I’m somewhat apprehensive as we take the RER away from Paris city and towards the hire car places at Charles de Gaulle airport. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My parents were joining us on this roadtrip, but after the death of a close family member they have both returned home to Sydney (see “Life is a Roadtrip through Southern England“). Babs has literally just stepped off a 24-hour plane ride from Sydney, and I’ve been at a conference all week outside Paris. It’s a warm autumn and I’m sweating in my suit and worn out from days and nights of business meetings. I’m feeling a tad grumpy. I’m not ready to deal with Paris traffic and furthermore, we have zero plans on where to go. Because of my conference, the parental oracles were supposed to divine this trip and now that’s all changed. But life is rarely plain sailing and travels reflect that. Besides, we’ve nowhere to stay in Paris anyway and no better plans. Best to throw caution to the wind then!
When we arrive at CDG, a German guy pushes between the Babs and I as we shuffle off the packed train with our suitcases, but he stops at the door to look at the station signs, repeatedly asking “is this Terminal 3?” and several times being told no. With my petite fiance stuck behind him and unable to exit the train with our remaining suitcase, I try a polite “excuse me”, followed by “entschuldigung”, but with the train doors repeatedly closing on my shoulders and head it is a very Aussie “GET OUT OF THE BLOODY WAY!” followed by a physical shove that finally does the trick. The Babs is off the train and the guy recoils with a shocked look on his stupid face. Meanwhile I worry about how that must have looked to the several other conference attendees aboard the carriage. Not a great start to the trip.
At the car hire place (Europcar) we are kept waiting for half an hour by the surly French girl behind the counter. I’ve never much liked spending time at CDG. And though I love Paris, I’m not a fan of the Paris outskirts- they are dull and sinister. I’m worrying about being stuck within them in a car as peak-hour approaches. Boy, am I in a bad mood. Finally the girl flicks us a key and gives us a bunch of really crappy directions to our car which is buried somewhere in the bowels of the CDG parking station.
And then….. we are leaving Paris! And the afternoon sun is out and with the Babs using her French to ask a few directions from airport security guards we miraculously shake off the airport first go and we’re heading south on the A3. The traffic is not that bad at all and we’re owning the road and we start to laugh and joke. How good it is to be on an adventure!
With my weariness, and the Babs out-of-phase by about ten timezones, we pledge to get out into the French countryside and not to be too ambitious with our drive this evening, and as night begins to fall and I see Babs’s eyes shutting in the passenger seat we decide to pull into the town of Chaumont and see what we can find. On the way into the town, we pass under the most gigantic and impressive railway viaduct I have ever seen in my life. I have to smile at the little surprises Adventure casts our way. The town itself seems a nice enough place, somewhat grey-brown but imbued with that faded French elegance. We find a hotel that looks interesting and pull into its parking entrance. We find ourselves in a pitch dark, dingy carport with old wooden rafters with cobwebs above us.
“This is the spookiest looking parking garage I’ve ever- ARRGGGH!!!” I scream as a face appears suddenly from the darkness outside the driver’s window. My scream scares the bejesus out of my jetlagged fiance and she screams too, and both of our screams set off a scream from the startled hotel receptionist, who was nice enough to get up from her desk when she saw us drive in. We then collapse into rapturous laughter inside the car. The bemused receptionist says “Perhaps you would like a room?” and I reply “Yes please, merci, merci” in between fits of worn-out laughter.
The next morning we are keen to explore the town but it’s pouring with rain. With the time ticking away before we should be on the road again, and the rain unrelenting, we finally venture outside with umbrellas. The town is lovely with a look that reminds me of WWII films and the patisseries are a treat but it’s hard to enjoy ourselves properly soaking wet. Eventually we give up and get back to the car and drive out of town stopping only to lark about under the viaduct and admire the engineering work.
On the freeway it is absolutely pouring with rain and we plot a course south for Dijon, not knowing anything about the place except that it probably has mustard. We are pleasantly surprised- not only does the town have the world’s biggest Maille store with about 100 different kinds of mustard, but the rain stops (for a while) and the architecture is absolutely stunning. Medieval wooded houses jut out at impossible angles above street-level foundations and beautiful churches are tiled with geometric patterns. Dijon it seems is the duck’s guts. I use ancient clueless-driver wisdom (turning randomly down streets that seem more main-ish than others) to arrive in the town centre and park somewhere hopefully-legal. We struggle to find somewhere to eat (we’re too late for lunch apparently and the French don’t wait) and we spend too much time oohing and aahing and hanging out in the mustard shop so that when we are finally back on the road, it’s late in the afternoon and pouring again.
“I am sick of these bloody freeways,” I whinge as I pull up to yet another toll booth. “25 friggin’ euros?! Are you kidding me! When are we going to see some French countryside?”
We decide to take a B road that looks like it heads more directly to Geneva than the freeways we are on and hopefully offers some more pleasant scenery, but somehow we miss it and we end up on the expensive dreary freeways the whole way. Darkness falls and we’re not happy and I’m possibly bordering on raving mad. We finally enter Switzerland. Babs is keen for a small town so we head to a place called Annemasse (which turns out to actually be back on the French side of the border again) instead of Geneva. Big mistake- it’s the seediest and scariest looking place I’ve seen in all France and I stand guard by the car nervously while the Babs runs into a dodgy bar to use the toilets.
Defeated, we limp into Geneva at about 9 pm and immediately get hopelessly lost. The Swiss are much better at watchmaking than signposting and my “let’s try this” driving technique gets us stuck down tram-lanes and one-way streets and doing embarrassing 3-point turns in the middle of cobbled intersections. We pull up outside a nice hotel on the river Rhone and are told it’s 500 francs a night. My eyes nearly pop out of my skull and we drive back across the river, where the next place tells us 400 francs. Taking note of my bulging eyeballs, the concierge kindly explains “You should head down to the Langemalle Hotel, it is very nice and very reasonable.” He’s right, the room is a treat and we’re right in the centre of town (surrounded by Prada and Gucci stores and banks) and because its the weekend we can park really close by on the street. We assume it’s legal. We bounce about on the fluffy bed with fluffy white pillows and we go to meet an old friend of Babs’s who lives in Geneva. Out of the car, the city is pleasant and clean and shiny and lovely. We breathe in the fresh mountain air, and after our wine and cheese with Babs’s Brazilian friends we sleep so well that we wake up 5 minutes before the end of breakfast. We lob into the breakfast room looking as much.
Back home in Oz, the Rugby League Grand Final (kind of like the Aussie Superbowl) is on and my team, the Manly Sea Eagles, are playing. Despite our eagerness to get back on the road we crowd around my laptop to watch a patchy live feed via the hotel WiFi. Manly loses, I back the car up to the hotel door and we get back on the road.
We drive along the southern edge of Lake Geneva, slipping back into France and then back into Switzerland again. Whereas yesterday’s drive, with the exception of Dijon, was a bit disappointing, today’s is to be very special indeed. The sun is out and the lake is beautiful, and we traverse its shores passing through Evian. We merge onto the E62, which passes through a vast valley-floor in the south of Switzerland on the way to Italy. We stop for a breather at St Maurice, with its breathtaking mountain surrounds and little cobbled main street. A lady stops me in the street and through 3 different languages suggests we duck into an elegant house a few doors up. We do, giggling as we take photos amongst geometric whitewashed columns and an open courtyard.
Back in the car and the driving is spectacular to say the least. We are surrounded on all sides by tremendous mountain ranges. Small towns and farms cling to their sides for dear life. And there’s no tolls like in France. We find out later from Babs’s friends in Italy that to drive on the E62 (or other major roads) in Switzerland, we are supposed to have a little sticker permit that our car obviously doesn’t have. Residents pay a yearly subscription for this permit and the fines for not having one reach into the thousands of euros apparently. Luckily, we don’t have any run-ins with the police during our time in Switzerland. Many thanks to Europcar for neglecting to tell us this little piece of essential info, though we’d probably have risked it anyway.
We drive past the awe-inspiring Bietschhorn mountains in Wallis canton to the south of the Bernese Alps. They are part of the Jungfrau range which several months before I stood to the north of, after hiking up above Lake Thun on a business trip. It’s a buzz to be passing to their southern side. We head towards Visp and Brig, and at the latter we veer to the right out of the valley and begin our climb into the mountains and up towards the Simplon Pass. Something appears in my vision up ahead.
“What’s that on the road?” I ask.
“Red light!” Babs replies. “Stop!!” I screech from 100 km/hr to a dead stop just in time to face on onslaught of vehicles coming head on from the opposite direction. They don’t seem fazed by my position on the road and head straight at me at a rate of knots only to swerve around me at the last minute. I hastily back the car to a safer position at the edge of the road and curse the red light. It’s mounted at the height of a small broomstick with no warning signs leading up to it whatsoever. Back home in our nanny-state Australia you’d never see such a thing. This process repeats itself many times over on the drive up the Simplon Pass- it’s apparently quite normal in Switzerland to come around a blind corner with a cliff on one side to suddenly find a red light in front of you. With many of the roads feats of engineering, landslips are common and maintenance roadworks are probably being carried out all the time, and the Swiss are far more enthusiastic about raclette than they are roadsigns.
As we climb, the scenery becomes progressively more eye-popping until our senses are overloaded and all we can do is mumble “wow” at intervals. We’re high up above the valley floor and we’re on a road that feels as flexible as a rubber band as it winds in and out of mountains and through incredible tunnels, some of which stretch for kilometres. Finally, we reach the pass and we stop to take in the view. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful and the air is cold and moist. As we begin heading downhill, we are abruptly met by fog- our view which had previously been so clear is nothing but white. I take it easy in low gear as the car heads down the icy/misty road and the whiteness is occasionally punctuated by unparalleled mountain vistas, soon consumed by white again. We’re now in Italy.
We’re racing to Lago Maggiore to catch up with Babs’s ex-boss, a wealthy businessman in the textiles business. But we accidentally leave the freeway too early and begin rounding the lake with darkness upon us, passing through Stresa and Arona; and by the time we reach our destination of Sesto Calende, at the southern tip of Lago Maggiore, Babs’s boss has to run off to a dinner appointment and we only get to chat briefly. I’m welcomed to Italy with a firm handshake.
We proceed directly to the house of Babs’s old landlords. Ausilia and Enzo have missed Babs in the years since she’s been away and have very kindly offered to put us up in her old apartment for the days we are in Sesto. We’re staying close to the lake in a small building attached to their little upholstery shop. We also enjoy authentic and delicious pasta dinners courtesy of Ausilia. We spend several days in Sesto catching up with old friend of Babs’s and riding bikes around the lake.
On one of the days, we drive to Milan for the day. Driving in northern Italy is surprisingly easy and efficient, and outside Milan there’s a network of park and ride stations where you can park cheaply (about €2 – €3 for the whole day) and then catch the metro into the city. You probably don’t want to drive in Milan centre, it’s maze of streets perpetually congested and slow. We park at Lampugnano and head into town on the train, emerging at the Piazza del Duomo with the superlative Milan Duomo standing like a golden beacon. I was last here 5 years ago for a conference and it’s exciting to be back. The Duomo’s been cleaned since my last visit, years of car exhaust and acidic blackened grime painstakingly scraped from its crannies. It looks brand new and we grab lunch from the roof of a neighboring department store, enjoying the view.
Milan is a great place to visit. The narrow, twisting streets are as good looking as its inhabitants, who are as consistently well-dressed as the town’s fashion reputation might lead you to expect. Here a stunning Italian woman in a well cut dress, there a dapper businessman in a tailored wool suit and pocket square. We shop and take photos and in the early evening, drop into a bar for aperitivo, an Italian tradition. The bar is packed out with people at the end of their working day and once you buy a drink you can then take free advantage of the assortment of foods on offer. There’s olives and salami and pasta and big blocks of delicious cheeses.
We fill our bellies at aperitivo, before we find our car again outside Milan and drive to Azzate, where we fill our bellies again at a delicious local restaurant. Our hosts tonight are Laura and Jacob, friends of Babs’s from Sesto Calende. Laura is a surprising find in Sesto. An amazonian african-american former model, she ended up meeting Jacob, a friendly Italian man who sells home-theatre on one of her modelling trips to Italy. She’s a fish out of water in this little Italian town, but she’s thriving with a sucessful fashion store to her name. Whenever we pass by her store on our travels around Sesto, we drop in and get the day’s gossip while the Babs tries on dresses.
We also spend a day in Stresa. A glamourous old resort town, Stresa is dotted with regal hotels and beautiful views across the lake to Isola Superiore and Isola Bella, two small islands to which you can take a ferry boat and explore. The islands are postcard perfect, with Isola Bella being primarily consumed by the incredible House of Borromeo, a palace and gardens belonging to the family of the same name. In fact, these islands have been owned by the Borromeo family since the 16th century, but are now open to the public. Back on the mainland, in the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, we order club sandwiches and they are the most gigantic I have ever seen in my life, arriving covered in a mountain of potato chips. We wash them down with a Coke and life is good.
Our final hours in Italy are fittingly dramatic. We ride bikes out of town, but are forced to race back to Sesto as a devilishly black sky arrives out of nowhere. We sprint back across the bridge into Sesto, high above the lake and expecting to get struck by lightning at any minute. The black clouds and thunder are menacing and we have just made it home when a torrential downpour begins. I am loathe to drive to Malpensa airport in such weather, so we leave it til the last minute, but the storm is not getting any weaker- if anything it’s getting more intense. We get drenched packing the car, and as we feel our way along minor roads through the countryside outside Lago Maggiore we can barely see a thing. The rain is teeming down and the roads are underwater and all the power is out. We need to top up the fuel tank before dropping the car off, but we arrive at one gas station to see the owners running out the door, leaving early because of the power cut. At the next gas station the power is on but nobody’s at home. There’s an auto-machine outside, and with lightning lighting up the night sky I try to get it to accept my credit cards, which it won’t. I have €30 in cash, but the money gets so sodden trying to get it into the slot that the machine won’t accept that either. Finally, a thunderbolt so close and so loud makes me dive into the back seat of the car in horror, drenched and defeated.
At the next station, the situation is the same, but the automachine is partly undercover and I manage to get it to accept one of my soggy €20 notes. It’s going to have to do- I fill up hurriedly in the rain, holding the pump fully awaiting the lightning bolt that will send me to oblivion.
We arrive at the airport and the rental car drop off garage is under 6 inches of water and abandoned. The people from Europcar’s depot are helpfully nowhere to be seen and there is no sign in their office. The garage is full of vagrants either trying to escape the storm or to mug travellers- we’re not sure which. One of them tells us the rental car people have retreated into the airport terminal- he seems to want money for this information and we park the car and drag out our belongings, in the shadow of him and his shifty mates, our shoes and socks underwater.
Inside the airport, the situation is not getting any better. No planes are arriving because of the storm, and the departure terminal for EasyJet, which would be grim at the best of times, is packed to the rafters with delayed travellers. It’s standing room only in this place. We are told that nobody knows when our flight to Paris will leave. Some of the people we speak to were supposed to take off 3 hours ago and their plane is still nowhere to be seen. We resign ourselves to a long wait.
But then a plane arrives and noses up to the gate! The terminal full of people clamours to see where it will fly to and lo and behold, it’s our plane to Paris. I’m not sure whether this is a good or bad thing, because the weather is absolutely shocking. How the plane managed to land I’ll never know. We are seated on board and note that it’s stopped raining outside, but the thunder and lightning has been replaced by a howling wind- as the luggage is loaded we can actually feel the plane moving from side to side as it is buffeted by gusts.
A chipper English captain comes on the PA and tells us it might be a while until we can take off because we have to wait for the wind to drop “within limits”. But not long after, we are surprised when we taxi out to the runway and the engines start to roar. As we lift into the air I brace myself for what is surely going to be the worst takeoff ever, but although it’s not particularly pleasant, we’re only bounced around moderately before we’re above the weather system and on our way, feasting on cheap watery soup from the seat menu.
We find ourselves back in Paris, city of love and light, where this story began just a week earlier. But the unseasonal autumn heat has gone and a chill is in the air. The buildings stand like sentinels against a grey sky. Winter, in all its frosty and bitter glory, has now well and truly begun.
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