Great Drives Italy’s Stelvio Pass

  • story by written by Peter Volny & Linda Goddard
  • posted on 04/2022
  • posted in: Newswire

Anyone who has watched the original Top Gear on BBC-TV knows that the irreverent trio of hosts voted the Stelvio Pass as one of the best driving roads in the world. It’s a favorite for drivers of high-performance cars and bikes who come from all over Europe and yes even the USA. The road was built in the 1820’s and took five years to complete. Fighting between Italy and the Austro-Hungarians took place along the pass during the First World War. The total distance is just 22 kilometers, and since it’s at 2,758 meters above sea level it’s closed from November to May due to snow.

It’s a cloudless blue sky as my wife and I leave our hotel in Prato allo Stelvio, an alpine town in northern Italy. It’s 8 a.m. and we’re getting an early start so we can beat the traffic to the northwestern entrance of the Stelvio Pass since we know that passing is difficult, and I’ve promised my wife a lesson in opposite lock. We’ve also heard that the view is more scenic from this starting point and the route begins with a climb up the steep wall of switchbacks, rather than sitting on the brakes all the way down. Having planned, researched and dreamed about this drive for several years, we were both—well, perhaps more me—excited and raring to go.

Starting with the forested Stelvio National Park, we arrive at the base of a large grey granite mountain where the hairpins begin. The vista changes as we climb and the switchbacks start to mount beneath us, seemingly vertically like a ladder propped against a wall. With increased altitude more and more mountain peaks come into view, stretching off into the distance. In late spring the last vestiges of snow remain in shaded gullies and the odd waterfall tumbles down. Slopes of rockslides indicate where avalanches have occurred, and glaciers are receding.


The road is quite narrow, even by European standards, and a low stone wall hugs the edge. We’re driving a Renault Mégane Coupe with a 110-horsepower diesel engine, and although the smooth road begs a few (hundred) more ponies, this is not a high-speed route. You need to pay constant attention and the razor-sharp turns keep our average speed at no more than 50 km/h. We don’t mind. We’re in no hurry and besides, the views are best seen at more moderate velocities.

The real test comes at any of the 48 hairpin turns going up and 47 coming down. Each switchback is clearly numbered on large white rocks, so you always know how many are still to come. I soon learn these are not your normal tight turns but true switchbacks, and steep to boot, so I need to gear back to first and keep the revs up, while watching carefully for oncoming traffic. Except for a very exuberant Mercedes- Benz SL driver and a small road maintenance truck, we encounter no other vehicles. A rare occurrence on the very popular Stelvio. In July and August, the pass is more heavily used, especially on weekends. Bicyclists love this taxing challenge, and on the tight road they greatly impede passing. Motorcyclists too have an affinity for it but a Ducati is unlikely to hold you back. Dreaded tourist coaches and camper vans are far more prevalent on summer weekends.

After passing the marker for switchback #48 we reach the summit and pull off at one of the lookouts to have a bite to eat, relax and briefly admire the view. Eager to continue the drive, we climb back in the car and make our way into the next series of switchbacks that will weave us down to the end of the route in Bormio. Coming downhill the view is spectacular and we can very clearly see the series of hairpins unfolding seemingly right underneath us. The descent involves lots of braking and just brief bursts of acceleration on the short straights between the tight turns. On the GPS the road looks like a twisted strand of spaghetti.


The whole drive takes us less than two hours including stops to fully appreciate the scenery, though we could have stretched out the time by stopping at some of the isolated cafés and restaurants we pass along the route, including the one at the summit. At the end of the route in Bormio, drivers typically stop and relive the experience over an espresso or gelato, comparing notes on the experience with others. Had we been staying in the area we would have gladly turned around and tackled the drive once more. But we press on, heading to Lugano with another 160 kilometers to go.

As a car enthusiast, I’ve made a point of driving many of the world’s most fabulous, challenging and scenic roads. And the Stelvio Pass really is one of the very best. It’s not the longest or even the toughest, but the combination of the numerous hairpin turns stacked one on top of the other, the change in elevation, along with the ever-changing scenery makes it the most memorable.

Peter Volny –