Left turn. Right turn. Left turn. Right turn. The slow progress of your car journey up the mountain is backed only by the soundtrack of the driver’s foot moving from the accelerator to the brake pedal, a slight twang each time he lets off the brake.
You soon tire of driving over mountain passes, particularly in the European summer, as the camper van ahead of you slowly creaks its way around five kilometers of tricky hairpin turns at a pace slightly faster than running. You start to whinge and moan inside the car, distracted not by what’s outside, but by the intricacies of steering on such sinuous roads and the unwanted speed limit.
Yet there’s one pass on the border of Switzerland and Italy, which is unlikely to prompt such a reaction. First, because it’s rarely used, but primarily because the scenery is far more rugged and varied than anywhere else in the Swiss Alps, and its barren terrain is enough to make any outdoor enthusiast—no matter how car-bound they might be—pause in excitement.
Rising up from the northern Italian town of Chiavenna, at the very northern tip of Lake Como, the Splügenpass (a.k.a. Passo dello Spluga) weaves up through idyllic yet somewhat desolate Italian villages before reaching steep, ancient hairpin tunnels that take you up to the final village of Monte Spluga (at 1,908 meters before the border, and 2,114 meters on the top of the pass). It’s right at the center of northern Italy; just two passes removed from the Nufenen Pass, Livigno and San Moritz.
Once you’re through these final Italian tunnels, the landscape really makes its presence known. Like the barrenness of Norway, there’s no typical Alpine trademarks like meadows, glistening lakes and Alpine flowers, just giant boulders, murky lakes and that imposing dam. The steepest border in Europe, the pass is directly encircled by mountains that reach up to over 3,000 meters, with higher ones shooting up behind those.
The trails are little used, but well marked and the proprietors in the village of Monte Spluga’s hotel and bar show a willingness to point out the best trails and the open rifugios, showing that typical Italian hospitality. Too far for the Milanese weekend mountain goers, and with too few amenities during the summer to attract many tourists, the Spluga’s trails are used by just a few dedicated outdoor enthusiasts, overshadowed by the publicity machine of San Moritz and Livigno. Around 1,000 meters below the highest point of the pass, the town of Campodolcino welcomes crowds of Italians in the peak holiday weeks in August, but they tend to keep to the lower altitudes, filling their stomachs with polenta and pizzocherie.
Parking just below the dam on the Italian side of the pass, the trail choices are virtually infinite. It’s quiet here, the houses not yet inhabited for the summer, and the wind buffets us. With the light changing and the barren landscape around us, we both stop for a moment, filled with the rich memory of being back in Northern Norway. However, as soon as we are running again with the soundtrack of the ever present whistling of marmots, jingling of the bells from the goats who’ve recently been brought up for the summer and the numerous high alpine birds, we couldn’t be anywhere but the Alps.
We could sit here and write about the spectacular views, the narrow mountainside trails and the stunning nature in abundance here, to anyone who chooses to make the sinuous trip up to Monte Spluga, but we won’t. Instead we’ll let the photos tug at your heart, and we’ll save Spluga’s secrets for those who know.
So like the whisper in your ear from someone offering you a dead-cert winner at the horse races, we say put some money on a trip to Spluga, but please save its secrets because it is these that make it special.