From Ortisei we struck out on route 242 west to the autostrada, hooking up with the A22 near
Located about 75 kilometers west of Bolzano, very close to the Swiss border, one of the peaks above the Stelvio Pass is named Dreisprachenspitze, or "Three languages peak," because this is where the historically Italian, German and Romansch-speaking regions all come together. The original road was built by the Austrian Empire in the 1820s to connect the former Austrian
As we approached the pass, the rolling forested hills gave little indication of the dramatic scenery that was about to unfold above us. Just below the bottom of the pass, we stopped at the side of the road for a pit stop. This was an unfortunate decision, as apparently many other travelers have had the same idea. Perhaps the locals should invest in a rest area for
I suppose if we had had a little more time to plan this trip, we might have considered the possibility that driving one of the most famous roads in
We were about a quarter of the way up the pass, following a dark silver Audi A6, when a large bus suddenly bore down on us around a particularly tight hairpin turn. The Audi stopped dead in its tracks to let the bus swing around the bend, but that was still not enough room for the bus, and the Audi started backing up – without bothering to notice that we were a few feet behind him! John had to honk at the guy and I am pretty sure he only missed hitting us by a few inches. Another time, a guy on a big touring motorcycle could not make it around a turn and put his foot down, stopping right in front of us. Avoiding the bicyclists was the worst – they seem to think they own the road. I found myself craning my neck to look around each switchback to let John know if the way ahead was clear, so he wouldn’t have to worry if he swung out a little bit into the opposite lane.
We took a break about halfway up, near the ruins of a burnt-out hotel. We looked further up the pass and marveled at the engineering of the road, which is cantilevered out over the mountainside in places. Towards the top we found ourselves behind a guy in a pimped-out Ford Focus RS who didn’t seem to possess a very high degree of driving skill. We followed him into the parking lot at the summit of the pass, where he joined a group of his friends in Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru Impreza WRXs. We stopped again here to soak in the view, looking directly down on a long stretch of the road snaking up the mountainside (photos, above and right).
In a nutshell, the
Here is a movie clip that gives you a bit of an idea of what it's like to drive up the Stelvio Pass:
We ran a gauntlet of parked motorcycles at the top of the pass, an area thronged with hordes of bicyclists and tourists, all swarming around a cluster of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The crowds disappeared as we descended the other side, into a desolate expanse of jagged mountains. After a few kilometers we reached the turnoff for the Umbrailpass (#10, a.k.a. Giogo di
We reached the postcard-perfect town of
At Zernez we turned southwest and took route 27 along the River Inn to the lakeside resort of
We had now entered the region of
From Chiavenna, just inside the Italian border, it was only a short drive south to the shores of
A ferry arrived a few minutes later and unloaded; we were about to drive onto it but the man taking the tickets kindly told us it was the wrong one (I think it was the ferry to Menaggio) and ours would be arriving a few minutes later. Finally we got on the right boat and boarded for the fifteen-minute ride across the lake. It was an incredible evening – only a few wisps of clouds in an otherwise brilliant blue sky, and we marveled at the views. I didn’t have a good image in my mind of
Bellagio sits on a point of land that juts into the lake from the south and thus commands some of the most spectacular views in the area. We spotted our hotel, the Metropole, before we reached the dock, and I knew we were in for a treat (photo, above - the Metropole is the pink building to the right of the large white boat). The Metropole is located right on the waterfront and the balconies literally hang over the water (as opposed to some of the other lakefront hotels that have a street in front of them). We drove off the ferry and tried to find parking in a lot in town but it was totally full and, since it was dinnertime, we didn’t expect any spaces to open up soon. We drove a short ways down the road and found another lot with three cars in line waiting to get in. The guy at the gate waved me away but I stayed put and gave him the sweetest look of girlish anxiety that I could muster. A car left the lot a minute later and the man gestured that I could stay. He came up to my window and said something indecipherable in Italian, but switched to English in response to my blank expression. I told him I wanted to park overnight and he showed me to a spot. It cost 10 Euro, which we figured was fair. We unloaded our bags and hoofed it back to the hotel, which wasn’t too difficult because the SLK’s miniscule trunk (even smaller with the top down) has forced us to travel very light. We walked down a gorgeous flower-bedecked esplanade and I made John stop so I could take pictures as I knew this would be my one and only chance to capture the magical evening light (photo, right).
Our reception at the Metropole was polite if not overly friendly, and we climbed the stairs to our tiny double room on the first floor. The bed took up most of the space but the room was tidy and the gray tile bathroom was clean and serviceable. Our view was exactly as advertised – floor-to-ceiling french doors opening onto a tiny balcony with just enough room for two chairs (although ours had only one) and an absolutely stunning 180-degree view of the lake (photo, below, with a car ferry like the one we took from Varenna). Honestly, this was the bargain of our trip at 144 Euro. We arrived just in time to watch the sun disappear over the mountains to the west, casting long golden rays across the lake. Then we both showered and changed into our best “evening wear” (yes, I brought along my stylish black-and-white sundress especially for this occasion). We strolled along the waterfront looking at menus and decided that the Hotel Florence looked the most promising – it had the most interesting menu and the prettiest terrace overlooking the water, framed by a lovely trellis dripping with wisteria. We had to wait for a while for a table but the waiter we spoke to suggested that we have drinks at their bar across the street. We ordered gin & tonics and sat at a table outside, watching the lights come on across the lake.
We were seated at a table right on the water (the waiter sat us and another couple at the same time but he gave us the better table because we had been waiting longer) and enjoyed an absolutely lovely meal. John had risotto with smoked salmon and caviar followed by roast duck with mushrooms in a balsamic sauce. I started with fresh pasta strips with pesto, pine nuts, and zucchini flowers followed by carpaccio with smoked ricotta and shaved truffle. I don’t think I’ve ever had a plate of carpaccio I didn’t like, but this was a very nice twist on the classic. We asked one of our servers for a wine recommendation and he suggested a very nice Barbera red that had a whole long story associated with it (I think he knew the family or something – it may have all been made up, but he told the story with great enthusiasm!). For dessert we both had peach and white chocolate mousse with a milk-based sauce flavored with cognac and almond. We teetered back to the hotel (thank goodness it was only a few hundred yards away) and fell into bed.
More photos from today's drive: