Menu Close

New Year in Switzerland (part 1)

Well, we’re back! We had a great time, despite having driven more than a thousand miles overall, and entered new year on a high note. Hope you all did the same! (I don’t mean driving)

Our sortie to Switzerland ended up being quite a successful expedition (with the unfortunate exception of skiing, which will be discussed later). The driving trip is not for everyone, being 518 miles long (the longest we have done before was 486 miles from New Jersey to Mont Tremblant), but we managed. The food, the wine, the vistas, the excursions were all to our pleasure. Spending time with old friends and making new ones was, to steal a line from a commercial, priceless.

The first leg of this trip – and any future trip that we want to undertake on the continent in our own car – was the 65-mile drive to the Channel Tunnel. The major street that I walk across every day on my way to the train station, gradually morphs into a highway and then into a full-blown motorway that leads straight to our destination. I literally have to exit my driveway to the left, then make a single right turn at the traffic light and then drive straight without turning in order to get there… That is truly the only remarkable thing about that leg.

But the next leg – using the train – is quite interesting. You drive onto the carriage on one side of the Channel and drive off on the other. For reservations made in advance – which is strongly recommended – the check-in procedure takes less than a minute at a drive-thru kiosk. If you time it right, you can then proceed straight to boarding, which requires queuing, stops and general slow movement, but is overall quite painless. Once you are inside the carriage, it takes certain time for attendants to close the doors, etc., but the train leaves and arrives on schedule. The actual train trip is 35 minutes. Opening the doors takes few more minutes, and then you are on a highway leading to wherever your heart desires…

From the arrival at check-in until the time you disembark there may be as little as an hour and 15 minutes. For our very first use of it, we planned to arrive at check-in with additional 30 minutes buffer, which gave us an opportunity to check out the passenger terminal, which provides quite the same amenities as an airport one, sans the hassle of security checks.

We actually were randomly selected for a security check before boarding the train. An agent waved us into a separate lane, another one asked Natasha and me to step out of the car. He then requested that I open the trunk and pop the hood. While the former is easy to do, the latter was an adventure in itself.  How the hell am I supposed to know how to pop the hood in my car?!?! After a couple of minutes, my hands looked like they belonged to a mechanic, and the security guys had to open the hood themselves anyway… What were they checking is beyond me, but they surely were swearing under their breaths at the misfortune of drawing such an inept customer…

Nobody checked our passports, though.

Soon we were on French soil.

While sitting on the train, we read in a booklet about all the driving regulations that are enforced in France and most of the European Union. They include having a sticker that identifies the country that your car is registered in (unless your license plates themselves identify it), carrying a reflective vest for when you occasion to walk along the highway, possessing a first aid kit and an emergency reflective triangle to place 50 meters behind your car to warn oncoming traffic if the car is disabled, and a bunch of other nonsense. Being the law-abiding person that I am, I figured I could do with buying a GB sticker and headlight adjustments (which are nothing more than a pair of thick stickers which, when positioned properly, negate the difference in headlight strength for right-hand versus left-hand driving). We always have a first aid kit. No vest or triangle, though.

Driving on French motorways is subject to considerable tolls, which plays an important role in regulating the volumes. In other words, there is nary a congestion, even on two-lane roads. Slower traffic keeps right, speedy cars zip away on the left. Actually, unless you clearly are the fastest car among all, you are supposed to switch lanes to the left only when passing another car, and then immediately move to the right again, so that somebody can then pass you if they are faster. The rule is adhered to with commendable zeal by almost all drivers (and I noticed similar approach in Italy, Spain, Germany – wherever I’ve driven on the continent). Interestingly, I have noticed similar attitude in Britain (where left and right are obviously reversed), but not to the same degree…

By the way, switching to driving on the right again was not very hard, but driving on the right with a right-side steering wheel proved to be inconvenient on several occasions…

The motorway speed limit in France is 130 km/h, which translates roughly into 80 m/h, which is close to the upper limit of what my poor Vauxhall can do. Or so I thought for a while. The car needs some time to warm up to high speeds, and even on a British highway, with no speed limit sign in sight, I rarely exceed 70. I started similarly in France, but very soon became bothered by the distinction of being the slowest vehicle on the road. So I raised the stakes all the way to the speed limit and did my best impersonating a considerate French motorist, switching lanes and all. Eventually, I even worked up the nerve to try 90, and the car handled it quite well. I was still unable to attain the fastest distinction – too many damn BMWs leaving me in the dust…

We drove through Calais, Picardie, Champagne, Bourgogne… Another curious distinction of French motorways is the multitude of large signs announcing nearby sights in pictures as well as by names. However, we were unable to discern where the actual sights were; next exit, maybe, but there is never a clear direction. The signs were a fun distraction for the kids – just reading the French names aloud is a fun distraction for everyone, I must say. And when we passed one announcing Bethune Monastery early in our trip, we felt obliged to break into Пора-пора-порадуемся на своём веку…

Some of the sights along the way are fairly obvious, though, such as a castle on top of a high hill or the Reims Cathedral (which you can only catch a glimpse of from the highway). Otherwise, hills, fields, villages accompanied our progress throughout first half of the way. The scenery then changed to a more woodsy one. The temperature constantly hovered around 0°C. Then suddenly, we entered a snowy kingdom, with trees covered all in white. The change was quite startling – we practically followed around a bend in the road, and there it was. Beautiful too, although the movement got slower as fog descended.

The last 60 miles required us to leave the motorway and drive along narrow mountain roads. No snow on the roads, but still a fairly tedious exercise, with a wall on one side, a drop on another and regular 180° turns. Kids had fun, as on a roller-coaster. Fantastic views along the way!

Somewhere along that last segment, we passed Swiss border. Twice. The customs house sort of straddles the intersection of two roads, and with no one stopping us, I kept driving straight ahead. After a few moments, the navigation system complained, made me make a few turns and brought me back to the same border crossing. I realized that the road I’ve taken did not actually cross the broder. Still, no one expressed an interest in checking us out. I drove by and continued on the correct road this time.

Less than 12 hours after setting out from our London house, we were pressing the button of our friends’ apartment in Nyon.

to be continued…

Posted in State of travel