Friday, September 23, 2005

Lucerne to Genoa

Tried to sleep in this morning to be revived for today's drive, but woke around 9 anyway. Terrific view from bedroom window that had been missed from previous night's late check-in.
The hotel wanted to charge me a large supplement for Bondi but I protested to the manager that this wasn't advertised in their online booking material. She made a number of very bad points (bad, because they all supported my argument), shrugged many times in a very Gallic manner - Bffff! - and finally relented.

I parked downtown by the Lucerne Modern Art Museum so we could have a stroll around the Lake Lucerne waterfront. It had looked very beautiful last night when I was hotel hunting, and was certainly no slouch in the morning with the sun burning off the haze. The city has plenty of Swiss chocolate box-top features, but the people seemed intensely, even joylessly withdrawn. I was aching for some caffeine, but couldn't see anywhere I wanted to linger, so after Bondi had supped from the lake, and timidly waded beyond its shores, we headed

Not long on the road, I was diverted by the sight of the Alps rising above the lake and took a random exit to view them from a fixed position. The little township of Breckenreid with its Edelweiss Hotel was our temporary stopping point, and I watched a lone white airship drifting blimpedly amongst peaks on the far edge of the lake.

A long stretch of road here flashes with pieces of mica or glass in the surface. I wonder if this is to stave off distractions from the spectacular mountains ... pretty mountains ... ooh sparkly road!
Back on the road we began hitting tunnel after tunnel, culminating in the 17km Gotthard leading to the Tyrolean(?) cantons of Ticino and Bellinzano. I could feel a dull pressure building in my head as we drove toward the midpoint, but this was quickly forgotten with the breathtaking scenery on the other side.

Continuing on past Lugarno we hit a slowdown at the Italian border, which I assumed was to collect toll money. Edging toward the officials staring half-heartedly at each car - slowed by Swiss drivers trying to barge in ahead of the two-lane queue and German drivers refusing to allow proper merging of the two lanes - we just popped out without paying anything.
Immediately after that I took the exit to Como, hoping for a proper introduction to Italy. The view of the central part of town on Lake Como looked amazing but then so was the traffic snarl. Feeling like I'd hit traffic peak-hour (maybe it's an Italian traffic trough-hour) I just bulldozed through to the other side of town and rejoined the A9 motorway. The road-signs were busy with Latinate village names "Castelnuovo", or "Pontecurone", much as I had found in the UK. I marvelled that the Romans had reached even these lands.*

The road through Lombardy to the outskirts of Milan was unprepossessing and I was frequently stopped to pay random tolls. At such points the road split into twelve or more lanes for those with travelpasses, cards or cash (the latter explicitly called out for tourists).
Frustratingly the order of the lanes switched from tollstation to tollstation and there was little warning of their appearance for the uninitiated driver. After taking a ringroad diversion towards Genoa, I hit another tollstation. This time there were travelpass lanes and "the rest". Swerving into one of these lanes, I dug for my wallet to pay whatever the fee of the moment was. To my surprise there was no tollkeeper and just a cardslot with Italian instructions I figured I'd missed the cash lane, and pressed the Assistance button ... futilely ... Like all such buttons, they may as well have been painted on.They might as well have been a Cancel button in a Windows progress dialog box for all the good they were going to do me. The driver behind me screamed something about a card, so I tried stuffing a visa card into the slot - also awkward given that I'm in a RH drive vehicle, having slipped into parking gear, unbuckled my seatbelt and now leaning contortionately out my left passenger window. The card wouldn't go in as there was a bit of a cardboard ticket lying in the slot, which I withdrew. At this point the gate swung open. I assumed that I was expected to submit the ticket with payment at some later point in time...and drove on.

We switch from ringroad to road, lane to lane, following signs blindly as part of a gigantic cats-cradle of circum-Milanese highways, waiting for the thumb of fate to lift us to the next position or drop us into in a knot of bitumen.

The road continued south, punctuated every 5km with a petrol/rest-station that seemed to claim to be the last one for 25-30km. I stopped at one for petrol, Bondi walkies and refreshments. It had an espresso bar inside where - instead of grabbing take-away coffee - you had some terrific super-cheap coffee served to you at the counter in porcelain cups so you could quaff it on the spot. Worked for me...

The road went onwards. While the Italians are as mad as cut vermicelli in their driving, they do seem to be courteous about signalling and allowing fellow drivers to change lanes. They also merge lanes with musical rhythm - smooth and rapid. So, it was frustrating to find that the indicator-less BMWs still aggressively tail-gating, inevitably had "D" (German or Drang) plates, and had not dropped out of 9th gear in Switzerland after leaving German autobahns.
Crossing into Liguria, the road became much more interesting as the landscape folded in on itself and you wound between mountainside and toothy Roman bridgework. After much back-straining twists on the roads we got to Genoa and I had my first glimpse of the Mediterranean as I turned onto the A10, crossing the central part of the city via a very high bridge.

Thundering along the A10, through tunnel after tunnel, I realised that I had no idea where to exit. The computer-generated turn instructions from my MapPoint Europe software just didn't translate to actual road-signs. Finally I just exited the motorway, twisting down a hillside smack bang into another tollstation. I proferred a 20 Euro note at the collector, and we said something about a ticket, so I gave him the one I got on the outskirts of Milan. He seemed happy enough with that and then waved his had a digital sign to indicate the cash balance. I figured my ticket was actually an entry pass for a section of road, allowing the extent of my road-usage to be calculated. It was certainly puzzling for the tourist, especially as this was the first place I had not found multilingual signs to guide the roving driver.

Through the tollway, I drove further downhill towards the Gulf of Genoa. I guessed a right-turn and followed it for a few kilometres, and then pulled over at a well-marked side-street to recalculate my route. It seemed I wasn't tooooo far from my destination hotel. I had unwittingly taken the right motorway exit, but had taken the wrong turn at the bottom of the hill. I turned and retraced the road, and then went on looking for the correct sidestreet. Luckily the hotel had signposts from the main-road, and I followed those up the hillside until it became almost a goat-track, 95% of the width of your average car.

At the top, I turned into the Hotel Torre Cambiaso, which had a pleasant tree-lined entry and a major view along the coastline to the west.At first glance the hotel looks like a revamped little castle or manor, but closer inspection shows that it's a trompe l'oeil effect, with brickwork and external window dressing painted onto a concrete facade. Inside it's very pleasant, albeit overstuffed - really targetting wedding reception or conference crowds. However it is a real bargain (although my Expedia booking had gone astray) and I'm genuinely relieved to be in my room and freshened up before 6.30pm.

Tomorrow's drive to Nice is theoretically only 2 hours, so I plan to get up early enough to visit the Porto Antico in the heart of Genoa. The glimpses of the city - clinging between mountain and sea along a 35km strip - have made me keen to explore further. I'm only going to get a chance to whet that appetite, but I can't think of a better use of my morning.
* Made you look!

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