Mont Cenis - Atlas Obscura

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Mont Cenis

Bessans, France

From Carthage's Hannibal to riders of the Tour de France, many have crossed this scenic route through the Alps.  


Rather than driving through a tunnel beneath the Alps, this pass offers unparalleled views as you traverse over the mountains. The scenic route connects Val-Cenis in Western France with Susa in Italy, and was one of the most well-traveled paths through the Alps during the Middle Ages. The road will take a few hours to traverse, but the views and sights along the way are well worth it. 

Some scholars believe that this is the exact pass that Hannibal took with his army and war elephants in 218 BC. More than a millennia later, in 1414, Niccolò III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara took this route back to Italy after meeting Charles VI in Paris. Niccolò described the pass as having “a good ascent and bad descent.” Pilgrims have also taken this route on the way to Rome and the Vatican for centuries.

Eventually, Napoleon built a road on the old pilgrimage trail sometime in the early 19th century. In 1871, a railroad tunnel known as Frejus Tunnel was constructed some 30 miles away. The tunnel connected Mondane, France with Bardonecchia, Italy. It was one of the first tunnels of its kind and exhibited a remarkable feat of engineering for the time. Today, the tunnel is still one of the largest railroad tunnels in the world measuring some eight miles long. The road is also has been used as part of the Tour de France.

At the top of the pass, alongside an icy blue lake known as Lac du Mont Cenis, statues of Hannibal’s elephants line the trail. The building of a dam created the artificial lake in 1921. The dam, today, feeds two hydroelectric power plants. The lake occasionally empties for maintenance. 

At the top of the pass, as you look out over the lake, you’ll find a very quirky chapel. Built in 1967, the chapel is shaped like a pyramid and is made of concrete. Today it also houses a museum about the history of this region and is one of the highest museums in Europe. Other nearby sights include a botanical garden and multiple fortifications.

Know Before You Go

Make sure to take your time to enjoy the route; it is slow going but beautiful. You may get stuck behind a tractor once in a while. The pass is also known as Col du Mont Centis, "the pass of Mont Centis." The road name is D1006.

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