If you’re driving a BMW M Coupe, it’s generally not where you’re going that counts, but the pleasure of the journey there. However, when your destination is the Concorso d’Eleganza at Villa d’Este on the banks of Lake Como – where drawing up and stepping out is a lot of fun in itself – that changes things a little. Our trip in this driving machine par excellence took us on a historic route over the San Bernardino Pass.
For some reason, I’m feeling a mild sense of guilt. I park up at the highest point of the San Bernardino Pass, the summit bathed in tranquillity despite the perfect weather; most of the traffic has opted to take the tunnel further down the mountain. Work on the road in its current form began back in 1818, since when horses have hauled stagecoaches to the top, various trailer combinations carrying heavy cargo have fought their way up one side and down the other, and many a penniless traveller has tackled the journey on foot. So I am just the latest in a long line of visitors, but my journey is unlikely to be one of similar drama. In fact, it should be a walk in the park. The M Coupe raises limits and expectations to a height where an Alpine pass at 2,066 metres is no longer enough to pose serious questions.
Take me to Italy!
Striking out from Munich en route to Italy, you’d normally set a course for the Brenner Pass, the southern pathway of choice for as long as anyone can remember. But if you’re heading for Lugano and Lake Como beyond, the preferred, shorter, route is to bear west towards Lake Constance. And so I glide past the town of Lindau, Bavaria’s outpost on the banks of this fine body of water, and continue on through the Pfändertunnel to Austria. From there I aim for Switzerland, following the Rhine south in the well-trodden footsteps of many a trader and traveller. It remains a popular route, and countless trucks, camper vans and cars are heading the same way as me: south.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Thusis spelt the end of a traveller’s comfortable passage, precipitous rock faces blocking their path. This was where the Viamala, the “bad road”, began. And the deep incisions into rock and spectacular views still impress today. You can sense the exacting challenge – and the danger – that lay in store.
Nobody talks about the Viamala nowadays, though. Artful viaducts and tunnels demand little in the way of driving talent, and the traffic – mostly of the “limited to 100 km/h” variety – rumbles effortlessly on, all the way to Italy if their drivers so wish. But I’m keen to give both myself and the M Coupe a little more to think about. So ahead of the 6.6-kilometre San Bernardino Tunnel I take the exit off onto the old mountain pass. As ever, the pass is open for as long as the snow stays away. My luck is in; the “open” signs went up again yesterday.
The Alpine catapult
The M Coupe powers its driver forwards with a distain for compromise that brooks no argument. Mountain passes, with their constant twists and turns, are what this car is all about. This is without doubt one of the most pleasurable ways of crossing the Alps on your way to Italy. But it’s also so amazingly straightforward that, yes, it’s easy to feel slightly guilty; the struggles your predecessors through history had to overcome put the ease of your passage in a sobering context.
I’m joined by a chap on a motorbike, his yellow BMW R 1200 ensuring that there will be nothing heroic about his ascent of the pass either. Like the M Coupe, the bike is capable of so much more than is being asked of it here. We exchange smiles and he nods in my direction: “Nice car”. He’s got a point, I reflect, as I admire the M Coupe against the snow-capped peaks providing such a scenically perfect backdrop. I reward myself with an espresso at the mountain-top inn, the small lake next to it still frozen over.
This is where the languages change and we say Buongiorno to Italy. The descent down the other side of the pass is all about the M Coupe’s brakes. Back in the day, coachmen certainly preferred the journey up to the ordeal back down; they knew that if you lost your stopping ability here you’d be doomed. That’s not a concern the M Coupe needs to dwell on, its muscular legs deploying exceptional anchors at the push of a pedal. Again, slowing this car is hardly an act of heroism.
It’s becoming noticeably warmer the closer I come to sea level. Summer may still be getting its act together further north, but Lugano welcomed its arrival some time ago. And my compass is set for Como, of course, the Mediterranean gem on the lake with which it shares its name. I’m surrounded by the buzzing of scooters now, enveloped in laid-back Italian cool. The traffic keeps flowing, which is the main thing, and the M Coupe is easy to place. Credit here is due not only to the compact dimensions (it measures a little over four metres in length), but also its bonnet, bulging out in front of me, and a tailgate that brings the body to a wonderfully clear conclusion. In addition, side windows were still rather more than arrow slits when the car first went on sale back in 1998. Which is handy in places like this.
Park and look!
It isn’t far from the town of Como to Villa d’Este. This Sunday is a Public Day at the Concorso, which means everyone is cordially invited. If you’re new to the place, there’s no need to learn the route – you just follow the crowds. Whole families flock in an excited convoy to the former bishop’s residence in this exceptionally beautiful lakeside spot. The Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este celebrates cars and motorcycles in all their historical glory, and since 2000 the event has taken place under the patronage of BMW.
Here, it is fine to stand and stare. Indeed, as the past and the future converge amid Mediterranean parkland, it is encouraged. My M Coupe is now safely ensconced in an underground garage, but in the park I encounter one of its flame red relatives. It’s a funny feeling to be suddenly reacquainted with my trusted automotive friend at a historical exhibition.
The less sunny side of life
Pouring rain greets us the morning after the Concorso, the wind whipping streams of water across the road. A sprawling storm front is draping everything in spray and mist. And it’s really quite cold. Up on the San Bernardino Pass the snow has returned. But I shun the option of the tunnel. After all, the quality of a car is also bound up in how safe and secure you feel on board, the sense of protection it provides if things get a little hairy. I’m all on my own now as I head up to the summit and back down the other side. Once again, it’s a walk in the park.
I’m left to conclude that most journeys now no longer involve the heroic feats of yore, especially at the wheel of a car like the M Coupe. What you’re left with is the overwhelming enjoyment a road trip over the Alps can provide. I’d recommend it heartily.