The Grossglockner High Alpine Road (Großglockner-Hochalpenstraße) in Austria, referred to hereafter as The Glockner, is known as one of the great Alpine roads of Europe. Only open six months of the year and named after the local mountain, I’ve crossed it several times, in varying weather. I’ve enjoyed the experience, I’ve marvelled at the view and I’ve maybe wished that I was driving something faster and nimbler, without a passenger whose comfort I needed to consider and with less dawdling traffic around. Because it is a fine and challenging road with lots of hairpin bends, long curves and occasional straights and tunnels.
As you cross the top, you can stop to enjoy a drink and meal. The road doesn’t simply go up to a single point then down, so there are a wide variety of views. You can divert to the Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe at the foot of the Grossglockner mountain itself. There are activities and walks. If you go to the Gasthof Fuscherlacke at the right time, you can meet the owner and one or more of his tame marmots. At one of several shops along the way you can get a T-Shirt showing a marmot or a motorbike, or maybe a marmot on a motorbike.
Originally highly popular with motorcyclists, since the bike was once the motorised transport of choice for the impecunious tourist, the number of bikes climbing the Glockner fell to a low point in the late 1960s. However, with the rise in leisure biking, and the rise of the sports bike, you will now find a plethora of motorcycles winding their way up and down, or parked at the top whilst their riders, fully leathered senior account executives from Munich, enjoy a beer and the views.
The road itself is a triumph of 20th Century road building but, in the end, the Glockner is a frivolous road; the first time I went up it I aptly followed a pink Cadillac Eldorado through the toll booth. Unlike the Grand Saint Bernard, a ‘working’ pass whose credentials go back to the Bronze Age and has even seen Napoleon’s armies, it did not evolve, it was created in the 1930s, both as a work project for the unemployed and as a tourist attraction. There are two perfectly suitable north/south lower altitude roads flanking it to serve commercial traffic and those who don’t want to pay the high toll. For this reason, there is something unsatisfying about crossing it, I’m just following in the tyretracks of several generations of tourists.
Not that I’m slagging off tourists. You work hard, you need a break and I’ve been a tourist enough times myself. I’ve driven round whole chunks of Europe, putting tens of thousands of kilometres under my tyres and I’ve always ended up a fortnight later, back where I started, maybe a little wiser in the history of baroque ecclesiastical architecture and with some cute photos of marmots, but exhausted, poorer in funds and usually with some new mechanical gremlin to sort out.
And at least the Glockner goes from somewhere and ends up somewhere else, like a proper road and, anyway, maybe there is something to be said for tourist roads. When on holiday, I’m conscious of those going about their business. And when I’m going about my business, I’m conscious of those who are conspicuously on holiday. Both sides don’t really mix that well. Show someone a picture of a tree-lined French Route Nationale, and they might see themselves cruising along it in an XK120 drophead, a DS Décapotable or the like – it’s a classic tourist road. The reality is that, looming up behind or in front, is the shadow of a 40 tonne Renault Magnum rig whose driver doesn’t want to fork out the high autoroute tolls or, just as the tourist finally manages to overtake the creaking Renault Master they’ve been following for 10km, they see the gendarme and his speed gun – too late.
I love driving interesting roads. I often drive faster than I should or need to and, sometimes, I wish I had the mindset to just relax and enjoy the view. But I always seem to be driving hopefully, rather than arriving. I’ve entitled this piece ‘meandering’ and mentioned leisure but I’m not sure I really know how to indulge in these activities. One day, maybe sooner than we think, the freewheeling motoring holiday will become a thing of the past. Possibly the snows, climate change permitting, will reclaim the Glockner and leave it to the marmots, and I’ll wish I’d meandered a bit better when I had the chance.