On the trail of General Suvorov
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Travel writer Ron Smith follows in the footsteps of a Russian general who led his army over the Alps in the dead of winter with the French giving chase. Step back in time with this fascinating tale and enjoy today’s breath-taking scenery .......
The Saint Gotthard Pass in Switzerland is a larger than life European landmark. The Alps form an impenetrable barrier between north and south, with one possible way through – the Gotthard, where for centuries man has struggled up and over – in the summer months only.
From the beauty of the lake at Luzern, the railway line up to the summit tunnel is a voyage that has to be done, even if you are not a railway fan. The train surges ahead, constantly twisting and turning with incredible panoramas on one side or another. It runs into spiral tunnels, and at one place, Wassen, the village church, with its typically onion shaped dome, is passed three times on different levels and on different sides of the train as it crosses the valley and spirals through tunnels.
At the mouth of the famous Gotthard summit tunnel is the station and village of Goschenen. Here trains used to stop to let the locomotives refill with water, while the passengers mobbed the renowned restaurant rooms for a remarkable service of several hundred three course lunches being served in no time at all. In the station forecourt, hemmed in by mountain, is the start of another railway, this one is metre gauge.
The trains set off to climb an amazing gradient up over the tunnel mouth of the main line, and grind on through lengthy avalanche shelters and into a tunnel. As it emerges from the tunnel, you are crossing the Schollenen Gorge, one of those bare grey rock crevasses that Switzerland specialises in.
The old road had to come up here, and the difficulty was building a bridge to cross this crevasse. You just have to be amazed at how they managed to build this perilous bridge across such a depth, with the river raging beneath. Eventually the builders had no option but to make a pact with the devil. The devil would help them, but the first soul that crossed the bridge would belong to the devil. This was agreed, and the bridge finally constructed.
The devil was very happy and waited for someone to cross, but they sent a goat over first. The devil was so furious that he hurled a massive rock, the size of a big house, down the valley. The rock is unmissable, and sits next to Goschenen station today, with a Swiss flag and a Canton flag on the top.
Next to the devil’s bridge is a huge monument carved into the raw rock, which commemorates the battle in September 1799 when the Russian General Suvorov (or Suworow) smashed his way through a French army of 8,500 men that was waiting here for him. The monument is on land that has been given to the Russian government, who are responsible for its upkeep.
General Suvorov is still famous in Russia, and is one of the few generals in history to have never lost a battle (which doesn’t mean that he always won!). There are many statues of him in Russia.
It is odd that although General Suvorov didn’t actually do anything for the Swiss, they still remember and celebrate him and his men. There is a Suvorov trail (with the ubiquitous yellow pointed signs on posts marking the way) and a Suvorov Museum at Linthal, in Canton Glarus (see www.1799.ch). I had to follow it up. It may not be the usual tourist thing but what a story.
The Russians and the Austrians were fighting the French. Suvorov and his men had pushed the French out of northern Italy and were now trying to join up with another Russian army near Zurich to counter a large French army. Having dislodged the French from the devil’s bridge, his 21,000 men and 25 big guns descended the Gotthard valley. It is a difficult 23 miles from the pass (2108 metres above sea level – masl) to Altdorf (458 masl) on Lake Lucerne. Altdorf is where there is a big statue of William Tell and his son; where the evil Austrian Gessler made him shoot the apple on his son’s head.
When the Russians arrived, they found that the Austrians had let them down, not left any supplies, and had withdrawn over the mountains. The French had taken all the boats from the lake, and the sides of the lake here are sheer vertical drops of rock faces. There was no way round and 80,000 French soldiers were coming to attack, as they had meanwhile defeated the other Russian army near Zurich. General Suvorov moved on to Schwyz and set up headquarters, and held a council of war in a meadow.
With French soldiers appearing, there was no choice but to try to escape by crossing the Pragel Pass (1,550 masl with peaks on either side rising to 2,300 masl) over to Canton Glarus. This they did, and then moved from Glarus town to Schwanden (525 masl) and set off up the Sernftal. This valley is beautiful. It used to have its own tramway/railway from Schwanden and today an active association is preserving as much as they can and have a museum at Engi.
The Suvorov Way is clearly marked here. The houses in this closed valley are typically dark ancient wood, and have plaques on them describing their history. One, at Elm, was built around 1670, modernised in 1748, and states that General Suvorov stayed there for a few days around the 5th October, 1799, while he planned what to do.
There was no option but to continue over the Panixer Pass (2407 masl). There had been a snow fall of some depth, but the soldiers set off, crossed the Pass, and came down to Ilanz, on to Chur and then escaped into friendly Austrian territory and got back to Russia. During this crossing, the Russians lost around 7,000 men and all their guns. There was no food, no firewood, and bitter winter conditions, even though it was just the start of October.
For the local people, it must have been amazing to have this huge army suddenly appear, 18,000 soldiers and 5,000 mounted Cossacks with their wild beards and flowing garments. The army must have eaten everything that there was in the valley, every animal, and used every scrap of wood for fires, then they moved on, leaving a trail of frozen dead soldiers all the way up the valley and over the Pass.
A Suvorov museum is mainly the work of one man, Walter Gähler. It was in part of an old textile factory at Schwanden, now it has moved to the head of the valley at Linthal, re-opened in June 2012. Inside the museum are musket and cannon balls, bayonets, sabres, pictures, maps and many, many relics left behind by the Russians during their desperate retreat. The whole valley is called the Linthal, where lint (flax) used to be grown and processed into linen cloth, and there are still many traces of this once important industry to be seen.
The museum is open from 10am-7pm, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and entry is free. Herr Gähler has built up a superb collection of artefacts. He has personally used a metal detector over at least 40 years, finding coins, musket balls, buttons, medals, and so on. There are also life sized models of the soldiers of the time in their uniforms, documents, letters, and everything to bring to life this hopeless Russian campaign.
In Luzern, at the Glacier Garden, there is a large relief model of the French and Suvorov, depicting this whole episode. This amazing model was created around 1800 by Josef Niederost from Schwyz who witnessed the events. He also cast the individual figures of which there are over 700. There is also the house in Riedern and it is hoped to restore it as another museum to Suvorov. It was here on the 1st of October 1799 that the General held a council of war to decide what he and his army should do.
Although General Suvorov was never defeated, he certainly lost a lot of men and caused havoc and despair to the local people when he retreated across Switzerland. Following his well marked trail would take a few days, good boots, stamina, and good weather. What it must have been like for his men is unimaginable.
That he is so well remembered in Switzerland is remarkable and just one of the fascinating things that you come across away from the main tourist routes. The areas of Switzerland that he crossed are stunningly beautiful, mostly quiet as they are not through routes (even the Gotthard, which has the motorway and the very busy railway is peaceful if you go off the main road, with sleepy villages and friendly people nestling in the almost perpetual shade of their steep mountain sides) and is something to discover.
A Russian army that didn’t actually do anything for the Swiss, apart from causing suffering and distress to the local population, but is so very well celebrated and remembered by them!
If you are in this corner of Switzerland, watch out for the Suvorov signs and think of the 21,000 men passing through. There are many other interesting places and things to do in the area; for example, in the summer months a Post Bus leaves the railway station at Linthal and goes over the Klausen Pass (1948 masl) via hairpin bends and spectacular views, to descend to Fluelen at the end of the Lake of Luzern.
Next to the simple station at Linthal is a classic Swiss country hotel. The Hotel Restaurant Bahnhof Linthal dates from 1903, and was renovated in 2008. It is family run, and offers good local food, see www.hotelbahnhof-linthal.ch Getting to this area of Switzerland is easy for us.
Fly to Zurich from Aberdeen or Inverness via Amsterdam, Paris, London, or make it easy and go with Lufthansa from Aberdeen via Frankfurt (see www.lufthansa.com). At the time of writing, they offer the best fares and best connection times. From Zurich airport, the most efficient in Europe, trains run to the main station every few minutes. Hourly trains run direct to Glarus and Linthal (see www.sbb.ch, their national railways) or go to www.myswitzerland.com who will also organise hotels and transfers.
A good tip is to buy a pass. Switzerland is expensive for us – not their fault, their prices hardly ever go up. It is the pound that has sunk. The Swiss are aware of this, and so offer such great things as the Swiss Pass, which gives you free use of all public transport, and many admissions and reductions. One thing for sure is that the Swiss have it all well organised and it all works.
In this area of Switzerland, German is the language (with their own strong dialect) but English is spoken everywhere, even in the highest mountains there are always toilets and a café or restaurant. It really is the ideal place to spend a holiday. The Linthal valley, with the towering mountains on both sides, is not so well known by tourists, it is a great place to discover.