Thursday, 20 March 2008

Driving mad

It takes a while at the best of times to drive the almost one thousand kilometres from Paris to my holiday home near Pescia in Italy - around 10 hours if the traffic isn't too heavy. So choosing the long Easter holiday weekend perhaps wasn't the brightest of ideas.

As soon as the Parisians get a whiff of a break - and it's pretty often given the number of days off they get each year - they pile into their cars and head out of the city. North, south, east or west, the direction doesn't really matter as a huge chunk of the 12 million or so who live in "la ville lumière" and its suburbs seek a few days R&R elsewhere.

The roads are jam packed at the best of times and this year, with Easter falling early, many decided to make their way to the mountains for a last minute chance to hit the slopes.

Needless to say, they were also joined by the hoards of north Europeans, taking advantage of the country's costly but excellent tolled motorways, to escape the forecast rain to either join in the skiing fun at one of the country's many resorts or enjoy the milder climes of the French Riviera.

My plan was to avoid the likely tailbacks on the Friday by setting off at the crack of dawn a day earlier than most and motoring gently southwards through the Alps to arrive at my destination, a small village nestled in the picturesque hills between Lucca and Florence,– some time in the early evening.

So with my GPS suitably programmed, I set off.

Now if I'm honest I'm not the world's best navigator. I'm not that awful either, but more often than not I don't carry a map with me in the car - although I do take a look at one ahead of any journey, just to "make sure" I prefer to trust my sometimes undeniably questionable sense of direction. My motto is to just follow the signs along the route. After all what can be so difficult in that?

Plus it wasn't the first (or last) time that I had made the drive, and since investing in a GPS system I guessed I had a foolproof guide to keep to my bearings from going their usual wobbly way. All in all I was pretty confident I wouldn't encounter too many problems along the way.

The shortest route would take me through the rolling hills of Burgundy - always a pleasure - then a left (yes that's right no east or west for me) at some point towards the Mont Blanc tunnel which would see me arrive in Italy on the other side to continue southwards past Turin, Genoa and Pisa, before taking another left for the final 50 or so kilometres.

By my reckoning, apart from hitting some light evening rush hour traffic in Genoa, the roads would be pretty much free flowing.

Now this is where I have to confess to having made an otherwise simple trip unnecessarily complicated. I don't like using the Mont Blanc tunnel. The last stretch on the French side and the first on the Italian is a real pain. Both the climb and the drop are steep (don't forget I'm talking about a tunnel through the Alps here) and the chances of getting stuck behind a convoy of trucks are fairly high and that can add valuable minutes on to the journey time. It can also require hair-raising overtaking skills or buckets of patience, neither of which I have in abundance.

So I plumped for the slightly longer, but easier route via the Fréjus tunnel. It's a personal thing really. Even though the difference in altitude between the two tunnels is not so great - just a couple of hundred metres - the climb to and from Fréjus on both sides (regardless of which direction you're driving of course) is gentler and easier.

I had rather cleverly I thought, pre-programmed the GPS to take me via my "preferred" tunnel. But by the time I had passed Lyon, I was beginning to wonder whether that delightfully computerised lady who was guiding me steadfastly onwards and southwards had paid any attention to where I actually wanted to go. Surely I should have taken a "left" by now.

And then it dawned on me. I was heading towards the other Fréjus in Provence! Now I've nothing against the town. It's full of Roman ruins - I know I've been there - and is a popular summertime tourist resort with some of the best year-round weather in France. But it's on the Cote d'Azur - over 450kms away from where I had actually planned on being.

A quick pit stop was called for and a reassessment of how I would get to where I wanted to go. Of course with no map to guide me, I tried to remember what other major towns I should be passing on the way and Chambéry seemed to ring a bell. So I quickly punched in my new destination and was soon making that "left" and picking up the signs en route.

A gradual but definite change in the landscape also told me that I was heading into Alpine country and all seemed well. Until that is, I suddenly found myself exiting the motorway at the final toll booth and caught up in mid afternoon traffic in the centre of the town.

The dulcet tones of my computerised companion had indeed guided me to where I had said I had wanted to go. Somehow I had managed to erase Florence as my final destination and instead had replaced it with the capital of the Savoy region of France.

With hindsight I realised that I should have tapped in St Jean de Maurienne - a town just a few kilometres away from the tunnel. That would have made my journey not only shorter but also far faster than the double detour I had already taken.

I finally arrived at the correct Fréjus, just over one hour behind schedule, and tuned in to Autoroute FM - the traffic information station - to listen to all the helpful tri-lingual (Italian-French-English) safety instructions as to what to do in case of an emergency. How reassuring, I thought, as I began the 13km drive.

Imagine my surprise then as I regained daylight on the other side to discover that my radio had automatically reprogrammed itself to Radio Maria. Just what the Pope ordered, I guess, as I settled back to listen to hours of liturgy and rosary.

It might be a somewhat perverse side to my nature, but the repetitive nature of the chanting really began to hypnotise me and I hurriedly had to slot in some Kate Nash just to break the spell.

Now while the French can sometimes drive like road hogs and all too often seem infuriatingly to forget to turn off their indicators after executing a manoeuvre, they've got a long way to go before they can match the excesses of their Italian counterparts.

Unfortunately all those clichés about the driving skills of the average Italian motorist – especially on the autostrada - seem to be oh so true, as quickly became apparent on the ring road around Turin.

Until you’ve actually “been” there then all those stories from many a well-worn foreign driver might seem to be wildly exaggerated. But fear not, they’re all true. Suddenly I found myself haunted by a constant stream of wannabe Ferrari test pilots appearing in my rear view mirror from out of nowhere, lights flashing and tailgating within inches of a two-car pile up.

Having already spent many hours on the road and feeling far too intimidated to retaliate by stubbornly staying in lane and within the speed limit, I pulled over only to realise that time after time the menace had been nothing more than a mild-mannered looking 50-something behind the wheel of a Fiat Panda. Clearly the Italians believe in flooring the accelerator pedal in their attempt to get the biggest performance out of the smallest of cars.

Of course I didn't hit the light evening rush hour traffic I had reckoned with in Genoa. Instead I was stuck in the full force of it as the motorway tortuously wound its way underneath the city, cars and trucks bumper-to-bumper for the best part of an hour.

By the time I finally arrived at my destination, it was pitch black, I had covered a good hundred or so kilometres more than originally planned, and I had not so much beaten the traffic as joined in with it for much of the way. And there was still the return journey to make three days later.

Next time maybe I'll take the 'plane rather than the car - especially if it's such a short break. Or if I insist on driving perhaps I'll spend a few more moment planning my route carefully berforehand.

Perhaps, maybe - probably NOT.

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