I like driving. After many years of commuting, totting up over 40k miles a year, it’s just as well. My long-distance eyesight’s slowly deteriorating however, and increasingly I tend to suffer from a bit of eye strain when driving at night. But that apart I still enjoy the experience. Mostly. The only exceptions are driving on the M25 during rush hours and the bloody journey through Switzerland ….
The drive back this time was delayed because of work commitments but R and I set off early this Tuesday morning with the Golf fully loaded. As well as tons of luggage and Xmas stuff and some food supplies we cannot get in Italy, we were taking back a leather armchair we had to abandon at E’s last time we came home plus some large boxes of new computer kit and various other bits and pieces. I have to say that the Golf has been a fantastic little load-carrier. But even I was staggered by how much we managed to pack in this time. It was like driving a VW Tardis.
We managed to make our 10am ferry from Dover without any problems even though we had to drive up the M23 from Brighton, along the dreaded M25 (no delays incredibly) and down the M20 to the port. It’s a testing little detour to kick start the journey back to Italy. Why is travelling east to west in the UK such a hassle? The ferry journey was fine; in fact it was almost deserted (no wonder we had no problems re-scheduling our sailing). We arrived in Dunkirk at 1pm local time (GMT +1). We tend to head this way now, going through Belgium, Luxembourg and along the Saar and Rhine vallies in Germany to avoid the increasingly expensive tolls on the wonderful French motorways.
There’s not much in it in terms of miles but nothing compares to the quality of the French system.The M-ways in N Belgium are especially ropey. It’s as if the Belgian Government couldn’t believe it’s luck when it became a founder member of the EEC back in the early 60’s. I bet they took all that European funding and used it to build a new motorway system linking all the industrial towns of the region. Problem is they haven’t spent one cent on it since. The road surfaces are like an ashphalt patchwork. There’s one bit where the classy French M-road from Dunkirk to Lille meets its Belgian counterpart at the border and for at least 400 mtrs it’s like driving across a disused lorry park. It’s only after bouncing around for 0.5km or so that you realise you’re actually on a Belgian motorway. They might be good at chocolate and beer but road maintenance isn’t one of their great skills.
Having said that the roads in the south of the country through the Ardennes and on into Luxembourg are really good. As we passed the signs for Bastogne I was reminded of the scenes from Band of Brothers. It would be interesting to take time out one of these days to go visit some of the many WWI and II landmarks we seem to pass by but that clock keeps ticking, tick tock….. And as it happened it was foggy all the way from Dunkirk into Germany so there wasn’t much to see on the journey.
We stopped for the night near Forbach just south of Saarbrucken. Normally we try and make for Strasbourg for the overnight stop but we couldn’t pre-book a hotel anywhere in or around the town. With a short breakfast stop it took us almost 2 hours to make Strasbourg the next morning, then another 1.5 hours before we hit Shitzerland. For once we got through Basel quickly but the weather turned from rain to sleet to this strange white stuff. I think they call it snow and obviously it is as rare in this Alpine paradise as in England, because it had the same effect on the traffic. It wasn’t exactly deep stuff but within half an hour the traffic on the Swiss excuse for a motorway ground to a halt. And we sat there for an hour and a half until slowly the traffic started to move again.
The thing is I didn’t see anything to indicate what had caused the hold up. But after a few miles of crawling along we passed a Range Rover which had broken down on the opposite carriage. It’s only a two-lane m-way and this car was stopped in the outside lane, driver’s door open and the driver clearly visible trying to start the engine. I don’t know how long he’d been stuck there. But the incredible thing was that lorries were stacked up waiting patiently (it seemed) behind him. He wasn’t making any effort to get the vehicle over to the hard shoulder, nor was anyone helping him nor passing him on the inside. Nor was there any sign of the police (I truly don’t think they have any) nor breakdown services. Do you know what? That queue built up to over 30 km in length as we slowly went on our way. The car could have been moved without too much difficulty but nobody seemed exercised to do anything about it. People must have been stuck there for hours. And by this stage many cars were pulling over to the hard shoulder, presumably overheating, therby adding to the problems for emergency crews to get through. We did notice two snow ploughs lined up side by side way back in the queue. They couldn’t get past the jammed-up traffic and, of course, nothing could get past them. Unbelievable.
It may be one of the prettiest places on earth but they hate motorists in Switzerland, I’m convinced of it, and they simply have no concept of traffic management and the need to keep things flowing. Truth is they haven’t got time, what with all that Swatch-making. What on earth do they spend peoples’ taxes on?…oh I forgot they don’t pay any. I just couldn’t live in the place I’m afraid. They are the weirdest nation. Did you know they are world leaders in the manufacture of large-scale marine engines? Yet they are as far from the sea as you can get. Such inventiveness and yet they cannot figure out how to push a car to the side of the road. Too much dependency on Toblerone if you ask me.
We got through the Gotthard tunnel 3 hours later than we had planned. Here’s a tip if you’re ever going through it – don’t tune in to the DRS1 radio channel unless you like yodelling oompah band music. They should use this at Guantanamo to extract confessions.
Strangely, but happily, the weather always seems better on the Italian-Swiss side of the Alps. The snow had gone, the skies were blue and the Ticino vallies are just beautiful. By the time we’d hit the lake at Lugano the temperature was 8 degrees higher than at the entrance to the Gotthard.
Because of the delays in the cuckoo clock cantons we hit Milan at rush hour and it was 5pm once we’d cleared the city. After that it’s a straight lump down the A1/A14 motorways via Bologna to our local exit from the autostrada. Only problem is it takes 5 hours and all of it was in the dark with no rear view mirror because of the packing.
Anyway we got back after a 14 hour journey on day 2, more than a little tired. Believe it or not, from the French coast to our home in Italy is almost exactly 1000 miles and we managed it on just two tanks of fuel. The Golf is a belting little car but to be honest I do miss the comfort of a big 4×4 on such a journey. The other good news was that the car was lot easier to unload than to pack. Plus the leather armchair fitted through the rather narrrow gap into our lounge. I didn’t have to take the bloody window out thankfully.
Next day C flew back and it felt good to be all back home again. It’s cold here but clear and crisp and we can’t wait to experience Xmas Italian style.