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Adventures: Awesome Alp transit

Riding the rails in Switzerland for an exclusive trip inside a mountain
Adventures columnist Ursula Maxwell-Lewis 800m deep in a tunnel that will soon open for passenger service in Switzerland.

Switzerland’s Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest, deepest, railway tunnel, goes into full passenger service in December 2016. Sleek bullet-nosed red and white trains will clock up to 200 km/h through the 57.1 km tunnel efficiently linking northern and southern Switzerland.

In 1992 Swiss voters gave the go-ahead to build the multi-billion dollar tunnel to enable freight and passenger traffic safe, fast, transportation across the country. The investment will also increase effective economic links with the rest of Europe via an already enviable rail network.

Last month, onboard the Gottardino, the impressive first-class ‘pioneer’ train, passengers had the opportunity to experience the service between Erstfeld and Bodio, with an exclusive stop in the heart of the mountain at Sedrun. Sedrun and Faido are the two multifunction stations within the tunnel.

Disembarking from the gleaming red and white Gottardino we step into the massive tunnel. Passengers snap selfies and tunnel shots commemorating this once-in-a-lifetime experience 800 metres into the depth of an alp.

An exit tunnel off the main platform leads to a second tunnel. Here we see a film about the project history. Assorted information boards and pictures describe this historic undertaking and the visionaries included in it.

We learn that, over the 17 years it took to build, engineers blasted through 73 different types of rock which varied from hard as granite to soft as sugar.

The 28 million tonnes of rock excavated was then pulverized to be included in the 4,000,000 cubic metres of concrete (84 times that of the Empire State building) required for tunnel construction. The massive tunnel boring machine equalled four football fields laid end-to-end. Working from the both ends, tunnel engineers eventually arrived in the heart of the alp to find they were only 23 cms outside their calculations. A tribute to incredible technology, craftsmanship, and courage. Can you picture the triumphant moment?

Inside the tunnel temperatures can rise to 46C, something which will not impact the air-conditioned rail passengers zipping along the tunnel. They will be unaware that 125 workers laboured for over three years in three round-the-clock shifts installing the slab track, and that the entire tunnel system (including the accesses we viewed) totals 152 kms.

Financed by such things as fuel taxes and road charges on certain vehicles, loans are expected to be paid back within 10 years. This is viewed as a practical investment geared to increase tourism and facilitate business at large.

With my souvenir pioneer Gottardino passport duly stamped and my Gotthard Tunnel selfie secure I re-board the Gottardino for the final leg of my adventure through the heart of the great mountain.

Changing trains in Biasco, I head for my next destination, Lugano, for a taste of Italian influenced Switzerland. Bear in mind that southern Switzerland borders northern Italy. In fact, many Italians commute to Lugano to take advantage of the higher Swiss salaries, while maintaining homes in more affordable Italy.

My Swiss Pass and handy rail-bus connection whisks me from the train station to the Hotel de la Paix, a 10-minute downhill walk to Lake Lugano, a plentiful mix of shops, and access to ferries plying the lake.

I’m in the gastronomy group which involves dinner at Grotto Morchino in nearby Pazzallo. Reminiscent of a tree house, I choose a pasta from the eclectic menu accompanied by a light white Swiss wine. It’s a warm evening so we dine on the elevated verandah flanked by tree tops and undeterred by an early autumn shower.

The following morning, we take the 10-minute ferry ride to the Gro San Rocco. Picture an island family-style lakeside restaurant surrounded by lush foliage with Lugano etched in the distance. Here we spent a rather hilarious hour learning the fine art of risotto cooking thanks to our genial host. It takes longer than you may think, but is definitely worth the effort. We enjoyed the atmosphere and were charmed by the entire experience.

A return sail to Lugano and a funicular ride to the summit of Monte San Salvatore in the Lepontine Alps offered a stunning view across Lake Lugano on my left, and the connecting Ceresio Lake to Italy and the Plain of Lombardy on my right. The summit is crowned with a small church. I decided not the climb to the top of the church, but enjoyed the view from the grounds.

Leaving Lugano a few days later I go ‘over the top’, for comparison’s sake. The iconic Postbus climbs the winding 2,100 metre high Gotthard Pass road route from Airolo to Andermatt. Even the Romans once avoided this route, but today’s cobbled road over the Tremola makes life easier – at least in the summer. The cobbles, incidentally, are very practical. Unlike short-lived tarmac, sand is used to fill any minor holes between the stones as years go by.

Stopping for lunch at the summit, I take the opportunity to visit Switzerland’s highest museum, the National Museum of the San Gottardo. A custom’s house in the 1800s, the museum offers a poignant picture of the treacherous journeys travellers endured. Travelling by any means possible, such as mules – or stage coaches for wealthy travellers – the pass claimed many lives. Those who ran into trouble could be assured of assistance from Capuchin friars who hosted a hospice in the pass which, in 1236, was named after St. Gotthard, the patron saint of traveling merchants.

Historians may also be interested in the preserved, once top secret, WWII military installations deep in the mountain bedrock. Once part of the Swiss Alpine military fortification system, this is an entirely different story, but an equally fascinating one in the defences against invasion by Italy and Germany. If you go, wear good walking shoes and warm clothes. It is cold in the tunnels.

As usual when travelling in Switzerland, I found the Swiss Rail Pass invaluable. Compare the costs of car hire, parking, gas etc. Pass benefits are extensive, flexible and not restricted to rail. Go to for a comprehensive overview.

– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a British Columbia-based travel journalist and photographer. She's also founding editor and publisher of the Cloverdale Reporter

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