Some interesting mountain passes - Part 3
Italy is an ideal country for motorcycling, with 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 museum at Mandelo del Lario.
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, the more adventurous can always head towards the Tunnel de Fréjus, turning off for Bardonécchia.
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 it has become badly rutted. Although it has been climbed by large touring motorcycles such as the K100LT, remember that you also have to ride the same machine home! Although challenging, this road is used for the Stella Alpina Rally, an event started by the BMW Club’s Italian member, Mario Artusio, who has ridden his R90S to the summit of most alpine passes. The Stella medallion, awarded to those who make the full climb, has been won by many riders of genuine touring machines, such as Dave Fox-Spencer on his K100LT!
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 into north-western Italy is probably the Petit St. Bernard pass. Starting at Sees, near Bourg St. Maurice, the road winds upwards to la Rosière (1,864 metres – stay in the Hotel le Solaret) and so to the pass. This leads to Aosta, from which the S27 road is signposted for the Traforo della Gran. S. Bernardo, otherwise known as the St. Bernard Tunnel. Unless the weather is poor, or you enjoy travelling in a concrete tube, continue past the entrance to the tunnel, and begin climbing the mountain road.
It is a long but undemanding climb 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 riders (and cyclists) 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 will do so from Switzerland, via the Bernina Pass, heading for the motorcyclists’ playground 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 aprés 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.
Those with a good head for heights should leave Bormio on the S300 , heading for Sta. Caterina Valfurve, after which the road climbs sharply to the Gavia Pass. This little road is another of Michelin’s ‘Routes difficile ou dangereuse’ but presents few problems for motorcyclists. With hairpin bends and a few gravel areas this little road clings to the side of a mountain, and at one point becomes a narrow ledge cut from the stone. The views are magnificent, the traffic light, and the memories everlasting.
The Stelvio Pass
Bormio is also 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 Pass - approaching the summit
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. At the summit – if you can fight your way through the posturing motorcyclists – is a good hotel and restaurant, with sweeping views across the surrounding mountains.
Remember that this area was Austrian before WW1, and the old language remains the preferred tongue. Italian, however, is accepted!
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. The Monte Giovo is a stiff climb to 2,094 metres, passing through a dense forest before running along a cliff face. Although motorcyclists will have no problems, this road can give car drivers a few worries, as in places the road is quite narrow, where one can meet large trucks and coaches, the drivers of which seldom anticipate other traffic.
Local bikes – Puch two-stroke twin seen at a lunchtime stop
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 road in ten minutes that in an entire year on our country roads, the parking areas of the many small restaurants being filled with very interesting machinery.
The Timmelsjoch is another unofficial motorcycle sport road, as most car drivers – and all coach or camper drivers – are discouraged by the series of narrow tunnels and 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!
The well-surfaced road climbs above the forest through innumerable hairpins into the snow line, until a straight but very wet tunnel leads you to the summit at 2,474 metres, and the inevitable café. Some Italian riders 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 one-day motorcycle 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 is, however, a rewarding country for the motorcyclist, and we will look at its passes on another occasion.
Article and photos by Mike Fishwick - first published in the BMW Club Journal