It’s a cloudless, sunny morning as I leave Brunnen on lake Lucerne en route to Locarno. The friendly porter of the Hotel Waldstätterhof, home to many distinguished guests such as the Churchills during their honeymoon, has loaded my trunk and with a cheerful smile waves me off. Five hundred meters from the famous town I enter the Axenstrasse which runs parallel to but high above lake Uri. The glorious views over the scintillating green water are only interrupted by an occasional tunnel. Listening to traffic reports I realize it’s the first day of summer holidays in Switzerland and decide against driving through the Gotthard tunnel. Instead, I cut east in Andermatt and drive over 2,000 meter high Oberalp Pass, then south in the town of Disentis to reach the Ticino via the Lucomagno, another 2,000 meter pass connecting Cantons Graubünden and Ticino.
I’m enjoying the scenery, the fluid drive and the fact that I am on holidays, when suddenly my tummy starts to growl. Squeezed in a caravan of cars I spot a large sign. On an impulse, I set my blinker and swerve away, leaving the stream of cars to rush on. Barely two hundred meters down the road the world changes. The announced Hotel Gotthard comes into view as a wonderful 18th century two-story wooden construction, complete with Swiss flag fluttering against the blue sky. I know I’m in for something special. Dropping my backpack in the shade of a large tree on the inviting patio, I head inside to explore.
Despite the efficient attempts of the waitress to herd me right back outside again and sit down with a menu, I start a conversation with the three sisters Sicher. Since 1972, the siblings run the Hotel in Gurtnellen which their father had acquired forty years prior to house his large family of ten. In the 1870s, their grandfather had come from southern Tyrol to hire on to help build the first Gotthard Tunnel under Louis Favre. Despite the terrible conditions he survived and later settled with his family in Gurtnellen. Leonie shows me the premises with pride and beckons me to follow her into the formal dining room, panelled in oak. She pulls open a drawer, gingerly lifts the soft cloth to reveal the fish cutlery with beautiful reliefs of pike and trout. She remembers the day her mother bought the family silver. The entire building oozes care, old-world charm and a slower ticking of the clock. I am smitten with Chef Greta’s absolutely delicious brook trout. I express my appreciation and learn that the establishment was awarded 14 points by famous Gault-Millau, the influential French restaurant guide! I concur whole heartedly.
“They are still here – and they are still tops!” wrote «Gault Millau» in 1996, awarded 14 points and particular mention to the brook trout and the Easter lamb! The 2014 primer states: “If you are in Gurtnellen in the upper Reuss valley, one hopes strongly that everything is still as it was last time!” Well, it sure was for me in the summer of 2016 and I highly recommend a visit to beautiful Gurtnellen and the sisters’ Sichers Hotel Gotthard!
After this unexpected delight, I file back into my queue and head up the Schnellstrasse 2, turning east onto Road 19 into the Unteralptal. The road is getting curvy and the ascent towards the dark blue sky of the Oberalp Pass is how I remember Switzerland at its best: well built roads, pristine scenery, blue sky and snow-covered mountains. And, of course, bell-necked cows on green pastures!
It is middle of summer but it is cold and windy on over 2,000 meter high Oberalp Pass. Not far from here lies a quiet lake with clear fresh water cascading gently down the valley. The Tomasee is recognized as the source of the Rhine. And only here can you take a single step to cross over this mighty river.
As soon as I start my curvy descent, I’m already in the Canton Graubünden and not only the scenery, but the architecture distinctly changes. Passing by the city of Disentis with its magnificent abbey and church (fully worth a visit, but not today), I head south and enter Val Medel towards Lucomagno Pass, meaning ‘big woods’. On an impulse, I shear off the main road once again and follow the sign to the hamlet of Medels. Through a tunnel and more winding roads going up along the valley wall, I’m rewarded at the top with breathtaking views into the valley. On a steep slope I watch a white haired women with an apron rake the drying grass the traditional way. The scent of hay and wildflowers mingles in my nostrils in the warm afternoon air and brings back a flood of memories of my youth in Graubünden!
The drive over 1,915 Meter Lucomagno is smooth and straight forward. This pass was the main north-south artery before the 14th century. In a short while, the scenery changes once again – I have entered the Ticino. Vegetation and architecture have a mediterranean flavor as I’m descending from mountainous, to hilly, to flat land, driving toward Lago Maggiore and my final destination, Porto Ronco.
During this spectacular drive, in the space of a little over four hours, I have witnessed changing scenery across three different Cantons with distinctly different architecture and languages, going from a height of more than 2,000 meters down to lake level. And this is only one of several spectacular options to cross Switzerland by car in north-south direction. I feel like royalty myself, enjoying this incredible landscape and diversity. I’m looking forward to my return trip via the Gotthard. Of course, I’ll be driving overtop the original pass, not through the tunnel.
Please share your experience if you’ve driven this fantastic route and leave a comment below. Thank you.
Switzerland travel enthusiast. Cat lover, bicyclist and classical music fan. I prefer walking over running and enjoy a good Swiss card game of Jass with friends. More about Silvia and Swiss Wanderlust »
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