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Images of our Crossing of the Alps

The next stage of our journey was a big change of atmosphere...on this day we would be crossing the Alps by way of St. Gotthard Pass. Italy has always been isolated from northern Europe, the Alps providing a nearly impassable barrier to travel. The weather was cooler, and we even saw a few droplets of rain during the on the thumbnails below for a full-sized picture!

St. Gotthard Pass

  File name Description
Lugano Lake Early in the day we passed through Milan, and started up the long Levantina Valley. We passed several beautiful resort lakes, including Como, and the one seen here, Lake Lugano.


Lugano Lake Like Garda, Lugano and the other lakes were shaped and deepened by the four glacial ice ages that effected this region. With the southern sun exposure, the climate of the lakes is much warmer than other parts of the Alps, and these lakes are favorite vacation destinations for Italians and northern Europeans alike.


Peaks in the clouds at Bellinzona We crossed the frontier into Switzerland long before we reached the pass. Switzerland actually extends over the Alps, and far into the drainage of the upper Po River upstream of Italy. Many of the residents in the area are culturally and linguistically Italian. We stopped for lunch at a roadside rest in a village called Bellinzona.


Monastery near Bellinzano Beautiful hanging valleys revealed waterfalls, which formed as the main trunk glacier cut a deeper valley than the branch glaciers.  Scenic towers and monasteries were present throughout the region. This was probably near Monte Carasso.
Bellinzano Below the rest area there was a flower bedecked meadow next to the river. It was one of the coolest, greenest places we had yet seen during this hot July journey!
Limestone cliffs As we drove further up the valley, huge outcrops of limestone became visible...these were once deposits on the floor of the Tethys Sea, a forerunner to the Mediterranean Sea that was destroyed when the African plate crashed into the southern European plate.
Upper Levantina Valley  

As we approached the head of the Valle Levantina, the mountains along the high crest of the Alps came into view. Some of the peaks here approach elevations exceeding 3,000 meters. Our road can be seen switchbacking up the mountain in the center of the picture.


Upper Levantina Valley  

The shape of the mountains here is more angular. Instead of being scoured by the passage of glaciers, these peaks were the source of the glaciers, and were never covered. The glaciers pluck rocks from the sides and edges, forming cliffs, aretes, and horns. No active glaciers are in evidence here...the site was chosen for travel because it was lower, and ice-free during the summer. A few tens of miles to the west, at the Jungfrau, the peaks exceed 4,000 meters, and are mantled with glaciers that are many miles long.


Upper Levantina Valley This is not to say that it doesn't snow at these elevations. The long, glacially-steepened valleys are under the constant danger of avalanches. These structures are designed to increase the stability of snow banks on these high ridges.
Approaching St. Gotthard Pass St. Gotthard Pass first opened for travel in the 12th century, with the completion of a bridge over a particularly rugged gorge on the north side. A railway tunnel circumvented the pass in 1882, and in 1980, a 10.5 mile long automobile tunnel was opened. This was the third longest of its type in the world at the time. A railway tunnel currently under construction will be 35 miles long, and will be the longest in the world.
Approaching St. Gotthard Pass  

Two paved roads still cross the pass, an older cobblestone pathway (visible in the previous photo), and a more modern highway. It is an important alternative when the tunnel is closed for various reasons (a truck collision and explosion in 2001 killed eleven people). Our bus driver was kind enough to take us over the pass, and we enjoyed an spectacular view of the Valle Levantina (and a view of a few thousand feet straight down under the highway!).


The View from St. Gotthard Pass We stopped at a lookout point near the summit of the pass and explored for a few minutes, taking in a glorious view. Looking south over the Valle Levantina, we could see the long u-shaped valley left behind by the glaciers.
The View from St. Gotthard Pass The slightly wider view shown here includes the village of Airolo, where the railway and auto tunnels disappear into the mountain
The View from St. Gotthard Pass Looking further to the east. The roof over the highway is an avalanche shelter.
Gneiss The rocks that make up the highest part of the Alps are composed of highly metamorphosed rocks, brought up from deep in the crust during the collision of Africa and Europe. These were a sharp contrast to the limestones and shales that we saw in the Apennines.
The Rock Shop! What a great place for a rock shop! Although I have to admit, it was hard taking precious minutes from the view to see what they have for sale. But the sign was pretty cool to see!
Near the top of the Alps! The summit of the pass lies at an elevation of 2,108m (6,916 ft). Your webmaster is not that big on posting photos of himself, but I couldn't pass up my greatest geological moments: this was one, reaching the summit of the Alps for the first time!
The Val Tremona This switchbacking road, in the Val Tremona ("Valley of Trembling"), is a cobblestone path constructed between 1827 and 1830 over the actual summit of St. Gotthard Pass. It is preserved today as a motorbike and equestrian road. Tourist can also ride on a coach pulled by five horses....if they dare!
Hospental Tower Below St. Gotthard Pass, the road passed through Hospental, at the crossroads of several trans-alpine passes. The area had strategic importance in the 13th century, when the tower was constructed.
Schollenen Gorge Shortly after leaving the village of Andermatt, the road plunged into the rugged Schollenen Gorge, the northward course of the Reuss River.
Medieval Bridge This is one of the ancient bridges over the Reuss River in the Schollenen Gorge. I didn't get a picture of it, but the most famous bridge in this gorge is the Devil's Bridge (the Teufelsbrücke). It got the name from the legendary events surrounding it's construction in the middle ages, when a seemingly insurmountable section of the gorge prevented completion of the road. The devil offered to finish the bridge, at the cost of the first soul to cross it. The crafty townspeople made sure the first to cross was a goat....
Arrival at Lake Lucerne At the end of the day, we had crossed the Alps, to finish our travels at another glacially carved lake on the northern flanks of the range, Lake Lucerne. The weather was overcast, cool, and even rainy. It was a refreshing change! Mt. Pilatus, our main destination on the next day, dominated the skyline from the north shore of the lake.

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