We do manage to wake up at 7am! This might sound absurd written like that, but one of our issues in London was finding the will to wake up. Therefore, one of the aims of our trip was to manage to wake up early, together, while looking forward to living every new day. This was also meant to work well with the winter road trip, the idea being waking up at 7, driving for a few hours in the early morning where the temperatures are the coldest, before visiting our main sight of the day in the best conditions possible.We have slept less than 8 hours, so it’s not the liveliest morning we could have had, but we’re clearly on track and the excitement of the trip is enough to drag us out of bed. We shower, pack quickly, skip the expense of the extra breakfast thinking we’ll get a better deal from a bakery on the way, walk Jazz and off we go. The weather is freezing and cloudy, and the GPS leads us straight onto the motorway, so we reluctantly have to forget about said bakery. Roxy takes the opportunity to take a couple of pictures, while the road leads us closer to the Mont Blanc tunnel, under a cloudy sky punctuated by odd rays of sun. As the altitude increases the nickname Autoroute blanche for this motorway becomes more and more relevant, the snow becoming thicker on either side of the tarmac during our progress.
Hunger gets hold of us, so we decide to stop at a motorway service area near Bonneville. We end up having some mediocre overpriced food alongside truck drivers in a run-down prefabricated mobile-home type of building. There is a bug with the vending machine for the hot drinks, so amazingly I get reimbursed for one of the coffees while the machine still spits it out! 21st century technology is entertaining, especially when you can see the money leaving your account and then bouncing back in real time, on your phone, while the machine offers you the plastic cup. That doesn’t make the coffee any better, but at least it seems fairer getting 2 for the price of 1. Our last meal in France for that trip feels miles away from that breakfast at the bakery in Fougères in every sense. Anyway, we check the tyres and move on, we’ll binge on the biscuits we brought, it looks like a safer option.We keep on for a few miles and the Alps are starting to look postcard like, with cute chalets appearing in the wooded areas and peaks white with snow. Around Sallanches the road winds between the Aravis range and the Désert de Platé, to offer a view of the Mont Blanc right in front. We decide to stop at the Aire de Passy-Mont-Blanc, to walk Jazz a bit before the longest tunnel starts, and to enjoy the sight of the tallest peak in Europe through the clouds.
From there the road starts climbing steeply and becomes more tortuous. It is starting to snow a bit as well, and with the Fréjus tunnel being closed the traffic is higher than usual on our route and transforms into a long queue of vehicles we must follow for more than an hour. The roads have been cleared and salted, but with the snow and cold they are very slippery, so it’s without much surprise that we look at a Greek truck struggling to manage the horseshoe bends, slightly slipping while manoeuvring. It turns out the main reason for the queue is the way vehicles pass through the tunnel. Once we pay the hefty fee at the toll, we need to wait for the previous vehicle to be at least 150m in front of us before we’re allowed to drive. To make the tunnel safer, after the deadly accident of 1999, the speed is limited and tightly monitored for the whole crossing while reminders to keep the distances pop up on the displays along the way.And that’s it! After about half an hour of monotonous driving through a dark hole we break out in Italy!
Having left the renowned slopes of Chamonix on one end we find ourselves on the edge of the renowned slopes of Courmayeur at the other. With all the snow around us, and scenic views topped by the Mt Blanc summit, it is no wonder this area is known worldwide for skiing. The weather in Italy is a little bit better though, still cloudy, but there is no snowfall. The roads are also more impressive on the eye, the Italians having spared no expense to create tunnels and bridges everywhere, in order to straighten somehow a road that goes through canyons and would normally follow the meanders of the river through the mountains.We’re soon near Aosta and decide to give it a go, as with all the traffic and stops we’re behind schedule, and it’s a good time to eventually do a visit. It’s the second time I go through Aosta (incidentally the first one was on a road trip from Greece to the UK about 10 years ago) and, apart from its ham, I can’t find anything interesting about this city, or at least the parts we go through. The boring, aged concrete buildings come assorted with random roadworks, moronic traffic, and signage to the historic centre that just goes around endlessly. The mood is turning as grey as the sky, so given we don’t plan to buy ham and make it travel in the boot for a whole week, we decide to leave Aosta without stepping a foot outside the car.
Truth be told, outside of the concrete 20th century neighbourhoods of some cities, Italy is a gorgeous country. The road crossing the Alps towards Genoa is picturesque, the clouds giving place to blue skies, and the snow vanishing from sight as the altitude decreases. Along the valley, old castles and noble mansions overlook picturesque villages in ways and frequencies that seem almost caricatural.As we drive down the alps and into the vast plains between Turin and Milan the clouds give place to blue skies. We proceed to book our next stopover online while on the move. We had a quick look during the previous days and opt to book through agriturismo.it. We have a penchant for rural accommodation mostly ran by local families, making it ethically more appealing than the big online players, for similar costs. We find some kind of farm with nice looking pictures and good reviews some 20km from Genoa, which looks like a great deal, and go for it. The mobile signal is good enough as the long stretches of motorway succeed one another, allowing us to complete the process online without issues. Despite the slower than expected cross of the alps, it looks like we will easily be on track to do a visit on the way and dine early. Wishful thinking! As it’s likely on long trips, we eventually stumble on start-stop traffic some miles into the E25. At first, we think it’s an accident as we quickly spot a car into the back of a minibus on the right lane. But no, as we look at a few fat beardy blokes quietly assessing the damage to the van, there is no mafioso pulling out a gun or other Italian drama occurring, and we come to realise there are roadworks up front and the traffic extends for miles. Luckily there’s a service station just in front of us with a road sign indicating a panoramic view. It’s been a few hours of non-stop driving, hence we decide to stop there and have a walk, so that Jazz can get some exercise as well.
We left France with the petrol at around €1.40, so seeing a price of €1.75 here is shocking. What’s more confusing the petrol stations show 2 rates for each kind of fuel… The motorway services are packed and overpriced, so we just park the car, get the dog out and start walking towards the signs showing Belvedere di Viverone. We probably have spent a good hour looking for it, but this was the biggest joke of a panoramic view I’ve ever experienced. There is a hill separating the services from the lake of Viverone so logically the belvedere should give a commanding view from the top. We went to the end of the road, followed the small footpaths, but nothing; all we could see were dense tree trunks and no spot to see through them!
Well, at least Jazz enjoyed the long walk and chasing his ball. And given the cold there was barely anyone else so we could let him to roam freely. The sun was setting as we crossed paths with that old guy bearing a father Christmas beard, that absolutely wanted a conversation. We managed to escape his nonsensical stories in a mix of Italian, French and English, and slowly walked back to the car to continue with the traffic that was now a bit more fluid.The traffic was smooth again after the roadworks, and Italian driving is quite spirited, so we are back to covering ground quickly. Somewhere on the road for Alessandria and Tortona we get surprised by a fantastic full moon. Not only does it look very big, low on the horizon in front of us, but its dark orange tint is surreally gorgeous. Then somewhere on the A7 we start realising that the distance left on the GPS seems disproportionate to the time we are still expected to drive. The motorway starts becoming tortuous past Libarna; we are driving along a riverbed again but can’t see much of the landscape in the dark. The motorway snakes following the terrain and the driving becomes quite entertaining for me while I struggle to follow local drivers through the corners with a loaded car.
We quickly stop at Busalla to get some cash, as we can’t pay the accommodation online, and keep on driving in the hope that we’ll make it for dinner given the GPS shows we can barely make it for 9pm. After Busalla the road is even more twisty as it leads us to the village of Mignanego and then, surprise surprise, we almost miss the turn for a small road hidden between 2 houses in the middle of the village. There are barely 3 miles left to reach destination, but the GPS shows we still need 11 minutes to get there, and suddenly we get why. As we cross a bridge that’s barely the width of our car, we enter a narrow road that goes up the mountain hairpin after hairpin. As we move up the steep incline in first gear, the thought of dealing with opposite traffic becomes daunting, and Roxy is clearly not feeling reassured. Reversing in pitch black darkness with abrupt slopes on the side wouldn’t have been fun, so it’s a good thing there doesn’t seem to be any other living soul around. After a few minutes that feel like an eternity we see a small wooden sign and turn right inside Agriturismo La Costa.
There is a car with French plates in one corner, so we guess we’ve arrived at the right place, but we don’t see any lights on. Good thing the owners have dogs, they have realised Jazz is around, so they all start barking together to make sure no one in the surrounding villages or beyond has missed our arrival. The owner is quick to appear before the other guests have time to hate us for disturbing the silence, she welcomes us and shows us the room; it’s newly built and looks better than on the pictures which is a great start. Being aware of the time we are swift to ask if they serve dinner of if there is anywhere in the area where we could get a quick bite. The worried look on her face once we manage to make ourselves clear indicates that they do not serve food on the spot, but she’s very quick to react and kindly gives a couple of calls before providing instructions on a post-it for the closest place where we can find food.I bet it would have been quicker to walk there, but we’re tired, hungry and with no will to go through an unknown forest path in the dark. So it’s back to the twisty road again, making sure we don’t miss the turn to Paveto, which is literally on the next hill. A few minutes later we park on the main square of this small hamlet, at the exact time the church bells ring to indicate the half hour. At this time of the year the trattoria-pizzeria La Quercia, is empty bar a couple of old people in one corner and the owners in another, all looking at an old CRT TV blasting some cheesy Italian show. They were informed of our arrival, so we are welcomed in without surprised looks. The whole setting is quite reminiscent of rural tavernas from my childhood, a big room with old tables and chairs in various colours and patterns, and owners that don’t speak a word of any foreign language. The wood burner keeps the place warm though, and with a bit of creative talking and loads of gesturing we do manage to get food. And my word is it good! Stuffed pasta with grated walnuts, and cotoletta alla Milanese, ending with a clearly home-made tiramisu. Adventure feels lovely whenever we stumble on an unexpected gem. It’s being a tiring day with a lot more time on the road than expected, but the holidays have clearly started and we’re in bed early enough to make sure we’re at our best for the wonderful places we’ll get to visit tomorrow.