests the area was inhabited by man from very early on.

We stay close to the railway line. The valley now gets narrower and the road starts to get winding. The landscape is at times breathtaking – or would be were it not for the motorway, which makes the roaring Reuss look a bit less poetic than it might.

At Gurtnellen, a photograph of the floods in 1987 reminds us of how much this artery is at the mercy of nature. Even if you have crossed countless times by way of the modern road and rail, only on foot do you realise that railway and motorway are not just a matter of viaducts and tunnels. Everywhere you notice avalanche barriers, retaining walls, steel nets to catch rockslides, warning systems, railway huts and so on.

Conquering the Gotthard

Despite being known in ancient times, it was only really from the beginning of the 18th century that the Gotthard Pass started to gain importance. Today it is one of the main connections between the north and south of the Alps. (Photos: Carlo Pisani,

To build a rail line here 150 years ago was a gigantic undertaking. “The chief engineer Konrad Wilhelm Hellwag and his team of cartographers and geologists asked the locals where the avalanches and the torrents [after heavy rain] came down, so they could determine the best route and build in safety features,” explains Waldis. Nothing was left to chance, and in all the intervening years the line has never had to be moved an inch.

Arriving at Wassen, after about three hours on the trail, the first thing I want to do is physically touch the white church built on a hill in the middle of the valley to make sure it is real. To the train traveller, Wassen church always seems like an irritating mirage because of one of the engineering feats of this railway line. Three spiralling tunnels tackle a 100-metre altitude differential in a matter of a few kilometres. If you are on the train, though, you get the feeling of being on the move without getting anywhere. For several minutes Wassen church is always there somewhere: on your right, on your left, up above, or down below.

Wassen to Andermatt

We resume our journey first thing in the morning. This Tuesday in late June, temperatures are almost tropical. As we leave Wassen behind, it is hard to imagine that two years before the opening of the rail line this village had 3,000 inhabitants, mostly railway construction workers. Today there are just 400.

The trail climbs the west side of the valley. We pass what was once the dwelling-house of a railway guard, far away from any other signs of civilisation. In the first decades of the operation, the rails and infrastructure had to be checked by the workmen every day, and they often lived with their families in these isolated locations. There was one of these cottages every three kilometres. The use of better steel and the coming of machinery to make measurements made on-the-spot inspections no longer necessary, and so these cottages were mostly abandoned.

After taking a wrong turn and having done what one should not do – walking along the rail lines –  to avoid a climb back, we arrive in Göschenen. In front of the entrance to the ‘old’ railway tunnel I think of the thousands of workers, most of them from the north of Italy, who worked here, and ponder the story told by Carl Waldis.

Officially, during the tunnel excavations 177 people died. The number of victims could be higher and actually reach 500, according to Waldis’s figures. For example, injured workers who died after returning home were not counted.

Whereas working conditions in the tunnel were very hard, outside it wasn’t much better. Workers were lumped together in tents and makeshift housing, with no water or hygienic facilities. Their only incentive was a salary slightly higher than in other such operations. A miner earned not much more than CHF100 a month from which were deducted the rent of an oil lamp (CHF5) and accommodation (CHF15-20 for a bed).

At Göschenen we have to climb aboard the local train for Andermatt. The hiking trail is closed because of a rockslide. The valley narrows until it becomes a gorge. Arriving in Andermatt, 300 metres higher, in the Urseren Valley, we turn in our tracks to admire this narrow valley close up. We are now in the Schöllenen gorge, a critical point on the Gotthard route which was for centuries impassable. Only at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, first with the building of a footbridge suspended over the gorge, then with the so-called Devil’s Bridge, was it possible to overcome this natural hurdle.

How did the bridge get its name? According to local legend, the Devil himself was the only one who could build it, and he undertook to do so in exchange for the soul of the first person to cross it – but in the end all he got was a goat, driven onto the bridge by the crafty locals.

On the left side of the gorge, an imposing monument with an inscription in Cyrillic letters recalls that in 1799 a fierce battle was fought here between the Russian army under General Suvorov and Napoleon’s troops. Suvorov with his force of 21,000 men crossed the Gotthard, Lukmanier and Oberalp passes – a feat which some have compared to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Suvorov’s exploit has long been part of Russian military legend.

Even though this was the only major battle to take place in the region, the Gotthard is actually full of military history. One just needs to take a good look at the walls of rock to realise that they have been perforated like a Swiss cheese, with big guns pointing in every direction. At the top of the pass, we will get the chance to see it up close. For now, though, the excavators and cranes that dominate the Andermatt skyline bring us back to the immediate present.

Andermatt to Gotthard Pass

A ski resort that had seen better days, Andermatt got a much-needed boost in the past few years with the arrival of Egyptian businessman Samih Sawiris, who has invested hundreds of millions of francs in a new tourist development. On the plain leading to Hospental, which used to be a base of the Swiss army, a sign tells hikers to watch out for flying golf balls.

The inscription on the wall of the Hospental chapel dedicated to St Charles Borromeo sums up perfectly the history of this old crossroads of humanity: “Here the paths divide. Friend, where are your steps taking you? Are you going down to the Eternal City of Rome? Towards the German Rhine and hallowed Cologne? Or westwards into France?” For the purposes of this trip, we are going down in the direction of the Eternal City. Actually, we are going uphill and then down. Another ten kilometres and we will be at the top of the pass. The trail hugs the old highway, built in 1830, and the ancient mule-track.

“Before the railway opened in 1882, the pass was used all year round. To compact the snow they drove oxen through it, and the stage-coaches were replaced by sleighs,” explains Carlo Peterposten, head of the National Gotthard Museum, who joins us on the trail. The stage-coach took two days to get from Basel to Milan. With mules, from Fluelen to Milan it took about ten days.

A huge vent reminds us that a few hundred metres below, the motorway is going through the tunnel. “Road, rail, and that’s not all – above here is an international flight path, and a migratory flyway for the birds,” Peterposten tells us.

Having passed the San Carlo fort, which is a fortress converted into a hotel, we reach the sign that tells us “Gotthard pass, 2106 m”. Here we are! We have arrived at the highest point of the pass named after St Gotthard, a Benedictine bishop of Hildesheim who was canonised in 1131.

This is a geographical and cultural meeting point, as Peterposten tells us, and also a watershed, with four major rivers that rise nearby: the Rhine, the Rhone, the Reuss and the Ticino.

Due to its central position, the Gotthard massif was long considered the highest point in the Alps, until 1716, when the error was corrected.

The sun is gradually fading. There are hardly any cars or motorcycles to be seen. Silence reigns once more. It gets cool, but not too much. “On evenings like this I feel like a new man,” says the keeper of the Gotthard hotel and hostel, Urs Ortelli. This place fascinates him, he says, because every day he meets “people from all over Europe”.

We enter the austere and magnificent hostel (which has been in existence at least since 1237). It has been renovated recently. Every room is named after some illustrious character who stayed here: Goethe, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Rossini, Petrarch… Mine is named after Mikhail Bakunin. I go to sleep in the cradle of history.

Gotthard Pass to Airolo

The rays of the sun that begin to illuminate the little lakes and the mountains give one a sense of tranquillity. Yet this peaceful appearance is deceptive, for the weather can quickly turn into a nightmare. We are still in the Alps, as thousands of travellers over the centuries have found out to their cost. When St Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) visited the Gotthard, it seems he was so shocked by the sight of the skeletons of numerous travellers that he ordered their temporary inhumation in what is today the Chapel of the Dead, a little church built over a cleft in the rock, as Carlo Peterposten recounts.

But now we get to enter another kind of cleft, made by man. A few hundred metres from the peaceful hostel, we are faced with a gigantic armour-plated door. Damian Zingg, executive director of the Sasso San Gottardo Foundation, gives us a guided tour inside the Sasso da Pigna fort, built between 1941 and 1943 and an official secret until 2001, though thousands of vehicles pass a few metres from the entrance. If you look closely you can see the barrels of the big guns sticking out of the walls a hundred metres overhead. 

The “National Redoubt”, the defence plan adopted by the Swiss army after the outbreak of World War II, focused on holding the Alpine area and the Gotthard in particular, became the symbol of the country’s will to defend itself and its liberty from the surrounding Axis powers.

It is because of the National Redoubt centred on the Gotthard that Switzerland is supposed to have avoided invasion. But this is a modern, founding myth of Switzerland, as the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland tells us. Doubt began to be cast on it in the 1990s, when historians started to put more emphasis on the network of economic, financial and political interests with the opposing alliances, relegating to second place the importance of the Redoubt.

This strategy of fortifying the Alps did not come to an end with the capitulation of Nazi Germany, but was continued during the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the downsizing of the Swiss army, many of the bunkers were dismantled. Some of them have been transformed into museums.

After a salutary cooling in the long dark tunnels where the thermometer goes down to seven degrees, we get back to more summery temperatures.

Next we come to the Tremola, without doubt the most symbolic road on the Gotthard, a true work of modern art which looks just as it did when it was completed in 1951. Over a distance of a kilometre as the crow flies, an altitude differential of 340 metres is negotiated in 24 curves. Numerous are the intrepid cyclists who tackle the granite road, while drivers of vintage cars relive how it felt when the automobile was king and road trips an adventure.

After all the sharp turns, the valley opens up before us. Five hundred metres below we have a fine view of Airolo and part of the Leventina valley. Near the Motto Bartola barracks, we are met by Edoardo Reinhart. This guide from the association of the Friends of Fort Airolo accompanies us as far as what looks at first sight like a normal farm building. But a farm building with an armour-plated door?

Discovering the Foppa Grande fort

The position of the fort, at 1,540 metres in altitude, allows for keeping watch over the Val Formazza, in Italy, in particular. The building was completed in 1942 and subsequently extended. It can shelter around 50 men. (Photos: Carlo Pisani,

The dark maze of the Foppa Grande fort is enough to remind you of James Bond movies, not to mention horror classics. It would not seem all that surprising to see the pale ghost of some soldier emerging from the shadows. Having been in this fascinating place and seen just how creative men can be when it comes to the art of war, it is still a pleasant relief to get back out into the open air.

We have not, however, quite finished with forts today. There is still one to visit, the oldest and the finest, Fort Airolo. Surrounded by a sort of moat, it looks a bit like a medieval castle, except for one striking detail. “It was one of the first fortresses in Europa to be completely roofed,” explains Edoardo Reinhart. The roof – made of granite that is at some points eight metres thick – is arched like a tortoise-shell.

The fort was built between 1886 and 1889. “It was intended for the defence of the Gotthard railway tunnel, which Italy might have claimed, since it partly funded it,” notes Reinhart.

Though it is over a century old, the fort is still used as a military base. Another part has been made into a museum. Other than providing artillery cover of the upper Leventina valley, the fort has another interesting historic feature: a secret passage connects it to the portal of the railway tunnel. “The plan was to blow up the tunnel in case of necessity; so if the Italian army succeeded in conquering the region, its victory would bring no strategic advantage.”

We go down into this narrow passage, a kilometre long. It is only a few metres wide and high, and it seems to go on forever. Fortunately the lighting is in perfect order. Every so often, I notice a puff of air. “That is a train going by,” explains the guide.

We come out at Airolo. After a long day in the bowels of the earth, there is nothing better than sitting at a restaurant table and enjoying the savours of the sunny south.

Airolo to Pollegio

The traffic is flowing smoothly along the motorway. This is not to be taken for granted on this north-south corridor where on average 15,000 cars and 2,300 trucks cross daily. There is not exactly a permanent traffic jam, but it can look like it. As a result the Gotthard has become a battleground for environmentalists seeking to reduce through-traffic in the Alpine regions.

Today is the last stage of our journey. To get from Airolo to Pollegio, as planned, we switch from hiking boots to the bicycle.

After a while travelling on level ground, we reach the Dazio Grande in Rodi, one of the most symbolic buildings along the Gotthard. The imposing structure is in a highly strategic position about a hundred metres from the Piottino gorge, an obligatory stretch for anyone going this way.

As we found with the Schöllenen gorge, the men of Uri (who ruled the Leventina till 1798) were not ones to shy away from natural obstacles. Why go around this gorge in the Leventina, taking a much longer route, if a road could be built? So they got to work, and in 1561 it was ready. The road provided a good return on investment. In one of the magnificently restored rooms of this old custom house, there is a list of toll fees on display. “Owners of bears crossing here had to pay 37.5 lire, the same as a carriage traveller,” says the Dazio manager Mariapia Conconi.

Practically invisible to anyone crossing by car or train, the stretch along the ancient road through the gorges is a terrific sight. At one point, we see where a landslide has carried away the whole road. When nature lets loose and water flows down these sheer walls, the sight must be impressive.

We pass Faido, a village which between the end of the 19th century and the First World War turned into a fashionable resort, just about at the level of St Moritz, explains Diana Tenconi, whom we meet in the afternoon in Giornico. She is curator of the splendid Leventina Museum, which was renovated a short while ago.

Going down the Biaschina gorge, crowned by the huge motorway viaduct, the temperature rises rapidly. Now we are back at ground level. Our destination is getting close. We take a final break in Giornico, a little medieval jewel of a town, with its seven churches and its two romanesque bridges.

Our journey is almost at an end. Anothering bit of cycling and we encounter an enormous excavator, used for digging out the new tunnel, and now parked at the side of the road. Its work is done. For a while, it stands as a kind of monument to modern technology.

The southern portal of the new Gotthard tunnel is just a few metres away. In a matter of months, trains will be whizzing through here. Travellers will have crossed the mountain of mystery and myth before they even notice. The legend and lore of the Gotthard country will disappear bit by bit – or perhaps the legend will just gain another chapter.


Daniele Mariani

Videos and photos

Carlo Pisani

Translation from Italian

Terence MacNamee


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