Home > Tourist Guide > Table of contents > Zentralschweiz > Schwyzerland > Uri and the Alpine passes > The Gotthard Pass and Tunnel
The most famous of all the Alpine passes, the St Gotthard or San Gottardo (2108m), is also the most memorable. The turbulent Schöllenen Gorge, a few kilometres north of Andermatt, was first bridged in the thirteenth century, allowing traffic to penetrate up the full length of the Reuss valley from Flüelen to the pass itself, from where a continuation road followed the valley of the River Ticino all the way south to Bellinzona and Milan. Today, three daily buses (July–Sept only) follow the new road from Andermatt up to the pass and on down to Airolo. The old cobbled road, which branches off partway up, is much quieter and more picturesque. Both meet on top, where you’ll find a wild windswept spot with a handful of buildings clustered around a small lake that’s become an unfortunately popular picnicking spot for day-tripping families. The pass is one of Europe’s watersheds: rain or snowmelt on the north side ultimately ends up in the Rhine and the North Sea, while moisture on the south side flows into the Po and the Mediterranean.
The old hospice beside the road now houses the engaging Museo Nazionale del San Gottardo (May–Oct daily 9am–6pm; Fr.8; SMP), which outlines the history of the pass with models, reliefs, paintings and audiovisual slide-shows. Across the road, there are simple modern rooms available at the often-busy Albergo San Gottardo (091/869 12 35, fax 869 18 11, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.gotthard-hospiz.ch; May–Oct). From the pass, most traffic follows the new road down to Airolo, but the old cobbled road that snakes down behind the albergo off the back of the pass into Ticino is truly spectacular, with terrific vistas all the way down into the Val Tremolo (“Valley of Trembling”). If you’re hiking, it’s a three-hour walk to Airolo this way, or six hours by an off-road route through Val Canaria; on the north side, Andermatt is three hours away via the small village of Hospental, or six by a more scenic route through the deserted valleys around Maighels.
Foot traffic had used the pass since about 1200, and the first carriage crossed in 1775. Less than a century later in 1872, after decades of debate over routes and costs, work began on a rail tunnel beneath the pass. Over seven years and 277 lives later, the bores which had begun simultaneously from Göschenen and Airolo met midway on February 29, 1880. The first trains ran through the 15km-long tunnel in 1882. This line is still a vital north–south artery, carrying at peak times an average of one train every six minutes – with five million passengers and 25 million tonnes of freight carried to and fro each year. The Gotthard journey is one of Switzerland’s great train rides, not so much for the long stretch of blackness as you swoosh beneath the Alps, but for the spectacular approach. South of Flüelen, you climb slowly and dramatically up the wild valley, passing through dozens of straight tunnels and, around Wassen, a series of tightly spiralled tunnels, which gain maximum altitude at minimum gradients. Wassen’s little onion-domed church, prominent on its rock, is a famous landmark: you’ll pass it three times, first high above you, then on a level, and finally far below you before you’re plunged into darkness shortly afterwards at Göschenen. Trains emerge at Airolo for the long journey down to Bellinzona.
The Gotthard road tunnel, completed in 1980 after eleven years of construction, is – at 16.3km – the longest road tunnel in the world, and although prone to hideous kilometres-long jams on both approaches, it remains open year-round, while the pass road above is impassable in winter.
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