07-Jun-2012 : Over The Alps

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Stelvio Pass - the road from Prato allo Stelvio to Bormio  Pete and me at the top of the Stelvio Pass

Over The Alps – June 2012

Well, the big day had finally arrived! We’d started planning this trip a year or so ago but I didn’t really think it would come off until we got to the point where we had to start booking the channel crossing, hotels, etc. We’d been counting down the days and it seemed for a while that time itself had stopped, but then the last couple of weeks when we were making all the final arrangements just seemed to whizz by and it was suddenly…

Day One (June 7th): Gloucester-Swindon-M25-Folkestone-Calais-Reims-Châlons-en-Champagne

The weather had been okay for several days prior to our proposed start date and I was hopeful that we could avoid rain just until we got to the other side of the Channel. We’d chosen June for our trip because we could be sure that the high mountain passes would be clear of snow on the roads (but not on the peaks, so we could get some nice photos) and the weather at sea level would be dry and warm but not unbearably hot. I even bought some kevlar bike jeans so I wouldn’t have to wear my waterproof trousers in the sunny weather. However I awoke on the morning of departure to discover that it was raining. Well there was nothing to be done about it – the Channel crossings and all the hotel stays had been booked in advance, so we had no choice but to go that day.

By the time I was at Pete’s house in Swindon I’d already shrugged off the fact that it was raining, imagining that in a very few hours we’d be bathed in glorious French sunshine, with miles of beautiful French countryside rolling by. Aaaahhh…

I don’t remember how long it took us to do the 180 miles to the Channel tunnel terminal just outside Folkestone – maybe three and a half hours with just one comfort break – but it rained almost all the way, except for about twenty minutes on the M25. We arrived slightly early for our booked departure time but just missed a train, so we stood by our machines in the queue with rain running off our bike gear – that is to say, off ourselves – to the obvious amusement of the car drivers. “Ha-ha”, I thought to myself, “soon you’ll be baking in your little tin boxes with the air-cond going full blast whilst we’ll be cruising along the open road, soaking up the atmosphere, smelling the aromas, at one with our environment…”

The reality was nothing like that. What actually happened was that whilst the car drivers were relaxing in the comfort of their spacious tin boxes with their stereos going full blast, we were cruising the open road, soaking up the weather which was non-stop rain for the 200 miles from Calais to where I was convinced I’d booked our rooms at the Campanile in Châlons-en-Champagne, just south of Reims. When we got there – ironically, just as it stopped raining! – I discovered that they didn’t have a record of my booking at all, despite the printout I had in my hand which quite clearly showed that… oh, woops… the booking was at the Première Classe which was way across the other side of town! (I’m still trying to work out how I managed to screw that up!)

It stayed dry the rest of the evening and although the Première Classe was more like Troisième Classe, we had a nice meal at a bistro on the adjacent industrial estate, then retired for the night. It soon started raining again and was still raining the following morning as we set off for the second leg of our trip, across France and into Switzerland.

Day One costs: Eurotunnel £37, road tolls £10.55, hotel £37. Mileage: 390.

Day Two (June 8th): Châlons-en-Champagne-Nancy-Basel-Zurich-Glorenza

The first six hours or so were fairly uneventful – wet, but uneventful. We stopped for coffee, to stretch our legs, to fill up with petrol, to grab a hurried lunch, and by early afternoon we were crossing the border into Switzerland. We’d paid extra to order our motorway ‘vignettes‘ in advance but we were waved through the Douane with nary a glance at them: mine was hardly visible under the fairing and I think Pete eventually stuck his to the underside of his seat – the bike’s seat, I mean.

As we approached Zurich I made my first real navigation error. (I don’t count getting thoroughly lost trying to find my way out of the rail terminal at the Calais end, which I eventually discovered was because my sat-nav was still trying to find the Folkestone end of the tunnel!) Approaching the turn which would have bypassed Zurich city centre and seen us speeding our way into the mountains, I got stuck in the wrong lane and not wanting to make a sudden lane change in the poor weather conditions, I ended up taking us into the centre of Zurich. It was 3.30pm on a Friday afternoon and the traffic was a choc-a-block and stationary. Not only that but the heavens had chosen that moment to open up and the pair of us found ourselves sitting in a traffic jam with no gaps to filter through and no possibility of doing a U-turn. It took us twenty minutes just to go round one block but after that we quickly found the motorway again and resumed our journey. Lesson learned: pay more attention at motorway junctions and get in your lane early.

As we headed away from Zurich onto higher roads, the weather improved – the rain stopped, the sun started to shine and the roads started to dry out. By about 6pm we found ourselves at the start of the Fluela Pass, the first big mountain pass of the journey. It was superb – over 20 miles of winding alpine roads in fair condition and with no real problems passing between massive snow-covered peaks and frozen lakes. This was what we had come to see!

All too soon we were dropping down into Glorenza (Glurns), a beautiful mediaeval walled city, where we had booked a hotel for the night. Google Maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/irwaf. We now had 800 miles under our belts and were looking forward to our dinners and a glass (or two) of beer. I fell asleep listening to the rain pattering on the cobbles in the town square…

Day Two costs: hotel £44. Mileage: 420.

Day Three (June 9th): Glorenza-Stelvio-Bormio-Valfurva-Mezzolombardo-Trento-Feltre-Belluno-Vittorio Veneto-Conegliano-Budoia

I awoke early the next morning – maybe 5am, I’m not sure – to the sound of two revellers returning home after what must have been a cracking evening of beer and more beer: one was singing to himself and the other was calling a girl’s name at the top of his voice. I watched them for a while and then went back to bed, only to be disturbed moments later by a loud crash, and on looking out of the window the two inebriates had evidently overturned one of the large planters (visible if you visit the Google Maps link above), and there was soil and greenery everywhere. The culprits were nowhere to be seen, although I could still hear one of them in the distance calling the same girl’s name, loudly and repeatedly.

Half an hour later the cops were on the scene, one guardia municipale (they’re pussy cats – like local sheriffs) and one carabiniere, a paramilitary cop, predictably armed to the teeth. They examined the evidence – the overturned planter, the damaged flowers, the spilt soil, and they looked all round the square, eventually spotting me at the second-floor window. After I’d given a brief statement, they disappeared and came back a few minutes later holding the drunkards by the scruffs of their necks. After giving them a good telling-off – I could hear phrases like “we know your parents” and “you’ll get the bill for this” – they were allowed to go, promising they would go straight home. The cops left and no more than half an hour later – and this was before seven o’clock in the morning – the clean-up squad arrived dressed in his best hi-vis overall complete with the Glorenza coat of arms.

Pete, whose room was on the other side of the hotel, missed everything. It must have been the most exciting thing to have happened in Glorenza for years and he’d slept through it. I wish I’d thought to get my camera out… Reuters and AP would have been fighting over the pictures!

Excitement over, we had a hearty continental-style breakfast, and by the time we’d finished at 8.00am the square was immaculate, and there was no sign of the catastrophe which had struck this sleepy town just two hours previously. We fetched the bikes from the secure underground parking (€7 per night although the receptionist forgot to charge us and we forgot to point this out to him), and then we set off to find the start of the famous Stelvio Pass, just a few miles away. We had deliberately split the journey so that the pass would be as close as possible at the start of Day Three.

By the time we reached the start of the pass there was a slight drizzle in the air, however the roads were fairly dry so we set off with a little trepidation but confident that we wouldn’t make complete idiots of ourselves. I can’t speak for Pete as he was behind me all the way and ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour’, but I for one was having immense problems negotiating the right-hand hairpins. The left-handers were fine as we could take a much wider line and get an earlier view up the road of any oncoming traffic, but the right-handers were much trickier because there was little opportunity of taking a wider line for fear of oncoming traffic, so the bends were much tighter and consequently much steeper. To make matters worse, within a mile or so the mountain mist which had made the peaks look so beautiful when were at the bottom, had now dropped and enveloped us, so we were riding with greatly reduced visibility. This didn’t seem to worry some of the other vehicles we encountered, however, most notably the ‘supermoto’ style machines which were overtaking us at tremendous speed, sometimes on the hairpins with one foot on the tarmac.

After about twenty minutes of continuous hairpins, my nerves were frazzled! (Incidentally Google maps suggests it’s a ten-minute drive from the start of the pass to its highest point but take it from me, it’s lying!) I was starting to tense up every time I approached a hairpin and at one point I stalled just as I started to lean the bike, giving me a scary moment as I thought back to a video I’d seen of a rider stalling a slightly smaller bike than mine in a similar situation and struggling to lift it back up (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aI-Q6lqTMMA). I pulled into the next layby to recover my composure, under the impression that there were still several miles to go, however when we eventually got going again, I was delighted to discover that there were only another couple of bends and we were finally at the top of the pass – and we were alive!

Half an hour’s rest, some photos, a coffee and a look round the gift shops and we were ready for the descent. The south side of the pass isn’t as steep as the north side, and because you’re above the oncoming traffic, you can see it early by looking down over the walls, whereas on the ascent you can’t see oncoming traffic by looking up over the walls since they’re a long way above you. On several occasions we came up behind cars who were obviously doing their best to make good progress but they politely waved us to go past them. Equally politely, I declined! Although it was drizzling slightly, the sun was trying to shine and we were soon down out of the mist and enjoying the run down to Bormio – yes, even the hairpins! We didn’t enjoy filling up in Bormio though, as their position at the bottom of the pass allowed them to charge nearly two Euros a litre for petrol. We had coffee and elevenses in Valfurva and then set off over the Gavia Pass on the final leg to Budoia.

The original intention had been to cover the final leg using small local roads including some minor mountain passes, a ride of 250 or so miles. The alternative would have been to head south and pick up the motorway, a much longer distance, albeit a half-hour or so quicker according to Google Maps. In the event, we did about fifty miles on minor roads before we realised that Google Maps had been hopelessly optimistic in estimating how quickly we could cover these minor roads, and we reluctantly decided to get off them on to major roads with one short section of motorway at Conegliano. (Incidentally, Prosecco di Conegliano is available in Sainsburys – do try it!) Most of this final afternoon was warm and dry – ideal weather for flying insects – and we were forced to stop a couple of times to clear a coating of dead flies from our visors.

Here’s a tip: the stuff you use to dissolve insect protein from visors reacts adversely with pinlock inserts! I didn’t notice this at the time and jumped back on my bike to continue the journey with my visor up in the warm, dry conditions, then a couple of miles further on I snapped my visor back down and thought I’d just ridden into thick fog! On inspection the insert had gone cloudy where I’d sprayed it with the visor cleaner and wiped it, and I thought I’d ruined it, however it had cleared shortly afterwards all on its own, so panic over!

We eventually arrived at my uncle’s house in Budoia at about 8pm to find dinner waiting for us. There was a huge dish of lasagne which we managed to demolish between us, Pete having a rather large second helping despite my warning that it was only the starter and if he ate too much it would spoil his appetite for the main course. He was still laughing when my aunt produced eight large veal steaks, potatoes and an assortment of vegetables!

Day Three costs: tolls £20.90. Mileage: 270.

Day Four (June 10th): Budoia

A rest day. I’m fortunate enough to have an uncle and aunt in Budoia, a village at the foot of the Dolomites approximately 50 miles north of Venice, so we stayed with them for three days, thus saving on hotel and food bills! Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the weather over the previous three days, it proceeded to rain on and off all that night and it was still raining when we awoke the following morning. During a lull in the weather we took a stroll around the village where the Lacchins have lived since at least 1378, until a nearby lightning bolt lit up the sky and shook the ground we were standing on, and we retreated to my uncle’s house where we spent a couple of hours checking and cleaning the bikes.

Day Five (June 11th): Venice

Day trip to Venice – by train! We could have gone by bike and spent £15 each on petrol but the train is only about £10 each for a return ticket, so it made sense to do that rather than spend a rest day back on the bikes. Also we’d had enough wet weather already and the thought of the train journey was quite appealing. As it happened, the day dawned dry and sunny, the first time that had happened since we left home, so we were looking forward to visiting one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

If you’ve never been to Venice and are looking for somewhere to spend a short break, this is definitely a place you should visit at least once in your life. I admit I’m biased as I have relatives there and I’ve been many times, but for Pete it was his first time and he came away promising to return as soon as possible with his wife.

Day Six (June 12th): Budoia

Another rest day – and more rain! I think we just sat around on the balcony eating and drinking for most of the day… well, I mean ‘rehyrdating and carb-loading’ in preparation for the return journey!

Day Seven (June 13th): Budoia-Padua-Vicenza-Verona-Lake Maggiore-Brescia-Monza-Milan-Vogogna

Time to set off back to the UK. My uncle and aunt had been the perfect hosts and we were fed, watered and rested, and the only thing we needed now was sunny weather. It was not to be. When we awoke it was still raining but to be honest we were past caring, and we set off full of optimism that the weather would improve. Instead of the direct route over the mountains which we’d used to get to Budoia, we were returning via the more westerly Simplon Pass, so we picked up the motorway at Conegliano and bashed on to Verona where we stopped for petrol and to confirm our plans to do a circuit of Lake Maggiore, a 62-mile, two-hour detour around what is probably the nicest of the Italian lakes. By now the rain had stopped and we agreed that the detour was wisely chosen.

Then back on the motorway to whizz past Brescia, Monza and Milan with only a few spots of rain, and then up to Vogogna where we had a hotel room waiting for us just a few miles from the start of the Simplon Pass. As before, the evening brought drier, brighter weather and once again we looked forward to the following day with an optimism which wasn’t born from the experience of the journey thus far. Dinner was a really nice pizza served by an equally delicious waitress. Sweet dreams…

Costs: tolls… can’t remember… maybe a tenner, hotel £34. Mileage: 360.

Day Eight (June 14th): Vogogna-Iselle-Sempione-Brig-Martigny-Montreux-Lausanne-Besançon-Dijon-Troyes-Châlons-en-Champagne

We awoke and were surprised to discover that for once it wasn’t raining! We grabbed a quick breakfast and set off for the last of the four big mountain passes of the trip: the Simplon. Unfortunately the traffic on this section of the journey, including the pass itself, was fairly heavy, with a constant stream of articulated HGVs crawling along in each direction of the twisty, mostly single-carriageway roads which made it almost impossible to overtake, especially in the many tunnels cut into the mountain side. However we were enjoying the dry weather and were soon cruising around the Swiss lakes towards the French border.

The final 200 miles of this leg from the border to the same Première Classe in Châlons-en-Champagne that we’d stopped in on the way down was a real killer. Encouraged by a couple of friends who had suggested that a 400-mile day was entirely possible (although in hindsight I think 300 miles was probably more advisable), I’d planned to cover 440 miles on this leg of the journey. Never again! By the time we’d picked up the motorway I was already feeling bored and regretting my decision not to bring the Sony Walkman which I sometimes connect to my helmet headset, and 200 miles later I think I was beginning to lose my mind. Another lesson learned!

At the hotel we met up with three lads from Slough, all riding Chinese 125s – a Jinlun, a Baotian and a PingPong or somesuch. All three of them – the bikes, I mean, not the lads – appeared to be held together with jubilee clips and cable ties and had various items of luggage bungeed to them in what seemed to be fairly precarious configurations. One of them had apparently lost his centre stand en route and, unable to stop at the time, he later scrounged a large tin box from somewhere and bungeed it to the back of his bike, and whenever he stopped he’d hold the machine upright whilst one of his mates jumped off his own machine, ran round to liberate the tin box and jammed it under the guy’s crankcase. A fourth member of the party had apparently suffered a trip-terminating breakdown in Dijon and was making his own way back by train. Pete and I agreed that he was probably going to get back before the trio who were standing before us!

Dinner was a nice steak served by an even nicer waitress. More sweet dreams…

Costs: tolls £12.80, hotel £42. Mileage: 440.

Day Nine (June 15th): Châlons-en-Champagne-Reims-Channel Tunnel-Gloucester

Our final day started wet – no surprise there then! We had breakfast and stared at the rain for a while, but finally decided we had to load up our bikes and make a move. In fact it wasn’t too bad, although it got worse as we took our final comfort break at a truck stop on the final run in to Calais. Using an outdoor toilet when it’s raining is a strange enough experience, but when an old lady walks by and greets you with a smile and a cheery “Bonjour!”, things seem very strange indeed. How odd the French are… no wonder we’ve been at war with them for the last thousand years!

The ride back from Folkestone to Swindon was uneventful – almost an anticlimax – but at least it was fairly dry for most of the way. At Swindon Pete broke off and headed for home – it was a shame we didn’t stop and shake each others’ hands at that point, but I’ll do it next time we meet up, for sure. Then the heavens opened up once again, and my final thirty or so miles ended as the first thirty had begun.

Costs: tolls £10.55, Eurotunnel £37. Mileage: 390.


If you’d like to view our route – give or take a few minor deviations – here it is (2254 miles, 3627 km):-

View Larger Map

So how much did it all cost, assuming you have a road-legal bike to start with? Well, there are some expenses you’re not going to be able to avoid, for example:-

Petrol: I covered 2256 miles with very few unnecessary diversions, and spent a total £264 on petrol, averaging 51.3 mpg. This was on a Honda CBR1100XX ‘Super Blackbird’.

Tolls: I’ve noted £54.80 excluding Day 7 (the first day of the return journey) when I thought we’d incurred some tolls but evidently didn’t record the amount(s). I reckon if I said £60 total, that probably wouldn’t be too far off.

Hotels: £157 (4 nights). My target was £40/night so this wasn’t far off. This cost included breakfasts and a few Euros surcharge to make the bookings ‘flexible’, i.e. cancellable up to 24 hours beforehand with no penalty.

Channel tunnel: £37 x 2.

Food and drink en route: obviously you need to eat and drink. I don’t know how much I spent and I don’t want to know. I like my food and drink and I refuse to skimp on it. If you decide to make the trip yourself, what you spend is up to you.

There are no tolls for using Swiss motorways but if you wish to use them you must purchase a ‘vignette’ which is valid for fourteen months from December the previous year to January the following year and must be affixed to your vehicle. Failure to purchase a vignette carries a heavy fine *and* they will make you buy a vignette on the spot. Failure to display or affix a vignette carries the same penalty although of course you aren’t forced to buy one as well. They’re not transferable since they self-destruct when they’re removed. Cost: if pre-ordered in the UK they’re £32.50 but you can save yourself a couple of quid by queueing at the border for one. My suggestion: pay the extra and avoid the queue.

Breakdown cover: mine cost £57.32 from the RAC, including 10% discount for being a member.

European insurance cover: mine was free with my RSA policy and was at the same level of cover (comprehensive, same excess) as applicable when in the UK. Not all insurers offer this, so don’t take it for granted – check and make sure.

Travel insurance: not taken out. Breakdown cover would take care of the bike – what else could possibly go wrong? *:)

European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). These are free from the NHS, so don’t pay an agent to apply for one on your behalf – apply for your own (link).

Breath testers (in France): not required. This law came into force on July 1st, two weeks after we got back, so we avoided this expense. Do you really need them? Who knows. But if you decide you need them, you actually have to carry two: the first one to use if you’re stopped and asked to do so by the police and the second one so you’re still legal after you’ve used the first one.

Update: “France has finally dropped plans to fine motorists who do not have a breath test kit in their vehicles – but has left in place the law obliging them to carry the kits.”  (How does that make any sense at all?!)
See: France drops breath test fines (March 4th, 2013)

Spare bulb kit: £6.38. These are compulsory in most of Europe although I’ve never heard of anyone being asked to produce one. However if you’re nowhere near a garage or auto spares shop at night and a bulb does blow, it’s nice to know you have a spare. I also carry spare fuses. Buy from Ebay rather than your local main dealer.

GB stickers: two for £1.39 (Ebay). If your number plate doesn’t have a built-in strip showing your vehicle’s country of registration, you’ll need to attach a ‘GB’ sticker somewhere prominent so les flics will know which country to contact to get their speeding tickets enforced. Make sure you buy the smaller size which fits on to a mudguard rather than the larger car type.

Documents & copies: take the following original documents plus at least one photocopy of each: passport, vehicle V5C, insurance certificate, MoT certificate, driving licence, health insurance, breakdown cover. Also take printed copies of your Channel tunnel and hotel bookings, just in case.

Altogether I reckon I spent about £850 on the trip including petrol, fares, accommodation, tolls, food and drink, breakdown cover, vignette, and other preparations (spare bulbs and fuses, cable ties, etc). This figure includes about £100 which we spent taking my uncle and aunt out for a meal and maybe £50 spent on the day out in Venice, so perhaps the real figure excluding these two items was nearer £700. However, bear in mind that we had no other accommodation or food and drink costs for the three days we spent in Budoia, whereas if you make the trip you’ll either have to turn round and come straight back again or else you’ll have to allow for any days you spend out there.

If you’re interested in taking your bike to Italy and you’d like a chat about it beforehand, please drop me a line.