Some interesting mountain passes - Part 2
Southern SwitzerlandOne of the major routes into southern Switzerland from Italy is the Grand St. Bernard Pass, which is an interesting morning’s ride 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 via the Martigny area to Brig. Brig has a good campsite, close to the town centre, on the hill leading towards the Simplon Pass and Italy, and is an excellent base for exploring this area.
Remember that a Vignette is required if any Swiss autobahns are to be used. Unless you are in a hurry, or trying to cross the country from north to south, it is not worth the cost, particularly late in the year, as the entire year’s worth of vignette must be purchased, for about £25. Also remember that the names of major passes are used on road signs to indicate direction.
Options from Brig include a train ride to Zermatt, followed by a rack and pinion train to the Gornergrat 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!
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 gives 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, making two complete turns through solid rock, while fighting boiling water springs, in order to maintain the gradient.
Grimsel & Furka Passes
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 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 not particularly long, but is a steep climb, and the view from the summit at 2,165 metres is 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. Take the road south to Andermatt, then follow the signs for ‘Gottard/Airolo.’ This climbs to the St. Gottard Pass, where the discerning tourist will leave the main road at the summit, before the concrete tunnel section, and enter the tourist trap on the left of the road. Follow the signs for the museum, and take the narrow road alongside the building signed for ‘Airolo.’
Old St. Gottard Pass
This is the old St. Gottard Pass, paved with granite setts cut and laid by convicts, and consists of steep ramps joined by uncambered hairpin bends. Traffic is light (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, all signs being in that language. The road for the Nufenen Pass is easy to find, climbing to 2,431 metres as it returns to Gletsch, then falling to 678 metres back at Brig.
Those travelling to Austria will follow the river Rhône past Gletsch, heading for the Furka Pass, which is probably the best piece of road in Switzerland.
Hotel Belvedere and the Rhone Glacier
A series of hairpin bends takes you up the side of a mountain range, past the perpetual ice of the Rhône glacier, climbing to 2,431 metres. This long and scenic road provides a good variety of bends, with breathtaking views along the Rhône valley far below, and can be guaranteed to provide an exhilarating ride.
After lunch at Andermatt the afternoon can be spent climbing the 2,044 metre Oberalp pass, 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 undemanding.
By late afternoon you will reach the Bernina Pass, which at 2,328 metres is quite high, but 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.
Article and photos by Mike Fishwick - first published in the BMW Club Journal