From Mike Fishwick
How I found it: Exploring
Where it is: Italy
Estimated distance: varies
Italy is an ideal country for those who like good views, interesting roads, excellent food, and charming people. Nowhere is this more apparent than in northern Italy, an area of lakes and mountains which is home to some of Europe’s best passes, not to mention the Moto Guzzi motorcycle museum at Mandello del Lario, on the eastern coast of Lake Como. Italy is a nation where the worship of fast cars is widespread, and any BMW driver will feel at home – particularly if driving a red Z3!
For those travelling into Italy from the south of France or Spain a popular route is the Col du Montgenèvre, a very scenic road only a few miles east of Briançon. Although this area of Italy is without much in the way of mountain roads, adventurous X5 drivers (are there any?) can always head towards the Tunnel de Fréjus, turning off for Bardonècchia.
From here a minor road – classified by Michelin as a ‘Route difficile ou très dangerous’ – will take the more intrepid traveller on a staggering climb over an unsurfaced road to its end at the Point del Sommelier, which at 3,350 metres is the highest road in Europe. This road, unfortunately, has become a favourite for the 4X4 brigade, with the result that some parts have become badly rutted. Although challenging, this road is used every year for the Stella Alpina Rally, an event for road-going motorcycles started by the BMW Club’s Italian member, Mario Artusio.
If this road does not discourage you, there is another ‘Difficile ou très dangerous’ road in this area, which runs from Sestriere to Susa . . . but don’t say I didn’t warn you!
The most popular route for normal cars into north-western Italy is probably the Petit St. Bernard pass. Starting near Bourg St. Maurice, this little road leads towards Aosta, and the Traforo della Gran. S. Bernardo, otherwise known as the St. Bernard Tunnel. Unless the weather is very poor, or you enjoy travelling in a concrete tube, continue past the entrance to the tunnel, and begin climbing the mountain road.
A succession of hairpins will take you to the summit at 2,469 metres, where the Swiss border signifies the end of what is clearly regarded by local riders as an unofficial motorcycle sport road. The Italian motorcyclists overtake with no care for oncoming traffic or reduced visibility, but very few accidents seem to take place. One can spend an enjoyable lunchtime sitting by the roadside watching the motorcyclists – it’s rather like being a spectator at the Isle of Man TT!
It must be admitted that, apart from the Grand St. Bernard, the majority of interesting Italian passes are in the Tyrol, the area which – before WW1 – was part of Austria. Most tourists who enter this part of Italy from Switzerland will do so from the Bernina Pass, heading for the winding roads around the Austrian border.
Unless you are addicted to tobacco, avoid the Forcala di Livigno (2,315 metres) road through duty-free Livigno, as the traffic can be fast and erratic, resembling the French at their après déjeuner worst. Head south instead, towards Tirano, and then take the road northwards to Bormio. A really good hotel can be found a little way along this road, at Grisio, where the Albergo Sassella can be heartily recommended, as can the Hotel Terme at Bormio.
The area to the east of Bormio is filled with small and torturous roads, and with a good map you can spend a day happily exploring some of forgotton Italy.
Bormio is the starting point for the Stelvio Pass (Stilfser Joch in Austrian) which is probably the finest road in Europe – if not the world! This well-surfaced road winds like a rattlesnake along the side of a mountain range, climbing to 2,757 metres in some seventy-five bends. Just before the summit is a junction leading into Switzerland via the Umbrail Pass, which can be used to by-pass the northern section of the Stelvio, where the snow is sometimes not cleared until mid-July.
The Stelvio was used as part of the old Alpine Rally, and several sections of the original road still exist, making good areas for photographs, lunch, or admiring the climb you have just made. Parking areas are provided on the right, just before the summit. At the summit is a good hotel and restaurant, with sweeping views across the surrounding mountains.
The northern Stelvio lacks the grandeur and magnificent surface of the southern climb, but its seventy-odd bends are still memorable, and form a natural route towards Merano. The road passes through Naturno, where an excellent lunch can be obtained at the Hotel Schnalserhof, before taking the S44 from Merano to San Leonardo i Passo.
From St. Leonardo most people will use the Jaufen Pass (Passo del Monte Giovo) to reach the Brenner Pass (not really worthy of the name!) or the autobahn, heading towards Innsbruck. This direction will first lead to the Monte Giovo, a stiff climb to 2,094 metres, which passes through a dense forest before running along a cliff face. This road can provide a few worries, as in places it is quite narrow, and the drivers of large trucks and coaches seldom anticipate other traffic.
Those who seek more than a direct route to Austria, however, will turn off at St. Leonardo towards the Timmelsjoch Pass. You will see more motorcyclists on this winding road in ten minutes that in an entire year on UK roads, the parking areas of the many small restaurants being filled with very interesting machinery.
The Timmelsjoch is another unofficial motorcycle sport road, and was used a test route during the initial development running of the Z3, which may be the reason I have driven it for the last four years! Most car drivers – and all coach or camper drivers – are discouraged by the series of narrow tunnels with overhanging spurs of sharp rock.
Needless to say, caravans are forbidden. Even the innumerable hairpins require care – on our first visit we saw a new Audi A4 whose driver had obviously misjudged a bend. A large score began just behind the nearside front wheel, becoming deeper, until it bent the door pillar and punched a hole in the rear door! This road demands constant vigilance, and it is only while posing for the inevitable photographs outside the tunnel near the summit that one is able to relax.
The well-surfaced road climbs above the forest through innumerable hairpins into the snow line, until the straight but very wet tunnel leads you to the summit at 2,474 metres, and the inevitable café. Some Italian motorcyclists make this climb several times a day, but onward travel into Austria requires the payment of a toll (about 3 Euros) before the twisting descent towards Sölden.
Hotel accommodation in these areas is, of course, widely available, and local knowledge is always worth having. In this connection several small hotels close to the Italian-Austrian border provide details of one-day tours for their guests around the local passes. These establishments collectively market themselves as www.motorrad-hotels.com.
Leaving Italy for Austria is always a sad affair, as apart from the Gross Glöckner, the Austrians do not have anything to really compare with the mountain passes of Italy. It can, however, be a rewarding country for those who enjoy twisting roads, and we will look at its passes on another occasion.
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jackal on PH wrote:i love your profile... an endless pornographic paroxysm of the letters BMW
do you actually like driving at all or are cars to you just a manifestation of some sort of pathological mother complex ?
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