Discovering Switzerland: Andermatt
Text: Keir Plaice | Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith | Video: My Media Sydney
Andermatt has long been a favoured Alpine destination. For centuries, the quiet mountain village, which is nestled 1,437 metres above sea level in the Urseren Valley, provided refuge to travellers who were crossing the Saint-Gotthard massif on the main trade route between southern and northern Europe.
In the 18th century, Goethe made several pilgrimages to the village to witness its rugged beauty, and by the 19th century, it was a bustling spa town, which was popular with upper-class British tourists, since it could be accessed by stage coach. The 1882 opening of the Saint-Gotthard rail tunnel meant that the main thoroughfare no longer passed through Andermatt however, and a tunnel for cars that was opened in 1980 and the recently-built Gotthard Base Tunnel, which is the longest and deepest train tunnel in the world, have created even faster routes from one side of the mountains to the other.
Still, the engineering marvels of the past remain. That there are relatively few cars on the region’s stunning mountain roads makes them all the better for cycling.
The Gotthard Challenge Route, for instance, includes three Alpine passes, for nearly 40 kilometres of climbing in just 106 total kilometres.
First up is the Furka Pass, which was made famous in the James Bond film Goldfinger. It switchbacks up through grassy pastures and jangling cowbells for 11 kilometres to its 2,436-metre summit. Stop soon after the top at the Hotel Belvedere, where you’ll be able to see the Rhône glacier, which is where the great river originates. Unfortunately, the ice has already receded a great deal, due to climate change, but the waterfalls that crash down the old, bare rock bed are magnificent. There are few places on earth where nature’s power and fragility are so visible.
After the screaming fast descent comes the Nufenen Pass, which is the second highest paved road in Switzerland, at 2,478 metres. For its 13 total kilometres of climbing, the grade averages 9%, and there are several long, straight sections at well over 10% that will truly test your will to push onwards. After the summit, the downhill to Airolo can provide all of the thrills you could possibly wish for.
Then, it’s back up the Tremola road to the top of the Gotthard Pass. There’s a newer route as well, but the old coach road is one of the most stunning in all of Europe. Built between 1827 and 1832, and renovated in 1951, the 13-kilometre-long cobblestone track winds up the mountainside at an agonising pitch. One four-kilometre cobbled section features 24 corners. From there, it’s just a short descent into Andermatt.
Thankfully, there are plenty of restaurants in town that offer hearty fare. After a big day out in the mountains, there is not much better than a big schnitzel with rösti and a few pints of beer. Andermatt is expanding at the moment, as the local ski resort, which is now mostly known as an off-piste haven, is being joined with lifts to the neighbouring slopes in Sedrun – so there are plenty of options available for accommodation, from a rustic mountain lodge to some of the chicest luxury hotels on the planet.
You’ll want to book for at least a few nights, as there is still plenty of not-to-be-missed cycling in the region, with five more passes that are easy to access.
From Andermatt, the Oberalp Pass climbs at an average grade of 6.4% for nine kilometres, where it tops out at 2,046 metres at a gorgeous lake. To the north, the Susten Pass reaches a maximum height of 2,224 metres and features a seemingly endless series of sweeping corners, with views down into a rugged gorge and across to the Stein Glacier. The Grimsel Pass, which is to the west of Andermatt, is one of the longest climbs in the region. From Innertkirchen, it rises for 26 kilometres, through some of the starkest Alpine landscapes in all of Switzerland, to its summit at 2,165 metres. The Lukmanier, to the east, rises to 1,914 metres in 17.5 kilometres of climbing. It has been in use since Roman times and has a beautiful reservoir at its summit. The Klausenpass, which is further north, rises for nearly 24 kilometres. Early in the 20th century, it was home to one of Europe’s most famous car races.
While you’re in town, be sure to visit the Devil’s Bridge, which crosses the river Reuss as it tumbles down the spectacular Schöllen Gorge. In 1799, it was the sight of a dramatic battle between Napoleon’s French forces and an invading Austro-Russian army. There is a large monument to commemorate the Russian general.
The Andermatt Holiday Region is nestled in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and includes the six municipalities of Andermatt, Hospental, Realp, Göschenen, Wassen and Gurtnellen.
Andermatt, the region’s largest village, is a popular holiday destination year-round. For cyclists, it provides easy access to incredible road and mountain-biking. During our time in the region, we took full advantage of the eight surrounding Alpine passes to get in some serious climbing and memorable descending.
For more on riding in the region, visit Andermatt’s official cycling page.
Surrounded by eight alpine passes, there’s no shortage of impressive road cycling out of Andermatt.
For more information on the Gotthard Challenge Route, as detailed above, visit here.
Other popular Alpine routes include the loops over the three passes of Susten-Grimsel-Furka, and Gotthard-Lukmanier-Oberalp.
If your interests extend beyond the bike, you can also enjoy a wealth of other activities:
- Hiking (16 mountain huts & 4 Headwaters Trails)
- Climbing & Bouldering
- Touring (Post Bus, Furka Mountain Steam Railway, Historical Post Stagecoach on the Gotthard Pass, Glacier Express)
- Museums (Sasso San Gottardo, Ursern Valley Museum, National St. Gotthard Museum, Antonini Quarry)
- Guided tours on different topics