My wife and I have spent the last 10 days driving around in Europe, so I thought I would blog about the fun we had and tell you all the things you really need to know if you ever find yourself in very specific places in Northern Italy, Switzerland and the tiniest southern tip of Austria.
Part I: Arrival.
Milan Bergamo airport is nondescript but perfectly nice. However, upon walking out of it, you are instantly hit by a concrete boxing glove of heat, which is unnerving. The only other time I’ve felt anything like it was in Death Valley, and that, in case it wasn’t obvious from the name, is a valley of death. I like arriving in a hot country, usually. When you step off a plane in Tenerife, the air is warm but fresh, welcoming you with a wink and a smile. Here, it welcomes you with a slug to the stomach, takes your money, smothers you with a heated blanket for a while and finally drives off on your motorbike. I am reminded every time I travel by my long-suffering better half that I need to improve my decision making process when I’m getting ready to leave England. When we left Darlington it was 6am, and cold. Manchester was, as Manchester always manages to be, glum and rainy, and so my long sleeved-top and jeans seemed like a sensible, nay well-informed, decision. I was quite proud of it really, until we stepped off the plane in Milan and two hobbits pottered by and tried to throw a ring onto the runway. This entire situation would, of course, have been made slightly more bearable if we hadn’t had to then negotiate the car hire desk.
Car hire. We’ve done it before, and in my experience, it’s always a nightmare. Sometimes the nightmare is particularly terrifying (we once arrived at midnight in Florida after 12 hours’ travelling to be told that we couldn’t have our car) and sometimes it’s quite benign, but it’s never pleasant. Having said that, it started promisingly. The man on the counter not only dealt with us in a friendly way, and at relatively high speed too, but also entertained me by doing a passable visual impression of Sideshow Bob and a passable audio impression of Borat. Anyway, the reason I hate hiring a car so much is because a) you don’t know what car you’re going to get, except for the inevitability that you will get something other than what you asked for, and b) however much you think you’ve paid for the car, it simply is not enough. Bob was very quick to inform us of the ‘of course you don’t have to buy insurance on top of the insurance you already bought but if you break down or get bumped or a bird poos on your car or someone looks at it the wrong way it will result in the kind of financial ruin that would make Goldman Sachs feel sorry for you’ insurance and asked if we would like to pay it for a deposit of ‘just’ €400 plus €14-a-day which was (obviously) non-refundable. This discussion alone made me regret not being a father; I’m pretty sure selling the children would have been the only way to pay for the car and still feel like I could afford to eat. Bear in mind that at this stage, I hadn’t been confronted with Italian driving, so €14-a-day sounded like quite a lot for insurance. After signing so many bits of paper I began to presume that Italy must recently have been covered in lush forests before they were destroyed to produce car-rental sheets, we took a bus to the rental lot.
The prospect of driving an unfamiliar car on an unfamiliar side of the road is not something that generally fills me with dread. That said, it does take a bit of getting used to, so I was hoping for a relatively straightforward introduction to life on the road in Italy. No chance. We were spat out of the rental lot onto a motorway in full flow, followed by a roundabout with two or three hundred exits and lanes to sort out. The sat nav was spluttering into life somewhat, still trying to come to terms with its new surroundings (and the heat, I imagine) and so was of little use. It was a baptism of fire, to say the least, and it wasn’t long before I had been properly gesticulated at by at least five Italian drivers. Holiday Bingo box 1? Check.
So. Driving in Italy. Now, we’ve all heard the stereotypes about Italian drivers. They are pretty lazy (the stereotypes, I mean) and I certainly won’t be falling back on them if I don’t have to – but my god, it’s about time someone introduced Italian drivers to some manners. Ok, maybe I am falling back on stereotypes, but it wasn’t long before I started to understand where they’d come from. For example, changing lanes is an interesting experience. In England, when you indicate before changing lanes, it is an unspoken request to the other cars. A kind of flashing orange way of saying ‘Hello, I would like to change lanes please’ at which point some kindly soul flashes their lights as if to say ‘Feel free to change lanes, sir or madam.’ In Italy, however, when you indicate, it is an unspoken statement of intent. The lane you are in is about to be annexed, and you are powerless to stop it. Mostly, cars didn’t begin to indicate until they were at least two-thirds of the way into the new lane and their indication was much more a case of ‘Be prepared, puny human; I am moving my hugely important penis extension into your lane NOW!’ I did a bit of googling, and found that the number of fatalities on Italian roads is twice as high as in the UK (and four (FOUR) times as high as in the Netherlands – although I suppose it’s all flat there so they can see one another coming, plus they’re all so chilled out they presumably don’t go much faster than 35) and it’s not hard to see why once you’ve tried to filter onto a motorway. The president of the Road Safety Insurance Foundation described the rate of death and injury on Italy’s roads as ‘a national emergency’, so I was pretty glad to still be alive by the time the traffic thinned out a bit as we got to the base of the Alps. Not least because the view was gorgeous and it was nice to be able to see it without having been decapitated by a stray fan belt somewhere outside Gallarate.
Having said all that, stereotypes may be lazy and generic but they can lead to some wonderful moments. As we waited to go through one toll booth, a guy on a moped flew past. Undertaking, not even in a lane, over the speed limit, wearing sandals, white ¾ length trousers, and a bright pink t shirt. It may have been the most Italian thing I’d ever seen, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thankfully, it was not the highlight of the holiday, or even the highlight of that evening. That, and much more besides, was yet to come.