Colle Fauniera and l’Altopiano della Gardetta

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Hyperbole Alert: This is one of the best loops I’ve ever cycled.

The ride includes:
1. A quiet 3rd way up Colle Fauniera (2481 metres) – the fifth highest paved road in Italy.
2. Fifteen (amazing) kms along unpaved old military roads (always above 2000 metres).
3. A descent down what may be the best +2000 metre paved climb that no-one knows.
4. 11 mountain passes (all labeled on the map) – admittedly, many traversed to, not climbed.

Vertigo, and badly tucked, food-filled kit

Vertigo, and badly tucked, food-filled kit. Rocca la Meja in background.

Mountain Higher author Daniel Friebe described Fauniera as “maybe the most alluring and unspoilt pass around 2500 metres in the Alps.” Indeed. There are three paved roads to Fauniera (see profiles below). They are all quiet, challenging, and fabulous. My route today is easily the smallest/narrowest of the three. For details of the other two sides see here.

North South faun190

The climb starts in Ponte Marmora, but one could start far lower, as the main road up through the valley, while not car-free is relatively interesting. Approaching Màrmora I saw signs saying the road was closed ahead. Uh-oh. They were repaving the lower kilometres, but I managed to sneak through. And also enjoyed the beautiful new surface.

Note, this entire side signs the route as heading to Col d’Esischie (2370 metres). It’s a little more than a kilometre below Fauniera. It’s like climbing Col du Glandon, then turning up to Col de la Croix de Fer.

Perhaps 12 kilometres from the summit is where the fun starts. Lots of warning signs as the route becomes tiny. No campers, trucks, etc. I would NOT drive this road for a €million (but on a bike: wooohooo). It is rough, occasionally falling apart, and especially the first few kms, there are short crazy-steep ramps where it just looks like the road has risen up in anger.

After several kilometres of steep hairpins, the route enters a little plateau above the tree-line. Beautiful place.

Then the road heads higher along a cliff road:

Cliff road

Cliff road

At Col d’Esischie, the route joins the main Pradleves route to Fauniera. Here there is a nice Fausto Coppi sportive monument, and plenty of warning signs to anyone thinking of descending the way I’d climbed. It’s not far to Fauniera, but this steep final stretch passes another Col: Colle del Vallonetto (2439m). At the summit is the strange Gollum-like Marco Pantani statue.

Me and Marco

Me and Marco

Fauniera is better known locally as Colle dei Morti – Pass of the Dead. In 1744, French and Spanish soldiers were killed nearby in an ambush by their Savoyard enemies.

Next I descended towards Demonte for three kms until Colle di Valcavera (2416m). Two years ago when I had climbed the Demonte side I peeked over this col. I wrote this: ” At the Col I could see very inviting old, unpaved, military roads. A future project would be to climb up this other side with a mountain bike.” So here I was with thicker tires and drooling. 🙂

I would take the road on the right, that then sweeps towards and over  Colle della Bandia, top left

I would take the unpaved road on the right, that then sweeps towards and over Colle della Bandia, top left

Altopiano della Gardetta

This unpaved route passes through the Altopiano (plateau) della Gardetta. Reachable from three large valleys (Stura, Grana, and Maira) this plateau is not in fact remotely flat. Completely undeveloped except for the occasional military ruin, access was forbidden before WW2 as it was seen as a strategic military area (hence the toponym Gardetta).

This 15 kilometre stretch is as good as it gets. Unpaved, passing through several valleys, great cliff stretches, some snow, and absolutely undeveloped. It makes a very rough semi-circle around Rocca la Meja, an impressive dolomite-limestone mountain

In the middle of no-where

In the middle of no-where

unpaved, super-high, old military roads in the Alps are fun to cycle

unpaved, super-high, old military roads in the Alps are fun to cycle

I lost the sun, but was confident things would stay dry. But I realised I probably should act more like a cyclist than an amateur photographer …. and get moving.

The route stay either side of 2400 metres until Rifugio della Gardetta, where it descends through a truly amazing plateau down to Colle del Preit (2083m).

Rocca la Meja

Rocca la Meja

Nice hairpin

Nice hairpin

At Colle del Preit is a little Agriturismo, and the road becomes paved again. And what a descent. Let me get all hyperbolic again and say this must be one of the best paved roads over 2000m that virtually no-one knows. Even wikipedia misses it in its list of highest paved roads in Europe. I may go add it. 🙂

Part way down, I turned off the main road, and up 3 steep kilometres to Colle San Giovanni (1615m). Not well know as my Strava time was 7th fastest (only 12 entries).

I descended the completely unpaved (and bumpy) far side of San Giovanni. For road bikers who want to climb Colle del Preit and San Giovanni, skip my way down and instead climb via Pont Marmora and take a right turn at Màrmora. The paved road ends at the summit of both climbs.

As I said to start, this ride is one of my very favourites. A huge climb, some back road exploring, and the discovery of Colle del Preit. One day, maybe I’ll try it in the opposite direction.

I will put together a map and post highlighting the best unpaved military roads that I know. But for now, see here.

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Happiest while cycling uphill.

9 Comments

  1. Chris @ManinSeatD26 on

    Thanks for the report it’s so interesting to read. The road up from Marmora is very beautiful and challenging on a loaded touring bike, I went up the 2nd time last summer. I suspect they were repairing the road as it seems to get washed away a lot, certainly that was the case when I went up in 2008. I think that’s also why there are some crazy steep bits. Cycling around the last valley to Esischie is a wonderful experience.

  2. Oh Will… You did it again 🙂 This looks fantastic, I’m drooling!

    Last year I rode up and down the Demonte side and on my huge ‘Transalp Tour’ coming up in July, I reserved a whole day just to do the 3 sides of the Fauniera.
    Now I certainly have to do this instead! 😀 (Honestly, I already thought of bringing my gravel bike with 36c tyres to go have a look at Rifugio Gardetta).

    – I still have to figure out the order of things though. The night before I’m sleeping in Demonte and I have to finish in Marmora, and I was also hoping of doing the Pradlèves side… Got any suggestions?
    – Another question: my mom is joining me on my trip with a car (Volvo V60), as some kind of support (not a follow car). You think it’ll be impossible to drive a Volvo V60 from Demonte to Marmora over the col?

    Thanks!
    (P.S. Alpenbrevet Gold route was great last weekend. Bonked at the snowy Nufenen, had to hitchhike on the awful Susten, but Grimsel, Furka extension and Tremola were great as always!)

    • Hi

      Well if you want to do Praverdes side and Demonte side then you have to go up and down both. No other option possible if you want to climb both. Basically what I did in my first visit. But that is a big day …. at least for me …. 3000m climb. Then you could do the unpaved way down. Tough but great day. I suppose you could go from Demonte to start of Pradleves side, but I don’t think it’s a great ride at all.

      The drive up from Demonte is fine. From Fauniera to Marmora? It’s open to cars, but I wouldn’t like to drive it. It depends how comfortable she is on narrow, steep, twisty roads. Pradleves side is less stressful.

      • Thanks! I don’t see any other option either. I settled on climbing the Demonte side, then down to Pradlèves and up again, and then through the Altopiano della Gardetta down to Marmora.
        I’ll tell my mom to drive through the valley to Marmora, around the cols, and park the car somewhere near Colle del Preit. I guess hiking from there to the Rifugio della Gardetta is a nice option…
        Thanks for your info.

  3. Great photos – takes me back just over 4 years ago when my girlfriend (now my wife) and I did a similar trip. We’ve also got a shot of both of us standing by the Marco Pantani statue.

  4. Great as always!
    I just came back from that area, riding on a road bike, so have only wistfully looked at that plateau from colle Valcavera. We rode up via Pradleves and descended to Demonte. The Demonte road (vallone dell’ Arma) is very smooth and beautiful to descend on.

  5. Wife and i will take this wonderful ride around August 10-20. Flexible date as we’re vacationing in the Po Valley. We’re from Turin, Italy.
    Anyone around? If you want, contact me for info/chat/meeting at “[email protected]

    Happy rides to all 😉

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