The Gotthard Experience – extracts from Janet’s diary
Tuesday 31st July – Day 118
Today has been one of the loveliest days of our lives.
We have had a wonderful walk up the valley leading to St Gotthard as far as Andermatt. The weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cold, clear air and fluffy clouds appearing as the day wore on.
The valley is quite amazing. The mountains on each side gradually encroach onto the valley, squeezing it until it becomes really narrow, and then towards the end, fairly steep. It is also the artery between the north and the south of Switzerland, so everything has to have a place there – the river Reuss, the railway, the motorway, the ordinary road, the electricity, and the cycle and walking paths. And at times there is not much room for them all. Occasionally the motorway and the railway go into tunnels for a while before vanishing completely into the mountainside, not to emerge until able to speak Italian.
The river was our noisy companion all the way up the valley. It is a very rushy river, its clear green waters tumbling down in a very determined way to Lake Luzern. From time to time, huge boulders are in the river bed, causing the river to foam and jump, and just occasionally, the river bed is wide and flat, the water is limpid, chalky green, and happy to be quiet for a moment.
We strolled along the path, following the wonderful yellow wanderweg signs. Occasionally we were confused, but there wasn’t a lot of choice in such a narrow valley, and so all was calm. There was no rush to get anywhere, either, as there were trains until after nine o’clock, and in addition, there were places we could stop if we wanted to, and catch a bus or train back to the hotel.
The engineering works that have gone on in that valley have been quite amazing. There are bridges, viaducts, tunnels, all jostling about for their space, and we took hundreds of photographs of it all. We had lots of ups and downs, many of them in the form of steps, and all the time, the general trend was up. We ascended over 900 metres in altitude from start to finish, as well as walking twenty miles. (The eighteen mile estimate, rolled on the map yesterday, wasn’t able to take account of all the twists and turns, especially on the steeper bits at the head of the valley.)
We started at Erstfeld, where there were some old railway carriages with wooden seats, and where the new rail tunnel under St Gotthard will start, ate our elevenses at Amsteg, and had our lunch in a wood, where we had gone up and down steps with various twists and turns. After lunch, we continued this twisted progress, and had a wonderful suspension bridge to cross, as well as huge motorway arches to wonder at from underneath and various other bridges to cross. This was actually followed by the only bit I didn’t like in the day, where we had to walk on a narrow path on the side of the ordinary road, which had loud and fast motorbikes zooming up behind us. However, we were able to leave it in the end, and carried on with our wonderful stroll. We had a beer each in Wassen, which we thoroughly enjoyed (although I forgot my poles and had to go back for them), and finally an afternoon tea right up at the head of the valley after Goeschenen where only the road was competing for attention, sitting on a seat near a bridge reminiscent of Tam O’Shanter’s bridge at Alloway.
It was so exciting seeing the valley gradually get smaller and smaller, with the mountains on either side looking on in a gigantic sort of way, and every turn we took, there was a bit more of the valley to see, reaching upwards. There were more and more waterfalls on the sides of the valley, and then on a bend, we saw the River Reuss ahead of us falling down steeply. The valley was at an end. We then took another turn, and there was Andermatt, lying in a broad valley, looking quite industrial and busy, though I don’t know how much industry there is.
The end part of the valley looked magnificent with the road engineers doing themselves proud, with hairpin bends and galleries all fitting perfectly at various angles into the narrow and narrowing valley, and in addition, managing to find room for a rack and pinion railway running up to Andermatt from Goeschenen.
Wednesday 1st August – Day 118
Another glorious day.
The centre of Andermatt is very pretty with beautiful old houses and the mountains as a backdrop. Just outside the station, there is a new huge development, which will include a rather exclusive Five Star hotel. It’s rather an eyesore (to me) at the present. But of course, it isn’t finished.
The weather was good again, though rather cloudy and threatening at the top of the pass. Excellent for walking, however. The first part of the walk to Hospental was flat along the valley of Andermatt by the River Reuss. Then we started climbing. Not steeply, but steadily up up up. We interconnected with the road over the pass from time to time, and generally it involved a bit of down and then up, which, although not arduous, I felt we could have done without.
Then came a glorious part below the road. Whenever we have driven across moors and through glens and valleys in Britain, one could always see a lovely river or stream below, and I would always wish that I could go for a walk along it. Always impossible though. Always private land or no place to park. Here all those longings of many years have been satisfied. We strolled alongside the River Reuss, through beautiful Alpine meadows, filled with flowery pastures, a herd of suckler cows grazing peacefully and looking contented, along a little footpath, signed specially for the likes of us. And we could look up, and see all those cars speeding along the road, unable to join us.
We climbed steadily up, and encountered the start of the old road which is still used by quite a lot of traffic, with a largely cobbled surface. Most traffic (I would judge) continued to whizz along noisily on the new road towards the top of the the pass. The old road contained slightly slower traffic on the whole, including cyclists making the ascent which really impressed us. Fancy being able to get all that way up without getting off and pushing the bike. I used to have to get off my bike when cycling home from the village hall!
I think our path up was an even older road, as you could see cobbles, sometimes below the grass, sometimes quite prominent, as well as paved fording places, though rather eroded now.
We made our way to the top, taking the morning to do so. We arrived around one o’clock, as we had dawdled, taking a million photographs, and having elevenses (croissants and Coke) sat on a rock with glorious views all around.
What a contrast at the top. A stark, rocky landscape. Millions of people and parked cars and buses. Restaurants, bars, open-air food, kiosks with postcards and soft toys, all wanting everyone’s business. We ate our dinner at the top, just by the signpost that indicates the altitude and where we are. We got a bit cold then. The wind was keen, as it always is at the head of a pass, and the sun had gone in, so before we set off on our way down, we had a hot chocolate at a restaurant.
And then another contrast. The down, down, down was very steep and very down. Without our walking poles, it would all have been very difficult. With them, it was a challenge that we were pleased to accept. It was a different sort of valley from the northern side, with no long views for quite a time mostly due to the steepness. We had to make an effort to look around at the scenery, as we had to mind our feet and footholds so much. One woman passed us, rather like a mountain goat. She dropped down past us without the aid of poles, breezily stepping it out, showing no hesitation at stepping on any stone which might not be secure. She was out of sight in no time at all. I was very impressed, but happy to carry on in my own rather slow way, feeling the ground with my poles to make sure I didn’t end up with a broken bone.
We descended so far in such a short time. Very impressive. And then finally we came round a corner, and there was Airolo and the valley spread out below us. The Ticino is a reality. We had passed into the Ticino before we reached the summit of the pass, and I was so pleased to say “buon giorno” rather than “gruezi”, which is the Swiss-German way of greeting people. It is lovely to abandon German, which I had been struggling with. Mike was much better than me in that area, whereas I had managed much better with French. I can now forget both of those, and concentrate on recovering my Italian. Inappropriate French words keep floating to the surface when I am trying to say something in Italian.
It took a while to walk down to Airolo. Every time we saw the view, it was getting closer and closer, until at last we entered the town and made our way down to the hotel. Sitting outside, we had a beer each, and were delighted that we had walked all the way here from Gravels Bank.
Tomorrow, we intend to stroll the third part of the Gotthard Pass Experience. That is, walking down the valley towards Lugano. We intend to walk to Faido tomorrow – thirteen miles or so – to complete a proper going-down of the mountain.
Thursday 2nd August – Day 119
Today was a sort of mixed day, with a variety of experiences. After the exhiliration of the previous two days, I suppose that a third day could not live up to that. But some of it most certainly did.
The day was good walking weather, although we thought at one point that we wouldn’t finish our stroll without getting wet. However, the clouds that had been hanging over St Gotthard all day and had started to encroach on the valley drifted back to St Gotthard so we remained dry, and although hot from some of the ups and downs we encountered, there was for the most part a very pleasant breeze.
We set off without looking at the map, a very unusual thing for me to do, as it is always a pleasure to see the detail of where we are going to go. We felt it didn’t matter, as the sentiero signposts were just outside the hotel by the station, and we knew we were going to follow them down the valley. And that is what we did.
We looked at the signpost – Faido 5 ore – which pointed straight into the station. We followed it and couldn’t see where to go immediately. However, we found the route under the subway, and it led us out on the other side of the track, and off we set. There was some up up up straight away, quickly followed by down down down, and then we were walking along by the railway and the motorway. There was also a stream, developing into a river with us as well, so it was all quite noisy, but very easy going.
I thought I would glance at the map to see how we were doing, and that is when we realised how foolish it is not to look at the map before we start, as we were not on the footpath we had intended to be on at all. We should have been much higher up on the other side of the valley. Oh well. One of those things. We discovered that there are in fact two paths – strada alta and strada bassa – and we had been directed on to strada bassa. It was bassa too. We were strolling along the bed of the valley for the most part. Too late to start again. We had walked a mile or two already and the motorway was between us and the high path.
We misread a sign and lost the path next, walking an extra half mile or so along a very busy road. However we retraced our steps and found the path, which took us under the motorway and along a pleasant track by the river. We came to a café and had a Coke each, and were tempted by a funicular railway which had its station next to the café. We resisted the temptation, however, and continued on our stroll along the river to Quinto.
At this point we had an opportunity to climb up to the strada alta, and this we did. It was fairly strenuous as it was pretty steep. However, we climbed up up up through the woods (I felt this sort of climbing was becoming very familiar to me). The climbing went on and on, and eventually we came out onto a track where we looked for somewhere to have our picnic. We found a tree trunk each, more or less in the shade, and were able to cool down, have a pleasant lunch of cheese and rolls, and recover ourselves.
We continued with the stroll, passing through two small villages of Deggio and Lurengo, which both looked very old. The houses were built of stone or wood, and some roofs had stone slates. They looked very “carattaristico”.
We strolled into a wood called Bosco d’Oss. And this is where we started the descent and one of the most amazing experiences of the journey over the Gotthard for me. (I don’t think it could have been for Mike, as he forgot to mention it in the blog.) We knew that there must be a lot of down down down to come, as Airolo is 1,141 metres above sea level, and Faido is about 755 metres, and we had climbed and climbed and climbed. Gosh, I’ve just looked on the blog at the SatMap data, and see that we climbed up up up to 2,119 metres – an up up up of nearly 980 metres from Airolo. This makes me realize just how much down down down we had to do. Not much wonder we felt weary at the end of the day.
My amazing experience – it was a down down down, but a quite incredible one. We climbed down something in the region of 125 metres in 0.2 of a mile, I think. It was in the woods, and started quite gently on a bed of pine needles in fairly open woodland, with a delicious smell to accompany us, plenty of red and white path signs, and generally very easy going.
We zig-zagged down the marked path (with notices warning not to take scorcciatoie – short-cuts) mostly with tree roots for steps, but stones and rocks also making a contribution. As we descended, it became steeper and steeper and the rocks became more and more common, until the path became like an incredible staircase made of rock, going first one way, then another, and we seemed to be going down the edge of a rock face. It was hard work, and needed a lot of concentration, but it was really wonderful to do. The photos I have taken don’t really do it justice at all. I have two photographs that just look like a heap of stones, but they are of the path we came down, and I took them looking back up.
We came out eventually onto a meadow, and carried on along the path to Faido. After that, the path continued down down down, but not in any dramatic way as in Bosco d’Oss. We went through Brusgnano down onto the strada bassa again until we reached Faido in a fairly serene manner.
When we got back to the hotel, the receptionist had lost our room key, and was also busy checking people in, so she sent us to the bar for a free drink of beer, and then she found the key and presented it to us, with thanks for being happy to wait. We had certainly been happy to wait, sitting outside in a cool breeze, with beer in front of us.
Saturday 4th August – Day 122
We had a day off yesterday, and finished the final part of strolling down the valley from the Gotthard Pass today.
We started at Faido, which is a pleasant little town, with interesting old buildings. In fact, a lot of the little places we walked through today had beautiful, characteristic buildings.
Today was quite a stroll. In fact, not really a stroll. More a test of seeing how far we could go up up up and how far we could go down down down. And a test of other things too.
We strolled from Faido to Biasca, walking on the strada alta. We knew we would have to walk up to start to get back onto the strada alta. We walked up for a long time. A very long time, it seemed to me. However, we finally got up to the sentiero.
We walked sort of along contour lines, but not really as we crossed an awful lot of them, and did more ups and downs. But we walked through a lot of little villages – Muradel, Figgione, Rossura, Tengia, Calonico, Anzonico, Cavagnago, Ronzano, Sobrio – which had absolutely beautiful old buildings, many built of stone, others of wood, with amazing stone-tiled roofs. The tiles were enormous. Really really enormous. Mike was wondering how the walls supported the weight of them.
The other things we walked through a lot of were waterfalls. Water was coming down the side of the mountains in cascades, and it was a constant theme as we walked along. There were little bridges, stepping stones, or occasionally nothing, which involved a little shallow paddling.
Rain was also a feature of the day. It was reasonable until about lunch time, when there was a downpour. Fortunately we had just come into Anzonico, so we sheltered under a roof by the side of the road. I got fed up of this and investigated the neighbourhood, only to find a restaurant about twenty yards from where we were standing. We went in and had a good lunch. In fact, I think it was the best meal we have had in Switzerland apart from the lovely meal we had with Sue Jells’ sister, Jean and her husband, Nick. It was also the best value for money, probably in France as well as Switzerland. Meals out are very expensive in both those countries. While we were there, there was a terrific thunderstorm, but had passed over by the time we were ready to walk again.
We set off again, continuing on our rather up and down trail, with distant thunder grumbling in the background. We had passed through Sobrio, and there was a view point there, from where I said to Mike, now we’ll have to go all round that corner over there. There was a big gully to the south and you could see how we would have to go round it and then round the corner beyond it.
I was so right. The gully was very deep – hundreds of feet – and the path was right next to it. It must have gone on for nearly a mile before we passed it by. I was fine to start with, but I don’t really like heights if there is no high barrier. Well, there was certainly no high barrier. At first, I just pretended it was like any old single-file path, and was fine. But it went on and on, and we had to go up stone “steps” and down them as well. And we could see the drops below us. Tall trees looked miniature in the distance below us. And I gradually got more nervous. Mike was very good, and left me time and space, and gave me a helping hand if I really needed it. The thunder rolled about us the whole time, though fortunately the rain stayed off while we were negotiating this part. However, we passed it all in the end, and I was certainly jolly pleased. Mike had enjoyed it all – or rather he would have done so had I not been so nervous. I will never walk that path again. I couldn’t cope, knowing what would be to come, but I was pleased that I had walked it. It was amazing. But not necessarily nice amazing. I also felt it was an achievement, though one I was pleased to have done without knowing what was to come.
This was not the only physical thing to overcome on this walk. We started to go down. And we went down down down seemingly for ever. My knees were creaking. Thank goodness we had our walking poles. The section that the SatMap has drawn is quite amazing. We dropped 2070ft (631 metres) in 2.4 miles. I was just so glad we were going down and not up. It would have just been heart-breaking to do that. In addition, the rain came down in torrents, accompanied by thunder, and we got pretty wet. We didn’t reach Biasca until about a quarter past seven.
So it was a bit of a mixed stroll today. Not really one of my favourites, but certainly memorable, and it is the last part of the St Gotthard episode, as we have finished going down the valley that comes from St Gotthard.