The legendary Simplon
Toot-to-tooot. One hundred years ago, the Postbus conquered Switzerland – thanks to the mountain route over the Simplon Pass to Laax, in the canton of Graubünden. We joined Pius Allenbach on his journey over the pass in the canton of Valais.
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The first journey
“My first journey over the Simplon? That was 37 years ago,” says Pius Allenbach, cracking a mischievous smile. The Postbus driver from Brig knows every corner and every turn on the mountain road that winds its way up from Brig over the Ganter Bridge to the hospice, at an altitude of 2,005 metres above sea level, before continuing south to the village of Simplon and through the Gondoschlucht gorge to Domodossola. The journey takes an hour and 45 minutes and includes 33 stops.
It is the end of May and snow is piled up high on either side of the road. “It only melts in high summer,” explains Pius Allenbach. The three-storey Simplon Hospice stands majestically at the top of the pass. The laying of the foundation stone of the largest hospice in the Swiss Alps dates back to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, and work was completed in 1831 by the monks of the Great St Bernard hospice.
Cannon road and first stagecoach route
It was the French emperor who oversaw the creation of a safe route through the pass. Because he wanted to take his cannons south, he needed a proper road. After six years of construction work, the 60-kilometre Simplon road was inaugurated in 1806. Shortly after, the first stagecoaches made their way over the Simplon Pass, which was the first pass in history to be conquered by the mail coaches.
Pius Allenbach feels a special connection to the famous figure of French history: “I grew up on Napoleonstrasse in Brig-Glis.” Now 61, he joined Swiss Post as a mail carrier when he was a young man. “After a couple of years, I wanted to do something new. I got my HGV licence and switched to the Postbus,” he recounts. “First I worked in the garage before becoming a driver.” Today, Pius is the longest serving member of the Brig municipal operation.
At home in the mountains
“My job has changed considerably”. In the past, I also carried parcels and newspapers. I had more time to chat to the locals. Today, the timetables are stricter.” Pius nevertheless enjoys his job just as much today as he always has. He chats to curious day-trippers, jokes with regulars and takes schoolchildren home who make the daily trip from the village of Simplon to the secondary school in Brig. And he still has time for a coffee – there is always someone he knows there.
Under the watchful eyes of the eagle
Standing proudly on a hill above the pass road is the famous stone eagle. The eight-metre-high monument is a memorial to the deployment of the Swiss border patrol during World War Two. Soldiers can still often be seen here – the old hospice with the castle-like Stockalperturm now belongs to the army. It is regularly used as accommodation for artillery soldiers during their reservist exercises.
Pius Allenbach had an unforgettable experience with soldiers during his career as a Postbus driver. “It was winter and we had to take about 400 soldiers up to the pass.” The weather was terrible, a fierce wind was blowing and the snow was falling almost horizontally. “Visibility was zero and the pass was officially closed,” recalls the native of Brig. But this didn’t stop the courageous drivers from reaching the pass: “There was a convoy of ten Postbuses lead by a snow plough.” It was a small miracle that the journey was completed without any incident.”
Smugglers’ trail and salt road
The route south from Valais was already popular in the 17th century – but not for convivial tourist trips. Back then, smugglers made the adventurous journey through the steep Gondoschlucht gorge on foot with cigarettes and sugar crammed into their backpacks, destined for Italy.
Trotting in the opposite direction would be the pack animals of the famous trader from Brig, Kaspar Jodok von Stockalper, who transported salt from the Mediterranean via the Simplon road.
The Simplon line is considered to be the most attractive route across the Alps. It is an opinion that Pius Allenbach shares. “The magnificent mountain scenery never fails to amaze me,” he says with clear enthusiasm. And when he arrives in Domodossola, he feels as if he is on holiday. “I amble through the picturesque old town and treat myself to a plate of pasta before heading back to Brig.” And he always looks forwards to being back on the road over the mountain.
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Copyright: © Michael Sieber