Crossing the Alps – Twice

The First Crossing

From Torino we drove to Aosta and up to the Great San Bernardo tunnel that took us across the Alps and into Martigny in Switzerland. As we left the city behind I thought about the larger-than-life figures who had gone before: Hannibal with his elephants, Julius Cesar on his way to conquer the pagans at Martigny, Charlemagne returning from his coronation in Milan, and Napoleon with his 40,000 troops. This should be fun, I decided. But, it was not.

Filled with too many large trucks and speeding cars, I dared not look at the scenery or muse about the famous expeditions that had crossed before me. My job as co-pilot was to shout out warnings of blind curves, oncoming trucks, and too skinny bridges.  The drive reminded me of Route 1 heading south towards San Francisco where at one harrowing point you teeter on the cliffs. There is nothing below but the blue Pacific as you drive over metal rails where the road has been sacrificed to the sea, nor to the right where the cliff drops off so precipitously that you can only see the thunderous waves coming in but not breaking on the rocks below, nor directly in front of you where the relentlessly pounding ocean has carved a deep bay. Then, suddenly, you meet a ninety-degree turn to the left, that if skillfully maneuvered, takes you on a descent to a calmer stretch of highway. I longed for that descent into calmness.

After an hour or so we took a breather. Pulling off the road at a mountain chalet with lodgings and restaurant we parked the car and plopped down on the outside terrace.  Now that we could look at the red geranium stuffed window boxes, the green mountain pastures, and quaint wooden architecture, we should have immediately relaxed, but we didn’t.  Unlike our fellow travelers who were smiling and laughing as they downed cold beer, we were exhausted. And, seemingly unlike them, we were in somewhat of a hurry having promised out friends we would meet them in Lausanne at 7 o’clock that evening. When we left, the other travelers’ merriment was still in high gear.

Back on the road, we returned to our battle stations. I announced, “Tunnel coming up.  Stop. Italian customs. No, go.”

They waved us through. Now at the Swiss side, we decided to pull over and park. Our friend had warned us not to drive on Swiss highways without a sticker. For 40 Euros, you can drive on any Swiss highway as much as you like for one year. Too bad we would be there for only four days. After buying the sticker and placing it as shown on the windshield, we were off again. Would Swiss customs stop us? No, they wouldn’t, not this time. We were on our way.

My husband didn’t mind, but I was glad once we are on the other side of the tunnel. I’ve never liked tunnels, caves, or being underwater. Maybe it’s the lack of oxygen or claustrophobia.  But once through, Martigny is right there and not far beyond is Lac Léman or Lake Geneva, one of Europe’s largest. We decided to take the route that hugs the shore since we had agreed to meet our friends outside the Olympic Museum at Choisi.

Stopping briefly in Montreux to walk along the crystal clean lake and eat an ice cream, we started to get a feel for this mountain country. Surprising to me was the number of foreigners, the mélange of languages, and the potpourri of customs and dress. Had I thought that Switzerland and its people would be right out of Heidi or the Sound of Music? Well, they weren’t, at least not here in this lush lake-side park with neat flowerbeds, refreshing cafes, and a broad pedestrian walk. But, we had some miles to go, so we vetoed a long walk, got back into the car, and headed off again reaching our destination on time.

The Second Crossing

On our return, like William Wordsworth, we crossed the Alps using the Simplon Pass in order to visit certain parts of Italy, specifically Lago Maggiore and the famous Borromean Islands. But unlike him the crossing contributed not to pastoral reflection but to a riot of terror in my imaginative life. True, he got lost and we didn’t.  But after climbing the dizzying road, that hugs the rugged sides of the pass, traverses a deep gorge like a tightrope stretched between skyscrapers, only to continue its ascend to where sheets of water spill over its roof and fall over the edge in curtains of fury, in an Italian rental car whose electronic system decided to go cafooey at that very moment telling us, among other things, that there was moisture in the gas filter that, if left unattended, could destroy the engine, I would have appreciated, like Wordsworth, a more pedestrian ascent using my own two feet.

We were told to ignore the bright orange warning lights. OK, I thought. I can do that. Everyone knows that software is buggy. But the descent wasn’t much better. What I couldn’t ignore were the brakes squealing even after my husband had downshifted to slow the car as the road plummeted instead of easing down in series of switchbacks. My response was panic which stood in stark contrast to the ecstasy of the many motorcyclists who, with wild eyes flashing and knees gripping their metal steeds, hurled themselves down, passing us at breakneck speeds and quickly vanishing from view forever.

I was breathless. Finally the road flattened out as it followed a high ridge. Taking the first exit that we thought would bring us lakeside, we left behind the Simplon. When I saw the lake I was thankful; its blue waters were immediately calming and its picture book islands with their Baroque castles made me think that some kind of strange time and space machine had transported us inside an Italian opera.

I was excited with the mystery of the place and wondered what Hemingway had felt the first time he had arrived here. It is well known that part of the setting for A Farewell to Arms was taken from his experiences staying in Stresa at the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees that looks out at the Isola Bella.   But our explorations would have to wait until the next day; we were hot and tired. A shower, a meal, and a bed were all we could think about.

All original content copyright 2010 Mary E. Slocum

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One response to “Crossing the Alps – Twice

  1. Very interesting and descriptive writing. Once again, you have transported the reader to the exact time and place of your experience. Sounds like a great adventure!

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