Transfagarasan in Romania
Built by Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1970s, this dynamite-forged highway defies the mountains that surround it, linking Transylvania and Walachia through a series of tunnels, bridges and viaducts. The blokes at Top Gear waxed poetic about this hard-to-pronounce highway, but we're guessing the Romanian gem is still relatively unperturbed by the motoring masses.
One of our favourite roads in Europe is Transfagarasan Highway in Romania. Many might recognize this as the road Jeremy Clarkson said to be "The world's best road" in one Top Gear episode (S14E01), dropping the fabulous Stelvio Pass from first to second place.
The road, that was built as a strategic military route, has 90 km of twists and turns and steep drops and climbs. It climbs up to 2,034 metres altitude and is the second highest paved road in Romania after Transalpina, which is also a recommended road to include in your journey. Drive through tunnels covered by waterfalls, stop by Bâlea Lake for a beautiful view, and enjoy a variety of landscapes and a beautiful road design that makes this mountain pass unique.
The road surface is not always in the best condition and we advice to drive it with caution, always keeping your eyes open for rocks or potholes. But ultimately it is the journey of discovery through exotic Romania that makes Transfagarasan one of the best driving roads in the world. It is a masterpiece to look at. The key to enjoying Transfagarasan is getting there the right time of the year, and also right time of the day.
In summers it is crowded with tourist traffic but if you arrive before sunrise or do not mind driving it when the sun is starting to set, you should still be able to get some one on one time with the road. Otherwise we suggest you head there as soon as the road opens in June and the landscapes are green, or alternatively late in the season before it closes. October is still a good time to go with beautiful autumn coloured landscapes, but even November might be possible if the weather conditions allow.
Stelvio Pass / Italian Tyrol
The Stelvio Pass - it's not the most beautiful, but certainly one of the highest (official the third highest in the Alps at 2757M) and most dramatic mountain passes to drive in the European Alps.
Of course much was made of the Stelvio Pass after Top Gear voted this the best driving road in the world in 2008. A pretty bold claim, and actually in our opinion it's not the best pass in the Alps to "drive" however, that said, it is a truly stunning road to view, and the wall of 48 switchback turns running up its north face really are a sight to behold, and worth the drive for that part alone.
However, here's the catch. Due to the Stelvio Pass's iconic status (not just with car enthusiasts but bikers), it's one of the busiest of the ultra high passes in the Alps. This means, to get the most out of the drive, you want to be on the road nice and early, plus ideally midweek and outside of the peak months of July and August. We also strongly recommend that when you drive the Stelvio Pass, you locate yourself in a hotel very close to the pass (such as the beautiful Bella Vista in Trafoi) that way you can rise early, and drive the Stelvio Pass before any tourist traffic starts to arrive.
Anyway, the next question seems to be, from which direction should I tackle the Stelvio Pass?
Unlike many mountain passes where approaching from either direction offers a similar experience, with the Stelvio, it's best approached from the north west side. It's only by coming from this direction you get to drive up the Stelvio Pass's famous wall of switchbacks - and one thing we know from experience is that's always lot more fun than heading down. It's also by approaching from this side you get to run through the heart of the Stelvio National Park itself before starting the ascent - this run takes you through several great stretches of alpine forest and many KMs of fast/ sweeping roads before arriving at the foot of the pass. Once on the pass, each of the turns are numbered with stones, so at least you get to count your arrival to the top, 48, 47, 46…
Heading back down the Stelvio Pass towards Bormio is still a great drive and there are several superb vantage points to park up and take pictures back down the valley, though once at the foot of the pass your are literally spat out into the centre of Bormio, which is not the most beautiful of places at the best of times. Tip - if you like tight and twisty passes, rather than heading down to Bormio, less than 1KM after starting the ascent, head north and onto the Umbrail Pass, and back into the Swiss National Park, this deserted pass really feels like you are visiting the land that time forgot, then takes you directly into the heart of the Swiss National Park and the beautiful Offenpass.
Furka Pass / Swiss Alps
The Furka Pass was imortalised by the Aston DB5 / Ford Mustang car chase in James Bond's Goldfinger 1964's , and is another stunning 5 star pass in the central Swiss Alps, part of the "Big 3" passes close by to Andermatt.
From Gletsch the Furka Pass starts with a couple of tight switchbacks, but then cuts a long sweeping path along the rock-face of the valley for around 5 to 6 KM. Visibility forward is fantastic, roads surface immaculate, so it's a road that you really can "drive" and really puts a big smile on your face. At the end of this initial stretch, you then turn back on yourself, the Furka Pass then gets steeper, with a series of great switchbacks (road surface here is not so great and quiet often can be small rock debris on the road from the steep walls the road has been cut into) up until you reach the Hotel Belvedere, iconic site close to the top of the pass.
The hotel itself is currently closed for renovation, but this is anyway the spot you should park up to view the Rhone glacier. You're then just 2 minutes walk to the Rhone Glacier. After departing the hotel, the final ascent to the top of the Furka Pass takes you through a few more good switchbacks, before a small lake at the top - a real lunar landscape.
The run down the Furka Pass is not quite as exciting as the road narrows and can be quiet steep in places, but does give great views all the way none the less. Once at the bottom of the Furka Pass, there is a 4-6KM streth of road, arrow straight, running parallel to the railway line, be careful....... All in all this is a stunning pass, with an amazing combination of sweepers, tight switchbacks, dramatic views and a drag straight at the end.....
Route Napoleon / Alps Maritimes / France
The current Route Napoléon, first opened in 1932, follows the route taken by Napoléon I (Napoléon Bonaparte) in 1815 on his march from Elba to Grenoble. Napoléon had abdicated in April of 1814 and gone to Elba (history). In March of 1815, he began his journey with the intention to overthrow Louis the 18th.
The historical aspect makes this road even better, Napoleon traced the route through the Alps leading to fabulous scenery and views. The Route Napoleon itself begins in Grasse, the route then continues all the way to Grenoble over 150km away, tracing its way through both the Alps Maritimes and the Alps. The Route Napoleon road itself is a fantastic design, with cambered corners and fantastic scenery.
In contrast with the mountain passes this route is more designed for speed and the ability to really appreciate the performance of the car. The advantage of the Route Napoleon is that it is much the same smooth rhythm from beginning to end, so you can appreciate any part of the road without needing to confine yourself to one specific part. The smoothness of this route makes it a fantastic driving experience for anyone, which along with the scenery makes for a truly thrilling driving experience with many photo opportunities.
We recommend coming off the route Napoleon towards the “gorge de verdon”, a French version of the Grand Canyon, at over 730M up you can see down into the gorge, a fantastic experience at 40km from the route Napoleon. For a slightly more testing drive, head through the Col du Labouret, then onto Lac de Serre Poncon – the descent being slightly more challenging, and the scenery just as rewarding. The road is challenging at high speeds, but not as technical as some of the mountain passes, however for the scenery and the flowing driving style definitely one of our top 10.For people after a real driving challenge, this might not be for them, but if you love the fast, sweeping and open roads, this stretch of Route Napoleon is really worthwhile tackling.
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Hochstrasse / Black Forest / Germany
Ahhh the Black Forest and it's seemingly endless number of sweeping trails and deserted roads, a bikers and drivers dream.
One of it's finest is the northern stretch of the elevated Schwarzwald Hochstrasse, route 500. A road that combines glass smooth sweeping sections elevated above the forest with a dramatic switchback run back through the forest to Baden Baden. WARNING. The only minus to this road is because it is a pretty major road (for the forest) it can get busy - therefore, rise early to enjoy at its best!
When driving the Black Forest, be warned, some trails are considerably better than others so it's worth doing some research first. In particular many roads pass through village after village (with little to see at each) giving you little time to get into a good driving rhythm.
In our opinion some of the best trails pan out from Baden Baden in the north, and the Schwarzwald Hochstrasse is one of the best, and certainly most open, of these. Our drive takes you south to north, starting in Knibes, finishing Baden Baden, but can equally be run in the opposite direction, and you might just like to turn around and do it again anyway.
The Schwarzwald Hochstrasse one of the most beautiful elevated sections of highway in the Black Forest region. The initial stretch is fast, smooth and sweeping, with fantastic views on either side, and of course straight ahead - you need to watch you speed though as it certainly draws you in. A few stretches of the road take you through some fairly dense forestation, but the road always remains wide, sweeping and fantastic to drive. Near its highest point around Hornisgrinde there are some wonderful elevated views, and plenty of lay-byes to park up and take in the views. The final stretch of the Hochstrasse drops down towards Baden Baden, and at times feels like you are on a race track, the road goes deep through the forest with dozens of tight switchback turns, with race track barriers, it really is a great drive down all the way to Baden Baden. The only minus side is that route 500 this is a pretty major road so can (compared with other parts of the forest) be occasionally a little busier, but put that to one side as it's one of the easiest roads to overtake on, or, better still, plan your journey along it early morning, the views either side from it's elevated position are truly stunning, especially with an early morning mist settled across the forest!
This is road a great introduction to the Black Forest, and basing yourself in Baden Baden means you are perfectly placed to explore the hoards of smaller, tighter and twister roads right on your doorstep.
Desfiladero de la Hermida / Spain
Desfiladero de La Hermida is an amazing gorge located in Cantabria, Spain. The gorges are traversed by the twisty N-621 road and are located between the small towns of La Hermida and Panes.
This road is very exciting and sometimes very exposed and unsecured driveway in innumerable twists and turns. This impressive ravine extends for 20km about a basin where the hamlet of la Hermida nestles. The jagged gorge scored by the Deva is so narrow and starved of sunlight as to be bare of vegetation. Before or after passing through the gorges, stop at Nuestra Señora de Lebeña to admire the small 10C Mozarabic church. Potes, a delightful village in an attractive site set in the hollow of a fertile basin against the backdrop of the sharp ridges Cordillera centrale.
The road is asphalted but extremely narrow. It is characterised by the verticality of its walls and the narrowing of the valley produced by the erosion of Deva River.The notable features of this landscape include the upper valley of the River Deva, and the rock erosion caused by the action of the river, creating a gorge with steep walls that line the river.
Atlantic Ocean Road, Norway
Welcome to one of the most amazing road trip in the world - The Atlantic Road!
Situated in Norway, The Atlantic Road (in Norwegian called Atlanterhavsveien or Atlanterhavsvegen) is a part of Norwegian national road 64 (Rv 64). It is close to the cities Molde and Kristiansund in the midwest part of the Norwegian coastline. It is ranked first on The Guardian's list of the world's best road trips!
This fantastic and spectacular road is a very popular tourist attraction. Both the local population and tourist visitors frequently use the road to go fishing for cod and other fish directly from the bridges. One of the bridges is special designed for fishing.
Welcome to visit The Atlantic Road - where you can drive on the coastal edge of Norway!
Ruta 40, Argentina
Ruta Nacional 40 is a route in western Argentina, stretching from Cabo Virgenes in Santa Cruz Province in the south to La Quiaca in Jujuy Province in the north, with a length of 5,000 km (3,107 mi), running parallel to the Andes mountains. The road was constructed in 1935. It crosses 18 rivers and passes 20 national parks, making it a perfect scenic drive.
The road, called National Route 40, RN 40 or Ruta 40, is paved most of its length, except in the south, where it passes through sparsely populated regions and may be stretches of more than two hundred kilometers completely empty except for the road itself. The southern part of the route, a largely paved road through sparcely populated territory, has become a well-known adventure tourism journey, although it is planned to pave the whole road. The attraction is actually international in scope, and many websites throughout the world advertise the private and commercial adventures associated with travel on this roadway.
Grand Ocean Road / Australia
The Great Ocean Road is an Australian National Heritage listed 243 kilometres (151 mi) stretch of road along the south-eastern coast of Australia between the Victorian cities of Torquay and Allansford. Built by returned soldiers between 1919 and 1932 and dedicated to soldiers killed during World War I, the road is the world's largest war memorial. Winding through varying terrain along the coast and providing access to several prominent landmarks, including the Twelve Apostles limestone stack formations, the road is an important tourist attraction in the region.
Route 66 / USA
Route 66 was the first highway of its kind. In 1926, the 2,448-mile road was designed to be the first trans-continental, year-round highway. It connected urban and rural America from Chicago to Los Angeles, crossing eight states and three time zones. Like an artery, the “mother road” nurtured communities and serviced millions of truckers and road trippers for decades. Families who were forced to leave their homes during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, with few resources and a little hope, motored west on Route 66 in search of a better life. This “road of dreams”, symbolising a pathway to easier times, was one of the only US highways to be laid out diagonally. It cut across the country like a shortcut to freedom.
Route 66 grew in popularity in the 50s, when vacationers loaded up their Airstreams and hit the road to see mom-and-pop trading posts, teepee motels and reptile farms. But Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 Federal Highway Act changed everything. The bigger, newer and faster four-lane interstate system bypassed Route 66 and was the beginning of its demise. Businesses shut, towns suffered from loss of tourism and parts of the route were abandoned altogether. By 1985, Route 66 was decommissioned and officially ceased to exist.
Only 85% of the road has survived, but its spirit lives on. In the past decade, non-profit organisations and the US National Park Service have mobilised efforts and provided grants to protect and preserve what is left. Life is percolating through Route 66 once again, and people come from all over the world to get their “kicks”. Car enthusiasts ship their classic Mustangs, Fords and Chevys across oceans to cruise this iconic road and experience a true slice of Americana. The cycle of struggle, triumph, survival and nostalgia is laid out around every bend. Today, road trippers will see vintage motels, old-school diners, restored gas stations and towns that look frozen in time. It’s the trip of a lifetime.
Col de la Bonnette / French Alps
The Col de la Bonnette is one of the most famous roads in the Alps, due to the fact that it is, at 2807M, the highest road in Europe. The actual pass finishes at around 2700M with an addition taking it to the full height, a recent addition that the French added to retain the title.
As surprising as it is, the Col de la Bonnette ascent is not as difficult as would be expected of the highest road in Europe, the road surface is very smooth and the scenery breathtaking. As the beautiful sweeping roads get higher there is a fantastic contrast between the greenery at the base of the pass and the barren, almost volcanic atmosphere at the top. The way the route is set out means that as you get in to the driving rhythm, the roads tests you more and more, a test that brings its rewards in the form of one of the most stunning panoramas in Europe., accompanied by a plaque to confirm your exploit.
The run down the Col de la Bonnette is much the opposite, once at the summit of the pass, the road down can be seen for the next 5km, looking more like a race circuit than a mountain pass. As you get further down the pass the corners become slightly more testing, but the road surface gets better, due to the regular passage of the tour de France.
The Col de la Bonnette pass definitely merits a place in our top 10 just due to it’s staggering figures, 2807M deserves it, however that is not all, this pass is a fantastic test for people who really appreciate driving and brings rewards worthy of any mountain pass. Although it is fairly testing at times with some of the route becoming very narrow, it is a road that anyone can enjoy, with everything a real connoisseur needs to get the most out of his car.
Flüela Pass / Graubunden / Swiss
The Flüela Pass is an excellent pass along an extremely quiet valley, with limited villages - this aspect allows you to get into a great driving rhythm, without having to slow down and then speed up again every few kilometers as you approach villages. Starting from the north (Davos) end of the Flüela Pass, the initial rise up is through a beautiful alpine forest, with a nice collection of wide sweeping bends running into one another. As you rise further up the Flüela Pass, and burst through the forest and above the tree line (approximately 1800M) the Flüela Pass starts to tighten, however it never becomes extreme (switchback on top of switchback) so allows you to keep the rhythm going all the way to the top. Coming back down is a little steeper, and there are a few more twisty sections as you come out of the main valley and back into the wooded area. The Flüela Pass has a immaculate roads surface, and for the fact you can complete end to end almost uninterrupted.
Grossglockner / Austrian Alps
The Grossglockner High Alpine Road, also the highest surfaced mountain pass road in Austria, is one of the most scenic drives you can find in Europe.
This popular driving road in the Eastern Alps can be crowded with tourists on a sunny summer day. If you are in the search for maximum driving pleasure and empty roads we recommend getting there early morning, even as early as 5 or 6 when it opens and you can avoid the busy tourist traffic.
The drive is not complete before you have to been to Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe (2369 m), the location of the Pasterze Glacier. With plenty of parking spaces at the top, both outdoor and in a multi-storey parking garage, take your time to relax and enjoy the views. The route also takes you up on the Hochtor Pass (2504 m) with incredible sweeping corners through picture perfect Austrian landscapes.
You pay a €34 fee per car at the toll booth to drive the Grossglockner High Alpine Road (motorbike €24), but after you have finished your drive you know it was money well spent. Landscapes this beautiful, combined with a very good road surface, are not that easy to find. Not even in Europe!
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Hahntennjoch / Austrian Alps
As you turn onto the Hahntennjoch pass, you just feel it’s going to be something special. Surrounding peaks are tall, but not so aggressive (like some of the central Swiss Alps where you can become dizzy looking up). Tarmac is near perfect (typically Austrian) and that’s exactly what the run to the top is.
The initial climb to the “official” start of the Hahntennjoch pass is quite tight, with some scary drop offs. It’s a green and beautiful valley with a fair number of lay-bys on the way up to stop and admire the views. This stretch is also a little busier as it serves a couple of towns in the lower valley - but thank heavens for the run over the top caravans have been banned, that's one less concern!
Shortly before the Hahntennjoch pass begins there is a short section, probably around 1km long where you drop into a gouge, with high rock faces on either side, this has an amazing series of 8 to 10 sweeping cambered bends on "perfect" tarmac (due to the camber one actually makes you feel you are climbing the wall of the valley, wall of death style). This stretch though is wide enough to provide a clear view ahead and steep enough you can really attack the road, and with great soundtracks echoing off the surrounding rock faces, it's really quite special……turn around and drive this stretch again if you’ve got the time. Shortly after this section, and just before Boden, you turn left onto the official ascent to the pass.
From here it’s 19km to Imst, 19km of fun. The first section is of the Hahntennjoch pass tight, very tight, with a series of 180 degree switchbacks, take this section carefully, again there can be cyclists about who are difficult to see. We met a pair of enthusiastic Caterham drivers coming back down the pass, all smiles, hmmm what’s in store? The road now starts to open into wider sweepers hugging one side of the valley. Again perfect tarmac as you pass through some beautiful scenic spots, Austrian picture postcard all the way to the top.
The run back down the Hahntennjoch is a completely different proposition. First off all, it’s looks more like something from the moon, this side of the pass is way more exposed to the elements, and there’s not a lot growing at over 2000M. But forget the scenery, the run back down is spectacular. After some initial wide sweeping turns, the road is then literally “carved” into the rock, with a series of around 20 tight 90 degree corners along a breathtaking 2km stretch.
If you get here early morning when the road is clear, this really is a test of your nerves (and brakes). For the final stretch of the Hahntennjoch pass you then drop into the wooded areas, and the road begins to straighten – the danger is not yet over, we came over the crest to be confronted by two dozen angry looking Austrian Highland Cattle, are they brake testing me? After this final stretch, and a bump over the cattle grate (now understood), the final descent is a smooth run to the valley floor and down to Imst.
The Hahntennjoch really does deserve a spot in our top 10, and well worth including in any excursion to the Alps. Note: Approach the Hahntennjoch pass from the north, it's way way better to drive this way around.....
Klausen Pass / Swiss Alps
The Klausen Passis the first "major" alpine pass you reach driving south from Zurich, in fact, using the highway you can be at the foot of the pass in a little over 1 hour - it really is a passage directly into the heart of the Alps.
The great thing about the Klausen pass, unlike some other passes in the Alps, is there is a highway alternative, therefore the traffic on the pass is really restricted to locals or driving enthusiasts, so never gets busy despite it's proximity to Zurich.
Some History first.....the Klausen Pass is home of the legendary Klausen Run (Klausenrennen), a 21.5 kilometer pre-war hill climb. More recently a vintage event is run every 4-5 years, the last race taking place in 2006. The race (and of course the pass) consisted of 136 curves with a difference in altitude of 1237 meters (bottom to top). In 2006 the race was labelled by far the craziest mountain motor race in Europe with over 40’000 spectators and was honoured in Stoneleigh Park with the prestigious “Speed Event of the Year" award.
Enough about the event - for those not planning on entering in their vintage car, here's a brief run down of what is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled Alpine Passes in Switzerland. On entering the start of the Klausen Pass at Glarus you drive a short stretch along the original pass cobbles. The Klausen Pass then quickly winds up through a forest section, taking in several high speed sweeping turns, before a series of tight switchbacks. You then continue through through several small tunnels, with another straighter stretch through the forest - a fantastic adrenaline rush. Keep your wits about you though as this stretch is rather tight, and some of the cambers on the old cobbled stretches can catch you out, especially if you a running very low suspension.
As the road starts to level, you suddenly burst through the forest and onto a 5 km long Alpine Plateaux, Urnerboden. Here to your right are some of the most spectacular sky-scraping granite peaks you are likely to see anywhere in the Alps. Drive this plateaux taking in the sights, but again be mindful of the undulations.
At the end of the plateau, at what then appears to be a dead end to the valley (granite walls all around you) are several nice waterfalls (most powerful in late spring / early summer) that you can park up nearby then walk directly up to. However, you are certainly not stuck at a dead end! Look right and you will see the next stretch of the hill climb, literally carved into the rock face, up and out of this basin. Something like around 40 turns later you are at the top of the Klausen Pass - once here we recommend that you stop at the Klausen Cafe for a coffee and to catch your breath.
The ride back down the Klausen Pass is not as spectacular, and needs to be taken with caution as there are several sections near the top with flimsy barriers and sheer drop offs! However, once though this stretch you are back to some great sweeping turns, then once again into the Alpine forests. Lower down the valley there is an unbelievable waterfall across the valley that drops several hundred meters into the green abyss, rare these days as most are tapped for electric power generation. The descent to the foot of the Klausen Pass finishes at Burglen, birthplace of William Tell and worth stopping at for a quick wander around, there's a museum dedicated to his legacy.
You are now in the heart of the central Swiss Alps, drive south and you are shortly on the Susten/Furka/Grimsel combination - another drive not to be missed.