11. Wasen – Airolo – Over the Gotthard Pass

In spite of this deficiency, the next morning we found the bill, which the landlady sent to us, very excessive. For the master of the house was at the cattle market in Altdorf, and the conscientious half probably wanted to show him when he returned that they had managed the house well and had pulled the skin over two strangers’ ears. To our great horror we noticed even then how much our cash register was decreasing. We calculated exactly the distance we still had to cover, and found that we had to make mighty marches in order not to have to see the utter exhaustion of our cash.

The old and the new Devil’s bridge (Teufelsbrücke)

Göschenen is an hour from Wasen. Behind this place, the Reuss Valley assumes its wildest character. Mighty granite rocks on both sides form the Schöllenen pass. Deep down in the gorge, which the sun only reaches at its highest point, the waves of the Reuss rush over the rocks with such a bang and noise that that place is called the “Krachental”. At the most dangerous point, a gallery has been carved into the rock, above the entrance of which you can see the coat of arms and the name of Uri. Once you have passed this, you will reach the famous “Teufelsbrücke” (Devil’s Bridge). But before one looks at the spectacle of nature, one would do well to put one’s hat on; because that’s where the “Hutschelm” (Hat bandit) lives, as the people say, and many a wide-eyed admirer of the waterfall was amazed when his hat did the same somersault (leap of death) as the water over the rocks into the depths. The Reuss tumbles down a hundred feet into the gorge, and its fall is so abrupt that the water spray from the depths rises far above the bridge. This consists of a single arch twenty-five feet wide; it was built in 1830, twenty feet higher than the older one, which was left standing, though no longer in use.

Urner Loch

No sooner have you left the “Teufelsbrücke” than you come to the Urner Loch, a 180-foot-long tunnel that is sixteen feet wide, so that two cars can easily avoid each other. As soon as you have taken the first step on this rocky area, you have a surprising sight due to the contrast. A moment ago, one was still in the middle of rocks and water; now you suddenly see the most beautiful meadows again at an altitude of four thousand feet, from which the Reuss flows, and on the mountain slope lies the old town of Ursern (Orsera) or Andermatt and further away, directly at the foot of the Gotthard, the village of Hospenthal or Hospital. There we strengthened ourselves with a glass of wine, the horses with oats, and then set out on the actual Gotthard Road, which is twenty feet wide everywhere; Her drop is never more than five at a hundred feet. Although solid and safe bridges lead over the chasms and the road is bordered and lined with stones towards the bottom, climbing the Gotthard is by no means without danger, especially in winter and spring. In some places, especially on the southern slope towards Airolo, the snow is often forty feet deep. And it is precisely at this point that the road is so threatened by avalanches that almost no year goes by without several people dying there. I almost felt the same way. In the middle of the street between the hospital and the Hofpiz there is a station house on the right-hand side, but on the left a side path leads through the valley, meandering now on the right, now on the left bank of the Reuss, from one part of the mountain to the other, while the highway leads far round the slopes. This path seemed so safe to me at the time that I took it without hesitation, although after my bad experiences on the Hauenstein I had resolved never to cut off again. Henninger stayed on the road with the horses.

Overconfidence almost deadly

In the beginning things went quite well; Although I had to jump over the rocks of the Reuss several times, from one bank to the other, it was still possible to distinguish the path, which seemed to me to be a remnant of the old Gotthard Road. Gradually the way got lost; I was surrounded by great rocks covered with moss, over which water trickled plentifully from the mountain. Finally, on the right, a high cliff rose; a very narrow path covered with small, easily rolling stones led long ago to it, and on the left at a considerable depth the Reuss tumbled over the rocks with a terrible, deafening rumble. One misstep and it would have been me; twice I balanced on the very edge, and as the path got narrower and narrower, the rock face higher and the abyss deeper, I began to address the inevitable with Horacean philosophy, saying under my breath to myself:

…“omnes una manet nox

Et calcanda semel via leti….

……. Nullum

Saeva caput Proserpina fugit.”

        (……” Everyone waits one night

Once we step on the threshold of Hades;

No head is spared the wrath of Proserpina.”

Horace, Oden I, 28.)

but in time the Virgil verse came to mind:

„Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito.“

(„Do not give way to disaster, but face it more boldly.”

Virgil, Aeneis VI, 95.)

and summoning up all my courage and strength, I safely got to the highway and was saved.

Henninger had already covered the distance on the street above. When he was fully approaching, I made a snowball out of a small piece of snow, which I saw lying next to a rock, as a forerunner, as it were, and threw it in the air to indicate to him that the snowy region would soon come. Then I told him of the danger I had been in; he reproached me violently for my carelessness and decided from now on not to let me leave his side.

Reaching the top

The snow, which at first could only be seen in scattered heaps on the surrounding rocks, increased more and more, and finally we found ourselves surrounded by a single white surface. On the street, however, the road is maintained for as long as possible because the postal service drives over it every day. With the snow came the cold; but you don’t feel it so much, since it gradually increases the higher you climb. After a two-hour march we had reached the top of the mountain, on which the Hofpiz is situated: a solid and fairly spacious building, with good stables, fifteen beds for travellers, and other conveniences. Monks are no longer at the top. A minister owns the economy and shows his Christian love by letting poor travellers pay nothing.

It makes a strange impression to suddenly see such activity and life in the middle of this wasteland and wilderness. We could see more than twenty carters and a lot of horses there, so that we hardly found any space for our animals. We hadn’t eaten anything that day, so we bought some Swiss cheese and bread from the innkeeper and, to protect ourselves from the cold, a mezza bottiglia di vino (half a bottle of wine) – because they speak Italian there. The wine was vinegary, but the cheese was much better.

The descent to Airolo

After strengthening myself, I went back outside to look around. But not for long, because the temperature is not at all pleasant up there. Our horses felt it too. For when we suddenly led them out of the warm stable into the cold again, they began to get wild and kick out with all fours; and when they heard the sound of a waterfall, of which there are countless, they could hardly be stopped. We were therefore obliged to lead them firmly by the bridle. In addition, there was a dense fog that settled on our clothes and caused an unpleasant chill on the skin. We had scarcely crossed the Tessin, which, like the Reuss on the other side, tumbles down from the summit in rumbling leaps, when we heard the thunderous roar of a falling avalanche, a sign that we were approaching the dreadful and extremely dangerous Val Tremola or were near Trummelntal. You get there in forty-six turns and four tunnels, and once you’ve passed that place, you can move on safely and without danger. But just how dangerous he himself is can be seen from the fact that every book about Switzerland advises the traveller to avoid any noise, such as the belling of the horses, singing, even speaking, in order to get back as soon as possible to continue.

1850 – Airolo – in the distance Val Tremola

When we descended lower again, the fog did lift; but that started to rain and unfortunately it was quite cloudy so we couldn’t enjoy the view of the Ticino valley and the snowy mountains as much as we wished. So finally, after a long day’s march, we arrived fairly late in the evening at Airolo, the first Italian village in the canton of Ticino. We stopped at the “Post”. As the porter was in a state where he had lost all feeling for the static moment, we had to get our horses ourselves, but we were very glad to be settled.

Since our cash was near the end, we sat by the crackling fire in the hearth, proceeded to a serious consultation, on the basis of which we thought it best to write to my cousin in Milan immediately, and a real fire letter at that, so that he helps us get back on our feet all the faster. This was also immediately put into action by me: because my companion Henninger, although he had once been a sergeant with the Hessian Cavalry, “had little interest in such things”, as he put it. By the way, I wrote the letter in his name, because my cousin didn’t know I was coming with him. We wanted to receive the support fund requested in the letter poste restante in Bellinzona.

The first letter home

That same evening, I wrote to my dear homeland for the first time, which I really should have done long ago. On my departure from Mainz, I had instructed my relatives there to report to my parents the bad news of my daring venture as soon as I was happy on the steamboat. However, as I found out after my return, this had not happened, and so, hovering between fear and hope for a long time, they received this first letter from Airolo, in which I tried to comfort and calm them, since I was now after crossing the Gotthard, would be completely out of danger and would come home safely. Since it was then October 16, and I knew that the day of the great Battle of the Nations was my father’s birthday, I did not neglect to add my congratulations as a captatio benevolentiae; because I thought: that ends well, all is well.