We hear so much about the 30,000 mile Pan-European Highway from Prudhoe Bay all the way down to Ushuaia Patagonia and the Great Silk Route across Central Asia but seldom do we read about the “The best drives in Europe” from the Trollstigen, short but supremely scenic stretch of mountain road in the Rauma region of Norway, to the 800 mile circumnavigation of Iceland reached via ferry from northern Denmark (with quick stop on the Faroe Islands)! We intend to drive all these European roads having already completed some of them before taking delivery of the CS Independent 4x4 Sprinter. These are roads cut through brilliant landscapes leaving all the busy motorways far behind.
1. Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, Austria
There’s little wonder that fast sports car and motorcycle enthusiasts head to the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse – High Alpine Road, which passes through the Hohe Tauern National Park. It’s not just the stunning, seemingly limitless views over the range of 37 mountains as the road climbs to 2,504 metres that draw them in, but a series of 36 challenging, tyre-squealing hairpin bends too.
Fortunately there’s plenty of variety to keep camper van drivers happy as well as the road soars through an ever-changing landscape of flowering or pine-clad hills, dramatic, barren, rocky cliff faces, verdant meadows, lakes and glaciers as well as penetrating the mountain peaks of the Alps.One place to visit en route includes the Alpine Nature Show museum highlighting the area’s natural ecosystems. Starts: At Bruck in the Salzburg valley, and continues through the Ferleiten toll entrance. Ends: Carinthia. Length: 30 miles. Time: About an hour, not including stops. Best driven in: Late spring and summer. The route is treacherous in winter and is closed from early November until May. Even when it’s open, visibility can be hampered by dense fog, so check weather forecasts before tackling the route. Top tip: Start early in the morning to beat the hordes of camera-clicking tourists. There is a toll of around €35 (£27) for a private car or around €25 (£19) for a motorcycle.
2. Verdon Gorge circuit, France
Provence is probably the warmest region in France and here’s a drive to experience it at its finest. From one of the south’s livelier little historic market towns, it reaches through natural grandeur to spiritual splendour, indicating along the way how man has, for centuries, lived in this part of France.
The trip rises gently at first, then sharply (and on some testing rustic roads) to villages like Tourtour, perched high not for prettiness but for defence. With vaulted streets and ramparts, they give a stirring account of their past.
Both higher yet, and much, much deeper, are the Verdon gorges, Europe’s version of the Grand Canyon.
With drops of 2,000ft directly down, they afford the Continent’s most dramatic driving as you head back south, around Sainte-Croix lake and down, more gently now, to Thoronet Abbey, whose austere majesty tells you more than you might want to know about the power of faith. You have 20 minutes back to Lorgues to ponder this.
Starts: Round trip from Lorgues; road numbers: very many. Consult Michelin Maps 114 or 245. Length: 115 miles. Time: You could do it non-stop in four hours, but that would be pointless. These hill roads require care, and you’ll want to stop frequently. Allow a full day. Best driven in: Late spring, late summer or early autumn: the gorges can get clogged in high summer. Start early in the morning, to save rushing later on. Top tips: Start with a full tank from Lorgues. Elsewhere, petrol stations are scarce. And, though perfectly safe, this isn’t a trip for those with no head for heights.
3. Romantische Strasse, Germany
With its fairy-tale castles, palaces, imposing walled towns and natural wonders, this winding route through the southern German states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg earn its name of Romantic Road. There’s architectural romance from the outset at Würzburg’s Residenz, a palace whose grand central staircase is overtopped by a vast ceiling fresco of the four continents, by Tiepolo.
Next is the picturesque medieval wine village of Tauberbischofsheim and then – following the Tauber river upstream – the spa town of Bad Mergentheim. There is a moated castle at Weikersheim but more impressive still are the ramparts at Rothenburg ob der Tauber, circling a breathtaking medieval townscape.
After the pretty walled city of Dinkelsbühl the route penetrates the eerily bare landscape of the Ries, a 15½-mile crater formed by a giant meteorite 15 million years ago, before crossing the Danube at Donauwörth then into the foothills of the Alps past the town of Landsberg am Lech, with the Romantic Road terminating at Füssen. Starts: Würzburg – follow the Romantische Strasse and local roads B25, B17. Ends: Füssen. Length: 220 miles. Time: Best enjoyed over several days to allow for sightseeing. Best driven in: Spring, summer and autumn when longer, lighter days highlight the beauty of the Alps. Top tip: Leave room in your boot for stocking up on the excellent local dry white wines.
4. Route One, Iceland
No landscape in Europe comes near the spectacular extremes of Iceland’s volcanoes, lava fields, ash deserts, waterfalls, hot springs and geysers. And the best way to see them is from the great Route One road, which circumnavigates the island. In some parts it is so remote from civilisation that the last link in the circuit was only completed in 1974, and some sections are still laid to gravel rather than tarmac.
Highlights include the stretches skirting the rocky vistas of the south coast, the extraordinary bleak, though beautiful, crossing of the north-east ash fields (here you can take a short diversion to the thunderous waterfall at Dettifoss), the hot springs at Myvatn, and whale-watching at Husavik (another detour) on the north coast.
The western section of Route One cuts the corner of a particularly scenic stretch of coast – the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes peninsula – so allow a day or two extra to explore these. Starts: Reykjavik. Length: 800 miles. Time: Allow a week to 10 days. Best driven in: July or August. Top tip: Make sure you drive a 4x4 vehicle if you go off road.
5. Ring of Kerry, Ireland
The Ring of Kerry is justly famous: encircling Ireland’s Iveragh peninsula takes in some of the island’s most remarkable landscapes. The splendid scenery of the Killarney National Park, with its lakes and green uplands, opens and closes the drive; and the Macgillicuddy’s Reeks mountain range looms over the area.
You can break your journey in historic Cahersiveen, or Glenbeigh with its fine beach – and exchange landscapes for seascapes: the pounding Atlantic is an ever-present influence here. Out on the farthest reaches of the peninsula lie the fishing harbours at Ballinskelligs and Portmagee, which offer trips out to the distant Skellig islands, and beyond, green and gentle Valentia island at the end of the earth.
Make your way back via Sneem, with its ancient ringfort at Staigue, then on to Kenmare with its fine restaurants. Take in the spectacular views from Moll’s Gap, before returning to Killarney.
Starts: Traditionally, the Ring begins and ends in Killarney: from here, take the N72 to Killorglin, then join the N70 around the Iveragh peninsula to Kenmare, before returning to Killarney on the N71. Length: 110 miles. Time: It can be completed in the course of a long summer’s day. If you have the time, however, consider two days to undertake a full circuit in daylight. Waterville, with its spectacular golf links, is a good overnight spot. Best driven in: Summer, but bear in mind that the roads out on the peninsula are narrow and get busy with tourist traffic. Out of season, the area is quieter – but the weather here can be distinctly inclement! Top tip: The Ring is traditionally undertaken in a counterclockwise direction from Killarney, the better to manage traffic on those narrow roads.
6. Spoleto to Norcia and the Monti Sibillini loop, Italy
This short but spectacular day’s drive out of Spoleto is like a landscape opera in a prologue, three acts and an encore – the latter as you repeat the Spoleto-Norcia stretch on the return journey. The prologue is the gentle, summery, olive-clad plain surrounding the cultured Umbrian hilltown that is your starting point.
A three-mile-long tunnel gives the stagehands time to change the set for Act 1: the Valnerina, a cool, steep-sided green valley dotted with solid stone-built villages that have a vaguely Alpine feel. More bucolic, Act 2 begins with a sweeping vista across a fertile upland plain to the handsome walled town of Norcia, famous for its truffles, sausages and Benedictine monastery, with the Sibillini mountains looming behind.
It’s these that provide the drama of Act 3: the road begins to climb steeply up to Passo di Gualdo, where the Piano Grande, an upland valley famous for its lentils, and the rainbow tapestry painted by its wildflowers, suddenly appears in all its glory. Starts: Spoleto – take road numbers: SS3, SS685, SS320 from Spoleto to Norcia, then local roads to Preci, Visso, Castelluccio and back to Norcia, returning to Spoleto on the same route. Length: 101 miles. Time: Allow just over three hours’ actual driving. Allowing for time for sightseeing and lunch, this makes for a perfect short day’s outing. Best driven in: Late May or early June when the crocuses, fritillaries and lentils are in flower, turning Piano Grande into a carpet of shifting colours. Top tip: At 1,452m, the village of Castelluccio is higher than Ben Nevis – so come prepared for snow, even late in the season, though the roads are usually well gritted.
7. Trollstigen, Norway
Dramatic, cascading waterfalls, 11 tight hairpin bends, breathtaking mountain views, vertiginously steep inclines and awe-inspiring glimpses of the twisting route unfolding before your very eyes are what draw thrill-seeking travellers to the Trollstigen route in Norway’s Rauma region.
Troll’s Ladder or Troll’s Path in English, the mountain road is studded with strikingly designed viewing platforms offering limitless photographic opportunities – or just the chance to gaze out over the 1,050ft-high Stigfossen waterfall, which motorists also cross on an arched, stone bridge. Some of the best views of all are from the 2,300ft plateau where there’s a car park and visitor centre, although the joy of driving the narrow road itself, often lined with rows of jagged stones, is what attracts many.
Despite the popularity of the route – and houses dotting mountain ledges and crags in the most improbable places – it’s the powerful sense of isolation in a vast landscape that makes this route feel special. That, and the adrenalin rush from negotiating the generally well-surfaced twists and turns. Starts: At the town of Andalsnes in Rauma – take Country Road 63. Ends: At the village of Valldal in the Norddal Municipality. Length: Around four miles. Time: Allow two to three hours to include sightseeing stops – and the many photographic opportunities. Best driven in: Summer only; this route is closed from late autumn through winter. Top tip: Although vehicles over 41ft long are banned, watch out for large oncoming vehicles on the tight bends.
8. The Transfagarasan, Romania
Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson in his search for the “world’s best driving road” declared that he had found it in the middle of Romania – in the form of the Transfagarasan highway. Whichever way you look at it, it is an extraordinary feat of engineering: a stretch of tarmac packed with tunnels, viaducts and bridges and which takes the skill of navigating hairpin bends to new heights.
The road was the creation of Romania’s communist-era leader Nicolae Ceausescu, who wanted to ensure that in the event of a Soviet invasion there had to be a speedy way of escaping through the strategic mountain passes of the Southern Carpathians.
Drive it from north to south and you will gasp repeatedly at the sheer audaciousness of it all. Stretched over more than 50 miles, the Transfagarasan should be on your “must drive” list. Starts: Curtea de Arges – take road number DN7C. Ends: Cartisoara. Length: 71 miles (the hairpin bends are concentrated in the central section). Time: Allow three to four hours. Best driven in: Summer/autumn. The road is usually closed from late October until late June because of snow (signs at Curtea de Arges and Cartisoara provide information). Top tip: Break the journey with lunch at the glacial lake of Balea; drive it as part of a longer itinerary taking in the wonderful Transylvanian cities of Sibiu, Brasov and Sighisoara.
9. North Coast 500, Scotland
If you want a genuine slice of Scottish Highlands life combined with some spectacular views, the North Coast 500 is the ideal route. The 500-mile circular trip skirts the top of the United Kingdom and captures all the mysticism and romance of the area. It is the stops that make the trip, as much as the windy and often single-tracked road that meanders its way along the coast.
A brief walk outside Ullapool sees you peering into the horizon for stunning views across to Skye and the Outer Hebrides. Take a quiet A-road just south of Wick and find the Grey Cairns of Camster, 5,000-year-old burial chambers that those who dare can still crawl inside.
Castle ruins, smugglers’ caves, emerald lochs and a fair few distilleries are all scattered along the route. Few drives get to the heart of a country’s ancient heritage like the North Coast 500. Waterproofs, walking boots and a hip flask of Rusty Nail (half Drambuie and Scotch whisky) should be among the packing essentials. Starts: Inverness. Length: 500 miles. Time: Allow at least four days. Best driven in: Autumn, as the leaves turn brown and mist hangs off the lochs. Top tip: Plan more time than expected between destinations, so you can stop off regularly for walks and visits along the way.
10. The Maloja Pass, Switzerland
The Maloja Pass (Passo del Maloja, Malojapass) is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 1,815m (5,955ft) above sea level, located in the Swiss Alps in the canton of Graubünden, linking the Engadin with the Val Bregaglia and Chiavenna in Italy. The road includes some steep sections and the surface is asphalted. The pass is sometimes called 'the pass that never was' due to its geographical peculiarity.
The drive is definitely worth it. It's probable that the Maloja was already used in pre-Roman times; The Romans built a fully fledged road over it which crumbled in tune with the Roman Empire. The pass was never of primary importance and only gained a lot of traffic in the 19th century connecting Northern Italy to the Engadin.
It marks the watershed between the Danube and Po basins.
This pass is very unusual as it is flat on the northern side but very steep in the south with a sudden drop down to Bergell.
The name of this amazing mountain pass is believed to go back to the shepherds of this region in neighbouring Veltlin - meaning little alder forest. Highlights if this pass are its beginning and end points especially delightful Bregell in the south. The routes has some very steep s-bends and goes through remote mountain villages. Chiavenna is very lively.
Starts: Silvaplana Lakes in the North. Length: 50 miles. Time: 3 hours. Best driven in: Summer and Autumn Top tip: The Maloja Pass is open in winter. However, after heavy snowfalls the road may be closed for a couple of hours or for an entire day. Even if open, the road might be covered with snow making snow/winter tyres, or chains, a necessity.