On a great drive, the destination never surpasses the journey. In Europe, with the densest highway system in the world, good roads are easy to find, but great drives come once in a blue kilometer.
The drives that follow are more than means to an end, more than concrete curls along countryside contours or asphalt assaulting towering peaks. They transcend the danger of the road, the thrill of driving, or the response of a well-tuned machine. Rather, they are sublime sensuous weaves of man-made and natural beauty.
1. The Amalfi Drive, Italy. The Amalfi Drive winds for 45 miles along sheer rock cliffs just south of Naples and Pompeii. Though traveled for centuries, the drive with only a squat three-foot wall separating the road from a precipitous drop to the sea, still retains an unspoiled grandeur. The day-long Amalfi Drive is best experienced traveling south from legendary Sorrento, where the sirens sang their deadly songs to Ulysses.
2. The Causeway Coast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Curving around the northeast corner of Ireland, from Larne to Dunluce Castle, a thousand shades of Irish green play against the deep blue of the Atlantic. Here you’ll find the Giant’s Causeway, a fascinating geological structure of crystallized basalt. Legends provide plausible interpretations of its formation. The locals were convinced that the walkway was built by a Scottish giant who upon arriving in Ireland was tricked by the Irish giant, Finn McCool, and retreated to Scotland destroying most of the causeway behind him, thus the name for the sight.
3. Through the Dolomites, between Bolzano to Cortina, Italy. Far in northern Italy, only a one-hour drive south of the Brenner Pass and two hours north of Verona, the soft Dolomite limestone and the winds of erosion have created a fantasy lunar-like landscape where the shifting play of light creates colors that change with the moment. Head for the jagged hills on this 65-mile winding road squeezed between sharp peaks. The tortuous route weaves its way through spectacular scenery from Bolzano to Cortina.
4. Around the island of Madiera, Portugal. Plan an early start for this full-day drive twisting and turning — kilometers along the coast and across the rugged interior of Madiera. Start from the capital city, Funchal, and head counterclockwise around the island. The road tunnels through cliffs, skirts the ocean inches above the raging surf and passes not under, but through a waterfall — you’ll swear you’re in a movie. After successfully timing the surge of the ocean, dodging the pounding surf, and splashing through the waterfall you can’t help but step out of the car and breath in the brisk salty wind.
5. The ArdÃ¨che, France. Fifty miles north of Avignon in Provence the emerald ArdÃ¨che River races to the Rhone River between precipitous white limestone cliffs dotted by ancient castles, tiny villages and natural caves and arches. The road curving with the lip of this grand canyon dips to the riverbank and climbs hundreds of feet above the swirling water. There are numerous lookout points with plenty of parking. On hot days, tiny sandy beaches tempt drivers to swim in the surprisingly warm water.
6. The Via Mala and the San Bernadino, Switzerland. Connecting Chur with Belinzona in southeastern Switzerland, the San Bernadino pass provides some of the most dramatic driving of any Alpine crossing. The partially restored castle of Hohen Ratien stands guard over the entrance to the Via Mala, Switzerland’s deepest gorge. Turning off the modern highway the old Via Mala road enters the ominously dark chasm. It clings to the rocky walls with views upwards to but a sliver of sky and down to the ribbon of water thrashing below.
7. The Picos de Europa, Spain. Twenty miles southwest of Santander stands the Picos de Europa, the highest mountain range on the Spanish Atlantic coast. In this perpetually snowcapped fortress the final Christian enclave withstood Moorish attacks and eventually began the Spanish reconquest. The range is encircled by 150-miles of narrow, twisting two-lane roads that for the most part follow rivers which trace the perimeter of the mountain reserve. These roads provide a challenging seven-hour drive and frequent opportunities to explore the rugged mountains themselves. Here changing shades of rough rocks and pliant vegetation combined with the rivers’ wildly swinging shifts and narrow gorges make for a magical drive.
8. The Rhine River, Germany, from Koblenz to Bingen. Castles perch on every possible hilltop and overlook the riverbends; waters swirl below the Loreley; riverboats glide downstream or churn slowly against the flow; and vineyards step down the steep banks. Perhaps no other thoroughfare is so steeped in legend nor praised in story. Over the last few years the drive along the Rhine — once natural and rugged — has been changed by relentless urbanization, which has produced a picture-postcard visage. But even through the traffic the beauty of this valley shines.
9. The Grossglockner Road, Austria. The grandfather of all modern Alpine highways, the road was opened in 1935 and inspired other Alpine road builders to begin the modern road conquest of the Alps. Today the engineers’ esthetic sense of road design still impresses. The modern drive over this pass will take just over three hours with time to scan the alpine peaks. Only open during the summer, the 47-mile drive begins south of Salzberg near the town of Zell am See. The Grossglockner Road skirts storybook waterfalls and weaves through wooded valleys so narrow the sun shines only a few hours a day.
10. The Ullapool to Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland. Northwest Scotland offers the perfect blend of moor with woodlands and sea with mountains. Opposed to anticipation of visual thrills around the bend, this drive has a soothing meditative effect of natural balance. Start with a full tank of gas. Some road stretches may be crowded with tourist traffic but the next turn will bring you back to the solitude of the road and nature. At times only one lane wide and often overrun by wandering sheep, the route offers surprising steep climbs and tortuous turns with incomparable views over the rocky headlands.