Friday, 14 September 2007

Road tips 8 - Ss38 Stelvio pass

About fifteen years ago, I discovered Hugh Merrick's The Great Motor Highways of the Alps, which was first published in 1958, in a second-hand book shop in Charing Cross Road. As its title suggests, this is a guide aimed at British motorists of the day who were interested in exploring the main Alpine passes.

It's a fascinating book, not just for the information it contains about the passes themselves, but also for the now hopelessly quaint and antiquated advice it dispenses for drivers of British cars that weren't really designed with high-speed cruising and mountain driving in mind. Bear in mind, for example, that most British drivers in those days wouldn't have seen a motorway in their lives, so they needed to have the basics of Autobahn driving explained to them from scratch.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was always very taken with Merrick's write-up on the Stelvio. This is not quite the highest pass over the Alps, but it's famous for features such as its challenging hairpins, and for that reason is often considered to be 'the big one'. Every year since I found Merrick's book I've promised myself I'll take a crack at the Stelvio during the few months it's open each year but other stuff - usually work - has intervened. This year, a trip to a wedding in Italy finally provided me with the excuse I needed and yesterday was the big day.

Of course, in the last minute rush, I forgot to pack the book so I did this the twenty-first century way - I just punched the destination 'Stelvio Ss38' into my portable sat-nav and set off from my starting point, Friedrichshafen airport down on Lake Konstanz.

Anyway, one result of relying on the sat-nav to get me there was that I ended up traversing the Stelvio from the northern/eastern end, which I think is called the Prato side.

This seems to be by far the tougher option as it involves ascending, rather, than descending, the famous sequence of 48 tightly packed hairpins near the top on that side.

The right-handers on this section are deadly. They need to be negotiated very carefully, often in first gear and on full lock, taking you onto the other side of the road under conditions in which you are almost blind to approaching cars coming downhill. The only way to look out for this oncoming traffic is to crane your neck up and to the right and look for it out of the very uppermost portion of the right-hand rear side window of your car as you approach the bend. There also seems to be the risk of grounding either your car's front end or nearside sill, although the long-nosed Alfa I was driving escaped without any such scrapes. If there's a knack to tackling these nasty right-handers, I didn't discover it.

If I'm honest, at least the way I did it, the Stelvio probably wasn't quite the great driving experience I'd been imagining it would be all those years. It was just a bit too extreme for that with all that first gear work - and there were too many nutty cyclists and bikers around to make for a relaxing drive, even on a quiet day. Generally, the hairpin bends on the southern/western (Bormio) side aren't anything like so tightly radiused - I think it would be much more fun to blast up this side fairly quickly and then descend the tight hairpins on the northern side facing the great views on that slope, which include several glaciers.

That said, the scenery was far more impressive than I'd imagined, and at the end of a long day's driving there was a real sense of achievement at making it across.

I'd certainly recommend the Stelvio but it really isn't for the faint-hearted, not least because of the almost unimaginably deep sheer drops that can occasionally be glimpsed through the sometimes incomplete safety fencing. Tackling the Stelvio also commits you to long drives on fairly demanding roads either side to get in and out as well, especially at the Italian end, so you probably need to allow a full day for this, all things considered. Also, if you set off and decide part of the way through that you've bitten off more than you can chew and want to turn back, that may involve a challenging drive too.

And please don't tackle this unless your car is in good condition. I can't imagine how Merrick's readers in their miserable fifties British motors, complete with drum brakes and hopelessly puny engine braking, ever made it through.

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