Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 13

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XXXV, 12 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXV, 14

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXV, chapter 13
TThe Schöllenen Gorge – Devil’s Bridge

Having crossed the Priest’s Leap bridge, and rounded the hillock of Wasen village, the right bank of the Reuss is regained; on either side waterfalls show white among the grassy slopes extending like green tapestries above the traveller’s head. Through a defile you can see the Ranz glacier which is linked to the glaciers of the Furca.

Finally, you enter the Schöllenen Gorge, where the first ascent of the Saint-Gothard begins. The valley is a two thousand foot steeple cut in a sheer granite block. The faces of the block form gigantic overhanging walls. The mountains offer no more than their flanks and their blazing reddened crests. The Reusse thunders down its vertical bed, strewn with rocks. A fragment of some turret bears witness to former days, as if nature here accuses the forgotten centuries. Suspended in the air by walls along the granite mass, the road, a motionless torrent, runs parallel to the living torrent of the Reuss. Here and there, masonry archways provide the traveller with shelter from avalanches; then one winds for several yards through a kind of twisting funnel, and suddenly, in one of the spirals of the conch, you find yourself facing the Devil’s Bridge.

The bridge today cuts through the arch of the new bridge higher up, built behind and overlooking it; the old bridge thus transformed looks like nothing more than a short aqueduct with two tiers. The new bridge, when one approaches from Switzerland, hides the descending falls. To enjoy the cascade’s rainbows and spray, you must stand on the bridge; but when one has seen Niagara there are no other falls like them. My memory endlessly compares episodes from my travels, mountains with mountains, rivers with rivers, forests with forests, and my life consumes my life. The same thing happens in respect of men and society.

Modern roads, which the Simplon exemplifies and effaces, do not achieve the picturesque effects of the older roads. The latter, more natural and more daring, avoided no difficulty; they barely skirted the courses of torrents; they climbed and descended with the terrain, mounted the rocks, plunged over precipices, passed beneath snowfields, taking nothing from the delights of the imagination and the joys of danger. The old Saint-Gothard route for example was much more adventurous than the present one. Devil’s Bridge merited its name, when on approaching it one saw the cascading Reuss above it, and that it traced out a gloomy arc, or rather a narrow defile through the bright spray of the falls. Then, at the end of the bridge, the road climbed vertically, to reach the chapel whose ruins are still visible. At least the inhabitants of Uri had the pious notion of building a chapel other than the cascade itself.

Then, it was not men like us who once crossed the Alps, it was the Barbarian hordes or the Roman legions. It was caravans of merchants, knights, mercenaries, campaigners, pilgrims, prelates and monks. Strange stories are told: Who built the Devil’s Bridge? Who placed the Devil’s Rock in the meadow at Wasen? Here and there rise turrets; crucifixes, oratories, monasteries, and hermitages, guarding the memory of an invasion, an encounter, a miracle or a misfortune. Each mountain tribe retained its own language, dress, manners, and customs. It is true that in a wilderness one lacks an excellent inn; there is no champagne to drink; no newspapers to read; but if there are a few more thieves on the Saint-Gothard, there are merely a few less rogues in society. What a wonderful thing civilisation is! That pearl I leave to the first fine jeweller.

Suvorov and his soldiers were the last to travel this defile, at the end of which they encountered Masséna.