The probably best-known and most important alpine pass in Switzerland is found between the alpine towns Hospental and Airolo in the Swiss Alps – the Gotthard Pass. Often also referred to as “King of Mountain Passes”.
For decades the Gotthard Pass on up to 2.091m (6,860ft) above the sea level has been the only connection between canton Uri in the North and canton Ticino in the South of the Alps. Entire armies used the passage and during winters hundreds of “shovellers” earned their income keeping the Gotthard Pass open.
Todays moderns transit routes take you trough a 16.9 kilometers long road tunnel opened in 1980 or the 57 kilometers long Gotthard railway tunnel, opened in 1882. Crossing the Gotthard mountain massif via the alpine pass however is still the most scenic and adventurous experience and sometimes the best alternative to avoid traffic before the tunnel.
Better don’t look on a map - the serpentine twists may turn you away from the plan to drive the Gotthard Pass and you would miss out on a very impressive alpine driving adventure. The road is asphalted all the way and can be very exciting. Sometimes even feel a little to exposed. As one of the most vital roads in Europe the Gotthard Pass is safe and its been used my thousand of tourist every year. The pass is busy during the summer holiday season with many vacationist coming for the stunning views. The landscape is mournful and bleak throughout much of this driving adventure, a testimony to the savage climactic conditions that exist at these high altitudes.
The romans avoided the Gotthard – the “Schöllenen” Gorge in the North of the mountain was considered impassable. Until in the 13th century a bridge has been built by the local government. The efforts to build the bridge over the narrow gorge and source of the river Reuss have been immense and have born a legend:
In desperation the mayor called out: "Then let the devil build a bridge!" The devil appeared: "I will build you a bridge, but the first to cross it will belong to me." They agreed to the trade. After three days there really was a bridge over the Reuss. On the other side sat the devil, waiting for his reward. But instead of sending a person across, they sent over a goat. "You can have him", they cried. Enraged, the devil took a great stone with which he wanted to destroy the bridge. Moments before a woman had come upon the scene, and knowing the devil's weakness, drew the sign of a cross on the stone so that the devil could no longer lift it.
In the years 1818 till 1836 the Gotthard Pass still had an enormous impact on Switzerland’s economy and with that on entire Europe – therefore the canton of Uri decided to cement the pass in cooperation with other Swiss cantons.
1882 the first Gotthard Railway tunnel with a length of 15 kilometers and special trains running between Milan in Italy and Lucerne in Switzerland was opened.
The 1932 the first post buses replaced the horse carriages and a year later in 1932 a petrol tax was introduced to finance improvements of the Gotthard Pass.
In 1963 the Swiss parliament decided to build a road tunnel trough the Gotthard, which then in 1980 was the longest working road tunnel. Today the Gotthard Road Tunnel is only number nine in the world.
After 17 years of construction with the help of more than 2600 workers on 1st June 2016 the new high-speed railway tunnel was opened – the new Gotthard Rail Link or Gotthard Base Tunnel. With 57 kilometers / 25.5 Miles it is the longest rail tunnel on the planet and a true masterpiece of engineering.
Next to the Gotthard Pass on the southern side of the mountain runs the Tremola Pass – this old pass road is maintained in its original state since 1832 and Switzerland’s longest street monument with even the old dry-stone walls still in place. The 24 hairpins over only four kilometers of granite cobblestone and 300 meters of altitude were part of the first carriage road through the Gotthard, built between 1828 and 1832 by the engineer from Ticino Francesco Moschini on base of an old mule track.
On top of the Gotthard Pass find the National Gotthard Museum and educate yourself not only about the history, but the tremendous efforts that have been made to build the pass. The former hospice from 1834 on the Gotthard is now home to the museum and represents the importance and influence of the Gotthard route – economically, strategically, politically, and culturally. Visiting the exhibition will give you a closer look into the Swiss soul.
Museo Nazionale del San Gottardo (May–Oct daily 9am–6pm; Fr.8; SMP)
The Gotthard Pass is usually open between June and October, and closed daily 18.00-08.00h. Constantly updated opening status information on the Gotthard Pass is available online.