Rouleur Explore: Discovering Andermatt and the Swiss Alps
Rouleur’s Rachel Jary had seen photographs of the Gotthard Pass, but nothing could prepare her for the beauty of seeing it with her own eyes. She chronicles a day exploring the stunning town of Andermatt and the Swiss Alps that surround it
It’s dark when we arrive in Andermatt. I can’t see much out of the windows of the minivan we’ve driven in from Zurich airport, but I can feel that we’re in the mountains. Maybe it’s the winding curves of the alpine roads, or the crisp cold air, or the looming, ominous shadows of the cliff faces that surround us. Warmth envelopes me like a hug when we enter the hotel lobby. A fire flickers in the centre of the room and the wooden decor gives that snug, cosy feeling that's a sort of safety net from the bitter winds that whirl outside. Eyes heavy from a day of travel, I go to my room and aim to get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow will be big.
The story goes that in the early 2000s, Egyptian investor Samih Sawiris came to Andermatt and saw a wealth of opportunity in the rugged, beautiful mountain landscape. He had the vision of turning this hidden gem into a destination for holiday-makers, while also preserving the stunning natural beauty that makes the place, which is nestled deep in the Swiss Alps, so special. Sawiris aimed to incorporate the traditional with the modern, the old with the new. Rather than change Andermatt, he saw it as a place which could be elevated. Creating jobs and income for those who based themselves in the area, Sawiris built a range of luxury hotels and apartments, and Andermatt is also now home to a concert hall and swimming pool. Importantly, Andermatt was developed with sustainable tourism in mind, with careful management of noise and energy usage, healthy cooperation with local businesses and a railway station that has links to all the major cities, encouraging visitors to come to the area on public transport.
Alongside all this, perhaps the most obvious attraction to Andermatt and its alpine-chic aesthetic, which is so harmoniously intertwined with the stunning backdrop of the snow-capped Alps, is the richly varied areas which surround it for winter sports. As the frost kicks in, you would struggle to find a better place to ski and snowboard down the stunning slopes. There is one problem that lies in this: the snow isn’t there all year round.
A solution is easily found to this, though, and it’s one that I explored at great lengths during my stay in Andermatt: the bicycle.
Weaving through the ski slopes are heavenly roads to explore on two wheels. Smooth, flowing tarmac and steady climbs which are surrounded by scenery that looks like it has come straight off a postcard, descents that make you want to push your bike to the limits: the Swiss Alps are a cyclist’s playground.
The choice of routes and climbs to conquer in the area are endless: the Furka Pass, the Nufenen Pass, the Göscheneralp Pass, the Oberalp Pass. If we had been there longer, we’d have done them all, but the weather forecast was risky in the days leading up to our bike ride, so we chose a Pass that we found most endearing: The Gotthard. I'd looked at pictures of its cobbled slopes, the stunning blue lake that lies peacefully at the summit, the imposing mountains that surround it and the never ending switchbacks, but I wasn’t truly prepared for the beauty of the climb when seeing it with my own eyes.
We started the ride early, rolling out from Andermatt’s Radisson Blu hotel at 8am to give ourselves as much time as possible in daylight. To my surprise, mist fell heavily on the mountains, obscuring their summits and setting a cold chill in the air. The landscape was breathtaking, but in a different way to what I had envisioned: it looked moody and bleak, but endearing. We wrapped up in our gloves and jackets and clipped our feet in the pedals, toes fighting the chill, legs tingling with excitement.
It wasn’t long before the road began to kick up and the climbing began. As we headed up towards the town of Hospental, the road wasn’t steep, but the gradient sat at between five and 10 percent, a relentless wakeup call for our legs, still heavy with the fatigue of travel. We continued until we reached the summit, and the mist seemed to be getting thicker with every pedal stroke. The roads were eerily quiet, and we hadn’t seen any form of life, apart from some mountain sheep, for the first hour of our bike ride.
These mountains are unpredictable and they have character. In some ways, this makes them dangerous, but it also gives them a mysterious quality, one that humbles human beings by reminding us of nature’s power. After we’d powered through the mist for another few kilometres, I felt a shaft of light hit the side of my face. The sun was peeping through the thick cloud, and the fog was lifting. It was lifting at the very moment that we reached the Lago della Piazza, meaning we began to see the bright colour of the water and the expansive mountains that surrounded us.
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We descended down into the town of Airolo from here, meeting our riding companions for the day, Dalany and Seb who work for the clothing brand ASSOS. They both had ridden round these roads before, and were ready for the gradients that the Gotthard Pass was about to challenge us with. Cappuccino and croissant in hand, we discussed the climb we had ahead, sharing stories of bike rides past, comparing kit choices for the complicated weather that comes with riding deep in the mountains.
Airolo provided the perfect starting point for our ascent of the Gotthard, it had tiny, narrow roads that kicked up in steep slopes, surrounded by quaint timber buildings that were exactly as I would expect from a Swiss village. Other cyclists congregated in the area too, and we gave them a friendly nod of solidarity: this climb was going to be tough.
I’d had to choose my clothing carefully: at the bottom of the climb in Airolo, the sun was now beating down from the cleared skies, but I knew the summit would be cold, and the descent on the other side would add to this chill. The weather meant I needed kit that sat in between a deep winter outfit and a summer jersey and shorts, and the ASSOS UMA GT Spring/Fall collection fit this bill.
The Half Knickers were lightweight enough to mean I didn’t sweat while we were grinding over some steep gradients, but the brushed inner provided a necessary layer of insulation when I reached the top of the climb and when I was descending. Paired with the UMA GT Spring/Fall Jacket, which has thin material on the arms to aid breathability but a thicker middle section to protect my core, I felt like I’d hit a sweet spot with my kit. The Spring/Fall Gloves and UMA GT Clima Jacket [a thin outer rain jacket and wind shell] was stored in my pocket for emergencies, and for when things got properly chilly on long descents.
Mentally, I'd prepared myself for a tough climb to the summit of the Gotthard. I thought that the cobblestoned surface might make it laborious and that the distance of close to 30 kilometres would be a big ask compared to the short, punchy climbs I was used to riding on in South East London. But when we got going, I found myself lost in the landscape, so enamoured with the beauty that surrounded us that I barely had time to think about any aching in my legs. The conversation in our little group flowed, peaceful background music to the noise of nature – cars and motorbikes were few and far between on the climb, thanks largely to the Gotthard tunnel which provides an alternative route for other road users.
We reached the summit before I had even really had a chance to comprehend the effort. The switchbacks in the road had given me a chance to vary my technique and ensured things didn’t get boring: I was out of the saddle in the steeper parts and back in it as the road was straight again.
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We felt a sense of achievement as we reached the top, rewarding ourselves with a Coke and pastry, as well as panoramic views of the surrounding area. I noticed gravel paths that skirted through the mountains themselves, and made a mental note to come back with knobby tyres one day. As expected, the temperature dropped quickly as the sweat that we’d built up during the climb dried and we wrapped up in more layers as we chatted and met others at the top of the mountain. To a man who was bike-packing through Switzerland from Germany, a gaggle of teenagers on a school trip, the woman working behind in the food truck to make the cheese and sausage that the area is well-known for.
I was sad to leave the iconic Gotthard, but I knew that there was plenty of fun which still lay ahead of us: the descent. Zooming down the winding roads gave me a sense of freedom which is hard to find elsewhere: the cold air whipped my face and I concentrated on nailing the apex of the bends, gaining speed and feathering the brakes. My bike, Argonaut’s new RM3 road model, was the perfect tool for the job. It responded well to every little movement I asked of it, making me feel comfortable and trust it, with the perfect balance of stiffness and flexibility. It was lightweight enough to take me up the inclines, but really came into its own as the road went down.
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As we approached the end of the ride, we cycled through Andermatt’s old town, surrounded by proud Swiss flags waving in the breeze, pots housing brightly coloured flowers, and ski chalets sitting pretty in formation. We were in search of sustenance following our ride, which was nearing the five hour mark, and found a pizzeria to replenish our stores. In the dappled sunlight, we reflected on a beautiful day of bike riding, sipping the local beer and feeling lucky to have experienced such a magnificent part of the world.
Later on, once we’d returned to the hotel for a shower, we had dinner at Andermatt’s Restaurant Biselli, fittingly located in the Piazza Gottardo. Homemade bread and chocolate, as well as pasta made with ingredients from the local area, was the perfect end to our adventure.
Returning to the high-rise buildings and grey landscapes of London the next day was a harsh reality, and, when my mind wandered at my desk, I was transported back to the dreamland that is Andermatt and the Swiss Alps. As I closed my eyes I could almost feel the fresh mountain air, see the snow-capped peaks kissing the azure skies. I can see why Samih Sawiris fell in love with the area when he first visited it all those years ago, and why he had the drive to encourage more people to discover Andermatt and the Swiss Alps’ beauty. All that remains for me is planning when I can next return, to conquer a different Pass, to feel the freedom of the mountains once more, to explore more of a landscape that, fundamentally, is one of the finest that nature has to offer.
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