Review: Exploring two very different parts of Switzerland via the newly-completed Gotthard Base tunnel
PUBLISHED: 07:00 06 November 2016
Switzerland is a land of contrasts. And this year the Swiss are celebrating the completion of one of the world's greatest engineering projects that connects two strikingly different parts of the country, writes James Marston.
It is the world’s deepest and longest railway tunnel. Bored through more than 35 miles of solid rock underneath the alps, the Gotthard Base tunnel is a marvel of Swiss engineering.
Aimed at cutting transport times through the alps and improving connections not only within Switzerland but across the continent, the base tunnel will cut passenger train times from Zurich to the southern Italian speaking canton of Ticino by about an hour.
Voted for by national referendum – that’s how they do things in Switzerland - the tunnel has taken 17 years to build and excavated 28 million tonnes of rock.
It is one of the world’s greatest tunnelling achievements and is expected to revolutionise European freight transport between Rotterdam and Genoa.
And a few lucky passengers have been given the opportunity to see inside the tunnel for themselves before the trains start rolling in December.
The William Tell overture signals the entrance of the tunnel by the Gottardino – the special train from which passengers alight in the underground station of Sedrun – built to house ventilation equipment and technical infrastructure and serve as emergency stop and evacuation route – while making their way through the Gotthard Massif.
Inside the cavernous tunnels, more than 800 metres under the surface, the experience is memorable to say the least. Large display boards tell the story of the tunnel, the political will behind it, its progress through the differing geologies of the Alps, its safety features, its topography, and the hopes it is invested with for the future as the tunnel opens for passenger and freight business.
And once back on the train it’s just minutes before the Gottatrdino emerges into daylight and late summer Ticino.
Switzerland, of course, is easy.
The public transport system is so efficient and works so well travelling is a pleasure. And one of the most relaxing and enchanting ways to travel is the Wilhelm Tell Express.
Named after the Swiss folk hero the journey starts in one of the county’s most picturesque and most visited towns – Lucerne.
Famed for its Kappellebrucke – chapel bridge - and stunning location by lake and mountain, it is no surprise Lucerne is such a hit with tourists. For the travel buff the city is home to the Swiss Transport Museum, the Verkehrshaus. Charting the history of travel – rail, air, boat and road - the museum is impressive, with plenty to look at and study. And there’s a model of the new Gotthard Base Tunnel.
Making its way through the picturesque villages on the shores of Lake Lucerne - chocolate box Switzerland at its best - the Wilhelm Tell Express, which connects Lucerne in the north to Lugano in the south, offers just over five hours of the most leisurely panoramic travel.
Crossing the lake by paddle steamer, the scenery is stunning all the way. And after a leisurely lunch on board passengers join the railway at Flüelen before a stunning trip through the mountains and the nine mile long old Gotthard railway tunnel, itself a engineering marvel when it opened for traffic in 1882.
Once through the tunnel Switzerland changes as the climate becomes Mediterranean and the architecture Italian. Even the language is different in Ticino – the Italian speaking part of the confederation.
Stylish and smart, Lugano elegantly nestles on the shores of Lake Lugano a body of water which stretches across into Italy beyond.
For somewhere to stay the stylish four star Hotel De La Paix offers classical comfort and a touch of elegance. And for lunch it’s a short a boat trip across the lake to Grotto San Rocco where you can relax by the lake. At 912 metres Mount San Salvatore - the top of which is accessible by funicular railway – offers stunning views of Lake Lugano below and the Swiss Alps in the distance.
The return journey takes us not through railway tunnels this time but by road over the scenic Gotthard Pass. Once the preserve of the stage coach – in places you can still see the old cobbled pass road, the modern pass road is part of the Swiss bus network which stops at the top of the pass where there is a museum dedicated to the history of the Gotthard. There is also a more mysterious tourist attraction – a disused military installation dug into the mountainside. The bunker was once part of the secret-ish Swiss national redoubt - a network of Cold War underground bunkers and defences built high in the mountains.
Once the final stop before the Gotthard pass, Andermatt’s heyday was in the days before the railways. Today the historic town is developing its tourist industry as it encourages skiers, golfers and hikers to the area.
As ever in Switzerland, it’s an easy train ride to Zurich and connections to the UK.
James was a guest of Switzerland tourism and the Swiss Travel System
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