Passage Of The St. Gothard And Descent Into Italy
( Originally Published 1889 )
Leaving Amstegg, I passed the whole day among snowy, sky-piercing Alps, torrents, chasms and clouds ! The clouds appeared to be breaking up as we set out, and the white top of the Reussberg was now and then visible in the sky. Just above the village are the remains of Zwing Uri, the castle begun by the tyrant Gessler, for the complete subjugation of the canton. Following the Reuss up through a narrow valley, we passed the Bristenstock, which lifts its jagged crags nine thousand feet in the air, while on the other side stand the snowy summits which lean towards the Rhone Glacier and St. Gothard. From the deep glen where the Reuss foamed down towards the Lake of the Forest Cantons, the mountains rose with a majestic sweep so far into the sky that the brain grew almost dizzy in following their outlines. Woods, chalets and slopes of herbage covered their bases, where the mountain cattle and goats were browsing, while the herd-boys sang their native melodies or woke the ringing echoes with the loud, sweet sounds of their wooden horns ; higher up, the sides were broken into crags and covered with stunted pines; then succeeded a belt of bare rock with a little snow lying in the crevices, and the summits of dazzling white looked out from the clouds nearly three-fourths the height of the zenith. Some-times when the vale was filled with clouds it was startling to see them parting around a solitary summit, apparently isolated in the air at an immense height, for the mountain to which it be-longed was hidden to the very base !
The road passed from one side of the valley to the other, crossing the Reuss on bridges some-times ninety feet high. After three or four hours' walking, we reached a frightful pass called the Schollenen. So narrow is the defile that before reaching it, the road seemed to enter directly into the mountain. Precipices a thousand feet high tower above, and the stream roars and boils in the black depths below. The road is a wonder of art ; it winds around the edge of horrible chasms or is carried on lofty arches across, with sometimes a hold apparently so frail that one involuntarily shudders. At a place called the Devil's Bridge, the Reuss leaps about seventy feet in three or four cascades, sending up continually a cloud of spray, while a wind created by the fall, Mows and whirls around, with a force that nearly lifts one from his feet. Wordsworth has described the scene in the following lines :
" Plunge with the Reuss embowered by terror's breath, Where danger roofs the narrow walks of Death; By floods that, thundering from their dizzy height, Swell more gigantic on the steadfast sight, Black, drizzling crags, that, beaten by the din, Vibrate, as if a voice complained within,
Loose hanging rocks, the Day's blessed eye that hide,
Beyond the Devil's Bridge, the mountains which nearly touched before, interlock into each other, and a tunnel three hundred and seventy-five feet long leads through the rock into the vale of Urseren, surrounded by the Upper Alps. The little town of Andermatt lies in the middle of this valley, which with the peaks around is covered with short, yellowish-brown grass. We met near Amstegg a little Italian boy walking home, from Germany, quite alone and without money, for we saw him give his last kreutzer to a blind beggar along the road. We therefore took him with us, as he was afraid to cross the St. Gothard alone.
After refreshing ourselves at Andermatt, we started, five in number, including a German student, for the St. Gothard. Behind the village of Hospiz, which stands at the bottom of the valley leading to Realp and the Furca pass, the way commences, winding backwards and forwards, higher and higher, through a valley covered with-rocks, with the mighty summits of the Alps around, untenanted save by the chamois and mountain eagle. Not a tree was to be seen. The sides of the mountains were covered with loose rocks waiting for the next torrent to wash them down, and the tops were robed in eternal snow. A thick cloud rolled down over us as we went on, following the diminishing brooks to their snowy source in the peak of St. Gothard. We cut off the bends of the road by footpaths up the rocks, which we ascended in single file, one of the Americans going ahead and little Pietro with his staff and bundle bringing up the rear. The rarefied air we breathed, seven thou-sand feet above the sea, was like exhilarating gas. We felt no fatigue, but ran and shouted and threw snowballs, in the middle of August !
After three hours' walk we reached the two clear and silent lakes which send their waters to the Adriatic and the North Sea. Here, as we looked down the Italian side, the sky became clear; we saw the top of St. Gothard many thousand feet above, and stretching to the south the summits of the mountains which guard the vales of the Tiemo and the Adda. The former monastery has been turned into an inn ; there is, however, a kind of church attached, attended by a single monk. It was so cold that although late, we determined to descend to the first village. The Italian side is very step, and the road, called the Via Trimola, is like a thread dropped down and constantly doubling back upon itself. The deep chasms were filled with snow, although exposed to the full force of the sun, and for a long distance there was scarcely a sign of vegetation.
We thought as we went down, that every step was bringing us nearer to a sunnier land-that the glories of Italy, which had so long lain in the airy background of the future, would soon spread themselves before us in their real or imagined beauty. Reaching at dusk the last height above the vale of the Ticino, we saw the little village of Airolo with its musical name, lying in a hollow of the mountains. A few minutes of leaping, sliding and rolling, took us down the grassy declivity, and we found we had descended from the top in an hour and a half, although the distance by the road is nine miles! I need not say how glad we were to relieve our trembling knees and exhausted limbs.
When, at night, I looked out of my chamber window, the silver moon of Italy, (for we fancied that her light was softer and that the skies were already bluer) hung trembling above the fields of snow that stretched in their wintry brilliance along the mountains around. I heard the roar of the Ticino and the deepened sound of falling cascades, and thought, if I were to take those waters for my guide, to what glorious places they would lead me!
We left Airolo early the next morning, to continue our journey down the valley of the Ticino. The mists and clouds of Switzerland were ex. changed for a sky of the purest blue, and we felt, for the first time in ten days, uncomfortably warm. The mountains which flank the Alps on this side, are still giants-lofty and bare, and covered with snow in many places. The limit of the German dialect is on the summit of St. Gothard, and the peasants saluted us with a "buon giorno," as they passed. This, with the clearness of the skies and the warmth of the air, made us feel that Italy was growing nearer.
The mountains are covered with forests of dark pine, and many beautiful cascades come tumbling over the rocks in their haste to join the Ticino. One of these was so strangely beautiful, that I cannot pass it without a particular description. We saw it soon after leaving Airolo, on the opposite side of the valley. A stream of considerable size comes down the mountain, leaping from crag to crag till within forty or fifty feet of the bottom, where it is caught in a hollow rock and flung upwards into the air, forming a beautiful arch as it falls out into the valley. As it is whirled up thus, feathery curls of spray are constantly driven off and seem to wave round it like the fibres on an ostrich plume. The sun shining through, gave it a sparry brilliance which was perfectly magnificent. If I were an artist, I would give much for such a new form of beauty.
On our first day's journey we passed through two terrific mountain gorges, almost equalling in grandeur the defile of the "Devil's Bridge." The Ticino, in its course to Lago Maggiore has to make a descent of nearly three thousand feet, passing through three valleys, which lie like ter-races, one below the other. In its course from one to the other, it has to force its way down in twenty cataracts through a cleft in the mountains. The road, constructed with the utmost labor, threads these dark chasms, sometimes carried in a tunnel through the rock, sometimes passing on arches above the boiling flood. The precipices of bare rock rise far above and render the way difficult and dangerous. I here noticed another very beautiful effect of the water, perhaps attributable to some mineral substance it contained. The spray and foam thrown up in the dashing of the vexed current, was of a light, delicate pink, although the stream itself was a soft blue ; and the contrast of these two colors was very remarkable.
As we kept on, however, there was a very perceptible change in the scenery. The gloomy pines disappeared and the mountains were covered in their stead, with picturesque chestnut trees, with leaves of a shining green. The grass and vegetation was much more luxuriant than on the other side of the Alps, and fields of maize and mulberry orchards covered the valley. We saw the people busy at work reeling silk in the villages. Every mile we advanced made a sensible change in the vegetation. The chestnuts were larger, the maize higher, the few straggling grape-vines increased into bowers and vineyards, while the gardens were filled with plum, pear and fig-trees, and the stands of delicious fruit which we saw in the villages, gave us promise of the luxuriance that was to come. The vineyards are much more beautiful than the German fields of stakes. The vines are not trimmed, but grow from year to year over a frame higher than the head, supported through the whole field on stone pillars. They interlace and form a complete leafy screen, while the clusters hang below. The light came dimly through the green, transparent leaves, and nothing was wanting to make them real bowers of Arcadia. Although we were still in Switzerland, the people began to have that lazy, indolent look which characterizes the Italians ; most of the occupations were carried on in the open air, and brown-robed, sandalled friars were going about from house to house, collecting money and provisions for their support.
We passed Faido and Giornico, near which last village are the remains of an old castle, supposed to have been built by the ancient Gauls, and stopped for the night at Cresciano, which being entirely Italian, we had an opportunity to put in practice the few words we had picked up from Pietro. The little fellow parted from us with regret a few hours before, at Masco, where he had relations. The rustic landlord at Cresciano was an honest young fellow, who tried to serve us as well as he could, but we made some ludicrous mistakes through our ignorance of the language.
Three hours' walk brought us to Bellinzona, the capital of the canton. Before reaching it, our road joined that of the Splügen which comes down through the valley of Bernardino. From the bridge where the junction takes place we had a triple view, whose grandeur took me by surprise, even after coming from Switzerland. We stood at the union of three valleys-that leading to St. Gothard, terminated by the glaciers of the Bernese Oberland, that running off obliquely to the Splugen, and finally the broad vale of the Ticino, extending to Lago Maggiore, whose purple mountains closed the vista. Each valley was perhaps two miles broad and from twenty to thirty long, and the mountains that enclosed them from five to seven thousand feet in height, so you may perhaps form some idea what a view down three such avenues in this Alpine temple would be. Bellinzona is romantically situated, on a slight eminence, with three castles to defend it, with those square turreted towers and battlements, which remind one involuntarily of the days of the Goths and Vandals.
We left Bellinzona at noon, and saw, soon after, from an eminence, the blue line of Lago Maggiore stretched across the bottom of the valley. We saw sunset fade away over the lake, but it was clouded, and did not realize my ideal of such a scene in Italy. A band of wild Italians paraded up and down the village, drawing one of their number in a hand-cart. They made a great noise with a drum and trumpet, and were received everywhere with shouts of laughter. A great jug of wine was not wanting, and the whole seemed to me a very characteristic scene.
We were early awakened at Magadino, at the head of Lago Maggiore, and after swallowing a hasty breakfast, went on board the steamboat " San Carlo," for Sesto Calende. We got under way at six o'clock, and were soon in motion over the crystal mirror. The water is pf the most lovely green hue, and so transparent that we seemed to be floating in mid-air. Another heaven arched far below us ; other chains of mountains joined their bases to those which surrounded the lake, and the mirrored cascades leaped upward to meet their originals at the surface. It may be because I have seen it more recently, that the water of Lago Maggiore appears to be the most beautiful in the world. I was de-lighted with the Scotch lakes, and enraptured with the Traunsee and " Zurich's waters," but this last exceeds them both. I am now incapable of any stronger feeling, until I see the Egean fro m the Grecian Isles.
The morning was cloudy, and the white wreaths hung low on the mountains, whose rocky sides were covered every where with the rank and luxuriant growth of this climate. As we advanced further over this glorious mirror, the houses be-came more Italian-like; the lower stories rested on arched passages, and the windows were open, without glass, while in the gardens stood the solemn, graceful cypress, and vines, heavy with ripening grapes, hung from bough to bough through the mulberry orchards. Half-way down, in a broad bay, which receives the waters of a stream that comes down with the Simplon, are the celebrated Borromean Islands. They are four in number, and seem to float like fairy creations on the water, while the lofty hills form a background whose grandeur enhances by contrast their exquisite beauty. There was some-thing in the scene that reminded me of Claude Melnotte's description of his home, by Bulwer, and like the lady of Lyons, I answer readily, "I like the picture.
On passing by Isola Madre, we could see the roses in its terraced gardens and the broad-leaved aloes clinging to the rocks. Isola Bella, the loveliest of them all, as its name denotes, was farther off; it rose like a pyramid from the water, terrace above terrace to the summit, and its gardens of never fading foliage, with the glorious panorama around, might make it a para-dise, if life were to be dreamed away. On the northern side of the bay lies a large town (I forget the name,) with a lofty Romanesque tower, and noble mountains sweep around as if to shut out the world from such a scene. The sea was perfectly calm, and groves and gardens slept mirrored in the dark green wave, while the Alps rose afar through the dim, cloudy air. Towards the other end the hills sink lower, and .slope off into the plains of Lombardy. Near Arona, on the western side, is a large monastery, overlooking the lower part of the lake. Beside it, on a hill, is a colossal statue of San Carlo Borromeo, who gave his name to the lovely islands above.
After a seven hours passage, we ran into Sesto Calende, at the foot of the lake. Here passengers and baggage were tumbled promiscuously on shore, the latter gathered into the office to be examined, and the former left at liberty to ramble about an hour until their passports could be signed. We employed the time in trying the flavor of the grapes and peaches of Lombardy, and looking at the groups of travellers who had come down from the Alps with the annual avalanche at this season. The custom house officers were extremely civil and obliging, as they did not think necessary to examine our knapsacks, and our passports being soon signed, we were at liberty to enter again into the dominions of His Majesty of Austria. Our companion, the German, whose feet could carry him no further, took a seat on the top of a diligence for Milan ; we left Sesto Calende on foot, and plunged into the cloud of dust which was whirling towards the capital of Northern Italy.
Being now really in the " sunny land," we looked on the scenery with a. deep interest. The first thing that struck me was a resemblance to America in the fields of Indian corn, and the rank growth of weeds by the roadside. The mulberry trees and hedges, too, looked quite familiar, coming as we did, from fenceless and hedgeless Ger-many. But here the resemblance ceased. The people were coarse, ignorant and savage-looking, the villages remarkable for nothing except the contrast between splendid churches and misera ble, dirty houses, while the luxurious palaces and grounds of the rich noblemen formed a still greater contrast to the poverty of the people. I noticed also that if the latter are as lazy as they are said to be, they make their horses work for them, as in a walk of a few hours yesterday afternoon, we saw two horses drawing heavy loads, drop down apparently dead, and several others seemed nearly ready to do the same.
We spent the night at the little village of Casina, about sixteen miles from Milan, and here made our first experience in the honesty of Italian inns. We had taken the precaution to inquire beforehand the price of a bed ; but it seemed unnecessary and unpleasant, as well as evincing a mistrustful spirit, to do the same with every article we asked for, so we concluded to leave it to the host's conscience not to over-charge us. Imagine our astonisment, how-ever, when at starting, a bill was presented to us, in which the smallest articles were set down at three or four times their value. We remonstrated, but to little purpose; the fellow knew scarcely any French, and we as little Italian, so rather than lose time or temper, we paid what he demanded and went on, leaving him to laugh at the successful imposition. The experience was of value to us, however, and it may serve as a warning to some future traveller.
About noon, the road turned into a broad and beautiful avenue of poplars, down which we saw, at a distance, the triumphal arch terminating the Simplon road, which we had followed from Sesto Calende. Beyond it rose the slight and airy pinacle of the Dimino. We passed by the exquisite structure, gave up our passports at the gates, traversed the broad Piazza d'Armi, and found ourselves at liberty to choose one of the dozen streets that led into the heart of the city.