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October 3rd 2019
Over Stockalper’s and Napoleon’s road
Today I left in the 10.18 hrs Postal car for Simplon-Dorf over the Simplon Pass. Because of today’s fine weather I had planned to hike a part of a stage of the Via Alpina: Stage 6 of the Blue Trail officially runs from the Simplon Pass to the village of Zwischbergen, on the border to Italy. Today I hiked from Simplon-Dorf to the Simplon Pass, a part of this stage and in the reverse direction! And again in an aera I didn’t know.
From Brig and the mountain slopes on the right side of the Rhône I had so often seen the road to the Simplon Pass, the Nationalstrasse N9, run in a straight line under a sharp angle towards the southeast. Now I was on board of the Postal car and enjoyed from this road the view over Brig deep down and the Rhône Valley until a far distance in the west. We climbed higher and higher: the valley of the Saltina mountain stream, as its flows through Brig towards the Rhône, is very deep with extremely steep slopes. The Saltina is filled with water from two mountain streams: the Taferna stream that flows from the Simplon Pass to the west and the Ganterbach stream from a side valley, the Gantertal. We passed the famous cable-stayed bridge over the Ganterbach stream: the impressive Ganterbrücke bridge with that extraordinary design from 1980 and with a length of 678 metres that spans a ravine of 150 metres deep. The architect has been the Swiss civil engineer and professor at the Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule in Zurich Christian Menn (1927–2018), who has also designed the beautiful Sunnibergbrücke bridge between Küblis and Klosters in the Canton of Grisons. The new Ganterbrücke has been built about 800 metres downstream of the old Ganterbrücke built by Napoleon between 1801 and 1805. The Ganterbrücke has been awarded many prices because of its exceptional design.
After some 15 minutes we arrived in Simplon-Dorf – the sun was shining, but there was a cold wind. It is a village with quite an Italian flair, although it is one of the few German-speaking villages in the catchment area of the river Po. The Simplon Pass forms the watershed between the Rhône (via the Taferna, later the Saltina) and the Po (via the Diveria). This village is old as well: the parish has been mentioned for the first time in official documents in 1267 and is dedicated to St. Gotthard. Seen from the village square the St. Gotthard church that has been consecrated in 1736 doesn’t stand out that much, but also here the interior is again rich and impressive with a nice lighting. Over the centuries many improvements have been made to the trade route over the Simplon Pass and that has also worked out on the development of the village of Simplon-Dorf. In the 17th century the entrepreneur Kaspar Jodok Stockalper (1609–1691) had a road built from Brig via the Simplon Pass and through the village towards the east, to Zwischbergen and Gondo, the place on the Italian border. From this village he was doing business with i.e. Milan. This “road” was for those days’ standards quite wide and paved. In 1801 Napoleon decided to make improvements to this road that had been falling apart in many places in order to allow his troops with their artillery to move faster. At the Hotel Post a granite plaque has been placed mentioning this fact – and also that Napoleon had this hotel built! Nearby an antique “milestone” is standing: in those days the distance to Brig as to Domodossola was 31 kilometres. In the “Alter Gasthof” on the village square the Ecomuseum Simplon has been established after lengthy restoration works. In March 1991 a foundation has been set up to preserve the old trade route and to transform it into a hiking trail, to restore the run-down building and to show besides the landscape element (hence “eco”) the history of the entire area around the Simplon Pass too. The reason for this foundation was a plan of the municipality from the 1980s to build a new traffic road on the tracks of the old trade route. This route had however been listed in the “Inventar der historischen Verkehrswege der Schweiz” (IVS, the inventory of Swiss historical roads) and that was why the plans were cancelled. In compensation the trajectory between Brig and Gondo that was at some points hardly visible anymore would be restored and rearranged to attract tourists. This resulted in the ViaStockalper, a trail of 30 kilometres from Brig to Gondo, that can be hiked in three days. As I was standing at the door, the museum was still closed until early afternoon… Against the outer wall of the museum also a granite stele was standing with a head of bronze on top: it is the effigy of the lawyer and politician Josef Escher (1885–1954), who had been born in this small village and who after a long political career had occupied the important political function of Bundesrat in Bern from 1950 until his death in 1954.The old buildings around the village square all have generous proportions, especially the former inn, “Weisses Kreuz“. This building dates from the 14th century and has been substantially transformed till the 17th century, also by Kaspar Stockalper. Apart from lodgings it has also been storage facility and horse stables. Until the end of the 19th century there has also been a pillory.
At noon I left Simplon-Dorf over the Stockalperweg on my way to the Simplon Pass. It turned out to be a wonderful hike with beautiful panoramas: looking back I saw the village, peacefully embedded between the still green meadows and the wooded mountains in the south. This trail wasn’t only the trajectory of Stage D6 over the Stockalperweg, but also the route of the Gondo-marathon: a two-days’ running contest with the length of a marathon between Gondo and Brig to commemorate the natural disaster that had hit Gondo on October 14th 2000. That day an enormous rock and mudslide raced through the village causing huge devastations, i.e. to the historical Stockalperturm tower from 1650. 13 persons died. After the reconstruction the village has been inaugurated on October 14th 2004. From 20202 on this running festival has annually been organised. To cover that track running is quite brave ‘though because there are parts of the trail where the road is very unlevel, like on the old trade road with the pavement of round natural stones! After alternatively passing through open terrain and bright forests with larches I arrived at Rossboden, near the hamlet of Egga with nice views on the Fletschhorn (3.985m) with the impressive Rossboden glacier. It was remarkable that the mountain slope was covered by a dense forest of larches. It had grown years after on March 19th 1901 a huge ice and rockslide had taken place from the bottom of the then much longer glacier. Considerable damage occurred: 38 houses were destroyed, many cattle killed and many hay- and grasslands had been covered by layers of debris – some even were 50 metres thick. It has been the largest “Gletschersturz” (glacier fall) Switzerland has ever known. The masses of ice stayed there for four to five years. I noticed a large boulder with vaguely marked the year 1903 alongside the path, which had been taken along by the avalanche. The view on the imposing mountain the Fletschhorn with the still large glacier was overwhelming. Several cosy-looking old chalets with Edelweiss growing in a planter made out of a tree trunk, red geraniums hanging from the garden fence and the flag of Simplon-Dorf flapping on the wall. Also the view to the north, into the direction of the Monte Leone mountain was something special.
The hamlet of Egga isn’t that old: it has been built after the “Gletschersturz” of 1597 has erased the original village. In the small chapel from 1670 in Egga, dedicated to St. John the Baptist a nice altar with an exuberant floral decoration has been placed. The view on the Fletschhorn and the glacier is beautifully framed by the honeycomb shaped stained glass windows!
More towards the Simplon Pass I crossed the stream, which is called “Lagnetscha” there, but is actually called Diveria, over one of the many bridges Napoleon had ordered to build. This “Ägerbrigga” has the same construction as the other bridges on the Napoleonic road: the arch between the brickwork, pillarlike bridgeheads consists of cut stones (ashlars). The floor of the bridge is marked by parapets of stone with tower-like corner posts. Contrary to the other bridges the middle part has been made of brickwork and not of wood. From a strategical point of view a wooden middle part is better, because then the bridge can be disabled for the enemy more quickly! The stream was quietly flowing towards the southeast, while the wide, green and tranquil valley was stretching to the northwest, towards the Simplon Pass. At that point I could hardly hear the noise of the traffic passing on the Nationalstrasse N9.
On the gable of a house a special sundial was placed: above the image of a belling deer the “clock face” had been decorated with a beautiful panorama of the Fletschhorn, and the saying “Horae Tibi Serenae” (as far as I know meaning “the hours are unclouded for you”). Here the Stockalperweg runs rather closely next to the Nationalstrasse N9. The avalanche galleries are therefore quite visible. Since the 1960s to the 1980s the Simplonstrasse has been emancipated to Nationalstrasse: many tunnels, galleries and bridges had to be built. At first it seemed that the route over the pass would be finished after the Simplon railway tunnel had opened in 1906, but because of the emergence of the car the opposite turned out to be true. It is a compliment to Napoleon’s road builders that the present road still runs over a part of the old track! Sometimes the difference between then and now was clearly visible: the hiking trail follows a narrow path between two piled-up dry-stone walls, while the cars and the commercial traffic thunder through the semi-opened galleries! And that all in the radiant sunshine and the bright blue skies…
Half an hour later I passed another reminder of times long gone by: an old storage building, a Sust, near another hamlet, Engi. The right-hand part of this building, made of coarse stones, dates from the late Middle Ages and was apparently meant for storage. When in the 16th century trade over the pass diminished it has been transformed into residential building with stables (on the left-hand side). Research as to tree rings proved that the used wood dates from 1537…! And just to think that almost 500 years have gone by between the extension of the Suste and the construction of the modern avalanche gallery on the main road. A large grassland to the south of the road past the Suste has been marked by a rather high dry-stone wall.
The Stockalperweg meandered through the landscape: over road with cobbles and over flattened stone plates. Somewhere I saw a sign warning for crossing cows!
On the way in I had already noticed from the Postal car that military exercises were taking place: camouflaged armoured vehicles were standing alongside the road, which therefore just stood out very much! A bulletin had been stapled on a large, red panel with the dates on which shooting exercises would be held and which roads would be closes: from the end of September to early October. It turned out that those shooting exercises were been held today. Other hikers told me of the possibility that I wouldn’t continue my hike…, but in the end it turned out to be better than expected. Every now and then I heard a sssst..! and a dull boommm, shots fired by the infantry weaponry and echoing against the mountain slopes. I also saw military vehicles driving around. From the Postal car I had already seen exaggeratedly camouflaged vehicles… I saw how on the plain near Gampisch a white balloon was released. A weather or wind balloon I suppose. The white dot disappeared into the space between the whitish-grey mountain tops… When on the plain of Gampisch the old hospice, the Alte Spittel came in sight there were many more soldiers. They obviously were French-speaking: to my “Grüezi mitenand” followed a cheerful “Bonjour“! The Altes Spittel already has a long history: this remarkable building of five storeys and a turret, made of granite, has been built already in the 17th century by Kaspar Stockalper as a stay for travellers on the trade route. In 1980 the building has been bought by the Swiss Ministry of Defence and restored. The listed building serves as accommodation for the troops, but it can also be rented out to third parties. The long-stretched, lower building, the Barralhaus, also standing in the plain, has been built in 1902 by a Swiss catholic congregation and also been bought by the Swiss army (in 2007) for the lodgings of soldiers and equipped as such. The small chapel has been saved. Like around Andermatt where the military defence was taken care of by the Festungsgebiet Gotthard, till the end of the 20th century it has been the Artilleriewerk Naters just above Brig, from where the Simplon Pass could be protected, in combination with the Fort in Gondo in the southern part of Valais, on the border to Italy. Today it was very peaceful and the surroundings to all sides magnificent!
From the Alptafel (Alpe Niwe) it was for a moment quite a climb to the pass. The sun was shining on the larches that had already a slight autumnal colouring. At this point I could properly see how the road must have looked in the early days: there were many wide, flat stone plates on the track! There also were the Felshöcker, rocks that have been polished by the glaciers, over which the Stockalperweg runs. It was a peculiar emotion to walk here in the footsteps of so many over the past centuries!
After almost an hour I arrived at the Hotel Monte Leone near a small area of raised bog at the foot of the Alpe Hopschse. Here are several smaller lakes, that stand out against the landscape by their dark blue water. In the modern hotel-restaurant I had something to eat with a beautiful and sun-drenched panorama – I was lucky to order my game and mushroom ravioli just before the passengers of a large touring car streamed into the restaurant! Afterwards I went on to the Simplon-Eagle, that is just as spectacular construction as the nearby Altes Hospiz. Napoleon had initiated the building of the Hospiz in 1801, but because of his fall in 1815 it wasn’t finished. The Augustine religious order did so in 1824 – nowadays the somewhat stern-looking building is a meeting place open to everyone.
The large nine metres high eagle, made of blocks of granite is standing on a spur to which a narrow and steep path is leading. This eagle is the symbol of the Simplon: it is looking into the direction of Italy. The memorial has been built during border control in the Second World War by the Gebirgsbrigade 11, an army division that has mainly been active in the mountain regions of the central part of the Canton of Valais. with the large reform of the Swiss army in 1995 this division has been dissolved. The design has been made by the Swiss sculptor and architect Erwin Friedrich Baumann (1890–1980). On the plinth the text is written: “In der Freiheit der Berge steht es, ein wuchtiges Mal aus hartem Granit: ein Gedenken treuer Pflichterfüllung, ein dauerndes Mahnen, willig und wach zu sein für unsere Freiheit” (It is standing in the freedom of the mountains, a memorial made of hard granite: a remembrance of faithful fulfilment, a continuous reminder, to be willing and alert for our freedom). This year, 2019, celebrations for the 75 years of existance of the Simplon-Eagle: it has been inaugurated on September 10th 1944. It was obvious that last year the memorial has had an extensive revision! From close-by the eagle looks even more impressive than from the main road… At the bottom of the spur of the Simplon-Eagle a large boulder is standing with two plaques. On the first is the concise tekst “In Dankbarkeit“, as a word of thanks by the municipalities around the Simplon Pass. On the other has been written: “Für Frieden in Freiheit (for peace in freedom) – Gebirgsbrigade 11 – 1938–1995“.
The views from the Simplon Pass were marvellous: to the northwest, into the direction of Brig, the snow-covered mountain tops of the Bernese Alps were visible in the distance and to the northeast, much closer by, the mountain tops of the Monte Leone, the Hübschhorn and i.e. the Chaltwasser glacier. This turned the waiting for the Postal car, back to Brig, into a party!
From the Postal car I was able to take another picture of the imposing Ganterbrücke bridge in the late afternoon sun – just to finish off!
Back in Brig again I could look back on a fantastic hiking day through an area where I would like to spend many more hours! That will be next time then… Tomorrow is the last day before I return home. That will mark the end of another wonderful trip and also the end of this summer season. I am already looking forward to a continuation of my tours on the Via Alpina next year…