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Tour de Suisse History Lesson: La Tremola

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So you think the Lacets de Montvernier is a great road? Let me show you something far longer, far higher, far more historic, and much more beautiful. Do you like "sexy" hairpins?  How about 38?  And it's cobbled too - seriously.

Stage 3 of the Tour de Suisse will cycle over the Gotthard Pass (Passo del San Gottardo) via one of the most extraordinary roads in the Alps:  La Tremola.  It will be its 38th Tour de Suisse appearance (most of any pass).  Trust me, if this road was in France or Italy it would be one of the most famous climbs in cycling.

In central Switzerland, the Gotthard Pass (2108 metres) has for centuries been one of the busiest routes linking the south (Italian speaking) side and the north (German speaking) side of the Alps. The south-side road weaves through the Val Tremola (Trembling Valley).  The Pass traverses the Saint-Gotthard Massif - the source of some of the great rivers of Europe  (eg. Rhône, Rhine, Reuss, Ticino).

Until the 13th century, while the most direct route across this region of the Alps, Gotthard Pass was seldom used for trade or travel.  But the construction of the Devil's Bridge (first of many versions of this bridge) in 1230 facilitated the difficult crossing of a gorge lower down simplifying the route. In the same period, a Chapel (dedicated to St. Gotthard in 1230), and a Hospice (first written mention in 1237) were both built at the summit.  The Hospice remains, although it has been rebuilt and destroyed and added to over the years - it is now a nice hotel.

For more on the Devil's Bridge (Teufelsbrücke) including its excellent creation myth - see here.

In 1240, Albert von Stade, a German Monk, published his Annales Stradenses which included route advice to get from northern Europe to Rome.  He recommended crossing the Alps via one of the following: Brennerpass, Col du Mont Cenis, Col du Grand St. Bernard, or  - the most direct route - over Gotthard Pass.  This "guide book" helped increase Gotthard's pilgrim traffic.

The first wheeled crossing was in 1775 by some lazy Englishman (the geologist Greville).  The cobble road was completed in the 1830s.  The south side (la tremola) is painstakingly maintained by the local authorities and the road is classified as a national historic monument.  We are talking Swiss cobbles not Roubaix cobbles.  Smooth granite:

There are currently four ways to cross over/under Gotthard Pass:

  • In 1882, a 15 kilometre railroad tunnel was completed.
  • In 1980, a 17 kilometre car tunnel was opened.  Today, this is plagued by gigantic traffic jams every summer weekend, attesting to the importance of this direct route across the Alps.
  • There is a modern road that goes over the pass.
  • The old road.  La Tremola on the south side is perfectly maintained, and due to the above alternate options has little auto traffic.  The old road on the north side still exists in parts, but has little charm.

In 2016, the Gotthard Base Tunnel is scheduled to open - a high speed rail tunnel.  At 57 kms, it will be the longest and deepest traffic tunnel in the world.

Note: Gotthard Pass was the only Swiss cycling climb included in Daniel Friebos' great book Mountain High (several Swiss climbs appear in the sequel:  Mountain Higher). The book contains an excellent brief history of the pass including detailing the incredible death toll among tunnel construction workers.  Correction:  Mountain High also includes Col du Grand St. Bernard on Swiss/Italian border.

Today, tourists can book a place on a "diligence" to recreate the 19th century Grand Tour experience.  Apparently Hans Christian Andersen argued over taxi fare here in 1852.  Nice kit:

Now for more important stuff:  Gottardo Beer is brewed below on the Ticino side (and sold at the summit). Delicious! Near the summit is a statue that I initially assumed was old Saint Gotthard himself (and Gimli the Dwarf).  But it is in fact the famous Russian Marshall Suvorov who crossed the pass with an Army in 1799 and won a battle against the (Napoleonic) French lower down.


How to photograph the hairpins

From the summit or while riding the road, it is difficult to get a good overall view. Instead, from the top, briefly follow the main road towards the south descent - less than half a kilometre.  There is parking on the left and this view:

One can descend further down the main road into the long Galleria (tunnel).  It has openings facing the hairpins and gives this view:

How steep is it?  It's a fairly steady 7% - 8% for most of the climb.  Nothing too crazy.  Much of the lower half is now not cobbled.

Old kilometre marker:  4 kilometres to the Ospizio (Hospice).

Can I use a road bike?  Yes, without a problem.  Although it's a little bumpy to descend.

At the summit, along with the hospice, is a museum (history of the road/region/tunnels/etc), and a few other buildings and restaurants.  There are three small lakes and a Fascist-looking monument to Adrien Guex, a Swiss pilot who crashed nearby in 1927.

Above the Pass, and missed by most, on either side, are two fairly big dams/lakes.  In fact the high point of the paved road is near Lago di Sella.  Below:  Lago di Lucendro.

More cobble photos:

And yes, there is also the occasional Italian-speaking mucca.  Moo!

Ready to Visit?

Why not plan a tour?  Gotthard Pass is on the very-well-signed Swiss National Cycling Route #3 - North-South which runs from Basel to Chiasso.  Official Web Site here.

A Final Word

The Lacets de Montvernier are 2.5 short kilometres of silly fun.  But Gotthard Pass is a proper, big Alps climb, that also happens to be silly fun.  One of the truly great cycling roads in the Alps.

** Old Blog Post with map, etc.**