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January 31, 2011

Switzerland: Bellinzona to Zermatt

Filed under: Europe 2010, Road Bike Travel, Switzerland, The List, Travel, UNESCO World Heritage — anotherheader @ 7:26 pm

Aletsch Galcier (panorama)

By morning the night’s heat had broken.  We woke to a cool and humid new day in Bellinzona .  It felt like dawn in the tropics.  It had been a rough and uneasy night of sleep with the heat and noise of our hotel room.  It was tempting to linger now and recapture the lost sleep in the cool morning hotel bed but we needed to move on.

Though it sits in a deep valley in the Alps, Bellinzona is only 750 feet above sea level.  Down low, during a heat wave, it becomes unpleasantly warm by midday.  It was good that were moving to the cooler higher altitudes.  Our quest to transit Switzerland’s great alpine passes continued.

Not far out of Bellinzona the road climbed to most famous of all the alpine passes, St. Gotthard.  To cross this section of the mountains there are three options.  Most of the highway traffic takes the faster 16.4-kilometer long tunnel that was completed in 1980.  Aside from the tunnel there are two road options over the pass.  Both roads cross the mountains high above the tunnel.  One road is a feat of modern civil engineering and is fast.  The second and much older route is paved with cobblestones and links tight switchbacks for a slow climb up the hill.

A cyclist climbs the cobblestone road to St. Gotthard Pass

We spotted the old cobbled way only after driving to the top of the pass on the modern highway.  Few cars were venturing onto the cobbles.  But it seemed like a small piece of civil engineering history that we couldn’t miss.  We were there, after all, to see Switzerland’s great road building wonders.  It was time to turn the Kangoo around and head back down the hill on the stone road.

Driving the historic cobbled road is a bit exciting.  The road is twisty, narrow, and distractingly scenic.  Low and unforgiving stone posts guard the outside edge.  Would these guard posts keep you from going over the edge or just maul your car before you pinwheel down the slope?   Even though the old road is a curiosity and no longer a significant vehicular route through the mountains, it is well maintained.  Indeed, workers were repairing the cobbles on the road as we drove by.

St. Gotthard Pass

If we chose to climb to St. Gotthard Pass on a bicycle in the future, we’d be sure to take the cobbled route.  The old road is more interesting and has little traffic.  Even the few vehicles on the cobbles creep along slowly.  It would be difficult to climb this grade on a bicycle, though.  The uneven cobbles would sap energy in the midst of an already long and difficult climb.

Furka Pass is the next pass from the Frommer’s list on our route.  Like all the Swiss passes we crossed, the scenery is spectacular.  Furka Pass also somehow seems familiar.   Indeed, Furka Pass was used as a location for the James Bond movie Goldfinger.

Two features along the pass road are particularly memorable in movie and in person.  One is Hotel Belvedere.  Hotel Belvedere is a five-story hotel that sits improbably inside the apex of a hairpin turn about halfway down from the pass.  The hotel can be seen clearly in Goldfinger.  In the movie, though, the Rhone Glacier dramatically extends well past the hotel and the road is unpaved.  In fact, near the beginning of the 20th Century, the glacier extended far down into the valley reaching a point near the town of Gletsch.  Today, forty-odd years after the filming of Goldfinger, the glacier has receded well up the mountain valley.  Nowadays it takes a short hike to get a good view.  Maybe it was the stunning scenery or the rush to get to our next destination, but we somehow missed our opportunity to hike and see the Rhone Glacier.  Again there’s something that goes on the “to do” list for another visit.

Hotel Belvedere with the path of the receded Rhone Glacier behind

Another memory that has been fixed in the gray matter is the road from Gletsch, on the valley floor, to the Grimsel Dam near Grimselpass.  This road climbs in a series of hairpins up the steep U-shaped wall of a glacier valley.  Seemingly clinging at the top is a concrete dam.  The road has the look of a great road bicycle climb.  When we dream, as we often do, of a return trip to Switzerland to bicycle in the Alps this is the road and the place we think of first.

Though we missed a good opportunity to view the Rhone Glacier we’d get a chance to see another river of moving ice as we continued across Switzerland.  Our route from Bellinzona to Tasch took us by the UNESCO listed Aletsch Glacier. The Aletsch is the largest and longest glacier in western Eurasia in terms of area (128km2), length (23km) and depth (900m).

Looking down the Furka Pass road. On the far side of the valley, a road climbs to Grimsel Dam.

To get to the Aletsch Galcier, we drove to the village of Fiesch.  After purchasing two lift passes and strapping on the hiking boots we loaded onto the gondola for the two-stage lift ride to the top.

All around the alpine areas of Europe there are lifts to take you to the top of “something.”  Usually aerial tramways are used for skiing in the winter and other activities in the summer.  The summer adventure activities served by the Fiesch gondola lift include mountain biking, hang gliding and paragliding.  The gliders launch near the midway station and circle silently in the skies overhead.  The foot-launched gliders must take in the best view possible.  Trails for mountain bikes are also available near the mid-mountain lift station.  We wished we had time to take our bikes.

You really have to envy the Swiss skiers for the Fiesch lift, though.  At the top is a stupendous view of the Aletsch Galcier, a long banded river of moving ice that flows down from the high mountains.  It’s like skiing in a National Park.

Have a beer while viewing the Aletsch Galcier

For us, on foot and in the summer, we had a sometimes-sketchy rocky climb to a nearby peak for our view of the glacier.  It is true that the pictures you find of Aletsch Glacier are impressive.  But this place, this glacier, is just one of those times where being there and standing on edge peering down into the steep valley is incomparable.  You just have to see it for yourself.

Becky fitting in with the locals

When we returned to the base of the gondola we fired up the Kangoo and sped directly to Tasch.  Tasch is as close as you can get to Zermatt in a private car, as Zermatt is designated car free.  Only electric powered taxis and service vehicles are permitted on the four-mile road between Tasch and Zermatt and in the resort itself.  With the sun moving near the horizon, we checked into our hotel and then hurried across the street to the railway station.  Most of Zermatt’s visitors arrive in town as we did riding the cog railway that links Tasch with Zermatt.  The frequently running clean and typically bright red trains take 15 minutes to reach Zermatt.

The mountains near Zermatt

Out of the Zermatt train station we were instantly in a jam of people.  A festival had Zermatt’s restaurants serving meals in the midst of the narrow streets.  We were hungry.  It was tempting to snag a half eaten wurst off of the plates we squeezed past but we behaved.  Or at least I behaved.  Becky seemed suspiciously less hungry after we passed by several tables.

In Zermatt we were focused on spotting the area’s iconic sight, the Matterhorn.  We had just enough time to wiggle in amongst a pack of Japanese tourists on a bridge and catch a glimpse of the Matterhorn in the setting sun.  It was enough to remind us that exploring the Alps is best done outside of the confines of a resort town.  Plan on hiking if you want Zermatt’s best alpine experience.

The Matterhorn

Being in town does have advantages, though.  There are restaurants even if we had to search for an open one.  Eventually we had a good meal in a British expat restaurant amongst the World Cup fans.

The next day our whirlwind tour of Switzerland would end as we headed over the border to Chamonix France.  Our summer’s European road trip often gave us enough time to linger and explore during our stops; somehow this was not the case in Switzerland.  We’ll count our Swiss tour as reconnaissance.  There’s definitely more to see and do on a return visit.

Check out the complete picture set on Picasa.


  1. […] turbo tour of Switzerland’s Alps ended too soon. From Tasch near Zermatt we’d head to Chamonix France. On the way out of Switzerland, we’d reach the final two passes […]

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  2. […] Finally I was able to spit out “Bellinzona” and “The Aletsch Glacier.” […]

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  3. […] a startling rate.  We’ve seen glaciers in New Zealand, North America, and South America and in Europe. The evidence of the glacier’s retreat is obvious in person and shocking when the present is […]

    Pingback by France: Chamonix, Chemin de fer du Montenvers « Another Header — February 24, 2011 @ 12:38 am

  4. […] for the filming of James Bond movies have become a highlight of our travels.  Perhaps the movies were an early motivation to […]

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  5. […] decks allow panoramic views of the alpine peaks, snowfields, and the upper portion of the long Aletsch Glacier. (We’ll have to take it on faith that the Aletsch Glacier is visible from the observatory; the […]

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  6. […] Swiss Alps Jungfrau–Aletsch […]

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