I receive a weekly email from the Swiss Embassy entitled "Switzerland Today." This week's missive concerned the opening of the last stage of the Gotthard Tunnel. There are some truly weird photos of the inaugration ceremonies on the BBC News website. One shows a topless woman decked as a bird hovering above actors representing the nine construction workers who died during the building of the tunnel. All this and more were brought to the guests by the German impresario Volker Hesse.
Goethe's first visit to the Gotthard Pass took place in this very month in 1775, during his first Swiss journey. The very short diary entries for June 22 do not mention the Gotthard by name, and indeed he seems not to have stayed very long at the pass. At 6:30 a.m. he left Wasen with his childhood friend, Jacob Ludwig Passavant.
21. halb 7. aufwärts. allmächtig schröcklich Geschten [Göschenen] gezeichnet. Noth und Müh -- und schweis. Teufelsbrüke u. der teufel. Schwizen u. Matten u Sincken biss ans Urner Loch hinaus u belebung im Thal. an der Matte trefflichen Käss. Sauwohl u Projekte. At the Capuchin hospice, they ate the famous Ursen cheese and refreshed themselves with "einen leidlichen Wein." The next morning already, they were on their way to Andermatt: "ab 35 Min auf 4."
Passavant in 1775
Here is the description of the climb in Dichtung und Wahrheit: "Den 21sten halb sieben Uhr aufwärts; die Felsen wurden immer mächtiger und schrecklicher; der Weg bis zum Teufelstein, bis zum Anblick der Teufelsbrücke immer mühseliger."
Passavant tried to convince Goethe to continue on to Italy, but Goethe refused. As Nicholas Boyle writes: "Goethe seems to have been under some external pressure, it is unclear from which quarter, though probably from his parents, to return soon to Frankurt, and he was anxious, given that he had to return, to see the frontier from which he did so, to clarify, as it were, the possibility he was leaving unfulfilled."
Gotthard route in winter, 1790
On the second Swiss journey, with Carl August, the climb was really arduous and more dangerous, as they were traveling in winter. (See my account in an essay in volume 15 of Goethe Yearbook.) He wrote to Frau von Stein of their arrival at the Gotthard on November 13, 1779: “Auf dem Gotthart bey den Capuzinern.” The letters (also those of Carl August to his wife) served as the basis for the later Letters from Switzerland. The main part of that narrative, as Boyle writes, "deals continuously with the long trek from Geneva to Chamonix and Marigny and up the Valais to the Furka and the St. Gotthard, where the book ends." The concluding paragraph of Goethe's account, according to Boyle, which "bears a strong resemblance to the last lines of ‘Winter Journey in the Harz,’ describes the geographical situation of the St. Gotthard so as to make it a nodal point between Germany and Italy, the eastern and the western Alps, near the sources of the Rhine and the Rhone."
Indeed, the pass is a geographical meeting point, and a watershed , with four major rivers rising nearby: the Rhine, the Rhone, the Reuss, and the Ticino.
It is hard to imagine how people once bore the cold in these mountains without clothes we nowadays buy at North Face or Patagonia. Goethe describes in Letters from Switzerland the arrival at the hospice of one of the monks: "Der Pater ist von Airolo herauf gekommen, so erfroren, daß er bei seiner Ankunft kein Wort hervorbringen konnte. ... Er war von Airolo herauf den sehr glatten Weg gegen den Wind gestiegen; der Bart war ihm eingefroren, und es währte eine ganze Weile, bis er sich besinnen konnte."
The hospice at the pass dates from
1237, or at least that is the date of the first written account of its
existence. (Saint Gotthard was a Benedictine bishop of Hildesheim,
canonized in 1131.) Goethe's account makes clear how busy the route was, even in winter. He describes, for instance, the mule trains, of which there could be, as he writes, "keine beschwerlichere Reisegesellschaft." The mules are always stopping on the small path, forcing humans to make their way around them and the baskets strapped on both sides. If you stop to admire the view, you soon hear their bells behind you.
Goethe's interest in plans for the Suez canal and other large building projects is well known. It is hard to imagine, however, that he could have envisioned the work that has gone into constructing this amazing tunnel.