Best roads in Europe
Ever since the Top Gear episode where three rather funny middle-aged men drove three supercars over the Stelvio Pass in Italy and described it as the ‘world’s best driving road’, this alpine pass has been on many people’s bucket list of things to do. So is it really the ‘best road in the world’ for driving?
You may have booked on our banger rally for 2016 or may be taking part in one of the other European car rallies out there. You could even be planning your own independent road trip around Europe and fancy taking in some of the best driving roads there are on offer. You want to know whether to do the Stelvio Pass or not. Well here are our thoughts on the Stelvio Pass and two other passes that we recommend!
The Stelvio Pass
The Stelvio Pass is situated in Italy and at 2757 metres above sea level it is the second highest paved road in the Alps, after the Col de l’Iseran in France which is a mere 7 metres higher.
If you are taking part in our banger rally then you will most likely approach the pass from the north. This way you get to ascend the pass along it’s eastern side and experience the 48 hairpin bends for which the pass is famous, on the way up. In our opinion it is a much better experience than heading down those switchbacks and probably less scary too. Before reaching the bottom of the pass you will drive through some rather pleasant stretches of alpine forest with some very enjoyable sweeping bends.
The Stelvio Pass
If you intend on doing this pass on a weekend in the summer, then if you can, do it around sunrise before everyone else gets there. To say that it is busy is an understatement, particularly when the weather is nice. There are literally hundreds of cars, motorbikes and cyclists all making their way to the top. It certainly will not be like it was on ‘Top Gear’ with an empty road ahead.
Luckily for those taking part in the Motoscape banger rally, we hit the pass on a Tuesday morning at the end of the summer season, so although there will still be plenty of cars around, it will certainly be a more pleasurable drive.
The gravelled section of the Umbrail Pass
An alternative route to the top is via the Umbrail Pass, again from the north. This route takes you across the border from Italy into Switzerland and then back into Italy near the top of the pass. There are plenty of hairpin bends along this route which is a lot narrower than the Stelvio Pass. There is also a 2 km gravelled section part way up, which is fine as long as you take it steady. There are some great views as you make your way to the top and it is a lot quieter than the Stelvio Pass. The pass joins the Stelvio Pass just before the steepest section on the western side of the Stelvio.
A good option for those doing our road trip through Europe is to head up the Umbrail Pass before turning left at the top and heading up to the top of the Stelvio before coming down the eastern side of the pass and onto Trento.
Top of the Stelvio Pass
Once at the top of the Stelvio Pass you just have to stop and take in the atmosphere. It’s certainly the most built up high mountain summit that we have visited, with numerous bars, café’s, restaurants and souvenir shops.
The Timmelsjoch Pass
The Timmelsjoch Pass connects the Ötztal valley in the Austrian state of Tyrol to the Passeier Valley in the Italian province of South Tyrol. It rises to a peak of 2509 metres above sea level, which makes it Austria’s highest international border. From the Austrian side to the north it is a toll road.
The beauty of the Timmelsjoch Pass
Although this pass is lower than the Stelvio Pass it is no less spectacular. They wouldn’t be able to charge a toll if there wasn’t something really worth seeing and this is soon evident, as the road winds it’s way up the mountain through some spectacular scenery. With around 60 bends including a dozen or so hairpins it’s a driving pleasure.
There are five architectural sculptures situated at various stopping points on the journey, two on the Austrian side, called ‘Walkway’ and ‘Smuggler’ and two on the Italian side ‘Telescope’ and ‘Garnets’. These provide information on the natural surroundings and history of the area. ‘Walkway’ is situated at the tollbooth just before the summit. A concrete protrusion that carries you out over the edge of the mountain provides a wonderful vista of the Ötztal valley.
The ‘Walkway’ near the top of the Timmelsjoch Pass
The fifth sculpture is the ‘pass museum’ which sits at the very summit on the North Tyrolean side, it’s concrete structure jutting out over the Italian South Tyrol. A stones throw from here is the ‘Rasthaus Timmelsjoch’, a great place to relax over a coffee and strudel.
The Timmelsjoch Pass Museum at the summit
For those doing our Motoscape European rally, you will climb the Timmelsjoch from the Austrian side and then cross over into Italy before heading down towards Trento. At the end of the journey you will almost certainly think to yourself, ‘Wow, that really was something’.
The Vršič Pass
Most people will probably have never heard of the Vršič Pass, but that’s probably because most people have probably never been to Slovenia. It’s not that high, at 1611 metres above sea level, a minnow in comparison with the two aforementioned passes. So what makes this pass so special? Well it’s the highest mountain pass in Slovenia with 50 hairpin bends for a start, each of which is numbered along with the height in metres.
Motoscape banger rally participants at the top of the Vršič Pass
The pass is reached via the 206 from Bovec towards Soca and beyond to Kranjska Gora and initially follows the path of the river Soca/Isonzo. With it’s crystal clear waters the river is one of the cleanest and most beautiful in Europe.
The crystal clear waters of the River Soca/Isonzo
If you are lucky enough to be doing this in a ragtop and the weather is good then this route is extra special. It is a driving experience to remember with the numerous long sweeping bends, and this is before you even reach the hairpins of the pass itself. The road was built during the First World War and this answers the question as to why a lot of the hairpins are cobbled.
Two Motoscape banger rally teams negotiate the cobbles of the Vršič Pass
It’s just impossible to travel this road without making numerous stops to take in the spectacular views.
To those on the Motoscape banger rally to Prague, the pass can be completed on day 6 on the way to Salzburg.
Which pass is the best?
This is a really difficult one to answer. If the Stelvio Pass is on your bucket list then you have to do it. If you want spectacular scenery then both the Timmelsjoch and the Vršič Pass are worthy contenders. However in our opinion, the Vršič Pass, being quieter than the others and with those wonderful sweeping roads, is the pick of the bunch.