Tuesday, 14 March 2018 saw the start of our annual pilgrimage to the Trigano SpA factory in Italy to collect the newest members of our fleet. With the recent disruption of snow in the UK firmly in my mind, we were pleased to make an uneventful trip in a friend’s car to Gatwick to catch our flight to Pisa in the afternoon in plenty of time. As we had to collect two vehicles this year, I enlisted the help of close friend Michael to drive the second. Fed and watered, we were soon jostling for luggage and elbow space on Easyjet’s finest. And, in spite of being 20 minutes late out of Gatwick, the pilot put the hammer down and got us on to the tarmac in Tuscany on time.
We landed in Pisa mid-afternoon to a much more respectable 15° and boarded the new driverless train linking the airport and the city. Within a few minutes, we were installed in our hotel and walking into town for a look around.
The area around the leaning tower was, of course, full of tourists making the usual poses of holding the tower up. We were, sadly, just a little too late to get the trip up the tower (this is on my to-do list).
We were up early in the morning and headed to the railway station to catch the 8:30 train to Siena. The double-decker train was packed with commuters and students. However, although it arrived on time, it was delayed leaving Pisa. This became of some concern, because we had a connecting train to make at Empoli. Missing the connection would put us back by a couple of hours, and, as we found out later on trip, could have had profound consequences. By the time we finally arrived in Empoli, the connecting train was already in and ready to depart. This demanded a madcap rush across two platforms with cases, number plates and heavy snow chains to fall, breathless, through the doors of the train just as they shut, much to the amusement of the passengers inside.
The plush train deposited us at the utterly deserted stop at Barberino Val d’Elsa and disappeared into the distance – reminding me of the desert scene in Spectre, just without Léa Seydoux and the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. A huge new bridge has been built linking the main road to the factory, however the work was not yet complete and the footpath not open. After much deliberation, we decided not to take the long way around the construction site, but to quickly hop across the deserted railway line (don’t try this at home, kids) and up onto the new span.
Checking in at reception, we could see our new vans Armstrong and Hudson prepared and waiting outside the main entrance for our arrival.
Inspections done, number plates affixed, and we’re off! Well, to find some fuel, anyway. I think I remember a time (in a different century) when new vehicles came with a full tank of fuel?
Our route of 1915 km took us north past Florence, Modena and Milan. Thankfully the potholes caused by snow and ice in the motorway near the factory had been filled (it took at least two years, but it’s better now!) It did take some time to get used to the enormous volume of articulated lorries driving on the Italian roads (France was almost deserted, by comparison). Negotiating toll booths was also something of an art, requiring climbing across the passenger seat and leaning out of the window to retrieve a ticket or pay (don’t drop it!). The only real delay at this point was around half an hour of stationary traffic near Milan, caused by a breakdown, exacerbated by a bit of Italian Parking (pile up).
One of the most remarkable sights along this section was the huge Reggio Emilia AV Mediopadana railway station, served by both red and white high-speed trains which bolted across the landscape like streaks of lightning. Clearly a case of form over function!
The vans drove brilliantly. I was in Armstrong (T-Line 785), which had the benefit of the semi-automatic gearbox. Largely, it was a case of cruise control on, sit back and steer. The integrated navigation made leading a breeze, and with the iPod connected via USB I was never short of entertainment. Mike followed me in the 6-speed manual Auto Roller 747 (Hudson) and declared that he quite enjoyed the experience, having never driven a motorhome before. Obviously, the distances we were covering were much higher than you, our customers, would likely cover in one day - however the vans were comfortable, plenty powerful and quite economical for their size. I think the twelve hour stint should qualify that remark.
I was pleased to see our route start to sweep us up towards the Alps through the Aosta Valley. However, with some 85 km to Mont Blanc, it began to rain quite hard. The temperature at this point was only 6°, and I knew only full well what this could mean at the border crossing beyond Courmayeur. A quick check of the summit weather report revealed snow. Light to medium, not currently affecting the flow of traffic. The word ‘currently’ was at the forefront of my mind for the next 85 km. Nobody really wants to fit snow chains. Nobody really wants to turn tail and take the longer way round via Turin. So, we pressed on. The temperature dropped further. The snow started.
Much of the final ascent to the border crossing is made in tunnels, which run uphill from the Italian side. Occasionally, the road bursts out of them for a hundred yards before going underground again. It was very disconcerting to see huge flakes of snow falling at an alarming rate in these gaps. It was getting into early evening by now, and it had been my intention to stop at the top and have some dinner and look around. Exiting the final tunnel before the border and the Mont Blanc tunnel at an elevation of 1,381m, I realised that we might be lucky to actually get through. Snow was settling on the road this point - and it occurred to me that had we missed that connecting train at Empoli and arrived a couple of hours later, we may have had a very different trip indeed.
We paid our tunnel fees and, with a little nerve jangling slip sliding, made our way through the illuminated blue arch into the relative sanctuary of the 11km long tunnel. Because of its great length, this is like no other tunnel you may have driven through. There is a maximum and a minimum speed specified to make your way through. Vehicle separation is enforced – and lorries have to pass through in escorted convoy. The tunnel passes almost exactly under the summit of the Aiguille du Midi. At this spot, it lies 2,480m beneath the surface, making it the world's second deepest operational tunnel (even though it’s already most of the way up a mountain). One of the most peculiar things is that the temperature in the tunnel had risen to 16°. 107m of elevation is lost in the tunnel, so I was pleased when we emerged on the Chamonix side see no snow falling and clear roads.
Mike and I have been on all sort of escapades, including riding 1000cc superbikes across Europe for many years. Upon exiting the tunnel, he said to me: “We’ve been on a few capers, haven’t we?”
We fed, watered and fuelled in the dark near Chamonix and prepared to push on via the Autoroute Verte towards Dijon, where we had a budget hotel booked for the night (yes, we could have stayed in our new motorhomes, however with snow chains and clothes in our hand luggage there was no room for sleeping bags). We reached our stop at Choisey near Dijon at around 11:00pm, about an hour later than I’d have liked from a fatigue point of view. But at least we’d made it in one piece.
Grabbing some breakfast in the morning, our attention was drawn to the Meteo (weather) on French TV. The Beast from the East (Part 2) was due to strike mid to northern France, and possibly the UK, later that same day. It actually seemed quite mild, so it didn’t induce instant panic - however, we decided to get moving, pronto. The drive through France was really quiet in terms of traffic and gave us a chance to take in some scenery. By lunchtime, however, I still hadn’t booked a ferry or tunnel crossing. It was time to get something organised. We settled on a crossing time of 4:30pm, which gave us a 3 hour drive with a margin of half an hour. Google maps seemed confident that we could make it in time for check-in, as did TomTom traffic in Armstrong. So off we went. But there wasn’t a lot of room for error. We realised that if we stopped for further fuel, we might lose most of our contingency. So, we pulled the cruise control back to 100km/h and went into fuel conservation mode. I’m pleased to report that we made it to Eurotunnel on time and with 5 miles left in each van’s tank.
Check-in was quick and efficient, and security was reassuringly tight. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen two men in combat fatigues with assault rifles standing in one of my motorhomes, however the French soldiers were keen to inspect every inch of the van. I couldn’t interest them in a hire, however.
Disembarked from the Channel Tunnel train and refuelled, we hit the M20 west bound. Maybe it would have been better to say that it hit us. Eurotunnel shifted a staggering 4.3 million vehicles in 2017. And that has led to a motorway with potholes so deep that I’m sure there are vehicles still in them. After a good game of dodge the pothole, we enjoyed a little relaxation on the London Orbital car park (M25). Perhaps 6:00pm on a Friday evening wasn’t the best choice………
We made it back to our base in the UK at around 10:30pm on Friday night. On Saturday, it started to snow. We had been lucky!
For 2019, we are determined to take a little more time. Who knows, I might even pack the snowboard and grab some time on the slopes on the way through (preferably without getting my new motorhomes stuck)!
You can make your own 2018 road trip right here with Armstrong and Hudson...