Michaela Merz

What do you do when it rains in Ticino? – Sasso San Gottardo

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I’m not an anxious person but the strong wind that woke me up during our holidays at night did have an effect on me. It didn’t feel like a view out of the window but more like watching a movie about natural disasters on the telly. Somehow everything was moving even when it was meant to be still. When branches, lots of leaves and clothing items flew through the air it was still understandable, but when I saw how the wind lifted the metal deckchairs up into the air and threw them into the swimming pool, I started to feel a little queasy.

The following day was grey and foggy. It had been raining non-stop and even if it wasn’t cold, the outdoor activities were simply too dangerous due to the thunder and lightning. Two teenagers 13 and 14 years old were in my care. TV and electrical gadgets weren’t an option and I also didn’t want to go to the indoor swimming pool. I flicked through the local travel guide, unfortunately it didn’t help me find the right solution. I tried Google – ‘what do you do on a rainy day in Ticino’ but even Google wasn’t helpful. ‘Outdoor Swiss Miniature’ or the ‘outdoor show of wild birds’ didn’t seem very suitable.

So we did an excursion to what for decades had been one of the best kept secrets in Switzerland. The military fortress at Gotthard. It is one of the biggest underground defence systems, which was built in the year of 1941. The ordnance factory ‘Sasso da Pigna’ was built as part of the ‘Réduit-plan’ by General Guisan.

In September 1944 the four 15 cm cannon with a range of 23,5 km were added. With this they could shoot either to Ulrichen (VS), Formazza (Italy) or all the way to Scopi (Lukmanier) and Pizzo Campo Tencia. This system was ready for use until 1998.

The entrance fee is expensive – Adults pay CHF 25, but I imagine that the income of the museum isn’t covered at all by revenue. You get swallowed by an underground labyrinth. Outside it wasn’t really warm with about 14 Degrees Celsius. In the inner part of the fortress it was even colder with 8 Degrees Celsius. The museum is prepared for badly equipped visitors, just like we were, and gave us fleece jackets.

In front of us there were endless small corridors, logistical infrastructures such as a kitchen, hospital rooms and accommodation. In the upper part, which was connected to the lower part by a kilometre-long tunnel were the accommodation structures for the gun crew, munitions magazines and inbuilt ordnance with canons. Both levels were connected by 400 stairs. For the transport between the two levels there is a small elevator, which also transports the visitors between the areas.

I don’t understand much about the military but apart from the Second World War I never really had an interest in the army, military, weapons or war. I wasn’t really able to understand the strategy that led to the construction of the complex. I envisioned the arduous life here in the inner part of the mountain without daylight. I had to think about the men that had left their lives at the building site.

I tried to imagine what you could use the money for which was eaten up by the construction (some sources speak of over 10 million, others of over 110 million – incredible amounts for the 2nd World War.) I thought this place was impressive, highly interesting, very dark and at the same time depressing. My two teens were interested. They liked the cannons and the crystals that were on display.

No, I didn’t fancy sleeping here for a single night. It would take a tremendous amount of effort for me to work in this place but I have a lot of respect for all the people that did so, (or had to do so) or do so today. As a witness of history of the 20th century it is worth visiting it. And please think about it, the complex is huge, you should plan for at least four hours. After the visit I felt gratitude. Gratitude that such complexes aren’t needed anymore, gratitude for the people who built it, gratitude for the world I live in.

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