What does the fine art of Alpine driving have in common with orange soda? To explain, let me carry you off into the world of mountain passes, steep gradients, cows and picturesque corners.
As I am writing these lines, I just finished off a bottle of Aranciata. Aranciata is the Italian interpretation of orange soda. It is sweet as hell and contains just enough hints of real orange taste to match its yellowness. What a delight. This brings me to one of the major differences between Europe and the US. Apart from local beers and booze, you can have anything anywhere. In the old world however, you have to travel to different countries to get some of your favorite thirst quenchers.
Consequentially, I went to Italy to get some Aranciata (and have some quality time on a short family vacation).
What lies between Germany and Italy? The Alps.
Alpine driving is not an unusual thing when you live in southern Germany - not an every day chore, but nothing too special. As I was heading for Lake Major I thought that the many different routes leading from north to south might be of interest for you, my cherished U.S. audience.
What started as rugged trails in the most adventurous times of the Roman Empire some 2000 years ago still forms the foundation of today’s mountain passes in the Alps.
Most of the important passes have been paved in the 1950s and 60s. About a quarter of them are now part of the highway network in Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland - not to forget the tiny state of Liechtenstein.
These major passes like the Brenner, the San Bernardino, the Gotthard or the Mont-Blanc nowadays use tunnels instead of windy turns and convey you over the mountains in the simplest way possible: straight on.
What experienced drivers would call a no-hassle-drive is perhaps the kind of road that is comparable to regular mountain passes on U.S. Highways. They are curvier than your usual Interstate and have some noticeable inclines as well as the occasional tunnel – although they are two lane for the most part.
European highway passes mainly differ in their intensity from the ones that you may now from the Appalachians or Rocky Mountains.
The tunnels can be 8 to 10 miles long and most of them are limited to 80 kilometers per hour. The only thing that reminds you of conquering an incline is your coolant gauge that may eventually rise over its normal level and falls back down to a mere handful degrees after you cross the summit, if your thermostat isn’t in check. Same goes for your fuel-economy-o-meter.
After that, you can congratulate yourself for having crossed the Alps in the least scenic way. Yay!
Nevertheless, there is the benefit of year round usability. It’s great to have fast and easy ways for when time or resources are scarce, but from an enthusiast point of view, you should face the massive mountains like Hannibal did in 218 B.C. - not with elephants but with ambition.
That means: use the old passes, as often as possible. Bear in mind though that they close down winter to spring due to heavy snow.
To do so you can pick almost any pass you like. Thankfully we speakers of German have the Denzel Alpenstraßenführer (Denzel’s Alpine Road Guide, an Austrian production which you can purchase here). Since 1952, the Denzel functions as an Alpine almanac. It ranks the passes with stars from 1 to 5 (maybe the guy invented modern internet ratings) not on the ease of passage but on how demanding they are to drive.
I can assure you, as far as my experience goes, that all of them are astonishingly scenic. They differ a lot – however – in the way they tackle the terrain. There are those which only use hairpin turns both up and down the mountain. Others are so wide that you can easily overtake R.V.’s and the like. Some of them still use the 1920s cobblestones like the Gotthard Tremola road.
But I wanted to tell you about how I got my Aranciata back up to Germany, didn’t I?
This trip started on the eastern shore of Lake Major which belongs (apart from its northernmost tip) to Italy. My wife and I loaded my late-90s Autobahn-tool with souvenirs and sweet beverages and headed home which is in northern Bavaria. After a 40-minute cruise up the lakeside road to Bellinzona (Switzerland). From there we headed north east and traveled through the Ticino valley, which is quite wide. You can only see the mountains from a distance. It is at the upper end of that valley where the fun begins.
Coming from the A-13 motorway, you have the choice between two of the more important passes that offer you both quick-and-dirty tunnel passages as well as ancient twisties: Gotthard (heading north west) and San Bernardino (heading north east). Ours is the latter. We left the highway at the village of Lostallo. This is where the old pass road slowly starts to incline.
Not to worry if you missed the first exit from the highway onto the old pass. The gorgeous and mostly intact remains of Mesocco Castle are there to remind you to take the old road where the fun starts.
You swoop delightfully along the valley’s approaching walls that come in closer with every mile. It is in the actual town of Mesocco, which is paved beautifully with old cobblestones, where you start cutting through the mountains up a narrow road that leads to the first hairpin turns up to a little plain called Pian San Giacomo. From there on there is no point where the road levels out until you reach the top.
Wherever the incline is bearable for regular vehicles, the road tries to tackle the slope straight on. It changes direction every few minutes, either by turning into a different dale or just by using a single hairpin. The switchbacks become more frequent as you close in on the summit.
We scaled the very last bit of straight road and approached the crystal clear Lake Moësola on the San Bernadino Summit at 6778 ft.
The road’s peak is about 2000 ft. below the actual top of San Bernardino Mountain (which is actually called Piz Moësola). As you can see, it’s quite scenic up there. There’s lake Moësola, lots of picturesque rock formations and rugged green meadows to take a short hike on. In the pictures you see the Hospice, which today is a mere restaurant with guest rooms, but was used as a necessary refuge with medical facilities in the olden days – hence the name.
Of course there is also a sturdy old sign marking the height of the pass. It has been used as prove in recreational driving pictures since the late 50s.
Leaving the summit in northern direction, it’s all downhill until the San Bernardino levels out before reaching the city of Chur (It’s pronounced Coor). As you may have noticed, we just crossed the language border from Italian to German.
Almost the entire way down the road alternates beautifully between swooping slopes and switchbacks. Whenever you reach a hairpin turn on the San Bernardino and the other old passes in the Alps, you’ll notice that they are quite narrow. This naturally brings you to hone your racing line, since you stride out before every corner and then use full lock to turn. Of course this is also where the fun begins.
Even if you drive only reasonably quick, you’ll leave some rubber on the ground which is easy to see on the tarmac. My torquey turbo diesel has just enough oomph to make traction control interrupt on every tight corner. This is why I like to switch it off – especially since I was using up my old winter tires on this trip.
When it comes to the actual driving experience, instructions are quite clear. If you choose a car with manual transmission – which I did and everybody should (and yes they did make an MT-version of the W210 E-Class, in my case with six gnarly gears) – you’ll be in second and third gear most of the time. Driving up hairpins and tight corners is engaging enough on its own, but since you are scaling hefty inclines, you also have to keep momentum. Letting go of the throttle almost feels like hitting the breaks. Thus it is advisable to take the full-lock-turns on the switchbacks in second gear with almost full throttle in order to hit third in a sweet spot (torque wise). At the end of the day, this is what makes the smoothest run up a pass. Of course, fellow rear-wheel-drive-aficionados, this is also the way to get a little footloose when the roads are wet.
I admit that sounds a little reckless, but the inclines are steep enough to keep even serious sports cars in check so that things won’t get out of hand.
Due to the frequent corners and intense slopes, you’re almost always within the speed limit for country roads in Switzerland (80 km/h – 50 mph). Not that it matters since the old roads and their banks are way too narrow to set up speed cameras anyway.
On the way down, you’ll find yourselves in passages where you’ll build up speed pretty fast. If you miss out on using your engine break (again gears two and three) you’ll cook your breaks in no time.
Nevertheless I’d recommend to try out breaking on an alpine decline for first-time-pass-drivers. You’ll feel the weight of your car and get a sense in how to feather in the gears on downshifts.
If you are going downhill on a pass with many hairpins, it’s most beneficial to train your heel-and-toe-action. Sending your barge into second without matching your revs on a vigorous slope like San Bernardino North will eat up your clutch faster than you can say Alpenstraßenführer.
Basic driving dynamics like these will make you remember the rigors of nature in this rough part of the world. Every Alpine pass has its own piece-de-resistance just like the Eau-Rouges and Karussels on this earth.
Some of them bring you up to high plains where you can heartily carve your way to the summit in long sweepers. The Julier pass for example: It crosses the Albula mountain range in Switzerland and leads you to the infamous St. Moritz, where Europe’s jet set likes to empty their Veuve-Clicquot’s in the wintertime. In other words: It only brings you up a mountain, but not down. Up top, you can choose the Maloja pass to travel further south. The Maloja is a prime example for hairpin goodness. It’s nestled into the Orlegna valley’s back wall and takes mountain’s natural undulation over and over again. When it’s dark and you made it down that pass, you can observe the lights of the cars flashing down the turns in a majestic and ghostly kind of way. Truly amazing.
In conclusion, I’d like to compare all this to my experiences with car-mountaineering in the U.S.
There is of course one of the most compelling mountain passes in North America – if not in the world – that comes to mind in comparison with the Alps. I’m talking about the Pikes Peak that I was fortunate enough to scale in a Jeep Cherokee last summer.
To me it was stunning to find out that you ‘Muricans tend to adjust your roads to the beefiness of your cars. In other words: The nation that brought us mighty V8's uses way less switchbacks to climb a gradient. Large parts of the Pikes Peak hillclimb are straight on and steep as hell, so you’re better off being a Clarkson on the throttle.
I seems befitting that there’s something like a toll booth halfway down where you’re mandated to have your brake temperature checked by an officer. But even though there are signs recommending low-gear-usage, you’ll still see many people just frying pads and warping rotors. Ouch!
Adding to that, my inner health-and-safety-alarm rang a couple of times. As you can see in the picture: guardrails are quite rare on Pikes Peak and where there are steep gradients, there are big drops – bigger than in the Alps.
The most astonishing thing though: the sheer height of that mountain. Pikes peak tops at 14115 ft. and the road goes right to the top. The highest mountain in the Alps is Mont Blanc which is just slightly higher (15777 ft.) and doesn’t even have a pass. The highest point you can reach on paved roads in Europe is at 9087 ft.
You’ll learn to know the power of an average-joe-car when you step out of it on Pikes Peak and start breathing heavily due to thin air.
That was clearly a sensation I never felt before.