South Tyrol - Day Trip from Seefeld by Car

Description: South Tyrol
Location: Italy
Duration: full day

A day away from the mountains is sometimes necessary on a summer break. A day to relax and enjoy the finer things in life, to shop for fine leather, to drink red wine at lunch ... where else but Italy? Luckily, the hedonism of the south is only a short car journey away from the Seefeld plateau, accessible by a fine (but expensive) motorway or by a scenic (but slow) local road.

A cable car being used to transport milk churns in the South Tyrol

The South Tyrol is, as its name suggests, formerly part of the province of the Tyrol. In fact, in many ways, the South Tyrol has been the cradle of the Tyrolean sense of identity - from the former capital at Meran to the farmhouse where local hero Andreas Hofer was born and brought up.

Nowadays, however, it is firmly part of Italy - although it retains special protection for the German-speaking majority and the Ladin minority. The placenames for example are all written in German and Italian versions (Bozen/Bolzano) and dual language schooling is still compulsory.

The main attractions are easiest visited via the motorway which stretches from Innsbruck all the way down to Verona at the mouth of the Adige valley. The toll on the Austrian side makes this stretch of road one of the most expensive in the world - but, looking at the engineering work that has gone into constucting the Brenner Autobahn and the amount of traffic using it, one can only wonder at how the road links worked before it was finished in 1963.

The route we've chosen runs with the motorway down to Vipiteno (Sterzing in German) before turning up into the mountains and the Jaufen Pass. Join the motorway at the bottom of the Zirlerberg and follow the signs for Italy at the junction near Innsbruck. The toll station for the Brenner motorway is just after the Europa Bridge - the highest in Europe. The road then winds up to the Brenner Pass and into Italy. Take the exit for Vipiteno just after the Italian toll station (small payment on exit) and follow the signs for the Jaufenpass (Passo Giovo in Italian) - be careful not to take the Jaufental exits.

A cable car being used to transport milk churns in the South Tyrol

The Jaufenpass, above the treeline at over 2000 metres, has spectacular views in all directions but especially to the high mountains in the north. A hospice has stood here since the 14th century but finds in the area show that the pass has been used since the Bronze Age.

The descent to St Leonhard in the Passeier valley is narrow and winding and drops 1400 metres in a short distance. At St Leonhard it is possible to take the road south to Meran, the former capital of the Tyrol, or north to the Timmelsjoch and Austria. It is worth taking a small detour south to the birthplace of Andreas Hofer just outside St Leonhard. He is seen as a hero for leading the Tyrolean uprising against the Bavarians and Napoleon in the 19th century. There is a also small museum dedicated to the Passeier valley.

Northwards from St Leonhard the road winds upwards into the isolated and spectacular upper Passeier valley. This route into the Tirol has been used for centuries and, indeed, the upper Ötz valley on the Austrian side of the border was originally settled by immigrants taking this route.

A mountain hamlet in the South Tyrol

The steep sides of the wooded valley after St Leonhard slowly open out to reveal views of the high mountains along the border and the alpine valleys of the Seewer and Schneeberg. The Schneeberg was the home of silver, zinc and lead mines, while smugglers' routes over the passes into Austria led up through the Seewer valley.

The steep route up to the Timmelsjoch - the highest road border crossing in Europe at 2509 metres - was originally built before the Second World War, but the connection to the Austrian side was not completed until 1967. Due to the steep and narrow nature of the pass road, tour buses and caravans are banned from this route, which is only open from June to mid-October.

The village of Sölden in the summer months

On the Austrian side, the toll road leads down to the village of Obergurgl, with beautiful panoramas out over the upper Ötz valley along the way. The Ötz valley - a good destination for a driving tour in its own right - is a high glaciated valley dropping through several distinct levels before reaching the main Inn valley.

There are several worthy side trips in this valley - the Vent valley, leading off from Zwieselstein, or the glacier toll road above Sölden, for example - but it would be hard to do this tour justice and still have time to visit these attractions on the same day.

On reaching the Inn valley the motorway, in direction Innsbruck, will lead back to the town of Telfs. Take the exit "Telfs Ost" and follow the signs for Mösern and Seefeld to climb back to the Seefeld plateau. If a late return to the plateau is planned, the sunsets and evening views from Mösern are well worth stopping for.

NB. The route described here is one of the most rewarding drives in the Alps. However it involves steep climbs and descents, hairpin bends and unprotected drops and should not be undertaken by anyone not confident in their mountain driving skills.

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