Posted by: Jerry Garrett | September 25, 2011

Driving Italy’s Stelvio Pass: Ten Fast Facts

PASSO DELLO STELVIO, Italy

Apologies to the guys at BBC’s Top Gear programme: I have herewith re-posted their video (above) about driving the Stelvio Pass in northern Italy. When I heard they had driven a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera, a Porsche 911 GT3 RS and an Aston Martin V8 Vantage N24 up (and down) the pass, I just had to try it too.

Audi's R8 5.2 V10 Quattro: The Beast of the Stelvio

Audi loaned me a 525-horsepower R8 5.2 V10 Quattro, with a 6-speed manual, to give it a go on September 17, 2011. It was a blast, even though the R8 (basically a rebodied Gallardo) was as over-capable for the task as using a nuclear device to kill gophers.

Anyway, my basic report about the trip was published September 23 in The New York Times. That report was plenty long enough – but it didn’t include everything I could have written. (“How true,” my long-suffering editors might sigh.)

We're going up where!?!

So here are another ten interesting, and hopefully entertaining, facts about the road that I have heretofore not shared:

1. It wasn’t until I returned home, and watched the Top Gear segment for the first time, that I realized they also had driven – as I had – the road between Davos, Switzerland and Prato allo Stelvio in Italy; there are several other variations that can also be taken. They did it from Davos south; unwittingly, I did it south to north – which turned out to be the better direction. That way, you go up the pass’ 48-turn face, and down its 34-turn backside. Plus, you end up in Bormio, with its famous thermal baths, to soak away the ache of such spirited driving.

60 is plenty fast!

2. How fast can you drive it? Well, the navigation system said the speed limit for most of it was 60 kilometers per hour (37 m.p.h.). If that seems slow, let me tell you: Most of the time, you’d be hard-pressed to go even that fast. In many of the hairpin turns, speeds drop to 15 m.p.h. or less. I doubt if I ever exceeded 100 k.p.h. (60 m.p.h.).

Yeah, I know – what a wimp! But no one closed and cleared the road of other traffic for me, like they did the Top Gear crew.

"Down" is worse than "up"

3. Down is worse than up. Up looks scarier, as you climb and climb, seemingly straight up. In some places the angles of the switchbacks are so acute, the next turn above seems built out over the one you are on. Plus, going down, you carry more speed. (The dreaded “snowball” effect.) It becomes harder and harder to slow down. Brake! Brake! Harder! Going up, the hill scrubs your speed off, even if you don’t brake. Go to YouTube and search for “Stelvio crash”. The results are mostly of idiots going downhill.

4. Who uses this road? Thrill-seekers, and the clueless, who thought the road looked straight on the map. Originally carved out through an impossible – and impassable, 10 months of the year – pass to facilitate trade between Switzerland and Venice…this road is just too brutal for most modern commercial vehicles.

Dream ride: Moto Guzzi Stelvio

Instead, it has become a novelty road: It’s a treat for the seasoned motorcyclist – “motorrad” (German for motorcycle) hotels, appealing to the two-wheeled hordes, abound in the area. (Next goal: Ride here on a Moto Guzzi Stelvio from Lake Como, where they are made.) Car clubs use the Stelvio for informal rallies. And it is occasionally a component of the Giro d’Italia bicycle race. Yes, Lance Armstrong has conquered it.

5. What is the elevation at the summit? Good question, with more than one correct answer. One road sign gives it as 9,054 feet – but that sign is placed a mile below the summit, on the Swiss side. In the little hamlet of Stilfser Joch at the road’s summit, competing signs provide different numbers. At the odd-looking brown and orange restaurant, “Tibet”, overlooking the hamlet, it says 9,330 feet. That’s probably optimistic, at best. The elevation across the summit at the hill called “Piz de la Trais Linguas” or “Dreisprachenspitze” is officially 9,327 feet at the small Cima Garibaldi castle built atop it.

Huh? What is the name of that hill?

"Peak of the 3 Languages"

In English, it’s “Peak of the Three Languages” – where the borders of Switzerland, Austria and Italy once met. Austria, which built this road in 1825, lost all its territorial claims around here – Lombardy and South Tyrol – to Italy as a result of the 20th century’s two world wars. For bonus points, name the three languages: Italian, South Tyrolean German, and Switzerland’s Graubunden Romansch.

6. Where does the name Stelvio come from? That’s Italian. But otherwise, I have no idea what it might mean. Besides being the name of the road, and the pass it climbs, it is the name of an adjacent national park. A ski slope in Bormio (a World Cup downhill site) is named “Stelvio” – even though it’s on a different mountain. In German, Stelvio is “Stilfs”. You see the word “Stilfser” around here a lot too, which means “from” or “of” Stilfs, (Stelvio).

7. Local dairy farmers produce a delicious Stelvio Cheese (fromaggio) or, in German, Stilfser Kase. Sorry I didn’t think to bring any home. I don’t think it’s available in the U.S. But they do have a website. I didn’t see any Stelvio chocolate, but I just know someone makes it. The cows you see grazing on lush Stelvio mountainsides give new meaning to the phrase “happy cows”.

8. If the Stelvio is now entirely in Italy, why do I keep giving the names of everything here in Italian and German (medieval Romansch, btw, is pretty much dead)? Because 97 percent of the people in this area still speak German; less than 3 percent speak Italian! The local residents still consider themselves far more Germanic than Italian – as the language, road signs and restaurants menus attest. “Wienerschnitzl, bitte!”

9. If you want to spend the night atop the Stelvio Pass, TripAdvisor lists five inns, including Hotel Thoni 3000. I heard it is owned by former Olympic skier Gustavo Thoni.

Red Roof Inn site?

I aspire to stay at a seemingly inaccessible red-roofed, three-story place I saw about halfway up the Stelvio climb. I have no idea what it is, or how one might get to it. But the most detailed photo of the Stelvio that I’ve ever seen (at right) could have only been taken from there.

10. What’s the best Stelvio souvenir? Besides a t-shirt, or the local cheese or chocolate?

Perhaps it would be one of the spicy bratwursts, laden with a large helping of sauerkraut, barbecued by a street vendor right at the summit.

The heartburn, like the memories, are likely to stay with you forever.

Jerry Garrett

September 25, 2011

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Responses

  1. Dear Jerry,

    A great article about a great road. For anyone going to the area, try the Passo Galvio a little south of the Stelvio on Highway S300 between Passo del Tonale and Bormio. It is a pass less traveled, narrower, fewer guardrails, also with spectacular views.

    • Narrower? Fewer guardrails! Yikes!


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