One country and four different languages—Switzerland spreads various cultures and sheer beauty between the pearls of Lake Lucerne and Lake Maggiore.
Helicopters are circling. A dozen police bikes are riding toward us. We get stopped right at the top of Albula Pass. The reason is harmless and almost disappointing: Welcome to the Tour de Suisse (Tour of Switzerland)! An hour later after the bicycle racers are through, we are able to continue—just without racing ambitions—freely into central Switzerland. That wasn’t always the case.
Cobblestone Switchbacks of St. Gotthard Pass
After a night in the historic Hotel Piz Ela with three-foot walls in the lovely town of Bergün, we trek across St. Gotthard Pass—the pass of all Swiss passes. The whole country defines itself by this icon. It has always been defended, even to this day; it doesn’t matter why or how. Even in times of drones and fighter jets where the danger of a hostile army trying to roll over the pass is marginal, there is still a military base on the south side of San Gottardo, as it is called in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland.
Coming through the valley of the upper Rhine River and the sporty Oberalp Pass, we would have quickly crossed at Gotthard, but we take another approach instead. Because it is much more dramatic, we choose the long way around via Lukmanier Pass into Ticino, the Italian canton. Diverse architecture—old stone houses and slate roofs—mark a significant contrast to the German and Rhaeto-Romanic speaking parts of the country where we have visited before. Three hours from Lukmanier we arrive at the wild Tremola gorge, the formerly treacherous southern entry to San Gottardo. It still has this flair, mainly because the old road is perfectly preserved, which means we ride over tight switchbacks on cobblestones (this is actually much easier than it sounds). The non-slippery granite cobbles and flawlessly carved corners provide a lot of fun until we reach the top at 6,909 feet. Now we’re hooked. So much so that we go back down a few miles to do it again. This is one of the rare occasions to experience the high times of alpine road construction.
The north side of the pass is modernized, much wider and covered with asphalt, but it still has a grim appeal. Down at the bottom of the valley everything changes. The intense blue of Lake Lucerne slowly slides into sight. We stop in the first village at its shore in Flüelen. As we shall find out later while riding around the lake—this is one of the most impressive locations. Nowhere else do the 7,000-foot mountains squeeze closer to the shore then in this part of the lake—some parts rise directly out of the water. This is the reason why the famous Axenstrasse had to be carved out of the vertical rock. Some sections are tunnel only, while others reveal views over the lake like a balcony.