My wife and I have spent the last 10 days driving around in Europe, so I thought I would blog about the fun we had and tell you all the things you really need to know if you ever find yourself in very specific places in Northern Italy, Switzerland and the tiniest southern tip of Austria.
Part VI – Bormio
The jewel in the crown of our holiday planning was the Stelvio Pass – famously voted by Top Gear as the best driving road in Europe. I’d had an itch to drive it ever since that episode, and now was our chance. Mario had struggled enough with the slopes going up the Alps on the way to St Moritz, so as you can probably imagine, the 48 hairpin turns of the Stelvio pass, ascending 5000ft in 10 miles gave his little engine quite the workout. The views speak for themselves on the pass, so I won’t wax too lyrical about them here, but there is something unbelievable about driving up the side of a mountain while all around you there seems to be nothing but sheer rock face, and snow-capped peaks. It’s certainly beyond what we would consider a normal driving experience in the UK. There’s simply nothing to touch it. Mario, by this point, was becoming my hero – navigating turns well and proving a joy to steer, which was a blessed relief given how precarious some of the roads were. My fear about this particular part of the drive was that it couldn’t hope to live up to my expectations. Well, it shattered them.
There is, of course, one major downside to taking in the views when driving alongside a 2,000 ft drop, and that is that you really have to try to keep the car moving up the mountain at about 40mph, rather than falling off the drop, and moving (well, falling) down it at closer to 100. The views were spectacular but the very nature of driving the pass means that you can’t drink them in the way you might like to. I was alright though, because soon we would be at the top and I could look back over the entire place from the top of the world (sort of). Turns out, of course, that when you get to a certain height (in our case about 100m from the top of the pass) clouds start hanging about. And one was hanging about at the top of our drive, much like a Verbanian or Oggebbioan teenager in front of a supermarket. Still, the advantage of clouds is that by and large you can see them coming, so we stopped early and took in the views from a slightly lower vantage point, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Reaching turn number 48, I was clasped by a sense of having actually achieved a driving feat, if such a thing exists. Looking back on it, it really wasn’t all that difficult; I went in a straight line for a bit and then turned the wheel, but nevertheless, it felt (not for the first time on the roads during this holiday) nice to still be alive. I thought the fun was over as we reached the top, but (of course) once we’d come up, we had to then come back down. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were another 40 or so turns to negotiate on the way back down the other side of the mountain, which again provided breathtaking views of the landscape. This entire holiday was becoming a feast for the eyes, and I was truly stuffed by the time we arrived in Bormio.
Bormio was described on a blog I read as ‘not the prettiest place in the world at the best of times’. Well, obviously that would be quite a title to bestow, but don’t let the tone of that statement confuse you. It’s gorgeous. We were staying at a small B&B called ‘Il Rustico’ which was located seemingly at the end of all civilization halfway up a rogue Alp that someone had left lying around. Finding the hotel proved a little tricky, but once we were there, we were received with hospitality and kindness, and quickly took to the garden to renew acquaintance with our golden friend in the sky. The Sun was firing on all cylinders again, so it was nice to sizzle for a while and take in the stunning views before us. Once we were thoroughly refreshed, we headed down into Bormio for a meal. We found a nearby café and set up camp for the afternoon, and it was here that I made my final brilliant decision of the holiday, to try a drink called the ‘Virgin Colada’. Not difficult to make – Pineapple Juice, Coconut Milk, and presumably a bit of sugar and crushed ice, but so incredibly delicious I thought I might never stop drinking them and end up as the subject of an Irvine Welsh novel on the subject. After about 6 of these, I was starting to feel like it might be worth my while to walk somewhere, if only to get my blood circulating again, and so we headed into the old town for the evening. We had an extremely pleasant walk around the town, seeing nuns (in Adidas trainers, perhaps in case they needed to run somewhere to do some nunning) walking across the town square, and eating pizza in a charming (not used condescendingly, I hope, it actually had charm) restaurant.
Our second day was cloudy – not least because we were in the middle of the cloud. Apple executives would have been in meta-heaven. Every once in a while the cloud would break, and we were treated to stunning views again, so much so that I was starting to experience that horrible, snobby holiday thing of taking them for granted. As we piled into Mario for the last leg of our journey back to the airport though, I was sad to say goodbye. Darlington is pretty, but this was something else. The road back to the airport eschewed the ‘scenic route up the mountain’ idea and went more for the ‘straight through the mountain’ trick instead. So, there were quite a lot of tunnels over 2km in length, which gave us a direct if less-than-picturesque journey back to Bergamo. Still, by this point efficiency was the watchword of the day so all was well. Before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to Mario, boarding our plane home, and coming back home. It had been quite a trip.
So, here to sum up, and in no particular order, are the 10 things I would recommend to you from our holiday.
- Hanselmann’s Ice-Cream in St. Moritz. Very cheap, very generous sizes, very tasty.
- Lake St Moritz. Go and stick your feet in it. It’s beautiful.
- The Stelvio Pass. 25 miles of driving bliss.
- Pizza at Cannero Riviera on Lake Maggiore.
- Virgin Coladas in Bormio. Careful though, you might need rehab.
- Driving from Lake Maggiore to St Moritz. The Alpine views are ludicrously wonderful.
- Croissants with jam from Verbania’s Carrefour. You need to negotiate some teenagers at the door, but these are a quiet revelation, well worth the risks.
- Shopping on Via Serlas in St Moritz. Be warned, you will need to rob one or two banks in order to do this, and I can’t actually recommend it as we didn’t do it, but I bet it would be fun.
- Driving on Italian motorways. I recommend this merely as a way of giving you an easy way to remember why it’s so wonderful to be alive, and to make you feel better about the way we drive here.
- All the hotels we stayed at – in Lake Maggiore, St Moritz, and Bormio – they were practically perfect in every way.