Image credit: Casey Fyfe
There is something enthralling about the open road; sometimes it’s full of terrific twists and turns, which captivate us with their infinity, and sometimes it just takes us over with bouts of adrenaline rushes and intrigue kicks into high gear.
Jumping behind the wheel to experience an ultimate road-trip is fascinating in itself, but with these scenic drives, a few things are guaranteed: the landscape defeats all superlatives and is often interspersed with fascinating history and surprising highlights.
Deemed Germany’s Tuscany, the German Wine Route or Deutsche Weinstrasse stretches from Schweigen-Rechtenbach on the French border to Bockenheim in the north, about 30 minutes from Mannheim. The 85-kilometre wine route is believed to be the oldest in the world and encompasses some first-class wineries and vineyards, where travellers can stop by for exquisite wine and culinary tastings. As the road cuts through the foothills of the Palatinate Forest, off the west bank of the Rhine river, the region becomes extremely scenic and boasts characteristic tiny villages such as Sankt Martin — a postcard-perfect wine village renowned for its half-timbered houses, gazebos and high-round ancient archways. Here, there is also an impressive UNESCO World Heritage church that hosts Gothic art treasures as well as the 13th-century Kropsburg Castle, which has been revamped as a restaurant and tavern.
What’s also surprising is the route’s incredible Mediterranean vibe (there are kiwi plantations, fig trees and oleander), but its ultimate charm comes from the panoramic vine landscape, rich wine culture and small quaint towns that dot the area. In spring, the hilly region of the Palatine is another story — magnolia trees are in full-bloom, coating the villages in a pinkish hue — and in autumn not only is there a more relaxed tempo for leaf-peeping but also a reason to celebrate the 590th edition of Dürkheim Wine Festival (11-15th and 18th-21st September 2015), which takes place in the spa town of Bad Dürkheim.
From above, the incredible Großglockner High Alpine Road in East Tyrol appears to be dancing on Austria’s highest mountain. Sliced between the states of Salzburg and Carinthia, the road delivers travellers to the heart of the Hohe Tauern National Park — the largest reserve in the Alps, which encompasses sweeping alpine meadows, fragrant mountain forests, massive cliffs and eternal ice — and to the foot of the Großglockner mountain from where you can take various hikes or a funicular to the massive Pasterze Glacier. Also at the foot of the mountain is the picturesque village of Heiligenblut, where you can visit the lovely Gothic church of St. Vincent.
Back on the 48-kilometre serpentine road (do keep in mind that Großglockner High Alpine Road is a toll road and is open only in summer usually May to late-October) expect to be welcomed by 36 hairpin curves and a real heart-in-the-mouth drive that leads travellers to multiple lookout-points where they can soak the incredible panoramic vistas. Farther on, your drive can fling you away over the mountain pass to Salzburg, where you can follow ancient trails. Finds like pre-Celtic bronze knives, Celtic gold jewellery and a Roman Hercules statue are proof that this road was already well-trodden from the ancient times.
The pearls of Andalucia
A drive on Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos or Road of the White Villages whisks you to Spain’s seductive Iberian Peninsula, in the far south-west of Andalucia, where you will be dazzled by the maze of white-washed villages carved into cliffs, flamenco bars, prehistoric cave paintings and bountiful cuisine. The road itself easily manages to distil the essence of the entire region; as most of the pueblos are located in Cádiz and Málaga provinces, their design and aura are mostly Arabic.
Dotting the lush hillsides, these stark white dwellings are an attraction themselves and reveal a rich cultural heritage. The gateway to Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos is Arcos de la Frontera — the reigning king of Andalucia’s pueblos blancos — where you can explore impressive churches, palaces and towers.
In the land of the midnight sun
If you fancy the frigid air of the Arctic Circle and the beautiful light of the midnight sun, then Norway’s Lofoten Islands should be placed high on your bucket list. The entire archipelago brims with postcard-worthy sights and amazing natural scenery at every turn. On the Lofoten National Tourist Route in the county of Nordland, you will have the chance to whoosh on a 230-kilometre-long stretch of road between the bridge across Raftsundet in the north to the oddly-named village of Å (which is deemed as a living history museum complete with a blacksmith’s workshop and a 19th-century bakery) in the south, as well as stop in Svolvær and Leknes, two urban centres known for quaint museums and galleries and boat trips around the area.
But what’s truly amazing is the drive through Lofoten’s jaw-dropping scenery and the vibrant coastal culture. From rugged vistas of the untamed ocean to a background of serrated alpine peaks, the road provides a journey to remember amid Norway’s most breathtaking region. Along the route, there are photos stops designed for road-trippers to soak up panoramas they will never tire of. There are also viewing platforms and bird observation towers as well as lobster-red rorbuer (fisherman’s hut) perched on stilts overlooking the jagged stone walls that have long inspired aesthetes. To get a full-picture of the island’s history, pop by Lofotens Hus, a Henningsvær gallery housed in a former fish processing factory, which presents the most important painting collection from the Golden Age of North Norwegian artists.
Forty shades of green
Ever since Victorian times, Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula has drawn travellers to its mysterious ancient forts and grass-covered craggy cliffs sloping down into the waters of the North Atlantic. Today, the peninsula is as famous as ever, especially as it boasts the Ring of Kerry — a 193-kilometre scenic circuit, which skirts the edge of Iveragh Peninsula and reaches out into the Atlantic on the island’s south-west extremity. It’s true that travellers cum drivers who want to explore the Ring of Kerry route are firstly attracted to the mosaic of rugged coast and steep mountains, but it’s also worthy to keep in mind that the area has a rich legacy — there are numerous small towns, welcoming villages and ancient Celtic sites, which will satiate any history lover.
The predominately coastal Ring actually starts and ends inland — at Killarney, a historic town located in an enchanting spot within Ireland’s oldest protected wilderness, the Killarney National Park. Stop here for a lovely tableau of mountains, sparkling lakes, monuments such as the 15th-century Ross Castle, and the country’s only remaining herd of wild red deer. And if Celtic culture is on your mind, head to Kenmare, where you can visit the mystical Stone Circle (locally known as The Shrubberies) — a mini Stonehenge with 15 heavy boulders orientated around certain solar and lunar events, such as the position of the sun on the horizon on a solstice.
Back in the heart of the town, take some time to let the ‘Irishness’ sink in at the local pub, where friendly locals will surely recommend the best stout and merrily wish you “sláinte” (good health) in Gaelic.