The heart-stopping curves, pulse-racing gradients and breathtaking elevation: the rewards that make Europe’s finest Alpine passes so compelling are, by their very nature, what also make the world’s best roads so inaccessible.
In Italy's slice of mountainous heaven, for instance, Stelvio, Gavia, Del Rombo, Great Saint Bernard and other famed passes aren't terribly remote as the crow flies, but as paths of most resistance they demand a certain commitment in time and distance if you're keen to explore from The Big Smoke.
Life’s peachy if you’re a Clooney with a palatial weekender at Lake Como, say, but for the Modest Aussie traveller, tight on time and money, over-indulging in the Alp's best hot-mix can be a stretch too far and high. And particularly if your plan of petrol-hedonism is stymied by The Better Half's compulsion to fill the travel itinerary with Venetian gondolas, Milanese fashion outlets and Veronese Shakespearian balconies.
One solution is Lake Garda. Located at the southern fringe of the Italian Alps where the magnificent Domomites meet the Padan Plain, Lago di Garda isn’t merely Italy’s largest lake, and one of the continent’s big tourism drawcards, It lies as the geographical doormat between mainland Italy to a large slice of Western Europe in the north, and it's centrally located from a broad perspective. It's a 20-minute trip into neighbouring Verona, less than an hour to Venice in the south-east, and Milan's a convenient 130-kay autostrada blast west, though all are easily accessible by car or train.
Great location then. And the breadth of delights Lake Garda offers the eager tourist is so rich and extensive, it's a subject difficult to scratch too deeply here – Google will reward the keen homeworker. But while the towns dotted around its shoreline are renowned for culinary delights, art, culture, water adventure and shopping, and the mountains framing the water is prime for hiking and nature-loving, it’s not really know for its good roads.
Spend a week at Lake Garda and it’s easy to see why. It’s huge and a complete lap of the lake is around 150 kilometres, which doesn’t sound long, distance or time-wise, until you realise the route inescapably bypasses every town on the lake. Progress is slow-going mostly, gridlocked occasionally, and circumnavigation by road can take all day.
That’s even if you don’t stop to explore and consume its various, colourful and intriguing towns – each inimitably charming – which is precisely why you’d take the shoreline drive to begin with. Your only other option is to ping-pong between towns up and down the lake by the (affordable) ferry or (wallet-spanking) chartered boat, both highly enjoyable, but neither appeasing adventurous road-tripping desires.
Those desires are strong given our allocated steed: the latest MY18 Golf GTI five-door DSG-equipped hatch, complete with a ‘high-power’ 182kW/370Nm Euro tune rather than the familiar 169kW/350Nm Aussie spec, courtesy of Volkswagen Australia by way of their friendly and accommodating colleagues at VW Italia, based in nearby Verona.
Our hot hatch quickly proved the perfect foil for the task at hand. It’s roomy, comfy and polite enough for three Aussie adults for slow lakeside touring; it’s powerful and stable enough for high-speed blasts around the local autostrade; and its agile chassis and compact dimensions are perfect for lashing out across the hidden blacktop gems we unearthed around Lake Garda once we did a bit of digging about…
Strada della Forra, aka Gorge Road
Exiting the fashion and foodie trap of Desenzano del Garda, our home base at the lake’s south western tip, my partner Sonia and CarAdvice cohort Trent Nikolic, make a beeline up the Brescian, or western, side of Lake Garda aboard our GTI. Beyond Salo, the Via Trento (SS45) nestles itself between water and mountain, skirting through cheerful little hamlets such as Toscalano Maderno and Gargnano in what quickly becomes a marathon of coffee and gelato stops en route to our target of Limone sul Garda.
Beyond Gargnano, the mountain landside turns to sheer vertical cliff in places, and the road starts to burrow long tunnels through the rock, some exposed to the lake, others pitch black in darkness. Around here is where they filmed the dramatic car chase in the opening scenes of the Bond flick Quantum of Solace.
At Tremosine, the peripheral view ahead is one of horizontal water planted 90 degrees to sheer vertical landscape, bisected in the middle by a ribbon of blacktop. Somewhere above us, way up on a distant plateau and out of sight, sits the town of Pieve. From the edge of the plateau, it’s a near sheer 350-metre drop down into the lake below. I begin to wonder how on earth you’d get up there, short of a helicopter ride, when I spot the turn-off for Strada della Forra…
The Strada della Forra, aka Gorge Road in English, if officially Via Benaco on maps, is about as far from great driving road traditions as you might possibly imagine: it’s slow, treacherous, short and downright spooky. But it’s perhaps the most famous – and indeed infamous – piece of blacktop in Lake Garda and an absolute must-do by car, if perhaps a very small car. Or, indeed, by foot.
Until 1913, the only way to move people and supplies from lake to village was walking it up a small perilous track. Then locals built one of the most impossible roads, even by Alpine standards, linking the two together… even if nature gave them a leg-up. Deeply etched by gorges and ravines, the Brasa stream flowing down deep in the mountainside had excavated a spectacular cleft through erosion. And the Italians simply converted the cave-like passage into a roadway.
The initial hot mix climb juts out of the sheer wall – it’s steep, barely one lane wide yet instantly we hit two-way traffic. Mirrors folded, we squeeze slowly past a couple of descending cars, a paper’s width from shaving the VW’s paintwork against the rock wall.
Soon it opens up into a series of hairpins and the road concertinas between single- and dual-lane widths depending on the luck of the geography. The ascent is so swift and dramatic that Lake Garda quickly drops away where the road dips back out into the sunlight.
We can't help but pull up on the hairpins and gaze out to the growing vista. The road seems to double back on itself, stacking and swirling up the cliffside, to a degree where it’s difficult to even spot the section of road you were on below just moments prior. So narrow is the road width, that traffic lights regulate the phasing of groups of ascending and descending vehicles. And we quickly realise we’re stuck midway and caught out of sequence and have to wait for five minutes or so to safely jump into the tail of the next ascending pack.
Within a few kays Strada della Forra changes from an ascent tacked onto the cliff side to one spectacularly burrowing its way in and through large cracks, folds and crevices in the rock. The air gets cold and dank, above sits an array of mesh at some vain attempt at halting falling rocks from above, and to our right, just below a low stone wall, the Brasa stream that helped burrow this tunnel-like environment in these mountains, rages along with noise and fury.
Of course, with seemingly no chance to about face and backtrack, we squeeze the GTI into a tight turn-out and stop for more pics and lollygagging, and once again get caught out of phase with the traffic heading up and down this crazy little road. Who knows how far up this mountain we’ll have to travel in order to make a U-turn attempt.
Passing through the main cleft, River Brasa Ridge, is like some sort of amusement park ghost train ride that’s found itself lost somewhere in the Jenolan Caves. It’s not very long, but it’s utterly spectacular, and I guarantee you’ll never get to drive a car through anything else quite like it.
There’s a small grotto at the exit of the tunnels, complete with effigy of Sister Mary, and beyond the route opens up into a small circular clearing, where the road literally corkscrews 360-degrees, in a clockwise direction, up and around the mountain walls, over a man-made bridge, then on into the abyss above. And right in the middle of the clearing, almost randomly, sits something we’d not expected: a fetching little Italian eatery called, unsurprisingly, Ristorante La Forra. And given it’s just about lunchtime…
What follows is a feast of tagliatelle and gnocchi in deer ragout, fresh local salad, oven-hot bread and antipasto that is as cheap as a Macca’s lunch but was so spectacularly delicious, I’d make a return to Tremosine for the food alone.
All up, Strada della Forra is just five kilometres in total length from the lake up to Pieve, so we push on another four kays further up into the hills, to the small town of Vesio for the fourteenth gelato and coffee stop of the day. From there it’s a quick six-kay blast heading north, a snaking downhill run back down the valley to the resort mecca of Limone sul Garda right on the water, then onward to Riva del Garda, the northern tip of the lake. Or about as far from home base as we could get.
With a choice of 65km of backtracking along the lake or the high-speed Autostrada del Brennero, aka Brenner Pass, a main artery linking Italy to Austria and Western Europe in the north. Heading south, it's 93kms to our Desenzano del Garda base camp at the lake's south-western tip. Given we're wearing Italian rego plates, we join the fast lane flow of other 'locals' who seem to treat the 130km/h posted speed limit purely on an advisory basis, and we’re home in next to no time at all.
Day Two and time to venture along Lake Garda’s eastern shoreline and, weather permitting, knock off the near compulsory trip to the top of Monte Baldo, the highest point the lakes landscape (2218m above sea level). On a clear day, from the walking trails near its peak, you can not only see the entire length of Lago di Garda, but also a spell-binding panoramic view of the surrounding Dolomite mountains.
Two options. One, take the lakeside drive and contend with four billion German holidaymakers then, from the gorgeous northern lake town of Malcesine, take the famous, rotating Funivia cable cars up 1800m to Monte Baldo plateau.
Or, two, simply drive up the backside of Monte Baldo on some of the best roads in the region and avoid the tourist crush. Given either route is about 65km from our Desenzano del Garda home base, it’s an easy decision, really…
As we’d discover, driving is absolutely the best method to Lake Garda’s money shot, even if you’re not in it for the grand touring experience. It’s much faster, much cheaper, much easier and stress-free, although it can be a little more nerve-wracking.
It’s a quick sprint up a secondary highway (SS450) running between the slow-going lakeside road and the autostrada (A22) to its termination at Affi, with leisurely cruising through farms and vineyards before hooking onto the SP8 backroad at Pazzon. From here, it’s one road up the back of the mountains signposted Via Enzo Ferrari. I’ve got a very good feeling about this.
The road curls and sweeps upwards into the hills with decent ascent, with plenty of width and line of sight making the occasional slow-poking van or delivery truck easy pickings. The GTI is loving it – lithe, engaging, swift and inconspicuous – and it's happy days, though part of me wishes I was bouncing Maranello’s finest symphony off the landscape. It’s a big enough road for exotica indulgence.
Near Spiazzi, the road narrows and, to some faint concern, the route starts descending and we’re nowhere near the elevation of the looming Monte Baldo peak way up there in the left-side of the windscreen. We pass through Ferrara di Monte Baldo, a picturesque little township much nicer than a Google search suggests, and thereafter this road gets bloody serious.
From here, the SP8 gets narrower and steeper still, firing up the side of a mountain in the obscurity of tree lining, before popping out into the sunshine through a succession of hairpin turns near the Alpine villages and ski fields around Cambrigar.
It’s about here where an Audi Allroad diesel rounds me up, blasting by at about 200km/h and fast becoming a small blip on the thin ribbon of blacktop that sways to-and-fro across the landscape ahead, which is now leaning about 45 degrees against the far horizon. The wagon disappears for off at a crest at the top of hill, an area called Passo Cavallo, which we arrive at shortly after and where we leave the Veneto region and dip into southern Trentino-South Tyrol tip of the Dolomites.
Almost instantly the road, called the SP3 beyond, shrinks into a point where you'd swear it was a single-lane, one-way thoroughfare until a group of motorcyclists on big BMW touring bikes suddenly comes flying around the first of a series of endless blind corners. I prudently drop the GTI’s speed to about 30km/h, partly due to the sheer lack of line of sight corner to corner, but also because of the hair-raising drop-offs to our right, sans Armco, that provide uninterrupted and spectacular views out to the Lessinia nature park in the distance and the mighty Alps beyond.
I would love to stop, admire and pump off a few pics of the incredible scenery, but there are no verges or turnouts on which to park. It's a dangerous place for such tomfoolery, so we press on in hope that terra firma becomes a little more horizontal, and in hope that we'll find a more open vantage point.
Soon enough it does. After a few nail-biting, slow-moving kilometres, the manicured hot mix becomes more relaxed as it sweeps and dives across green hills glowing under the bright Italian sunlight. We stop for a while to take in the cool Alpine air and the near silence bar the occasional "moo" from dairy cows sat happily by the roadside near the farms they call home, and who seem utterly nonplussed by Aussie tourists shoving smartphones in their faces.
Shortly thereafter, we arrive at the chairlift station at the back of Monte Baldo’s peak. There are no crowds – barely anyone about, in fact – and there's a heap of parking. Given we've driven most of the way up towards the Monte Baldo peak, it’s a quick five-minute, five-Euro trip to the summit and arguably the best views of anywhere in this part of the Alps. Too easy.
The views atop Monte Baldo are as good as brochures promise. We get our hiking fix for about an hour-and-a-half and then grab the cable car down the 1800m descent to Malcesine, a stiff 22 Euro round trip. Big mistake. Not because of the town, which is beautiful, colourful and has wonderful Italian food, but because you have to line up with four billion German holidaymakers to get back on the cable car.
It's an hour’s wait in line, which extends another 45 minutes when the cable car breaks down for reasons its operators aren’t keen to divulge. But we must persevere because the GTI is parked about a kilometre and a half up above us on the far side of the mountain.
A word of warning about dawdling about at the top of Monte Baldo: it's hard yakka. Bring your ticker and your walking shoes, though dodgy Lycra and walking sticks are purely optional. Having taken no note about what time the chair lift down to our turbocharged steed closes for business, it's a heart- and leg-burning march up a deceptively steep hill from the cable car complex to the chair lift station.
Back in the GTI's tartan-trimmed saddle, we've got a choice. We could backtrack. Or we can continue along the SP3 for another 20 kays to Brentonico, a drive that, from our vantage point, appears to twist and curl onwards along the backside of the mountain range north, which is in the complete opposite direction to our base camp at the south-western tip of Lake Garda.
But with all of the time-wasting cable car frivolity and digging around Malcesine's nooks, crannies and restaurant menus, we now opt for our original plan – and third option – of returning to civilisation in as short shrift as possible. That route heads directly east, essentially straight down the mountainside, a mere 17 kilometres to at the small town of Avio that's parked right at the side of the A22 autostrada. And I’m glad we did.
The downhill run to Avio (SP230 onto SP208) from Monte Baldo is a bit more enjoyable from behind the wheel and less stressful for The Better Half despite the fact that, here, I can let the GTI more enthusiastically off its leash. Even in descent, the only route heading east away from the Monte Baldo peak is more the thrill-a-second, with better line of sight and far fewer nail-biting drop-offs.
It'd be an absolute blast in ascent and I could probably dig further into the hot hatch's talents but with the sun creeping towards the western horizon and the light on this darkened side of the mountain getting dimmer by the moment, I'll have to leave that exploration for another day and another trip.
There are a few more pluses for this reasonably compact 17-odd-kilometre route. There's plenty of Tarmac width, the surface itself is smooth and grippy, and it's easy to choose lines and attack corners. Better still, bar one or two motorcyclists, this corner of the Domomite mountains seems almost deserted. It’s a reasonably steep descent, too, but with its decent stopping power combined with strong engine braking (in Sport drive mode) there's no chance of the GTI running out of anchors.
Here's a tip for detractors who wonder why you'd need two navigation screens in a VW or Audi fitted with digital dash. When you're improvising your route in an unknown environment, it's handy to zoom in one screen for the road ahead, zoom the other out to include your target destination. That way you can glance at the former for challenges immediately ahead, such as a succession of hairpins (see the pic above), while also keeping tabs on heading in the right general direction. Works an absolute treat for long-distance European bombing or exploring backroads in the Alps.
In places, the road carves its way under rocky overhangs in the side of the mountain, in others you’re treated to views of nearby mountain vistas compelling enough to force you to stop and capture on your smartphone camera for posterity’s sake.
Avio arrives all too quickly. We repeat the prior day's practice and jump the fast lane on the A22 autostrada for a relatively short 70-kay sprint back to home base at the bottom of Lake Garda.
As complete loop as sampled, our combined Monte Baldo route offers some of the best balance of happy-snapping touring and grin-plastering punting. That The Better Half and I manage to squeeze in trekking Monte Baldo and lakeside dining in Malcesine on the same day made for the highlight of our short, cash-strapped Northern Italian trip.
Photos by Curt Dupriez, Sonia Blaskovic and Trent Nikolic