Europe 2012 – 2.Briancon to Stresa

Part 2 – Briancon to Stresa

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Day 8 – Briancon to Levens – Supposed to be 122 miles…

Have a nice breakfast at 9am in a very pretty dining room, then collect washing with Tiffany who was helping us yesterday. Leave at 10am and have an awkward time manouvering the car around the car park and stall it when cold. For the first time it is reluctant to restart, but I suspect that is to do with the fact that it cold and the altitude is around 4,100 feet which is nearly as high as Ben Nevis.

After a couple of goes the car starts ok and we head out on our drive which includes some of the highest Alpine passes.

The first big pass goes fine, some snow at the top but no problems. When we arrive at the foot of the Col de la Bonette the sign says it is open so we start the long ascent.

All goes well for much of the drive, and we soon reach areas where the road is clear but everywhere else is covered in deep snow – and this is the end of May. Apparently if you want to be sure that the high passes will be open, you are best waiting until July.

Snowy up the mountain

The road is fine as we ascend, but then the weather takes a significant turn for the worse and heavy snow / hail starts. This settles on the road and the car starts sliding everywhere, even with the most gentle steering / acceleration inputs.

We are at around 8,400 feet when we decide to turn back – carrying on is going to leave us off the road and in a snow bank. There are no other carsd around, so we make our way back down the mountain. The picture below is taken a few minutes after we had turned around and when we had dropped below the worst of the falling snow.

See this YouTube link for a video towards the point where we turned back. We still had traction at this point. Please excuse the shaky hand-held footage.

Plenty of snow

As we descend the mountain, all is fine and we drop below the snow line. The rest of the drive to Levens is on some pretty roads but it is slow (we can rarely get up to 90 kph) and tiring. What should have been a 3:45 drive turns into 7:30 as we take the long way round. The weather becomes increasingly rainy towards the end.

The final road up to Levens is narrow and twisty and a challenge for the TVRs turning circle. We are also in a remote region with the fuel gauge down below 5 litres and fuel warnings coming on.

We are very relieved when we finally arrive at our hotel, Le Mas Fleuri, and can relax. The TVR has done well. The new Toyo T1-Sports have coped very well in heavy rain, but I think the snowy conditions were asking a bit much of summer tyres.

The hotel restaurant seems to be closed to non-residents tonight so we are on a limited half-board menu, but the food is tasty and well-presented.

Raining heavily when we go to bed. Hopefully the TVR will be ok.

 Day 9 – Levens, Nice and Monaco (driving)

It has been raining heavily overnight, but after having breakfast in the hotel we head out and find the TVR is dry inside and starts first time.

We stop at the garage in town for fuel. I am glad they have fuel as the car is down to 3 litres when we get there, and this village is quite isolated. It is the first time I have put 95 octane fuel into the TVR, but I am sure it will cope, it is not as if I am driving it very hard on these twisty roads.

We drive into the old part of Levens, a historic hill-top village, that has a very fancy new car park with lift for the tourists at peak season, On a rainy May day it is quiet.

Strange modern lift in an old village

We find the tourist office and collect a guided walk leaflet for the town which we follow. It is a pleasant stroll in the light rain.

In Levens
Memorial in Levens
Markers that we followed round the village

Once we had exhausted the sights of Levens, we decided to drive to Monaco and explore. We headed down the twisty mountain road to Nice and then picked up the autoroute to Monaco. Heading down into Monaco we keep trying to follow signs for parking, but the Grand Prix setup is making a mess of the town and after following signs they dissapear with no parking to be found.

The traffic is not nice. Very busy, queuing everywhere, and when a gap appears a moped zooms through it.

The picture below is taken on the start grid of the Grand Prix in a moment when there is a small gap ahead of us.

On the Monaco GP Grid

We drive around some more but it really isn’t fun. Roads are closed and we have to turn in the road, everywhere is so busy.

The only good thing is that, while queuing in traffic, a Porsche driver queuing the other way leans out of his window to take a photo of the TVR.

We give up and head back to the hotel, avoiding the autoroute and taking a coast road. We try to stop at the town of Eze, which is supposed to be a very pretty hilltop town. However, after driving round the full car parks a few times we give up and carry on. This place must be crazy in summer.

Trying to find our way back to Levens we end up driving lost through some dodgy suburbs of Nice. The parking here is spectacular. Double parking is common and we have to squeeze through some akward space. We end up driving round a high-rise estate full of speed bumps with all the locals staring at us. Great.

We eventually find our way out and zoom back up the mountain to the safety of Levens. Not a great days driving – this bit of the South of France is really too busy and you are better off in a Fiat Panda than a TVR.

Back in Levens it is raining some more and we go for a little walk to a bakery for a very late lunch before talking to the owner of the hotel about the bus to Nice. apparently it is only 1 Euro, really easy, and Nice is a nightmare to drive in so they always use the bus…

Dinner in the restaurant is fine and we discuss tomorrow’s menu as it seems to be another limited service day.

We go to bed with more heavy rain. The poor TVR is used to living in a garage, not outside, but it seems to be coping.

Parked outside the hotel
Interesting tree bark on a tree by the hotel

Day 10- Nice and Monaco (by bus and tram)

A non-driving day! After the last couple of days this is a relief…

Early breakfast and we go out to catch the 08:25 bus to Nice. It is still raining a bit.

Waiting for the bus – still raining

Our 1 Euro ticket gets us a long bus-ride on a nice new bus into the centre of Nice and a transfer onto a modern tram system which takes us to the old town. Good value.

We head up Chateau Hill which gives us a nice view of the city.

Typical Nice parking
View along the coast
The Old Port

We then headed down for a wander through the streets of Nice, a nice E6 meal deal at a boulangerie and get some ice creams at a recommended place called Fenocchio (ok, but not the best we have had) then we went to catch a bus to Monaco.

We just missed one bus, waited ages for the next, and then 4 came along at once. However we weren’t allowed on any of the buses until they finally allocated 2 to go to Monaco.

We took a low coastal road to Monaco which was very pretty and we got off the bus on the start grid close to where the photo was taken yesterday before heading under the grandstands to the harbour and walking up the hill to the tunnel under the Casino. The weather was warm and sunny, which made a change to the rain of the past couple of days.

Grandstands facing the harbour

There were a lot of very nice yachts in the harbour, and plenty of expensive cars around. No TVRs though.

Looking down the hill towards the harbour
In the tunnel. There are a lot of lights
Fairmont Hotel Hairpin, Williams driver being interviewed I think.
Globe outside the Casino

It was very busy outside the Casino, there was a Mclaren MP4-12C and a Ferrari 458 each with some camera gear inside. Seem tomorrow’s writeup for where we discover what they were doing.

We catch the bus back from near the Tourist Information office. Monaco has been interesting, but isn’t a place we would rush back to.

Trafffic on the GP circuit as we leave.

The bus takes us back to Nice but it is crowded and hot which is not good. We rest in the shade for a bit before going to catch the tram and bus back to the hotel.

We discussed cars for a while with the hotel oner / chef. He has a classic Mini whch he is very proud of. Dinner was fine and we went for a little walk before bed.

Sunset in Levens

Day 11 – Levens to Lanzo d’Inelvi – 250 miles

More heavy rain overnight, but the car seems to be ok in the morning. Moving the car around the chef hears and comes out and we have a further chat with the chef about cars and where we are heading next.

Our first stop is the bakery in town, but it is closed so we turn round and head down the road towards Nice.

We fill-up with 98 octane fuel in France at E1.70 / litre, which is good as we see it at an Italian services for E1.99 / litre when we stop for a break. When filling up a chap comes over to say it is a beautiful car, which is nice 🙂

As we head into Italy the road is close to the coast and seems to be either on a bridge or in a tunnel. There must be hundreds of them. We have the second wheel to wheelarch rub of the trip at speed on the autostrada when there is a strange undulation in the road.

Stopping at a service station a Dutch chap comes over to talk cars, and then I get talking to two chaps from McLaren who were down in Monaco with the car that was being tested against the 458 in filmed drives around the GP circuit. We buy an Italian Lakes road map to help us navigate ( we don’t use Sat Nav).

Fewer tunnels as we head North and one exciting time where motorways merge and there is no slip-road but it just takes you straight out into traffic.

As we reach the Swiss border we see a sign for the last chance to buy a Swiss motorway vignette before the border so we stop and pay 38 Euros. However once we are across the border the Swiss are selling them for 40 Swiss Francs which is cheaper… annoying. Hot and sunny now, getting warm in the car sat in queues at the border with the air-con off, but the radiator fans keep temperatures below 95C.

We drive in Switerland for a short time before coming off the motorway and taking our google maps route up the mountain towards Lanzo d’Intelvi. This is a narrow road and there is little detail on the road maps we are using.

We have to double back a few miles once after deciding we have gone the wrong way.

Stopped to ponder the route
Nice view from where we stopped

The right road was very steep uphill and narrow, fortunately nothing came the ithe other way.

We stopped at a little petrol station and managed to get confirmation we were on ther road to Lanzo.

At one point the road just gets silly. The TVR has quite poor steering lock and we can’t get round the hairpin bends in one go. I am used to getting round hairpin bends living in a hill-town and having done a lot of driving, but these are really awkward. With local drivers queuing behind me I have to do 3-point turns on a couple of the bends…  not good. And it is really hard to let people past too, especially with traffic coming the other way.

Aerial view of bends
A borrowed picture of the bends
Another borrowed picture, very steep

We make it through this part of the drive. Not much fun though. It is a very hot day, the car is hot, I am very hot and the driving is stressful.

We then pass through a remote little border post with a few guards and are back in Italy. After a few more minutes we arrive at Hotel Milano. Thakfully we ignore the last bit of our google maps at that would have taken us 3 sides of a square, one of which is a bumpy access road, and instead go straight into the main entrance.

A lady who doesn’t speak much English checks us in and says we can park our car under the hotel as there is a coach that will be coming back to the car park and needs the space. This is good as we can get the TVR out of any bad weather (although that seems to have passed and we have lots of sunshine). Our room is nice, clean and has a small balcony and a lovely view over the gardens and some surrounding mountains.

Tucked away under the hotel
Hotel and some of the grounds

We have a chat to Allesandro, who is the hotel’s best English speaker. It seems to be a family run hotel and the parents speak less English. We use the wi-fi in the lobby (none in room) and have a nice beer from the car before taking drinks out to the garden.

We seem to be the only guests other than a coach party from the Newcastle area. They are a nice bunch and we chat to a few of them. We arrange to have the same dinner as the coach party at a discounted price to the menu but can’t help feeling they are almost certainly paying less than we are.

The food is ok and filling, but certainly nothing special. We have a little stroll around the village after dinner before getting an early and peacful night.

Day 12 – Lake Como ferries

Our research the previous evening had found a place to park for free at the edge of Menaggio, so we set off fairly early for a day on the lake in lovely sunny weather. This was down the main road from the village which was just fine (coaches and lorries can come up, but not big lorries).

There were spaces free in the second layby out of Menaggio to the South so we parked there are walked a few minutes to the ferry terminal, stopping in a small and very densely packed store for a nourishing breakfast of cake.

We took a ferry across the lake from Menaggio to Varrenna and had a wander around the town.

Varenna dock

After a nice wander round Varenna, and an ice cream, we took another ferry to Bellagio. Here we had a nice Pizza lunch at La Grotta, before walking to a little park, harbour and headland with good views around the lake.

View from Bellagio Panorama – Click for large version

The final ferry took us back to Menaggio via Varenna.We had a quick wander around Menaggio and some nice ice creams before walking back to the car. The car had been in the sun all day and as we took the roof off for the drive home it was very painful. Anything black was too hot to touch, roof edges, boot release button, and the metal hand brake and gear lever were painful.

On starting the car the instant water temperature was 38C and the oil temp 36C – makes warming the car up a bit easier. The drive up the mountain on the big road with the roof off was great, and we had a friendly wave from an old chap in one village we passed through.

On returning to the hotel we took the drives side mat out of the car to finish drying and put it on our balcony (that mat and the passenger side door card were the two things that became damp after the 2 days of heavy rain). We had a quick walk into town and bought simple supplies at a shop in the village to have dinner on our balcony. We didn’t fancy the hotel food again.

Day 13 – Failed sightseeing

Plan to visit Gandria, just over the Swiss border, before going on to Lugano. Slow drive along the lake to Gandria and park at the top of the hill, 2 Euros for 2 hours. A lack of signs mean we follow a path for some distance before having to double back and head a long way down into the village.

Waterfront at Gandria
Streets in Gandria

It is a pretty little village, but there isn’t much there, the main attraction being the Swiss Customs Museum which is accessed by taking a boat over the lake. However that will probably take more than the 2 hours we have on the parking way back up the hill… So either walk a long way in the heat back up and down and lose the existing parking or give up.

We give up. We also give up on Lugano. All we had read online was about how hard it was to park and we had failed to find any useful information so we head back to the hotel via a supermarket to buy some lunch.

We aren’t enjoying the driving around here. The last few days have been full of stressful drives such as Monaco and the narrow road to Lanzo, slow drives (everywhere around the lake) and not fun drives.

We still have a week to go, and our next two stops are both by lakes so we contemplate cutting the holiday short and heading home now. This is not good, and we have never felt like this on holiday before.

It is my view again that Como and the South of France are not good driving roads. It is the first time we have visited such busy places in Europe and they just don’t suit a TVR. A battered Fiat Panda, or public transport maybe. Holidaying is costing a fair amount per day, so if we aren’tr enjoying it, we might as well head home.

We decide to carry on with the holiday.

Down in reception we talk to Alessandro some more. Apparently breakfast is included. We have been getting our own breakfast while out and about as no hotels in Europe include breakfast in the basic room rate. We agree to have dinner that evening, before which there is a tasting of local produce for the coach party to which we are invited.

We go for a walk up the hill from Lanzo. It is a pretty village with some very big houses that must be the summer residences of wealthy Italians.

The pre-dinner tasting is an opportunity to eat / drink lots of free things. Dinner is very mediocre, the food is cheap and to keep coach parties happy rather than quality Italian fare.  To finish dinner the chef comes in and is very theatrical in making a flaming coffee that is then served and tastes ok. A little stroll in the rain after dinner before retiring for the evening.


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