From Mike Fishwick
How I found it: Exploring
Where it is: Switzerland
Estimated distance: varies
One of the major routes into southern Switzerland is the Grand St. Bernard Pass, which is an interesting morning’s drive from the Petit St. Bernard Pass in the French Alps. The Swiss side always seems very calm after the excitement of watching the motorcyclists on the Italian side, and provides a steady run to Martigny and Brig. Brig has a good campsite, close to the town centre, on the hill leading towards the Simplon Pass and Italy, which is an excellent base for exploring this area.
Most of the traffic between France and Switzerland uses the Col de la Forclaz, near Chamonix, a road which is best ignored.
Although of a high standard, the Swiss autobahns do not add convenience to east-west travel, but are virtually essential if travelling north-south. Remember that a Vignette is required if any autobahns are to be used, but at £25 it is poor value, particularly when late in the year, as the entire current year’s worth of vignette must be purchased.
Signposting is of a high standard, and the names of major passes are used on road signs to indicate the general direction.
Options from Brig include a train ride to Zermatt, followed by a rack and pinion train to the Görnergrat Glacier, where you can enjoy lunch at 3,135 metres, while admiring the dramatic view of the Matterhorn – but check the weather forecast before you go! Another train ride, on the well-named Glacier Express, takes you on a circular journey through some of Switzerland’s best scenary.
The Simplon Pass can provide an interesting visit into Italy to Stresa, on Lake Maggiore. This is another easy pass, but many sections of the original road can still be accessed, which give a good feel for how alpine travel has progressed since the ‘sixties. While there, spare a thought for those who cut the Simplon rail tunnel through solid rock, making two complete turns in order to maintain the gradient, while fighting streams of geothermal boiling water.
Another day’s run in the ‘Furka/Grimsel’ direction will take you through some of Switzerland’s prettiest passes, which are about thirty miles further east. After following the Rhône valley to the Gletsch (Glacier) Pass, a very scenic road climbs to the village of Gletsch. Here turn left, taking the sign for ‘Grimsel,’ and climb the pass of the same name. This is a quite long and steep climb, the view from the summit at 2,165 metres being one of the best. Even better, the road then meanders around the edges of three large lakes, which appear to be filled with green water and surrounded by green mountains.
Follow the road to Innerkirchen, and turn right towards the Susten Pass, another very scenic road with some tight bends climbing towards its peak at 2,224 metres before the descent to Wassen. Now take the road south towards Andermatt, then follow the signs for ‘Gotthard.’ This climbs to the St. Gotthard Pass, and after the avalanche shelter section affords an excellent view of the old road, winding its way down the opposite side of the valley. This is, however, its only redeeming feature.
The discerning tourist will leave the main road as it starts to climb, where the white sign for ‘Gotthard’ leads to the old road, climbing into the tourist-trapping area at the summit. Follow the sign near the museum, turning left to the narrow road signed for ‘Airolo.’ This is the old St. Gotthard Pass, paved with granite setts cut and laid by convicts, consisting of steep ramps joined by uncambered hairpin bends. Traffic is light (but look out for the stagecoach) and you will soon reach Airolo.
Airolo is in an Italian-speaking area, and the casual observer would think it was Italy, as all signs are in that language, but the road for the Nüfenen Pass is easy to find, climbing 2,431 metres as it returns to Gletsch, then falling to 678 metres back at Brig. Heather and I have made this circular tour by Z3, with plenty of time for lunch and coffee stops. This area is the venue for the Swiss Z3 Club’s annual treffen, where almost 400 assorted Z models gather for a day amongst the mountains.
In common with all other mountain passes, those of Switzerland are very popular with cyclists, and great care should be taken when approaching them. This situation often arises just before blind bends, where overtaking can place you – and the cyclist – in a dangerous position should another vehicle suddenly emerge from the bend. Remember the dictum of the Highway Code to ensure that conditions are safe before overtaking, and to pass the cyclist by a generous margin. This is particularly important as one approaches the summit, where an exhausted cyclist will be slowing, and so be prone to sudden wobbles and weaves. As you approach any blind bend expect a cyclist to be just around it. Do not regard them as being ‘Just a cyclist,’ and overtake as a reflex action. In the same way, do not become frustrated by their habit of travelling in a close-packed group, or be intimidated by an impatient driver behind you.
Those travelling eastwards will follow the river Rhône past Gletsch, heading instead for the Furka Pass, which is probably the best piece of road in Switzerland. A series of hairpin bends and a good straight runs up the side of a mountain range, to the perpetual ice of the Rhône glacier. Here a 100 metre long tunnel takes one into the heart of the glacier, after which the nearby Hotel Belvedere provides revival in the atmosphere of a nineteenth-century Alpinistes hotel. This long and scenic road climbs to 2,431 metres, and provides a good variety of bends with breathtaking views along the Rhône valley far below, and can be guaranteed to provide an exhilarating drive.
After lunch at Andermatt the afternoon can be spent climbing the 2,044 metre Oberalp pass, which is a pleasant but undemanding drive, followed by a gentle descent towards Chur. Avoid the St.Moritz area by means of the Albula Pass, a road climbing to 2,312 metres amongst a strange rock-strewn landscape, which looks quite dramatic, but is another easy drive.
By late afternoon you will reach the Bernina Pass, which at 2,328 metres is quite high, and another easy road. Even in summer the temperature here can rapidly fall, so be prepared for a cold end to a great day out in the mountains as you head into Italy.
A country’s roads generally seem to reflect its people, and those of Switzerland are no exception, being a little remote, with a good blend of the virtues (and vices) to be found in the French, Germans and Italians. Like its people, Switzerland’s roads are worth getting to know.
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jackal on PH wrote:i love your profile... an endless pornographic paroxysm of the letters BMW
do you actually like driving at all or are cars to you just a manifestation of some sort of pathological mother complex ?
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