P for Post and Pass

Two Ps today, and in what I have in mind, they’re connected.

As I have explained, our geography is such that the Alps run right through Switzerland, so it’s always been important to find travel and transport routes in order to cross the mountains. It’s pretty mind-boggling to imagine how people travelled these often great distances at altitude when there was little but a difficult and steep footpath – and it goes back a long time, as Ötzi proved (he was the bogman they found in the Austrian Alps who is well over 5000 years old and obviously a seasoned traveller…). Last weekend we travelled through the Gotthard tunnel, which left me musing about mountain passes.

Although the Gotthard track was used a little by the Romans, they seem to have preferred other routes, and it wasn’t until bridges were built across some very difficult places (how on earth did they do that?!), that this route began to be used more. Teufelsbrücke_URThis stone Devil’s Bridge replaced previous wooden ones in 1529

From the 13th century, it began to be important for armies to be able to cross the Alps and in places, there were soon areas that could be called a road, with granite slabs or gravel making a 3 metre wide pass and wooden bridges at critical points and it was soon one of the most important passes. Of course, territorial shifts meant that there were tolls to be paid (or not, as the case may be) and presumably safety was an issue – and I don’t mean “health and safety” but safety from highwaymen, since the road was also used by important nobility and churchmen. Horses, oxen and mules were used to transport a huge number of goods – today we really can wonder how it was all done as the train smoothly rattles loads from north to south and back again in a couple of hours compared to the 30 hour journey of yore.Gotthard_Schild

It’s not surprising that the summit of the pass was soon marked by a hospice – imagine the relief at reaching the top and yet knowing you had all that way down again! And this brings me to my second P – the Post. Nowadays we take postal routes for granted and just get annoyed when things take longer than we’d like, but historically, it’s amazing that any post ever reached its destination. Especially over the Alps! 
alte post

The Gotthard Post Coach is very famous and yet I was surprised to discover that it only ran in its legendary form for around 40 years in the 19th century. There had been post transported over the pass since the 15th century, but it was always going to be a bit iffy given the difficulties of the route. I can just imagine courriers riding by, on their “high horse”, hurrying to pass those travellers on foot or with carts… so that the introduction of the Post Coach must have seemed like an ocean liner or a super-train to the people of the time. Of course, for this to happen, the road had had to be improved, plastered and widened to 5 metres, what a back-breaking job that must have been.Gotthardpost

But the famous Gotthard Post Coach was the five-in-hand ten-seater coach in its bright yellow and black livery which travelled daily from Flüelen to Como, a 23 hour slog. And then the train tunnel was built, motor coaches took over the road -and it was all over. These days, there is an old coach that will take you from Andermatt to Airolo as a tourist attraction sometimes – in 5 hours… and the 17 km Gotthard tunnel means that the pass isn’t even cleared in winter and you can cross the alps at 80 kmh – in just a few minutes!

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4 thoughts on “P for Post and Pass

  1. Coincidentally, we have just been watching Michael Portillo travelling through Switzerland by train (BBC series) – some lovely shots. Which pass did Hannibal take his elephants through on the way to Rome?

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