I need to catch my breath. But up at 2,383m, the air leaves your lungs shortchanged of oxygen. With the day dawning, I should get moving. But, then again, what’s the hurry? It’s 6am, there’s no traffic, and I’ve just had the drive of my life to the top of the Alps. Things can only go downhill from here.
Up in the Mountains
If you love the great outdoors, the Swiss Alps have it all: skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, hiking, white water rafting. But we were after a different buzz. Motoring journalist James Mills took on the legendary Flüelapass.
Motoring from Munich
If you’re anything like me, you’ll love driving. And you don’t need to be a speed junkie to get off on it; at any speed there’s a feeling of freedom, a sense of satisfaction from the physical process, a moment of privacy and detachment from everything you’re leaving behind you. And the wonder of what lies ahead.
I began my journey in Munich. Three and a half hours later and I’m across the border and into Switzerland and starting a piece of road that will bring tears to your eyes. The kind of road that’ll make you stop, step out of the car and kiss the asphalt. A road at the end of which you’ll turn right around and enjoy all over again.
Driving the Flüelapass
Welcome to the Flüelapass. You’ll know when you’ve found it. The road starts at the level crossing on the edge of Davos, where Switzerland’s signature red trains slope past sleepily. Red and white gates bar the start of your climb, and when they lift clear, there’s still no clue as to what waits up in the mountains. The road climbs and winds, opening up in 3D panoramic widescreen around you – through the windscreen, your window, the passenger’s window – in full glorious technicolour.
Punching out of sweepers then nipping and tucking through rapid changes of direction, this route is a proper workout for a car. More than that, it’s a workout for the driver. You need to look far ahead and place the car on corners for the smoothest possible approach and exit, judge braking distances without hesitation and choose a gear that will keep the engine and car flowing with the rhythm of the road.
Respecting the Road
A road like this calls for respect. For calm. For cool. Don’t get hot-headed or it will teach you a lesson. The road wraps back on itself like a serpent poised to strike. Some hairpins are tight, others wide. Some have crash barriers, some don’t.
By the end of the run, I feel like I’ve had a cathartic experience. The Flüelapass has left us breathless; from its beauty, its corners, its challenges. But after a long day, it’s time to retire for fondue and liquid refreshment.
Next morning: 5am. Over the Flüelapass again, then it’s on toward Italy and the legendary Stelvio pass that climbs up to Bormio at 2,758m. Searing through the Parc Naziunal Svizzer – the majestic, mighty Ofenpass – the air rushes in through the windows, filling your lungs with sweet pine scent.
Then it’s over the top and through the forest, where snow-capped mountains stand tall in the distance. Don’t turn into the tunnel to Livigno. Carry on to Val Müstair after the national park, where the road leaves you speechless. Up into the mountains you climb, to the 2,505m peak, and then it’s over the border into Italy.
Wherever you are on the continent, you’re never really more than a day’s drive from the Alps. Next time, do yourself a favour and plan a detour.