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Monday, October 15, 2012

Day Trip: A One-Day, Three-Country, Three-Language Car Trip

click on the map to enlarge it

This is a longer than usual post about a longer than usual car trip. I call it the "one-day, three-country, three-language drive." Of drives I've done (ok, been passenger of) here in Italy, this one might be my favorite. The trip had several highlights for me, including the Mont Blanc Tunnel, Chamonix, and Martigny.

This is a relatively easy drive (ok, when you're the passenger) which brought us, Giuseppe and I, on a gorgeous blue-sky day back in early 2007, from Stresa, to Chamonix in France, to Martigny in Switzerland, and then back to Stresa, in a large, diverse loop. We began by heading off out of Stresa as if driving to Torino, but before reaching that city we switched onto the A5 motorway towards Aosta. At this point, now driving north, you are faced with the looming line of Italian and Swiss Alps in front of you, and the mountains only become larger and larger until you find yourself in them. The Matterhorn is one of them... The road becomes curvy as you wind through famous Italian ski villages, such as Courmayeur and Morgex. This is the only major road that travels in this direction to France. The drive to this point, reaching the French border at a leisurely pace, takes about 2 hours.   (  continued  )

Mont Blanc Tunnel
Connecting Courmayeur, Aosta, Italy with Chamonix, France, is the 7.2-mile long Mont Blanc Tunnel, which was completed in 1965. The tunnel shortened the journey from Milano to France by more than 65 miles and is of great importance, as it is estimated that one third of Italy's exports to northern Europe leave the country on this route. The tunnel brings us, as the name implies, directly under Mont Blanc. There is almost one mile of solid mountain above us. Incredible. What I remember first of the tunnel is the high toll to use it, around 25 euro, so figure that into your travel expenses. What I next remember is being told the story, while driving through the long tunnel, of the horribly tragic accident that happened there in 1999. The aftermath of that accident is that this now may be the safest tunnel on the planet. Apart from safety rooms, advanced video and monitor systems, and warning technologies that are constantly updated, the sides of the tunnel are lined with large blue LED lights every 100 meters. Cars must enter only when the preceding vehicle is two blue lights in front of them, and the two-light gap must be maintained the entire duration of the tunnel. It makes for a long, strangely airy, slightly futuristic tunnel experience. On the French side, there is a memorial to the 39 victims of the 1999 fire.

Entrance to the Mont Blanc Tunnel on the Italian side.

Inside the tunnel. It's not empty; this is how it always looks with vehicles kept far apart from each other.

Chamonix, France 
I think one will always remember the first time they ate raclette, and even more so if the first time is in Chamonix. I certainly remember mine. We ate outside even, with that bright sun that one finds in ski resorts; a combination of thin air and reflection off white. Our stop in Chamonix wasn't long. Long enough for a drive around town, then a walk around town and through the casino, then a lunch of raclette. I have always loved good ski towns, and Chamonix fits that bill perfectly. No matter what time of year it is I have this feeling that the people in Chamonix will always be carrying skis over one shoulder and a baguette on the other. Favorite shop? The one that had the sign that said "Chamonissimo." Favorite view? A vintage era Mercedes, driving away below me on a road with a small bridge, with white craggy mountain in front of the car, and blue ski above. It was a real-life version of an old vintage ski poster; it should have said CHAMONIX across that blue sky. Oh... we did also have time for chocolate crepes before taking off in the car again. I loved Chamonix... love saying the name, and love the town.

A wonderful mural on the side of a building in Chamonix. It depicts real people, and is difficult to believe it is paint.

Eating outside in Chamonix. Sun and snow.

Martigny, Switzerland
We left Chamonix on the D1506 road towards Switzerland. Our next stop was Martigny, only 43 km away, but about an hour drive on this sometimes narrow, sometimes very high road through the Alps. A stunning road; the kind where I am much happier being the passenger than the driver. There are several areas of long switchbacks, which offer views of the wide, flat valley floor. What I remember most is the first view of Martigny below us, especially because I wasn't expecting it. It appears like a lost kingdom. The road makes a huge switchback and descends into the town.

Oh, that first view of Martigny...

We went to a very contemporary museum in the center of the city, the Fondation Pierre Gianadda. By chance, there was a Chagall exhibit at the time, and a car exhibit that may have been more permanent, and more interesting to Giuseppe. We museumed, ate a bit of traditional Swiss snacks, i.e. chocolate, with a glass of wine, and eventually got back on the road.

 A Rodin statue greets visitors to the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny.

So far during the trip we had heard Italian and French. Now comes the third language. Driving along this main east-west highway, the E62 through Switzerland, is interesting. It runs along the valley. The great majority of the mountainsides along the way are cut with plateaued wine fields which sometimes reach quite high onto the mountain. This surprised me for several reasons; among them the technology required for this, and the fact that I never recall seeing Swiss wine, anywhere. Somewhere along this road we move from the western, French  part of Switzerland into the eastern, German part. Town names change from Saviese and Chamoson to Niedergestein and Baltschieder. And the car radio, which we had on, automatically changed from a French-speaking station to a German-speaking one.

Eventually we reached the town of Brig, where all streets have German names, and where we continued to follow the E62 as it turns in a southerly direction and begins its climb up the mountains heading toward the famous Simplon Pass.  The high point of the pass, still on the Swiss side, is a popular spot to stop, rest, have a bite, and take some photos. We did all. After this point the road begins to descend, and eventually we reached the border crossing back into Italy. There is a small rest stop at the crossing, on the Swiss side; it's a good place to pick up some Swiss chocolates, if somehow you have forgotten to do so until now. Or if you need more. Once back in Italy, you can continue to take the E62, in fact, all the way to Stresa (at Ornavasso it meets up with the A26, which will bring you to Stresa by taking the Baveno or Carpugnino exits). The Martigny to Stresa trip requires about 3 hours of driving. The total for the trip then, for this large circle, is about 475 kilometers in 6 hours.

Travelers stop at the Simplon Pass.

And after all this, we arrived back in Stresa not too tired (ok, I as the passenger wasn't) and hungry again; we went for a pizza dinner. This type of drive is exhilarating:  a lot of territory, views, sights, tastes, and memories, all in one day. You can't and shouldn't do this often, but when you do, choose a nice day, a good route, bring some good tunes and your camera, and hit that road.

photo credits and gratitude: mont blanc tunnel entrance: arne johnsen, flickriver; tunnel interior: arian's blog; fondation pierre gianadda: jean-marc allet; chamonix piaza: alain bachillier, flickr; martigny:; others: stresasights.


Anne in Oxfordshire said...

An amazing day out, yes not good to be done in a one day trip really.. but all the same you were the passenger .. I would love to travel a bit more, and I think it is so great for people who live on Mainland Europe ... to just to be able to go, money providing . The train links are super too.

Anonymous said...

Long trip.
It is always in my mind to visit Chamonix-Mont Blanc (i have been there -on the top at "Aiguille du Midi"- almost 40 years ago) from Stresa, but i think that it will be a tiring journey but very interesting indeed.
Maybe next year we 'll thing about it!
Kindest Regards

Stresa Sights said...

Ilias ... you must do it! I know how you like the mountains, and this is no farther than Bettmeralp really... Yes, think about it! -Dana

Anne, yes, there are ways to do this trip just with trains, and it would make a great route for a longer train-based vacation. -Dana

Anonymous said...

This is what I love about Europe - changing scenery and 3 different countries all in one day! Here in Australia you can drive for a whole day and the scenery looks much the same as that at your departure point. And everyone is still speaking Aussie English, and brushing away the flies!

Rich said...

Enjoyed reading about your 3 country trip. My wife and I have been to Europe twice in the last 4 years. In 2008 we made it to Lauterbrunnen and this year to Stresa. Haven't driven any roads as we have ridden the rails, but would like to drive a bit next trip.

Stresa Sights said...

@ Jennifer... I know what you mean, as here in the States it's much the same. Maybe not as may flies... Maybe that's why so many visitors to Stresa are from Australia? And yes, that's what I love about Europe too, as you can tell. -Dana

@ Rich... Thanks! Luckily the rail system is great and you can see so much that way as well. As previously commented on, this trip can be done by rail. Stresa is well-positioned in northern Italy to make these multicountry trips, with so many borders nearby. Hope you make it back here soon. -Dana


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