Discover Ticino: Historic fortification of Sasso San Gottardo and the cheese fondue
Servizio relazioni internazionali e mobilità
9 Ottobre 2018
On Saturday, October 6, we invited our newly arrived exchange students to discover the beauty of Ticino. 30 students took part in the first off-campus social activity of this academic year, which brought them to the top of the Gotthard Pass inside the historic fortifications of Sasso San Gottardo.
The group left Lugano on a sunny Saturday afternoon, with a mild autumn weather. After a 2-hour ride, we reached the top of the Gotthard pass, 2106 m above sea level, where a much cooler breeze welcomed us off the bus.
The Gotthard Pass lies at the hearth of the Gotthard, an important north-south axis in Europe, and is it crossed by three major traffic tunnels, each being the world's longest at the time of their construction: the Gotthard Rail Tunnel (1882), the Gotthard Road Tunnel (1980) and the Gotthard Base Tunnel (2016). The latter is also the world’s longest and deepest railway tunnel, with a length of 57.1 km.
The Gotthard is also one of the two main north-south routes through the Swiss Alps. Since the Middle Ages, transit across the Gotthard played an important role in Swiss history, the region north of Gotthard becoming the nucleus of the Swiss Confederacy in the early 14th century.
Once constructed to defend the country and a top-secret location until 2001 (one of the largest and therefore one of the most impressive, underground defensive fortifications in Switzerland) – the Sasso San Gottardo is nowadays a unique Museum inside the impressive and extended tunnels (approx. 2.5 km long!), where visitors can see and learn about the historic fortress, the underground cable car “Metro del Sasso” and the Gotthard Experience World displaying the history and relevance of the Gotthard.
The Sasso San Gottardo fortification was built between 1941 and 1945 as part of a bigger defense project, the “National Redoubt”, started by the Swiss government already in the 1880s.
In the course of WWII, General Henri Guisan developed a strategy to defend Switzerland, knowing that its military resources were limited compared to those of its potential adversaries. In particular, Hitler in the north and Mussolini in the south both had a strong interest in controlling the Alpine passes to supply their war economy. Instead of trying to protect the Swiss borders, and by building a number of fortifications, General Guisan decided to secure the alpine arch and its roads and railway tunnels, considered of strategic importance. For example, in 1920s Mussolini built a road up the San Giacomo Pass, turning an insignificant crossing point into a real issue for the Swiss Army: with this road, it would have been very easy for the Italian Army to bring heavy artillery and control the southern access points to the Gotthard.
During the guided tour, the group had the possibility to visit the living spaces of the fort: the canteen, the dining rooms and the dormitories. We learned how life in the fort was organized and how a typical day of the soldiers was like. It was explained that the fort was self-sufficient in terms of water and food supply, and, in case of need, soldiers could survive completely cut off from outside for a period of six months. The fort could host up to 420 men.
The second part of the tour included the visit of the combat position and the gun rooms, where visitors can still see the two cannons in a fire-ready state. It is interesting to note that the gunners did not need a visual contact with the target: the trajectory (azimuth and elevation) was calculated with special (and manual!) instruments (the firing data calculators) by officers who received coordinates from observers in the field. These instruments are still on display at the exhibition.
The fort remained in a state of combat readiness until 1998. In the meantime, the Federal Department of the Military selected eight out of the 73 fortresses to be preserved as monuments of national importance. The selection included the Sasso San Gottardo. The Fondazione Sasso San Gottardo was set up with the task to preserve this historic site. In 2001, the veil of military secrecy was lifted.
After the guided tour, students could familiarize with one of Switzerland’s most iconic dishes: the cheese fondue. The Caseificio del Gottardo, a local cheese factory that also hosts a restaurant, is the perfect place to enjoy the famous melted cheese with potatoes and bread and to buy local cheese and a number of other specialties from the region.
More information: https://www.sasso-sangottardo.ch