UnTourist Jerry Nolan shares with us his memories of The Four Pass Tour in Meiringen, Switzerland.
Many years ago when Sandy and I were making our first forays into Switzerland under the care of UnTours (which turned into a multi year love affair with the country and the company) we noted ads for something called “The Three Pass Tour” and the “Four Pass Tour”. At first, we had no idea what that meant. Did we need some special passes to go on one of these? Eventually it dawned on us that the town of Meiringen, where we lived during our annual stay, was in a valley and was thus surrounded by mountains and there were passes in gaps of these mountains by which one could get down to the valley. These “passes” were important trade routes in the past and there are occasional reenactments of the goods “trains” which traversed one pass or the other to bring goods from the Ticino, the Italian sector of Switzerland down to Meiringen and central Switzerland. It is interesting that some of these passes were intentionally blocked off during WWII.
The ”pass tours” are operated by bus and leave the depot on the appropriate days returning late in the afternoon. You do need a rail pass and some money for the extra fee but it is worth every penny. Try to select a clear day as you need the visibility to see the awesome views. I will describe the “Four Pass Tour” as that is the one we did most often. There is usually a headset to listen to the driver. If you are lucky the commentary might be in English. If it is in the local dialect, you won’t understand much, but you can look out the windows! Be prepared for many heart stopping hair pin turns but relax. The drivers and the buses have done it safely many times. Bear in mind it is several years since we made this trip so various things may have changed. Ask at the train depot for the schedules.
The four passes from Meiringen are, in order: the Grimsel, Nufenen, Saint Gottard and the Susten. The fifth (which is not included in this trip) is called the Furka. I like to say the names as they seem to conjure up a vision of mystery, clouds, glaciers, and cold. Take a sweater! The map of central Switzerland (below) where I have circled the route and the passes may not help much, but it should provide a general idea of the area.
The route begins to climb shortly after leaving Meiringen. As you go, here and later on in the trip, the hillsides sometimes afford views of the two most common animals of this area, the chamois (Gemse) and the marmot or groundhog (Murmeltier). Also passed on the way to the Grimsel, is an installation of generators inside a mountain where water power from the rapidly falling river is converted to the electricity which runs much of Switzerland. There are sometimes trips offered to that location deep in the mountain which are also very interesting, if claustrophobic. At the Grimsel Pass (elevation 7000 feet) you can see a youth hostel, an inn and several reservoir lakes. Looking back you can also see impressive parts of the road which brought you.
The next pass is the Nufenen which at altitude 8152 feet is the highest of the passes and for my money the most interesting as it affords a clear view of the elusive mountain, The Finsteraarhorn. This peak, the tallest in the Bernese Oberland (14,022 ft) is difficult to get to and hard to spot from most places in Switzerland, but holds the glacier which is the origin of the Aare River, a major Swiss river flowing through Meiringen on its way to join the Rhine. There is also the usual souvenir shop and restaurant.
From the Nufenen the route descends into the Italian sector of Switzerland, The Ticino, at the small town of Airolo for a lunch break and a chance to stretch one’s legs. If you packed a lunch, eat it now, but there are also restaurants to choose from and a chance to walk around. There is a pretty church up the hill from the bus stop. On the way down to Airolo you can see part of the often cantilevered road up to the next pass. Don’t let that scare you. It’s not as bad when you do it later on the bus. Italian is mostly spoken in the Ticino.
The side road to the Furka Pass is on the five pass trip and is interesting mainly for the Rhone glacier, the origin of the mostly French river that ends in the Mediterranean.
After the break you climb to the St. Gottard Pass. Although the lowest of the passes at 6,909 feet, it has the most recognizable name as it has been in use since the 1300’s to move goods from Italy (places such as Milan) into Switzerland. There are the usual commercial buildings and a large monument to a Polish General named Suvorov who saved the Swiss by defeating Napoleon. The best view is looking down on the road you came on and Airolo in the valley below. As I am more comfortable in the Alpine areas of Switzerland, I always feel better when we have left Airolo.
After the St Gottard, we are off to the last pass on the trek, the Susten Pass. It is at an altitude of 7415 feet and is the wildest of the four. There is a single hotel and the Susten Glacier is nearby. If it hasn’t shrunk too much since we were last there, they permit walking on the glacier. We once saw a small summer rain squall come from the distance, go over the pass and disappear which was very impressive and we stayed dry. From the Susten, the road back to Meiringen is easy and you are ready for your supper. It has been a worthwhile but tiring day.