Simplon or Simpleton?

It is a wrench to tear ourselves away from beautiful Lake Maggiore, but the weather is due to deteriorate and we must begin the slow haul north and west. To do this we must cross the Alps, and the nearest pass happens to be The Simplon, a route that we have not used before.

In the beginning I am confused by large signs displaying ‘Sempione’, which I’m unable to locate in the road atlas, until I realise this is the Italian for ‘Simplon Pass’, which is an example of my ineptitude with map reading…

As you might expect, though it is sad to leave the lakes, the scenery soon becomes breath-taking in an Alpine way; the villages picturesque as we wind up and through the mountains on what is an unexpectedly quiet road.

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The engineering along the pass, the road constructed through, around and over mountains is spectacular and it is not long before snow-topped peaks appear. Before long we’ve crossed into Switzerland again.

The landscape, as we continue to ascend becomes bleaker and less green, the conditions less hospitable to vegetation.

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You know you’ve reached the top of the pass, because the road widens, there is a lay-by, a restaurant and a gift shop. We make coffee and I scoot across to the shop, which is lined from floor to ceiling with all the objects you would never need, from gaily painted miniature cowbells to carved wooden whistles adorned with jaunty birds-all very ‘Alpine’.

We are not alone in the lay-by, and two of our fellow parkers are gargantuan, lorry-style motor-homes travelling in convoy.

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The German occupants hop out for a quick cigarette then rumble on again, leaving us wondering if we’ll be stuck behind them on the hairpin bends, but when we resume our journey they are long gone.

It’s down the other side of the pass and an hour or so later we are alongside Lake Geneva, passing through the Swiss border with France.

Then it’s a quick whisk through ‘Evian-les-Bains’ [where the expensive bottled water comes from] on to our destination for the next couple of days-Lake Annecy; distinctly non-Italian, cooler and decidedly popular, much to our dismay. Every lakeside site is full-and it’s getting late. We are obliged to make a night stop in a site on a hillside, which at least has a lake view. We’ll try the lakeside sites in the morning.

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And when we do we are not disappointed. Lake Annecy may not be Italian but it does have a charm of its own. We discover that the cycle path runs from the site entrance and that the historic town of Annecy itself is not so far-nor is the Carrefour supermarket. The morning dawns clear and sunny and we are set to explore.

 

On to Sunnier Parts

The weather has turned gloomy and drizzly as we leave Unterager and head towards Italy. Lake Lucerne is shrouded in mizzle, its frame of snowy peaks almost obliterated.

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We drive through the St Gotthard tunnel, waiting in line for our batch of vehicles to get a green light [presumably this is to avoid jams inside the tunnel]. Then it’s a short hop to Lugano, which holds a promise of stunning views as we travel through the pretty town and suddenly we are alongside the lake itself, adorned with intriguing towers, villas and churches. A quick glimpse and we are winding up hairpin bends, through tunnels and the border is upon us, vestiges of the old controls still there in the customs sign and the checkpoint.

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The weather brightens and soon we are driving into Porlezza, our first stop in Italy, a large site on the shores of lovely Lake Lugano.

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The town is a tiny, little known gem, with narrow, cobbled lanes against a backdrop of steep cliffs, a miniature square, a little church painted with frescoes on the walls and ceiling, bars and cafes along the waterfront, where I’m surprised to see a terrapin swimming alongside the ducks!

Rain sets in overnight and for half the next morning, before clearing enough for us to set off on along an old railway track turned cycle path towards Menaggio at Lake Como. As it’s a rail track we think the gradient can’t get too steep and to begin with it isn’t, leading off through the back of town and along the side of pretty Lake Piano, a nature reserve.

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The track climbs-and climbs. It becomes a relentless, knee-numbing challenge. We are overtaken by the inevitable E-bikes, prompting teeth-gnashing and finger gestures [from ourselves of course]. I begin to run out of gears. At last we reach the top and begin the descent, during which my hands become numb from holding the brakes on. We come to an abrupt halt at a road which snakes down in hairpin bends into Menaggio and I decide that’s enough, since mixing with Italian traffic on steep bends is not my cappuccino.

Then it’s back up again; up and up, and more up.

And then down.

The next day is to be devoted to Lake Como. We’ll drive to Menaggio and get a ferry across to Bellagio. Easy! But there is nowhere to park a van along the steep sides of the lake and we don’t find a car park until we reach Cadenabbia, which is ok because the ferries cross from here.

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Bellagio swarms with tourists, its steep, narrow lanes lined with designer outlets and gift shops. But it is pretty and worth the effort. After a wander up and down the streets and an ice cream we return to Cadenabbia to drive up the lakeside and find a site. Easier said than done!

 

 

More Hopeful Travels

Here we are, off again as we pack in another Europe trip before the dreaded ‘leave’ date of October 31st. When we park our camper van up at aires and sites we are surrounded by the usual mix of Dutch and German couples, our age or similar, making the most of the mild September weather and the cheaper prices.

They are their usual, friendly selves, smiling and greeting as all we travel pensioners do, yet I feel some sense of embarrassment for the way my own country is behaving; ungrateful, idiotic, stupid-and yes, a little ashamed to be British. As yet nobody has initiated a conversation on the subject of our leaving the EU. The Germans are most likely to do this and I’m waiting for it to happen. When it does I will be apologetic and honest, as I was three years ago. I can find no explanation for the decision to leave. It can only do our own country serious harm-and damage companies in Europe to boot.

But we travel hopefully as always, heading this time towards northern Italy via France and Switzerland. The first day is traffic torture, the second insufferably hot, but we arrive to Basel and a convenient [if extremely expensive] camp site with a tram site outside the exit. Switzerland is expensive, but at least free tram travel comes along with the pitch.

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The tram takes us straight into the heart of the city, through the enormous, international station, during which an announcement in English informs us the station is Swiss, German and French, [being on the border of all 3]; and I can’t escape the irony of how English is used as their common language.

But the city, bordering the mighty Rhine is beautiful, with a stately, red cathedral dominating the bank and a quaint Rathaus building the focal point of the market square.

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Behind the market square we find the famous Christmas shop and soon there are a couple of tiny additions to my tree decorations.

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A small, unmotorized ferry attached to an overhead line takes us across the Rhine. We wander back and take the tram up towards the theatre with it’s forecourt atttraction, the ‘Tinguely’ fountains.

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Then it’s time to relax with a beer outside in the sunshine on a busy corner, watching the world-and its trams roll by before we head back to the site.

Switzerland is not a large country and remains, to me, something of an enigma. They are not in the EU; were neutral in the war; keep much of the world’s wealth safe in their vaults. They are known for cuckoo clocks, chocolate and army knives. There are 3 [or is it 4?] languages spoken. It is not cheap!

We leave Basel next day and make a short hop towards Lucerne and the lake of Agerizee, where, at Unterageri there is a lakeside site. We have our first Brexit conversation with a charming Dutchman who seems to be following all the grim UK news closely.

We don’t like the EU as it is’ he tells us. ‘But it is not good to leave.’ No. We know!