The history of the Gotthard Pass also tells the story of human mobility. In the first centuries after the Schöllenen Gorge opened, around the year 1200, traders and pilgrims still crossed the Gotthard Pass mostly on foot. As part of the professionalisation of the pack-mule trade, the bridle paths were systematically expanded and made suitable for horses and oxen. With the construction of the first roads over the Gotthard, the stagecoach era finally began in 1830 – however, this ground to a halt in 1882 when the Gotthard Railway began operating through the new tunnel. In the early 20th century, the first motorists appeared on the pass, and the road underwent further improvements. With the boom in individual transport and mass tourism in the post-war era, the Gotthard Road was developed into its current form. By 1980, the first road tunnel through the Gotthard massif shortened the once arduous, multi-day journey through the Alps to a 15-minute drive.
Therefore, on the saddle of a bicycle, a motorbike or at the wheel of a car, travellers can experience the Gotthard as one giant open-air museum – a more than 800-year-old cultural structure, whose trails once clung precariously to the Alpine topography and whose route over the centuries has become increasingly closer to the ideal of the fastest and shortest connection, as the crow flies. We may marvel at the Devil’s Bridge and the zigzag of the Tremola, thinking nostalgically of the old days when traversing a pass was still an experience. But historically, even the most beautiful bridges and delightful serpentines have always had just one purpose: to shorten the travel time between the north and south, to make the trip faster, safer and more comfortable.
It seems more than a little ironic that we, the ones who have come so close to maximum acceleration, now haunt the old routes on racing bikes and in hard-suspension sports cars with the express desire to deliberately prolong the once-feared journey over the Gotthard. The old Uri folk would have most likely shaken their heads in disbelief. Yet, we postmodern people have long known, of course, that with every evolutionary step in mobility, a piece of human experience is lost, which now must b
painstakingly recaptured. It is this modern-day yearning for real, unfiltered experiences, which allows us to take the wheel of a classic Porsche 356 Speedster from the 1950s, which, with its minimalistic top, is basically not much more than a two-man tent on wheels. It is the desire for the roar of an engine, the smell of petrol, and the feeling of the road through the steering wheel, gearshift, throttle and brakes, which makes us climb behind the wheel of historic racing cars such as the Porsche 911 Carrera RS, or even a Porsche 906, and tackle the Alpine passes.
In fact, a vintage sports car is the ideal medium to admire the architecture of the Tremola and the other masterfully built sections of the Gotthard not only from afar, but indeed to experience this with all the senses: to feel the ascent, the sweeping hairpins, the texture of the cobblestones, with the whole body. At the wheel of these lightweight, minimalistic and nimble machines, one also gets a sense of how it must have felt even 50 years ago to travel south across the Gotthard: the climb through the wild Schöllenen Gorge, the sudden expanse of the Urner Valley landscape, the quiet smugness as our ‘poor’ contemporaries in their ‘non-air-cooled’ cars stand at the top with the hood open waiting for the radiator fluid to cool. And finally, the first signs of Italy as we wind our way down into the valleys of Ticino.
Switching from the simple classic into a modern Porsche 911 or even a hybrid miracle such as the Porsche 918 Spyder, and the dream of the authentic experience of traversing the pass goes from slow-mo to hyper-accelerated comfort. Gliding over the pass so smoothly and hermetically sealed from the outside world, as if sitting in a cinema, accompanied by the epic soundtrack of Thom Yorke in Dolby Surround Sound – unleashing, at will, tremendous acceleration and deceleration forces with the slight twitch of a pedal.
Of course, you feel the g-force in the tight switchbacks of the Gotthard more than on the dead straight autobahns in the valleys, however, the real experience of the pass is not in the dull thrashing of the limits of physics, but rather in the delightful ‘reading’ of the landscape with the help of a driving machine that seems to have been created precisely for this purpose. And those who already know the history of the Gotthard Road need only give their imaginations a little nudge, and they can immediately see before their eyes the old-timers on their gruelling trek through the Schöllenen Gorge; the yellow stagecoach of the Swiss Post at full gallop through the curves of the Tremola; the black steam locomotive chugging through the spiral tunnels above Wassen; the first motorists in the shadows of their own dust trails; the thundering military convoys on their way to the Redoubt; and the tourist buses of the post-war era on the way to Italy. One day, we too with our contemporary sports cars, motorbikes and bicycles will be just hazy memories, nostalgic images from a by-gone era – just another chapter in the long and illustrious story of the Gotthard.