Researching the pass before leaving home we had read that it was ‘easy’ on a wide-tarmacked single highway. This is true enough of the French side but there are also many steep switch-back bends, climbing out, then in, around the mountainside.
Travelling south meant we were on the outside lane with perilous drops at every bend, not all of which had safety barriers and none at the summit of 2094m.
Bertha hauled her way up through snow-capped peaks and through drifts four feet high along the roadside where snow ploughs had pushed a passage three days earlier to open the pass.
At the summit a blue glacial lake shone amid banks of dark grey alluvial sands. Where the snow had melted, the ground was bare rock and slate, with tiny, clinging, alpine flowers just showing their pristine white and purple heads.
From the early Middle Ages the pass was important as a gateway between the Italian peninsula and the rest of Europe for merchants, armies and pilgrims.
Having taken an hour at the summit to cool Bertha’s worrisome and squealing wheel we set off gamely down the sharply twisting Gran Scala road to the bottom of the lake, dammed at the former Fort de Variselle. It was one of many abandoned and derelict stone forts, and bizarrely, gigantic hotels.
Looking back up the steep section of hair pin bends we had chicaned down we saw the road was supported by huge stone arches.
Until the 20th century road was built the only mechanised way to cross the pass was using a steam engine on a single-track railway, sections of which we crossed on the road and passed the abandoned Fell Railway Line tunnel through which the passengers would have travelled.
At Montcenisio the road opened out, causing us to sigh briefly with relief, then plunged its way in a slalom down the mountainside.
This time we were travelling on the inside lane without any stopping places. Sharp rocks jutted out only just above Bertha’s snub height and we squeezed past them, often tipping closer as the camber of the sloping road dipped nearside.
Tantalising pull in areas appeared on opposite side but we kept rolling and increasingly squealing our way down the mountain.
There was no hope of pausing our rapid descent. Simon kept Bertha in second gear and her engine noisily strained against the sharp declines whilst sat-nav ‘snopper’ unhelpfully sounded an alarm bell every five seconds.
At the tiny hamlet of Giaglione we slid off the road and shuddered to a halt gratefully next to the old well, to rest and cool Bertha’s hot wheels (all four of them now) and brakes.
After an hour, we judged it safe to drive the less than three miles to Susa, our stop for the night. A last perilous course of hair pin bends dropped us into two lanes of busy afternoon traffic and nervously wanting to avoid braking we inevitably hit every red light into town.
We also experienced a quick initiation into the chaos caused by the unpredictability of Italian drivers moving at speed at junctions, turnings and roundabouts, usually in the wrong lane and seemingly being unable to use indicators.
Three miles felt like thirty but eventually we were safely parked up in a shady space on a lovely area di sosta, in view of the foothills through which we had just traversed, and having to imagine the peak of Mont Cenis as it was lost upwards, high above the clouds. Click below to see the gallery: