Italy Switzerland England © Lionel Beck - North Yorkshire - UK France UK Yorkshire Return to Top A Serious Raid on the Wallet and a Spectacular Drive Monday 28th August dawns hot and sunny again, and it's time to see how steamed up we are going to get as we approach the moment of truth concerning all the meals and drinks that we have been merrily charging to Room Due Zero Quattro all week. Fortunately, the hotel has already been paid for seven nights bed and breakfast. So now it's just all those little bits of paper that have been progressively stapled to our final bill night after night. The receptionist hands it over. 798,000 lire (about £266) We still need some lire for a one-night stay in northern Italy, so we cough up half the money in cash, and use a credit card for the rest. I hope you are sitting comfortably on my words, because we are now going to drive over 1,000 miles together. We are to head back to Livorno but not to catch the train this time. We are going to spend the next week driving back home via Northern Italy, Switzerland and France. At Livorno, we are going to pick up the Autostrada for our trip northwards passing Pisa, Viareggio, La Spezia, Genova (Genoa), and Allessandria, our destination being, for one night, La Flora Hotel in Stresa  on the shores of Lake Maggiore. The Italian motorways are nothing if not impressive. Well, certainly this one is. It is a toll motorway, and at the other end we shall pay something like 78,000 lire (about £26) for the 250 mile trip. The quality of this motorway from beginning to end is well worth the 10 pence per mile. I admire the designers and builders of the autostrada. A long stretch of this one flies across flat countryside, inexplicably, on stilts; I toy with the vision of some Italian road engineer addressing his design team and saying, "Hey guys, let's build five miles of this road on top of short poles, just for the hell of it!" Further north we are in and out of long tunnels bored through the mountains. You pop into the side of a mountain, and a mile later shoot out the other side to find yourself leaping across a bottomless chasm on a bridge that looks like an impossible concept, then you are into the bowels of the next mountain, out the other side across another chasm, and it goes on and on like this for miles. Another unusual feature of this road on the southern leg is the presence of large flowering shrubs planted almost like a continuous hedgerow in the central reservation along at least a hundred miles of the journey. It certainly brightens up the drive, and I suppose that at night it forms a useful screen against oncoming headlights. In the section around Genova and beyond as we continue northwards, we lose count of the number of short and long tunnels we are driving through, but it is over a hundred! After a day's travelling in hot sunshine (thank God for climate control in the car!) we drop down into Stresa and Lake Maggiore at about 4 pm. The magic of this lake, with it's little communities dotted about in the middle of it on picturesque islands, and the backdrop of the mountains showing through the heat haze, is difficult to describe. The immediate impression is that we have landed in some kind of paradise. Stresa itself has a broad boulevard along the western shore of the lake with large and expensive looking hotels on one side of the road, and gardens on the other side, between the road the lake. La Flora hotel is a decent looking little place, and our (air conditioned) room is on the second floor with a balcony overlooking the lake. Evening dinner is disappointing (especially after the last place!) The dining room is in a basement without windows. It has bright yellow walls, bright lights, no candles, no flowers, and a total lack of "atmosphere". There are not many people in, and those that are there are getting on with their meals, and talking is in hushed tones. The man who was our Receptionist  now appears as our Waiter. He is polite but without any of the charisma we have been accustomed to from "Mr Chips". So dinner, then, in a brightly lit chapel of rest. The food is adequate but uninspiring. We sit down at 8 pm, and it is all over by 9 pm, by which time the dining room has emptied. Back to the room, to spend the rest of the evening sitting on the balcony watching night descend over the lake. Street lights, and the lights in houses on the islands, and the occasional boat chugging past, completes the picture. There is a railway line nearby, and the occasional Alpine Express thunders through on its way to or from Switzerland. We are close to the Swiss border here. (We had come through this place in the early hours of Monday morning a week ago, on the Autotrein.) It turns out that our planned car journey back follows roughly the same route as that train. Into the Mountains of Switzerland Tuesday 29th August starts hot again. We have slept all night with the balcony door open. We are awake at 6.30 am, and looking out at the sun glinting on the mountain tops. There are already a few small boats on the move. Breakfast turns out to be a more satisfactory affair than last night's dinner, with rolls, croissants, fruit tart, brioche, fresh fruit, fruit juices, jams, marmalade, ham, salami, cheeses, biscuits (sweet and savoury), and coffee - all good stuff. We spend the rest of our Lire topping up the car at a local petrol station, and head off in the direction of the Swiss border (near a little place called Isella). Crossing the border is a very peremptory affair, and suddenly we are driving in deep gorges between steep sided mountains, and then the road begins to climb gently upwards. We are now treated to the novel site of roads passing through what might be described as "half-tunnels". Imagine being in a tunnel of rectangular cross section, but on one side the wall is just a series of large square openings between support pillars, looking out into the valley below. Unlike the Italian experience of boring through the middle of mountains, we are now travelling through galleries cut into the sides of them. We continue to climb, hairpin bends, more "half tunnels", more hairpin bends, up and up and up. This goes on for several miles. We continue to climb, ears popping. Eventually we start dropping down into Brig, but we can hardly see the town at the bottom of the valley. We can see a train station, tracks and marshalling yards, but it all looks like a model railway from this vantage point. We now seem to be descending for ever, and things in the bottom of the valley aren't getting much bigger, but of course eventually we find ourselves driving into Brig, and I'm wondering how much of my brake pads have been worn away. Cars and trucks in Switzerland must get a hell of a pounding. Now we take the road from Brig that heads for Luzern. Mountains on either side of us, cuckoo clock houses perched in unlikely situations on the mountain sides - property boundaries marked by a 600 ft sheer drop. The Grimsel Pass - here we go again - we can see the road ahead zigzagging up the sheer face of a mountain. More low gear work, more hairpin bends. Where's the top? Why are there so many cyclists, for God's sake?! (Oh - let's go on a cycling holiday - it's all pedal power so obviously we need to go to a country where there's not a single level piece of road!) These people must have about 106 gears on their bikes; they are pedalling all the way up this mountain pass with smiles on their faces! Down, down, down the other side, ears under pressure - my voice is bouncing around the inside of my head. After half an hour downward travel, we level out on the valley bottom and stop at the first village for lunch at a small hotel surrounded by the towering peaks of near-vertical mountains. We try out our rusty German on the young waiter but he insists of speaking English - he is an Austrian in the middle of a tourism training course. We order a cheese sandwich which turns out to be great chunks of bread with a great pile of Swiss cheeses and onions, and enough chips to sink a ship. After lunch, onwards to our destination - Brünig - on the Brünig Pass above the town of Meiringen. We stop at a bank to change our remaining 700,000 Lire into Swiss Francs. By 3 pm we reach our hotel for the next two nights - the Gasthous Brünig Kulm which is a traditional Swiss chalet style building perched near the top of the Brünig Pass, interposed between the main road (on a hairpin bend) and a short but sheer drop into steeply sloping fields below. On the other side of the valley the mountains rise to impressive peaks. It is now much cooler than we have ever been on the holiday so far, and banks of clouds are enveloping parts of the mountains. There is a cool breeze. Evening Dinner in the hotel restaurant (great atmosphere, with large dining parties noisily enjoying themselves). I have prawn cocktail followed by veal cutlets, carrots, cauliflower and chips. My wife has salmon. A bottle of white wine washes it down, and we finish up with ice cream and strawberry shortcake, then coffee and cognac. An Excess of Cleanliness, Perfection & Trust Wednesday 30th August - it's now quite cool first thing in the morning, though there's the promise of a hot day. Breakfast at nine after the hotel had fed and watered two early-morning coach parties. We enjoy a good selection of bread (a great improvement on the Tuscan version), croissants, ham, cheese, jam, and coffee. So now, let's go for a look at the shops in Meiringen down in the valley. Everything in this town is in apple pie order. There is not a thing out of place. There is no graffiti. There is no rubbish. People leave their bicycles outside shops unattended and unlocked. There are frequent bright yellow buses, and each one has a large rack on the back to carry either bikes or skis. There are pedestrian crossings every 50 yards or so, and nobody crosses the road other than by using one of these. You could eat your dinner off the road or footpath (except that you’d be arrested for making a mess!) I have it on good authority from someone who used to live in Switzerland that if you don't keep your windows clean your neighbours soon let you know about it. Are these people sanitised automatons of perfection?  We are sitting at a table outside a luxury hotel in the main street sipping coffee, when from inside we hear the almighty crash of a tray of glasses that a waiter has dropped. Instinctively we chuckle, but notice the man sitting at the next table turns and looks towards the hotel lobby with a face like thunder. Clearly this is not something to be laughed at - this disgraceful display of inefficiency and wastage of glassware! Accent on International Relations We are in a Meiringen shop buying souvenirs and gifts for the people back home. The girl behind the counter reacts to my shaky German with an acknowledgement in English, and in an accent that was obviously from the other side of the Atlantic, asks us if we would like the goods gift wrapped. "Yes please, and thank you for your English; and is that an American accent?"  The young lady's face visibly clouds over and she responds indignantly … "I am no more American than you are Irish!!"  Well, pardon my stupidity! It turns out she's Canadian. Oh, well - some people are so sensitive about these things! She can tell the difference, but I can't. (I have the same difficulty between Australians and New Zealanders, but I understand it's not a good idea to get the two mixed up!) After the shops we drive on to the next town out of curiosity - Lungern - where we shall have lunch. This town appears to be half dead and is clearly not on the tourist trail. We call in at a little café on a street corner for lunch. No English is spoken in here, but we get by well enough with our German to get ourselves served with beers, bratwurst and fried sliced potato in onion gravy for my wife, and "Swissburger" mit Käse for me. The Swissburger's OK but I don't think that Ronald McDonald need lose any sleep! The afternoon sees us back in Brünig and I go walking up the mountain side. Every walking route through the Swiss countryside benefits from Swiss precision. As we have previously found in Germany, every footpath is meticulously marked on maps, and, on the ground each one has clear signposts at every junction showing where the path will take you, and moreover, how many hours it will take you get there! I take a path up through the woods behind the hotel and find myself on a 1 in 3 gradient that goes on pretty much for ever so far as I can see. I keep on climbing for 30 minutes in the fond expectation that around the next corner there will be some kind of plateau, or opening in the trees, where I can rest and gaze out across the valley from my own personal mountain top. Alas, the path just goes on up and up, steeply, through the trees. Eventually I lose the will to live and turn around to start fighting against gravity in the opposite direction, valiantly trying to stay upright. Falling over would be a mistake - this would rapidly turn into a "Swiss Roll".  Making a short diversion into a rough pasture strewn with rocks and boulders I find myself in the open sunshine, gazing at the mountain peaks. If ever there was a place to commune with God, this was it. Close to the hotel there is a railway line and station, from which you catch a train down into Mereingen in one direction, and Luzern in the other. How the hell the trains get to be half way up this mountainside is remarkable. Being a bit of a train fiend, I decide to wander round the station, and watch the next one come in. They are scheduled to arrive at 39 minutes past every hour. Sure enough, at 39 minutes past the hour exactly, this beautiful streamlined luxurious train pulls in. People disembark, and some get on buses that have miraculously arrived at the station at the same time. (Swiss precision.)  Adjoining the station building is a shop selling antiques and bric-a-brac. Half of the stock is outside on the station platform, with an honesty box. Take what you want, look at the price ticket, pop your money in the box! At half and hour to midnight I am taking a late-night stroll before turning in, and I return to the station. The shop is closed of course, but all this stuff is still outside. The outside lights come on as you approach, and the honesty box is still there if you want to buy something! (In England if you did this there'd be a couple of vans outside the place in two shakes of a guinea pig's narrative and they'd be off with all the goods!) (Swiss honesty.) There's a soppy looking soft toy dog sitting in a cardboard box pleading with me to buy him, so I pick him up, pop the money in the honesty box, and take him back to the hotel for my wife. Swiss Micro-Climate There have been electrical storms all night and we wake up on Thursday 31st August to a cool morning. Looking out of the window across the deep valley to the mountains on the other side, we are treated to a spectacular weather display. To our left we can see thick fog falling into one end of the valley from a great height, like milk being poured from a jug. From our vantage point we cannot see the valley bottom, so we watch the fog descending out of sight as the pouring action continues at one end. Then everything completely clears. A few minutes later a small puff of white mist rises into view from the valley bottom, and hangs suspended like a small cloud half way between the valley bottom and the tops of the mountains. After a few more minutes it has doubled in length. And then, in no time at all, it has developed into a thick "sausage" of white fog, still at the same level, but now extending all the way along the valley - clear above and clear below, but in between impenetrable fog. All this has taken place in less than quarter of an hour - serving as a spectacular demonstration of how you can get trapped on a mountain side with all the wrong clothes and equipment. After breakfast we check out and drive down through the fog into Meiringen. We are now on the next stage of our journey, which will take us along the south side of the twin lakes of Brienzersee and Tunersee separated by Interlaken, northwards to Bern and thence to Basel and into France.  Basel is a nightmare of complicated roads, most of which seem to be undergoing major reconstruction works. We desperately try to keep our eyes on signposts indicating the border crossing into France, and after going round in circles, doubling back on ourselves, and generally going every which way, we finish up at a Customs post, pass through without hindrance, but then find ourselves on a road that I had not planned to be on. Good Food in a Rubbish Building We are now in France but going the wrong way. Eventually we get back to our intended direction, and we find our road to Belfort where we decide to we stop for lunch in a little café bar - Tagliatelli Carbonara and a couple of small beers. We spend the rest of the afternoon driving from Belfort to Chaumont - our next overnight stop. Chaumont is a fairly big town with some beautiful gardens. We find our Hotel le Grand Val on the southern edge of town. It is a big building, typical 1950s design - everything plain and rectangular.  (Planners and architects of the 1950s, it seems to me - in many countries - suffered from some kind of creative blind spot. Anything square and concrete was "good". Every town in Britain - including the famous old historical towns like York, Chester, and Stratford-on-Avon have their fair share of 1950s eyesores. It's criminal.) The hotel interior continued the 1950s theme with generous portions of chromium and plastic, and the restaurant walls are lined with Formica panels that are supposed to - but don't - look like wood. But the staff are friendly, and the Receptionist speaks excellent English, but for dinner that evening we have to dredge up our rusty French, since the waiter - a charming old fellow - cannot (or will not) speak English. We get on very well with him in our confused linguistic way, and the food is good. After my Sole Meuniere, green beans and french fries I decide to ask for the cheese board. France produces more than 450 varieties of cheese, and most of them seem to be on the platter presented to me. The waiter recommends some of the local cheeses, and they are good. In France, unlike Britain, cheese precedes the sweet dessert, and is usually eaten with a knife and fork, without bread or crackers. Back in the bedroom, we discover only one bed-side light works, the en-suite bathroom is so small that there is only room for a shower, and the bidet is underneath the wash basin on a pivot, so that it can be swung out. (Bidets are not commonly found in Britain, but I'm always glad to encounter them in mainland Europe, since they seem to me to encourage good hygiene where it matters. I think it is safe to say that the old joke about the average "Brit" thinking a bidet is something in which to wash your socks is now well past it's sell-by date. We all know it's for keeping your beer cans cold.)   Sloshing our Way to Calais Friday 31st August greets us with a cold black sky and an imminent threat of rain. As soon as we are out of Chaumont and on the Autoroute for Calais the heavens open and we are sloshing our way through continual deluge most of the way to Calais. There is a bit of timely sunshine when we stop at a service area for some lunch, but it is very windy. The cafeteria is bursting at the seams, so we join a queue at a little stall outside serving sausages and frîtes. Onwards to Calais and it's pouring with rain again. This is the worst weather we have seen for two weeks, and we suppose that as it's our last full day in mainland Europe we can count ourselves lucky that the rain held off for this long. Arriving in the outskirts of Calais we refer to the directions given to us by our next (and last) French hotel. The Kyriad Hotel was supposed to be somewhere in Cocquelle and said to be opposite a large supermarket. It took half an hour of driving round local roads, none of which resembled the directions given, until suddenly we saw a big hoarding with the name of the large supermarket, so we headed for that, in the process of which we encountered our hotel which - you've guessed it - was nowhere near the supermarket, let alone opposite. This is a pleasant hotel, and the restaurant specialises in Belgian dishes. We are gratified to find all the staff very polite and helpful, and speaking excellent English. An excellent dinner of Steak au Poivre with frîtes and vegetables, with a bottle of wine, of course. Random Security Checks - Guess who looked a bit random? My wife is driving us through French Customs at the Tunnel Terminal and a Gendarme pulls us out of the queue and directs us into an inspection bay for a security check. It is the second time this has happened to us - last year the same thing happened on the English side. We must have suspicious looking faces. We get out of the car while the gun-toting gendarmerie open up the boot and the bonnet to inspect luggage and engine respectively. we ask one of the gendarmes if he would like the offside rear door opened. He says "no" and immediately walks round to the other side of the car and opens the nearside rear door. (I like the devious way their brains work!) Anyway, it's all over after about 10 minutes, and there hasn't been too much disturbance of our possessions. I do not resent this little diversion. In fact it is encouraging to know that these checks are made. The more the better as far as I am concerned.  We drive on to Le Shuttle, and it pulls out promptly at 4 pm. Within 30 minutes we are in England, drawing into the Folkestone Terminal. It is now 3.30 pm  British Time, so we've arrived half an hour before we left.  Back on English roads, and the first roundabout we come to I find myself looking in the wrong direction for approaching traffic! Within 15 minutes we are booking in at our Folkestone Travel Inn for one more night before the journey northwards back to Yorkshire. Gastronomic Indulgence On Sunday 2nd September, before leaving the Travel Inn we treat ourselves to the full English Breakfast - we had, after all, worked our way through 14 Continental Breakfasts  and so now was the time to throw caution to the winds at least once and lay into fried eggs, bacon, fried bread, hash browns, fried tomatoes and sausage, followed by several rounds of toast and marmalade. It's hard work, but somebody has to do it. The end of a memorable holiday. Back to Yorkshire. (Roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding next Sunday?) Back to work. I hope you enjoyed travelling with me through these pages.     Return to Top Return to Top Returning by Car via Switzerland & France Return to Top Return to Top Northern Italy autostrada tunnel Click to enlarge La Flora Hotel, Stresa, Northern Italy Click to enlarge Lake Maggiore from La Flora Hotel balcony Click to enlarge Brunig Hotel Click to enlarge View from Gasthaus Brunig Click to enlarge Meiringen, Switzerland Click to enlarge Brunig Station Click to enlarge Kyriad Hotel, Cocquelle (nr. Calais) France Click to enlarge Inside Le Shuttle Click to enlarge Return to Top Return to Top Hotel le Grand Val, Chaumont, France Click to enlarge