“Rose at five o’clock, as cold as a frosty morning in December…ready…to depart on foot to Brig in the Haut Valais (seven leagues). The distance from the village of Simplen to the highest point of the Pass is nearly two leagues.” –Dorothy Wordsworth, in her Journal of a Tour on the Continent (1820)
I’m not going to lie. I had a breakdown this morning and took the train from Sion to Brig. When I looked at my map, I realized that the entire day would be spent as the previous one—struggling forward in the sun on a concrete path along the Rhone. I had a blister oozing all along my right heel, and I woke up feeling unrested from the previous night in the attic. I also felt like I needed to be fresh for the next day, which I hoped would be the most important day of the entire journey: crossing the Simplon Pass. Wordsworth’s Simplon Pass crossing formed the basis for one of the most important moments in his autobiographical poem, The Prelude (1850). Wordsworth and his buddy Robert Jones crossed the Simplon Pass from Brig to Gondo in a single day, and I was hoping to do the same. It’s a distance of 33 kilometers (about 20 miles) over a steep mountain pass. So I arrived in Brig and decided to do some exploring around its narrow alleys and side streets (above), and I also went to a good bookstore, hoping to find some better maps for the upcoming Italy portion of the journey (no luck).
Brig is a cool little mountain town in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Language-wise, I was lost. But I found myself wandering about Brig and just enjoying its old-world feel. The Stockalper Palace—built in 1678—dominates the skyline:
Much of this town revolves around its location at the head of the Simplon Pass. When Napolean built his famous road through the Alps in 1800-1805, the Simplon Pass became a major trade route—silk, salt, etc.—connecting Italy and Switzerland. Restaurants, shops, and roads within Brig will remind you that it is what it is because of the Simplon Pass:
I was worried that I would get lost the next morning on my way out of town, so I searched out trailhead. It was brilliantly signposted, as most Swiss trails are. The “Stockalperweg” is the name of this historic footpath from Brig to Gondo, commemorating the Stockalper family and their role in this area’s politics and commerce.
From my location on the outskirts of the town, I could also see the modern road that goes over the Simplon Pass. This road is a major engineering feat. At some points, it is built into the side of the mountain, and it eventually winds up and down along the very tight Gondo Gorge, though which I would walk the next day.
It felt too strange to bivouac in the middle of Brig’s RV campsite, so I ended up finding a room to stay in. For the eve in Brig, I basically washed my stinky clothes in the sink of my run-down hotel room and went out to eat while they drip-dried in the shower. Mulled over maps for the next day’s Simplon Pass crossing before going to bed…
Note: this post is one in a series of posts about my recent attempt to retrace William Wordsworth’s footsteps from Chamonix, France to Como, Italy on the walking holiday the poet took with his friend Robert Jones in 1790.