Biking the boot: 6 places you can't miss on a Grand northern Italian motorcycle tour
The Timmelsjoch high mountain pass crosses from Austria into Italy, starting in the Passeiertal valley in South Tyrol and leading over to the Ötztal valley. The route to the top on the Austrian side was opened on 17th July, 1959 after four hard years of intensive labour (much of which was manual with pickaxes and shovels), and of which only 17 months were spent on construction due to the harsh alpine conditions. It was nine years later before the long-awaited link on the Italian side Tyrol was opened to traffic.
As you climb up the pass on the Austrian side you have beautiful vistas opening up, passing famous names linked to high class ski resorts and climbing through pine forests. The road conditions are excellent with good tarmac, wide sweeping bends and many opportunities to stop for pictures.
You soon reach what is called the ‘Top Mountain Crosspoint’; a large complex housing a motorcycle museum, a restaurant and several spectacular viewpoints including ‘The Walkway’, which extends out into the air offering an unrivalled panorama.This is also where the toll station is situated, the cost for a motorcycle is €14 one way and €19 return, this also means entry to all the architectural sculptures and the museum is free.
There is a noticeable difference in the road construction on the Italian side. The terrain is more rugged and rocky, however the views are still incredible, with plenty of opportunities to stop for pictures. There are lots of small roadside cafés to grab a drink as well as some interesting architectural viewpoints.
The route to get down to Lake Garda is beautiful, It starts on a very twisty descent with hairpins galore, whilst offering up the first glimpses of the spectacular lake beneath you. You are likely to come across this stretch of road if you are travelling to Lake Garda from the north.
Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy and a very popular destination for tourists from all over the world. The lake itself has numerous small islands and five main ones, the largest being Isola del Garda which once housed a 13th century monastery.
On our Magellan tour we travel this road en-route to our hotel on the shore of the lake in Maderno. This whole area is by nature full of twisty roads and lovely viewpoints.
The tarmac on the descent is sticky with good grip and wide 180 degree bends, some of which are right on the doorstep of houses so prudence is needed! No need to speed when the views are this good and again, plenty of opportunities to stop for pictures.
Soon you are down in the valley and arrive at a roundabout where you take the exit leading to Riva del Garda, which is a beautiful town on the lake shore. Parking can be found relatively easily for motorcycles right by the ferries and pleasure boats on the water’s edge, from where you have a very short stroll to a plaza with a choice of restaurants and cafés.
The town is resplendent with its Venicion architecture and worth a stroll past the building bordering the lake and into the town itself through the narrow streets. It’s lovely place to stop but also a very popular tourist spot!
Back on the bike, you have a 25km ride to Maderno. South of Maderno it gets built up and is not so pretty however, if you were to ride south of the lake and back north along the eastern shore, you will again pass lovely towns and villages.
The lake is narrow at its northern shores but wide like a misshapen teardrop in the south therefore a tour around the whole lake would take you longer than you may think as the shore length is about 100 miles !
The maximum depth of the lake is around 350m,10 miles wide and 32 miles long at its greatest points.
The Stelvio Pass
The Passo dello Stelvio is a mountain pass in northern Italy which borders Switzerland and rises to an altitude of 2757m (9045ft). It is the highest mountain pass in the eastern Alps and the second highest in the Alps.
The pass is located in the Ortler Alps in Italy between Stilfs (“Stelvio” in Italian) in South Tyrol and Bormio in the province of Sondrio. It is about 75 km (47 mi) from Bolzano and a mere 200 metres from the Swiss border. The Umbrail Pass runs northwards from the Stelvio’s western ramp, and the “Three Languages Peak” (Dreisprachenspitze) above the pass is so named because this is where the Italian, German, and Romansh languages meet.
For those who follow (or perhaps followed) the original Top Gear programme, the Stelvio Pass is synonymous with Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May taking their supercars along what they at the time described a being the best driving road in the World!
Bormio is as good a starting point as any as, if you want to do this road justice, you want to ride up the pass, over the other side and up the way meaning you have just come down then back to your starting point!
The bends can be quite technical and tight however, you will see many different bikes from Goldwings, Harleys and Sportsbikes to mopeds tackling them and by the time you have ridden up and down twice, you will have become very familiar with how to attack each bend whilst keeping within your own comfort zone.
Many people are intimidated with its reputation however, the biggest problem on this road is other road users!
There are many areas to stop on both sides to park and take a break, we recommend stopping at the very top of the pass where there is a large hotel, restaurant and viewpoint.
After all those hairpins you will be needing a break!
proved to be a very popular tourist attraction. The shape of the lake resembles that of a stick man therefore, to say that you should visit the east or west side is not strictly accurate as there is more than one east and west side!
This lake has been described as being the most beautiful lake anywhere in the World (Huffington Post) due to not just its beauty but also its microclimate and environment with prestigious villas and villages.
This is not a route full of hairpins or fast riding but rather a relaxing days ride taking in the sights, sampling the local goods and perhaps taking a dip in the cool waters of the lake itself.
The lake is very famous for its villas, many of which have featured in films with some dating back to Roman times. One of the most famous being the Villa Balbianello, which is approximately a 1km walk along the (partially wooded) lake shore from Lenno’s main square.
Villa Balbianello certainly has cinematic pedigree: this was where scenes from Star Wars Episode II and the 2006 James Bond remake of Casino Royale were shot. The reason? It is one of the most dramatic locations anywhere on Lake Como, providing a genuinely stunning marriage of architecture and lake views.
There are many beaches on the shore line, most of which are of the grey pebbly type however, a pair of plastic flip flops puts pay to uncomfortable wading and are quite cheap to buy. The worst beach is probably the first one you will come to on this route (Gera Lario) as this is quite unkempt however, as you ride down the lake the beaches improve markedly.
There are plenty of ferry ports on the lake therefore, if you were to base yourself here for a few days, you can explore quite easily without necessarily having to take the same route twice!
Villages that are worth taking note of are as below:-
Ossuccio is a small charming village on the western side of the lake and is famous for its many ancient churches and also for its Sacred Mount (UNESCO heritage). It sits opposite Isola Comacina (the only island in the Como Lake).
Cernobbio is situated beside the slopes of Mount Bisbino on the western side of the lake and only a short distance from Como. It has an historic centre with some of the houses dating back to the 16th century. It is a small industrial town however, it has a beautiful old quarter and an excellent lakefront.
This is an èlite resort which hosts many exhibitions, congresses and international encounters at various levels. These are mainly held in the prestigious villas such as Villa d’Este, Villa Erba and Villa Bernasconi. Today, Villa d’Este is a luxury hotel with a floating swimming pool.
Tremezzo has a panoramic view directly onto the cape of Bellagio. Nestled in the bay between Cadenabbia and Mezzegra, Tremezzo is protected from stormy weather. Inhabited since the times of the Romans in the Middle Ages (you can still find traces of ancient ruins), the town was involved in the wars between Como and Milan and was part of the defensive system of Isola Comacina. It was destroyed after Como retaliated against Milan’s allies but recovered and became part of the Visconti territory.
Como is an industrial town in the north of Italy and is situated at the southern end of the western branch of Lake Como. It is approximately 50km north of Milan and borders Switzerland (Chiasso). First impressions of Como is that it does not look all that pretty (as with most industrial towns), but once you reach the historic centre of Como with its ancient medieval walls and cobbled streets with the amazing views across the lake, you will change your mind.
There are many more towns and villages along this route with lots of places to stop and relax. Hotels can be expensive especially if you want a lake side view!
The Aosta Valley
The Aosta Valley is an Alpine valley which with its tributary valleys includes the Italian slopes of Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso and the Matterhorn; its highest peak is Mont Blanc (4,810 m or 15,780 ft). This makes it the highest region in Italy.
Covering an area of 3,263 km2 (1,260 sq mi) and with a population of about 128,000 it is the smallest, least populous, and least densely populated region of Italy. Italian and French are the official languages, though much of the native population also speak Valdôtain, a dialect of Arpitan (Franco- Provençal), as their home language; about half of the population can speak all three languages.
Aosta is the capital of the region and a central spot to stay bustling with restaurants and enough choice of accommodation to suit most pockets. There are however many other towns and villages in the area as this is a very popular ski destination in the winter and a walkers paradise in the summer.
Courmayeur, famous for the World Cup Ski championships is one destination that is worth visiting if only to spend the day taking the cable car to the cars to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, which is half a days excursion in itself. This trip is well worth doing in our opinion.
From its height of 3,777m, the Aiguille du Midi and its laid-out terraces offer a 360° view of all the French, Swiss and Italian Alps. A lift brings you to the summit terrace at 3,842m, where you will have a clear view of Mont Blanc.
Those not suffering from vertigo can take a STEP INTO THE VOID, onto a 250 m glass cage out over a 1000 m precipice. A product of modern architectural and technical prowess and a sensational experience.
There is also a long steel gallery of 32m to make the full rotation of the central peak of the Aiguille du Midi. As always, a cafeteria and a souvenir shop are open all year round.
Food and refreshments are available at lunch-time at the Refuge du Plan, 5 minutes’ walk away. A very pleasant break in the mountains!
There are many spectacular roads to take here but the one we are going to recommend is the route from Aosta to Great Saint Bernard.
Aosta to Great Saint Bernard
Various scenes of the famous film “Herbie the Love Bug” were shot on this road, and it is no coincidence, because the stretch between Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses and the Great Saint Bernard Pass, between overhangs and breathtaking panoramic views, remains in the heart of every motorcyclist like none other in Europe.
You can immediately take the Great Saint Bernard Valley or lengthen the road a bit, choosing the variation that will take you to Doues, a picturesque village in the middle of the mountain, in a prime panoramic position. Another location to “taste”, in every sense of the word, is Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses, where the renowned Jambon de Bosses was born, a genuine gastronomic rarity, appreciated by the Romans in the time of their dominion and celebrated every year on the second Sunday in July with a big festival. Past Saint-Rhémy, the road climbs up to 8114 feet of the Great Saint Bernard Pass (don’t forget gloves and heavy sweater!), important alpine passage used since antiquity, as attested to by numerous archaeological finds. It was Saint Bernard himself who constructed here, in the 11th century, the grand hospice that for a long time gave assistance to travellers. Behind his statue, which today dominates the pass, the ancient Roman road carved into the rock is still quite visible.
This route is about 50 miles long with good roads, sticky tarmac and some tight bends.
You can of course carry on into Switzerland then into France keeping Mont Blanc on your left before coming back into Italy. There are plenty of places to stop along the way for some food and a break.