From a route taken by one of European’s most famous military figures to a pair of Alpine roads steeped in motorsport history, our collection of the best roads to drive in Europe are guaranteed to put a smile on your face - and maybe teach you a thing or two along the way.
Route Napoléon (France)
As its name suggests, Route Napoléon is steeped in French history. On his return from Elba in 1815, Napoléon and his band of 1,100 soldiers marched north from Golfe-Juan, situated to the east of Cannes, to Grenoble. Napoléon planned to overthrow Louis the 18th, but today the route is enjoyed for more peaceful reasons.
It took Napoléon and his men the best part of a week to complete the journey, but today, if you set off at breakfast, you’ll be enjoying dinner in Grenoble before nightfall. That’s if you’re not tempted to stop for a light lunch or to enjoy the magnificent scenery along the way.
The modern Route Napoléon was inaugurated in 1932 and is marked by a series of statues of the French Imperial Eagle. It starts on the coast at Golfe-Juan and really gets going once you’ve hit the town of Grasse.
Depending on the time of year, one minute you could be cruising through a sun-drenched village, the next minute you could be making your way through snow banked up along the side of the road. The views are spectacular, the mountains are breathtaking and the historical significance of the route just adds to the sense of occasion.
As a bonus, unlike many Alpine passes, Route Napoléon isn’t the most technical road in the world, allowing you and your passengers to enjoy the drive, rather than concentrating on not falling off the edge of a mountain!
The Klausen Pass (Switzerland)
Altdorf – capital of the Swiss canton of Uri and the place where, according to legend, William Tell shot the apple from his son’s head.
After having stopped to admire the William Tell memorial in the centre of Altdorf, make your way out of town and you’ll chance upon an inconspicuous sign pointing to the Krausenstrasse.
It’s a blink and you’ll miss it affair, but it marks the entry point to one of Europe’s most famous motorsport venues – the legendary Klausen Pass. This was the home of the Klausenrennen – a fiercely competitive hillclimb spread across 13.4 miles of mountain roads.
Between 1922 and 1934, fearless drivers tackled the 136 corners, tunnels and sheer drops, either oblivious to the dangers or simply hellbent on finishing first. Today, the route is no less challenging, while the views remain spectacular.
You’ll need your wits about you: some sections of the Klausen Pass are barely wide enough for two cars, while the short tunnels demand respect. Sadly, the original tunnel has long since been bypassed.
Transfagarasan Highway (Romania)
The Transfagarasan Highway doesn’t have any motorsport heritage to its name, but it is one of the most challenging and historical (not to mention stunning) roads in Eastern Europe.
The DN7C, to give it its less evocative name, is the second highest road in Romania, boasting the longest road tunnel in the country,
Its nickname of ‘Ceausescu’s Folly’ provides a hint of this road’s infamous past. It’s the creation of Nicolae Ceausescu, the head of Romania from 1965 until his execution in 1989.
For the communist leader, the 56-mile route would be a way to mobilise troops and move military machinery.
The road was completed in 1974, four years after soldiers had started blasting their way through Transylvania’s Fagaras mountain range. Thousands were involved and at least 38 people died during the road’s construction.
The result was a spectacular ribbon of road – one of the best in Europe.
Though the loss of life and colossal waste of resources cannot be underestimated, the Transfagarasan Highway has to be driven to be appreciated. Either hire a car from Bucharest or go all out by driving from the UK.
Trollstigen – or the Troll’s road – is a 66-mile mountain road crisscrossing the UNESCO-protected Geirangerfjord region of Norway. With a incline of 9% and no fewer than 11 hairpin bends, this isn’t one for the fainthearted.
After eight years of construction, the road opened in 1936 and takes in views of mountains with names such as the King, the Queen and the Bishop. Drive the Trollstigen and you might start to think of yourself as a driving god.
Unlike the Transfagarasan, a road that failed to recognise those who sacrificed their lives during construction, the bends on the Trollstigen are named after the foremen who led the teams who built the road.
In places, the Trollstigen is barely wide enough for a single car, while the threat of sudden rock falls should not be overlooked. Also watch out for trolls, as legend has it they wander through the mountains every night, changing to stone when they are hit by the morning sunlight!
Grossglockner High Alpine Road (Austria)
Back in the 1930s, the Austrian hills were alive with the sound of engines. The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, or High Alpine Road, is the highest surfaced road in Austria and the former home of a gruelling mountainclimb event.
In its day, mountainclimbing (hillclimbing) was the most important form of motorsport behind Grand Prix racing, with the Grossglockner playing host to fierce battles and the glorious spectacle of Auto Unions and Mercedes hurtling toward the summit at Franz Josefs Höhe. The road itself was inaugurated in the summer of 1935.
Back then, the 15.7-mile route would have been a perilous mix of gravel and cobbles, but today the High Alpine Road is coated in a layer of tarmac, with cars protected by crash barriers to prevent catastrophic incidents.
You won’t be alone when you reach the peak – there’s even a multi-storey car park at the top – but the road is a magnificent test of man and machine. You just need to be aware that coaches and camper vans will be travelling at a much slower pace than you.
As with all mountain passes, check the road is open before making travel arrangements. The Grossglockner High Alpine Pass is open from early May to early November, with tolls payable before entry. Last entrance is 45 minutes before the night lock.