hidden europe 7

Taking the high road

by Nicky Gardner


France's Cime de la Bonette road is often feted as "la plus haute route d'Europe". But is this really true? We drive some of Europe's highest roads and track down the real record holders

Many routes claim to be Europe's highest road. One US guidebook hypes the rather modest road from Granada in Spain up to the ugly ski-resort of Solynieve, and many are the transatlantic visitors to Europe who have gone home thinking that they really have driven a route in the record books - even though nowadays the road is closed to motorised traffic above the ski-resort, and certainly up to that point it claims no records at all.

In Romania, the Transfagarasan road is sometimes mentioned as a possible contender. It is, to be sure, one of the finest drives anywhere in Europe, a spectacular and well engineered transect across one of the wildest areas of the Balkans. But no records here for sure!

And the Alps of course throw up a bevy of contenders. Strangely, the route that features in all the record books - the La Bonette road in the French Alps - turns out to have some rivals. hidden europe has been criss-crossing Europe in search of the continents highest road.

On the whole we tend not to go for conventional records. It is true that we once made a detour in search of Slovakia's lowest point, and then, enthused by the eccentricity of the moment, decided to do the same for Andorra. Lowest points, generally only geographically meaningful in landlocked countries, often turn out to be wet, unmarked and unsung, whereas the highest points in many countries frequently demand consummate mountaineering skills or, if they are more accessible, then they tend to be a tad too crowded for comfort. Witness the day trippers who jostle to stand on the Zugspitze, the summit on Bavaria's border with Austria that happens to be, at 2,966 metres, the highest point in Germany. Of course, for hidden europe we have also chased down other quirky oddities that don't feature in the regular record books. Like Europe's longest trolleybus route (issue no. 5), some of the continent's smallest museums, Slovenia's only island (both in issue no. 4) and the southernmost and northernmost buildings in the British Isles (issue no. 6).

There was a moment a long time ago, even before the internet had been invented, when I found myself with a bicycle and a day to spare in a little corner of southeast Switzerland that still seems to be lost in time, a remote valley that even the little red trains of the Rhätische Bahn (RhB) haven't yet reached. The villages of the Val Müstair are very fine, to be sure: Santa Maria huddled around its little Gothic church, and the Benedictine convent of St John outside Müstair itself, with its rich figurative murals and Romanesque frescos. But my map showed a road that beckoned, leading south out of Santa Maria via tortuous curves to Umbrail in Italy, and then on to the summit of the Passo dello Stelvio. This offered the prospect, I figured, of not only visiting Italy for the first time in my then still young life, but also cycling to the top of what could well be the highest road in Europe. A road that went to 2758 metres, if the cartographers were to be believed. It would be a gross exaggeration to claim that I really cycled the nineteen kilometres from Santa Maria to Stelvio Pass. Rather, I pushed the bike up a road that seemed to get ever steeper, but I did cycle the final stretch, some of it on a gravel road as I recall, to the Italian border post at Umbrail. There the Italian police were so impressed as to applaud this lone cyclist. From the border post it was just a further three kilometres at a steady ten percent gradient up to the top of Stelvio Pass.

A week or two later, and after an exhaustive examination of many maps, I concluded that Stelvio was not the highest mountain pass in the Alps at all.

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