In Swiss utopia, the devil dwelled
While the Golzernsee hike does not end with edibles, it does lead to a 6km hike over chalet-strewn meadows, where the clanging bells of grazing cows echo across valleys. To access it, head to Bristen’s cable-car station in the valley of Maderanertal. There, the Golzernseilbahn cable car (13 francs return) ascends over green pasture and steep brushy trenches before arriving at the Golzernsee trailhead. The trail is lined with honour-system huts hawking locally quarried quartz and crystals with prices as low as five francs. Golzernsee itself is a small alpine lake in a glacial trough, perfect for summer swims and picnics. Within yodelling distance is the cosy Golzernsee Restaurant and Gasthouse (with rooms from 52 francs, including breakfast), a weathered inn with red-checked curtains and wood walls, run by local Walti Jauch and his 10 sisters. Its rooms lack televisions, but the wild blueberry sundaes, intense alpenglühen and glittery night skies make up for it.
Uri’s southern tip is home to the mighty Gotthard Massif mountain range and the historic trans-alpine St Gotthard Pass, used by Celts for centuries, ignored by Romans and discovered again by Lombards around 569AD. This is also the meeting-point of Switzerland's four linguistic regions, and the source of the Rivers Rhine and Rhône. Here, the landscape is rockier, lonelier and veined with extensive tunnels and caves. To put it in Tolkien terms, it’s the Moria Mines to Urnersee’s Rivendell.
Hikes take an especially sinister turn on the 1km Schöllenen Gorge circular trail, which overlooks a waterfall-laced canyon said to be created by the devil. The waterfall is crossed by the Teufelsbrücke (Devil’s Bridge), technically three generations of bridges built atop one another in different centuries – the ruined 1232 bridge, the 1820 bridge (now a footpath) and the currently used 1958 bridge. “The devil created the bridge for the people under the condition that the first soul to cross became his property. But the locals sent a goat instead,” Herger told me as we crossed the bridge, which has been painted by Turner and written about by Goethe. “This angered the devil so much he threw a giant boulder into the valley, creating the impassable gorge.” Swiss ingenuity got the last laugh, however, as the 220-ton Devil’s Stone was removed in 1977 to make way for a new road. This loop also passes through the Sasso San Gottardo, a demilitarised tunnel that is part of a network of clandestine Swiss Army caves and tunnels built into the mountain and used as bunkers during WWII and the Cold War. Many are now open to hikers and make for a fascinating, if dank, subterranean tour of a world rarely seen.
Despite Uri’s tranquillity, the trails are relatively easy to access from Zürich. Follow Route 4 south for 62km; the historic Axenstrasse winds gloriously for 13km around the turquoise Lake Uri. Just across the water, and reachable by steamship, is Rütli-Meadow, site of the Confœderatio Helvetica oath.
But don’t expect this part of Switzerland to stay crowd-free forever. Uri’s Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest tunnel at 57km and connecting the Swiss towns of Erstfeld and Bodio, has already been dug and should open to train passengers in 2016, the same year that a new high-speed rail service to Italy should also finish. Meanwhile, the 1.8 billion franc Andermatt project, financed by Egyptian property developer Samih Sawiris, has transformed Andermatt, a former military town in Canton Uri’s southern end, into a mega-resort with six new hotels, including the plush Chedi Hotel, which debuted in December 2013 with onsen-style thermal baths and a fireside ski bar. The resort is expected to open new golf courses, ski-lifts, restaurants and residential units – and of course, draw new tourists – in 2014. It’s a welcome addition to the region, but Uri’s best assets will always be its peace and quiet – and to experience that, the time is now.