Want to get a mile high? Just follow the roads along Switzerland’s many ancient alpine passes which corkscrew and snake their way through some of the most scenic vistas in Europe. Start your engines and get ready for a drive to the sky.
Switzerland is home to dozens of Alpine passes, each beloved by motorcyclists, car drivers, cyclists and hikers alike. Driving yourself is the best way to experience these awesome roller coaster roads, but if you don’t want to self-drive, the PostBus (part of the Swiss Train network) goes across most of them, reaching nearly every village in the country. Not into buses? Remember that steering a vehicle around narrow mountain curves isn’t for everyone. Plus, buses have free Wi-Fi, better views and hearing their warning horn (which plays the first few notes of the William Tell Overture) while curling around a vertiginous two-kilometre high drop is considered a rite of passage by many travellers to Switzerland. If you still feel you must drive, familiarise yourself with pass etiquette and these four rules:
- Drivers going up have the right of way.
- Some passes have single lane roads, so read signs carefully at pass entrances to see when passes are open, closed, when buses are coming, and times the pass might operate as one-way.
- Never stop your car on a pass until you reach a marked pull-off.
- Pay attention to license plates. Swiss drivers are attentive. Germans are aggressive and speedy. The Italians? Maniacs.
Fortunately, The Chedi Andermatt is already located atop one of Switzerland’s mountain passes — the St. Gotthard — used by Iron Age tribes, ancient Celts and Romans on foot long before cars tread it. Like many of the passes, it climbs through clouds, passing fragrant pine woods before cresting the treeline and entering a rarefied world of hidden glaciers, azure alpine lakes, and cascading waterfalls. The St. Gotthard is the most heavily trafficked north-south axis in Europe, but most cars are diverted through tunnels. A new Gotthard Base train tunnel, the world’s longest, opens in 2016 which means less trafficked roads. At the 2,114-metre summit is Albergo San Gottardo, a hotel that once hosted Goethe and Wagner and a museum and restaurant designed by Swiss architects Miller and Maranta. Most passes have small chapels worth a peek, like the one here, for example, which was consecrated by the Bishop of Milan around 1200 A.D.
Two hours away from St. Gotthard, travellers will find the Flüela Pass, located in a Romansh-speaking valley of Canton Graubünden and ascending to an elevation of 2,383-metres, cutting through rugged highland moors where cows graze in the golden summer sunlight. Bronze-age weapons have been unearthed by archaeologists along the walking trails adjacent to the pass (so keep your eyes open when you stretch), giving it an especially primordial feel. Erika, the 5th-generation proprietor at the Flüela Hospiz, a weathered inn and restaurant atop the pass, can tell you more about the history if it suits you, but be sure not to leave without trying her tasty homemade venison sausage. The hospiz is a popular spot for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a favourite of fly fishermen casting their lines into the adjacent Schwartzsee (Black Lake). Those seeking an extra challenge can hike Jöriseen, a rugged 4—5 hour ascent that climaxes at the Jöriseen, a trio of alpine lakes, each a different shade of aquamarine. During my hike there last month, I chanced upon an alpine horn player when I finally got to the top, making the arduous trek that much more worth it, but I can’t promise it will happen again.
At the road’s 1,948-metre-high peak, sits the cosy Klausen Passhoehe Hotel and Restaurant, a great place to stop for a kaffeli (small coffee) and the frequently hosted traditional Swiss ländermusik concert.
The Klausen Pass is especially majestic, and connects the Cantons of Uri and Glarus with an average gradient of 6%. At the road’s 1,948-metre-high peak, sits the cosy Klausen Passhoehe Hotel and Restaurant, a great place to stop for a kaffeli (small coffee) and the frequently hosted traditional Swiss ländermusik concert. The restaurant’s terrace offers spectacular views of the broad, lush green Schächental Valley and the bald granite and limestone rocks poking out atop it all. Coming up, make sure to get a seat on the vehicle’s right side to catch a glimpse of the mighty Stäuben Waterfall, which originates in the Clariden Glacier and gushes out of the green mountain.
The steep, serpentine Grimsel Pass (elevation 2,164-metres) runs from Canton Bern to Valais and leads to a treeless Alpine world dominated by smooth, weather-rounded rocks that feels more Scott than Swiss. The windy road to the summit bypasses the picturesque town of Meiringen, where meringue was invented, and the Reichenbach Falls where the legendary Sherlock Holmes met his end. The writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose the imposing waterfall as a befitting place of death for his beloved character, and it remains a popular spot with British travellers today.
The Engadine Valley, famed for its crystalline winter light, has long drawn and inspired artists and celebrities including Segantini, Tina Turner, George Clooney, and Nietzsche to name a few. But aside from just a celebrity trophy, it’s also one of Switzerland’s longest valleys and home to a number of fascinating passes. The Maloja Pass, only 1,815 metres high, connects the Engadine to Chiavenna, Italy. From posh St. Moritz, the scenic road pushes along a series of Alpine lakes (St. Moritz See, Silvaplansee, Silersee) before plunging down a series of switchback roads into the thickly wooded forests of Italy’s rustic Val Bregalia. Stock up on local cheese, yoghurt, and smoky landjäger sticks at the Latteria, a small grocery store selling local products at reasonable prices, located off the main road in the small village of Maloja just before the plunge down. Also, don’t miss the Maloja Snake, a thick white snake-shaped cloud that slowly worms its way across Maloja in the mornings and evenings.
From posh St. Moritz, the scenic road pushes along a series of Alpine lakes (St. Moritz See, Silvaplansee, Silersee) before plunging down a series of switchback roads into the thickly wooded forests of Italy’s rustic Val Bregalia.
The Engadine is also home to the Ofen Pass. Art lovers will especially appreciate the sgraffito—decorative pastel murals that are a signature of Canton Graübunden and painted on the houses along the pass. The road climbs to the tranquil Müstair Valley, travelling through the 17,000-hectare Swiss National Park where you can spot ibex, chamois, and marmot, and the ruins of Iron Age ovens, which gave the Ofenpass (Oven Pass) its name. At the peak is the UNESCO-inscribed Benedictine Convent of St. John, an 8th-century Carolingian-era chapel noted for its vaulted roof and Romanesque apses that glow in the heavenly afternoon sun.
Another way to experience the pass is on the Rhäetian Railway, a scenic train route crossing the Bernina Pass from St. Moritz to Tirano, Italy and one of three trains worldwide given UNESCO’s World Heritage status. The 2.5-hour trip chugs through a series of switchbacks in Switzerland’s sun-kissed, Italian-speaking Val Poschiavo, reaching 2,253-metres — Europe’s highest — with inclines up to 7%. One highlight is Brusio’s nine-arched spiral viaduct, which forces the train to coil like a snail. But food in Poschiavo is the real highlight. Le Prese is a gorgeous old inn perched on Lago Di Poschiavo that serves up incredible Swiss-Italian specialties like pizzocheri, burrata with tomato tartar, and beef simmered in local truffles. After all, if you’ve made the arduous trek to these heady heights, you should eat like the gods.
(Featured image: A number of lakes such as Silvaplansee and Silersee make their homes in the Alps where travellers can catch untouched glacial waters along some of the world’s most renowned driving roads.)