»From every point of view, the Stelvio is the unquestioned king among mountain carriage roads, « wrote Charles L. Freeston in his 1910 Motoring Guide to One Hundred Mountain Passes. »It is loftier than any other Alpine highway«, he enthused, »and has no rival even in the Himalayas themselves.« According to Freeston, climbing the Stelvio should be the ambition of every automobilist. It is considered the most adventurous and twisty of the Alpine passes – the British TV show Top Gear even named it »the greatest driving road in the world«.
The pass climbs to 2,757 metres above sea level, writhing through precipitous hairpins carved into the side of the mountain, before winding back down again. This mountain road is not only Italy’s highest, but was also one of the first to be developed in the Alps. It was built between 1820 and 1826 by the Austrian Empire, to better connect the province of Lombardy with the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, and stretched from the South Tyrolean Vinschgau to Valtellina, which today is in Italy.
The engineer and project manager, Carlo Donegani, accomplished a real miracle in constructing the Passo della Stelvio. Particularly notorious are the 48 dizzying serpentines of the north-east ramp, which are said to have turned the stomach of Emperor Franz I during a carriage ride to Milan. The impressive road construction with its majestic views over the Stelvio National Park can inspire even staunch rationalists. »At this altitude, surrounded by the heaven’s purest air and the colossal gestalt of the high mountains, one feels elevated above all earthly cares and sorrows«, gushed the Austrian district engineer Joseph Baumgartner in 1827, after a trip over the Stelvio Pass. His heart, he writes, was rapt »to admire the audacity of the man who dared to cleave a road at an altitude where there is no vegetation and winter has cast its perennial throne.« And the fascination lives on. When former Top Gear front man Jeremy Clarkson first encountered the switchbacks, he described »fifteen miles of asphalt spaghetti draped on the Alps«.
But it’s not just ambitious motorists who worship the Stelvio Pass as the ultimate Alpine challenge – cyclists too seem to feel magically drawn to the steep and winding mountain road. The famous Giro d’Italia cycling race crosses the Stelvio repeatedly, and a monument at the pass summit commemorates the legendary Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi, five-time winner of the Giro. Every summer, the Stelvio is closed to traffic for a »cycling day«, with thousands of cyclists from Lombardy and South Tyrol embarking on the formidable journey to the summit.