Stelvio Pass, Bormio, Italy

This Great Road was first published in issue 56 of Total 911.

Imagine it – 60 hairpin bends (one of which threw the great Stirling Moss over the edge), stunning alpine scenery, and a climb to nearly 3,000 metres. Surely a recipe for a great driving road.

I thought so, which is why I was disappointed as I slowly worked my way up the northern side of the Stelvio Pass, struggling to pass cyclists and stopping at many of the narrow hairpins to let motor homes and coaches pass on their way down, hemmed in by stone walls on each side. It was, to be frank, no fun.

At the top, I stopped, expecting a bleak, wild place that would make me feel isolated and humbled. What I found, though, were some second-rate hotels and restaurants, plus a string of souvenir stalls selling yodelling teddy bears and miniature cowbells. It was also wet and cold, and I couldn’t walk far without feeling out of breath in the thin air – respect to those cyclists.

Despite all this, I still couldn’t help but feel a sense of exhilaration at being there. Never before had I reached 2,757 metres (9,000 feet) above sea level while remaining on land.

To put that into a UK perspective, Ben Nevis is 1,344 metres and Snowdon is 1,085 metres above sea level (Mount Everest is in a different league at 8,848 metres). But, of course, you’d never get a car up those peaks! Stelvio is the highest paved pass in the Eastern Alps and the second highest overall and has changed little since it was built by the Austrians in the early 19th Century. I may not have felt isolated, but I certainly felt humbled.

After a much-needed shot of espresso and a warm in front of a roaring fire in one of the many cafes, I jumped back in the 911 for the drive down the other side of the pass. And I soon realised that, yes, the Stelvio Pass really is one of the world’s great driving roads.

LOCATION:In the Italian Alps, north of Bormio and close to the Swiss border. 46° 31’ 43” N/10° 27’ 10” E

LENGTH OF DRIVE: 13 miles

POINTS OF INTEREST: Tibet Restaurant at summit; 60 hairpin turns; summer skiing nearby.

ACCOMMODATION: Hotel Baita Clementi, www.baitaclementi.com; Hotel Madatsch, www.hotelmadatsch.it; Hotel Post, www.hotelpostglorenza.com.

This side was wider and without the paint-scratching walls, while the route was more open with better visibility. I could look down over the edge of the road and see below if anything was coming towards me on the next hairpin – a novel experience in itself. If there wasn’t, I fired the Porsche fast into the bend, braked hard at the last minute, then let the back end break away before hitting the throttle again to power out the other side. Perfect!

And I did this again and again, through one hairpin after another, not caring that my ears were popping as I plunged ever faster downwards, the temperature getting warmer by the second and the scenery ever-more glorious.

Sure, I didn’t have the road to myself, I was sharing it with countless motorbikes, other cars – some dull, some exotic – and more of those mad cyclists. But I didn’t care – somehow it felt right to be appreciating the magic with other like-minded people, whatever their preferred choice of chariot.

That said, next time I drive Stelvio, I’ll go out of season and start very early in the morning, before the crowds arrive, for true motoring nirvana.

As it was, though, I can safely say that tackling the legendary Stelvio Pass was truly one of the best drives of my life.

If you haven’t already, you need to experience it for yourself!



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Comments (2)

  • Sadly, as soon as a road gets a reputation as being a uber-fun road it is in-undated with the kinds of trashy tourist trappings mentioned above. It happened to “Tail of the Dragon” and “Road to the Sun” and many others I am sure. But these kinds of roads cause enthusiasts to gravitate toward them – and no enthusuasts wan to experience them also — too bad visitors to great roads don’t ALL come driving a Porsche 911 or Ferrari 458! That would solve the problem I think 😉

  • ImagineMD

    I agree, Larry, the ascent to Stelvio was a traffic-jam nightmare – no fun at all. The route back down the opposite side however was one of the best roads I’ve ever driven. Big tip is: wait for everyone to get the top and order their first espresso, then high-tail it down whilst the road is clear