Cambridge Underground 1992 pp 21-25

How (not) to drive round Europe


The plan was to for Wook, Henri, Tony, Fran, Andy & Olly to go for a week's caving in the Vercours, France, after the expo, and then for Wook & Ol to go on to the ExCS Berger trip and then on to the East Dorset Italian expo, taking in the Swiss National Caving Conference in the middle. Unfortunately things didn't go quite as expected:

Mo29Jul91: We set off from Hilde's at 11.30pm, two days late after an entire day's packing. This 'expo caver' packing meant that the van was extremely full, indeed probably overloaded, allowing for the weight of me & Henri.

Tu30Jul91: Awoke to notice that Henri's karrimats had all fallen off the roof already - oops. Lots of driving. Got stuck on the Arlberg pass again (last year Wookmobile I had simply been unable to get up without conking out); overheating this time, but half an hour's rest and another litre of water did the trick. Decided to take the motorways for the rest of the trip.

Oh dear, Henri rolled the van: started drifting towards outside lane, beeped at severely by passing fast car, swerved back into lane and then lost it with about 3 more swerves before rolling over 1.25 revs to end up on the bank/hard shoulder pointing back upstream with a phenomenal amount of shit scattered about. 'I think you should turn the engine off now dear'.

Climbed out through where windscreen used to be. Onlookers amazed to find that we were fine. Bits of CD, disks, toffee & hangers all over the place, as the back door had burst open when the hole it was supposed to fill became a radically different shape. We had both lost our specs. The roof was where the passenger's head should have been, trapping the seat and thus my rucksack, which had been stuffed behind it. Quite why I hadn't been crushed, or at least banged my head wasn't clear.

Sat around in my shreddies (it had been a hot day) surveying the mess for a bit & then started trying to sort out all the shit. Everything was covered in gook from the beer bottles, milk, and eggs which had been stuffed in the back.

Two plods and two rescue men arrived and shifted gear. They got fed up after an hour or so and started shovelling it all into bin bags - my poor floppies!. We travelled with the plods, and watched them reset the caution signs by remote control and also open gates to secret backways. Festered and starved for another hour in the police station before being told that we hadn't bent their motorway and the registration document didn't have a taxable weight on it so we wouldn't get done for probably being overloaded, but we would have to pay for the recovery.

The garage men took us away to get stuff from the van. They were somewhat surprised when we asked to camp rather than go to a hotel. Had a vesta and kipped under the shelter the van had been left in, sleeping on a trailer to avoid the water from the impressive thunderstorm. Got bitten to death by mozzies (esp henri) but otherwise very nice.

We31Jul91: Taken from the compound to the garage (at the other end of town) by Herr Schwagli (the owner) and started the long and tedious process of sorting things out. Rang GESA rescue people but we couldn't find green card and UK insurance company was still in bed. Had two hours to wait so went off to find green card in van but couldn't find it (the van that is). Were found wandering around the town by an English-speaking woman who had translated for the garage.

After another phone call or two (including Tony's mum) we were taken back and had dindins, then returned and sat in the garage all afternoon while GESA tried to sort out a hire car - v.boring. Rang up to pester and point out that there was a bank holiday the next day so they had better get it sorted.

Nasty garage woman mentioned uberladen (overladen) to GESA - silly cow. Tried to point out to her that if the insurers got wind of this then she wouldn't get any money either. Were informed that Swiss hire cars were no good as they aren't allowed out of the country, so we had to get a taxi to Basel to pick up a French hire car. Just as taxi arrived everything went potty as all the customs faxes (for leaving the car behind) came through, the garage revealed its collection fee of £225 !!, and Ol/Tony rang up just to confuse things. We had to ring up National Breakdown to get them to promise to pay for the portion or the recovery that GESA wouldn't cover (their limit being £150). There was no time for a confirmation fax so Henri paid then except that they had to ring up the bank to deal with a visa card.

Finally we left with now fuming taxi-man and his massive horse-box sized trailer to collect all our gear. We noticed that the receipt we had been given said that we were uberladen (again - morons) - pointed out to Herr Schwagli that he wasn't going to get any bloody money if he wrote this sort of thing. It finally clicked so he went back to the garage and re-wrote it - tee hee.

The Taxi man gave us loads of stress to go as fast as possible and so we just had to throw all the still largely unsorted bin-bags of stuff into this horse-box thing - he even managed to get the windsurfer in, but couldn't quite manage the hang-glider.

He then dropped us off in the Swiss half of Basel airport. I rang the number he gave us and was told there was an Avis car for us. Avis desk knew nothing and neither did any of the others. After much phoning it eventually transpired that our car was in the French half, unlike us. The Avis people were very upset by the size of our gear pile (and the concept of us putting it in one of their cars, I think). They tried to get us a Traffic van or similar but failed - no idea why. I pursuaded customs man to let me onto French side, and eventually got a Passat estate and garbled instructions from by now almost rabid Avis woman.

Took the car round past snotty border guard (you have to drive 8km to get from French to Swiss side of airport, despite being able to see the point you are aiming for on the other side of the fence as you set off). Get back to dejected-looking Henri sitting atop the gear pile to find severely annoyed Avis people as I hadn't signed any papers before driving off in their car! Couldn't find my driving licence which pissed Henri off lots, but Avis gave up in exasperation about then (10pm) and buggered off.

We tried packing the car and (not surprisingly) it didn't even slightly fit...

Round about now things started to get a bit much - it was 11pm the day before the biggest bank holiday for years, we were stuck in an airport carpark with half an expo's worth of gear that wouldn't even pretend to fit in our car and we were generally fed up.

At this point an angel appeared - in the form of Dr Noelpp, a middle-aged woman on crutches. She first offered us 40Sfr (about £15) for a taxi, and then the use of her garage to put our stuff in. Then she went and negotiated with the taxi drivers for us. Eventually a plan was formulated to get another estate-sized taxi & take half the shit to the railway station & bung it on a train back to England. She wrote out her address and left us to get on with it.

Another taxi was duly filled (although its owner looked decidedly unhappy about how grubby our stuff was), and we trailed off to the Bahnhof. There Dr Noelpp re-appeared as she had forgotten to give us the bit of paper with her address on - dedication! She attempted to negotiate with the railway staff but they said nothing doing tonight, and the left luggage people were even more unhelpful. Things didn't look too good so we gave up & went back to her garage and unloaded the taxi-full of stuff into one corner of it. Here 40Sfr conveniently exactly covered the taxi fare (easy come, easy go).

Finally, rather than disturb her flat-mate, she took us to an extremely posh hotel round the corner and paid (gold VISA) about £100 for both of us to stay the night and have breakfast, incredible! People do not behave like this!

Th01Aug91: Get up in our nice hotel to nice(ish) brekky and go to Basel bahnhof to sort out gear transportation. SBB (Swiss railways) told us it would be 428Sfr (£150 odd) for 100kg, and suggested that the French might be cheaper. SNCF (French railways) told us 13Sfr per bag (much cheaper), but only if travelling with the baggage - for separate baggage travel go to Societé Express. Much hassle finding appropriate, 'obviously closed', dingy office. In there we were told (in incredibly fast French) that it would be 441Sfr but Swiss loading bays were shut so it couldn't be done until tomorrow. If we went to Mulhouse (which was properly in France and thus wouldn't be bank-holidayed) we could do it. Apparently roadworks meant that Mulhouse-ouest was easiest.

Went back to Dr Noelpp for a drink and I was lectured on getting young ladies in to trouble in this way. I refrained from pointing out that it wasn't me that had crashed. :-)

Then we got back to the now familiar routine of sorting gear. We needed to pick things for shipping that we didn't need, that weren't worth too much, weren't too heavy, and would survive the experience. We were extremely unenthusiastic about packing the car to see how much we could get in, then taking it all out so that we could take what was left to Mulhouse, as we had had enough of packing, unpacking & re-packing in the last couple of days. Thus we just sort of guessed & hoped. The pile that was left looked worryingly big.

Went to Mulhouse, found ouest. 'Nous voudrons emmener près de cent Kilos de baggage á Angleterre, S'il vous plaît' 'Sorry, haven't been able to do that here for years'. Told to go to Mulhouse central. At central told that we could only take 3 bags of 30kg each and only if we travelled with them - arghhhhh! - must go to Mulhouse nord. Found a friendly postie who showed us where to go.

Eventually found huge, kilometer-long Victorian goods station. Told there that we needed a container(lorry) which would cost 8000ff! - Must find an expediteur who packs containers. 'Well, where's one of them then?' At the other end of the platform. Sernam. By now we were becoming a little disheartened again - time was ticking by and it didn't look like our car-full of gear was going anywhere fast. However Sernam were stars! 1180ff for 150kg excluding UK customs charges. After a bit of yakking, and abuse about my French being crap they just told us to just put everything in a big box. It weighed in at 200kg, but the man wrote down 180. After writing customs letters we just had to hand over 2000ff (£200) and 'twas done - hooray.

Went back to Basel to pack rest of gear into car and got fed gaspacho soup, melon, salad, and generally had a nice swiss tea party with jokes about cannibals in two languages - surreal. Eventually set off at 9 and drove to within 11 kloms of Annecy by 1am and kipped by the side of the road.

Fr02Aug91: We had agreed (via Tony's parents) to meet Tony and co. at either the Carrefour or the Hang-gliding site in Annecy. This was because we were also going to meet Julian here, and we needed him to go and get the hang-glider (which was now festering next to the van) back to the UK, as it appeared miraculously not to be bent.

We met Fran and Andy on way out of the Carrefour - hooray! Spent the day festering at the HG landing field. I was worried that the insurers were going to call the van a write-off. If they did I would get nothing and have my perfectly good diesel engine stuck in Switzerland even though it still ran (I checked) and thus was worth money, so I hatched a daft plan to drive the van back with Olly, and leave Henri to take the Passat back. Henri was extremely unenthusiastic, and there were obvious difficulties like having some of the lights smashed, probable poor handling (depending on how bent chassis was), and getting nicked for driving a vehicle which has obviously just been rolled - also UK customs could be difficult about it all. Agreed that if GESA/Provincial hadn't already decided it was written off I would give them the benefit of the doubt & leave it. It would be always be possible to come back for it for not too much expense. They hadn't decided yet so loony plan A was shelved.

Then went to Chambery to wait (from 4pm) for Julian who eventually turned up at 10.43pm, having been waiting in some other Carrefour carpark since 6.00pm.

Sa03Aug91: Finally pack cars for the last time, distributing gear between Julian & Tony, as we will have to carry our stuff onto the ferry, leaving the car in France. Also have to make room for Olly as Tony can't stand him any longer. Julian heads off to collect hang glider (he ends up having to steal it because the compound was shut as it was Sunday). They also drive van around to check it still works and steal the battery, as even if I don't get the van back the battery will be useful to the expo.

Meanwhile Tony & I have a great drive across France with two (too) fast cars, consistently giving Tony a hard time trying to follow due to yobby overtaking.

Have a hard time at ferry port with most of the gear in Tony's car but still two shopping-trolly-fulls which must be unloaded on the boat, and all the gear carried up & off the top. Also have to do more phone-calling to sort out hire car in UK. Apparently no cars available so we will have to have a taxi instead - how sad! We are the only foot passengers and get lots of personal Customs officials!

Took gear back off Tony - put it into Taxi and were driven straight to Spalders - luxury.

The box that we had put on the train was supposed to take 3-4days to get to Britain, but actually took 3 weeks in the end having gone via Holland for some inexplicable reason. Henri got bored of camping in Spalders back garden waiting for it and went back to Bristol. When it did arrive her clothes were mouldy.

Part II - Wookmobile III

Now, for most people, this would be the end of the tale, but I'm a sucker for punishment and decided that, having missed the ExCS Berger trip, I would at least go and do the third part of my summer holiday - the East Dorset Expo to Piagga Bella in Italy. This required a car so I nobbled Bullet, our neighbourhood wide boy, who put me in touch with a mate of his with a Volvo 264 V6 2.7 litre air-conditioned monster for sale for a mere £300 (as it didn't have an MOT). The deal was struck (for £275 in fact) and Wookmobile III was born. At this stage I was still arguing with NB and GESA about getting the van back - they insisted that it was a write-off. I insisted that it was worth at least £800 just for the engine so they should bring it back. It looked like I was going to have to do it myself so the gear for going to Italy included a tow hitch, emergency windscreen, car battery, ropes and a scaffold pole so we could tow the van back. Fortunately, an hour before we left NB finally agreed to do it for us so we were able to leave all this impedimentia behind.

Sat07Sep91: Drove out to Italy (me, IainM and Olly). Fairly boring and car far too full. Only interest was running out of rear brake pads halfway across France and having to find some and fit them in a Carrefour car-park.

Tue17Sep91: Ran of other brake pads in Switzerland. More running about to find a shop and payment method.

Th19Sep91: Set off in the afternoon, giving us 40 hours to get to the BCRA conference at UMIST. This thus gave a good 12 odd hours for disasters before we actually became late. As we drove across Italy it became obvious that the car was underperforming badly, with acceleration only just possible - too much throttle just made it splutter. We got as far as the road up to the pass between Italy & France, but after doing 5mph up it for ages stopped to try and fettle it. This was a grave error. Looked at huge V6 injection thingy and realised that we had no idea how to fix it - or even work out what was wrong.

Gave up after deciding that it was probably the fuel, and set off to ring Nat Bdown. Walked 4 or 5 clicks back down the road to find a phone but as I only had about 1800 lire I got about 4 seconds - not terribly useful. It was now about 2am. Mr plod spoke fuck all English and was pretty useless. He suggested ringing 116 appearing to claim that either the call or the service was free, but it didn't work with no dosh. Gave up and walked back up hill to re-try attempt on summit and get into France if at all possible, as it is closer to England and we speak the language. Car now wouldn't even start so gave up and just rolled back down the hill and went to sleep.

Fr20Sep91: Woke at 07.30 and set off to find a phone/change. If we could get the car fixed by midday we could still get to the conference (and probably sleep through most of it). Used a hotel phone and after a bit of difficulty because their ring-back number was wrong I got through. The repair man arrived by 9.00 and after scraping a big hole in the tarmac with the exhaust pipe dragging the extremely full Volvo onto the transporter. We were on our way. The first garage wouldn't even let us off the transporter, so we went on to a Volvo garage, halfway back to Torino (grrr). They did all the usual things and after a false alarm about water in the fuel they decided that they couldn't fix it.

By now it was past the midday deadline and we were definitely going to be late. Soon, we were off to the central Volvo garage in Torino. But we had to sit in the car for two hours in mid transport as it was siesta time! Then we wasted about an hour arguing about payment; I was trying to explain that Nat Bdown should pay & this Italian just kept shouting at me a lot. Crazy scene of me & Italian ranting at each other in alternate languages - neither understanding a word the other said! Eventually I realised that despite transporting us for over an hour he only wanted 35,000 lire (£17) (bit cheaper than £225 for 10mins in Switzerland). Complete inability of Italians to deal with concept of Access or Eurocheques, and my lack of cash meant he took a £20 note in the end.

Finally Volvo looked at the car (and kept comparing it with another one in the corner). Eventually decided that the fuel controller was knackered and that they could probably get one by Monday, and I couldn't leave the car in the garage - I would have to park it outside. All translation was done via one poor secretary who spoke halting English.

We finally gave up hope of getting to the conference and Iain & Ol decided to go home while I would wait for car to be fixed. So after a couple more hours of wandering about making spurious phone calls to NB for confirmation (discovering that you need at least 200 lire to prime a callbox for freephone calls), Ol and Iain set off by train. I was immediately befriended by the man whose house I was now camping outside, and given a shower, wine and fruit, whilst attempting to communicate in schoolboy german. He took me to see his friend Giovanni who had been a Cornish tin miner 30 years ago! They decided that the garage Giovanni worked at would have a look at the car tomorrow, as Volvo were shut for the weekend.

Sa21Sep91: Team mechanic came to push the car round the block to the garage to see if they could fix it. It only took them a bit more than an hour to decide that it was a job for Volvo (surprise, surprise).

I now had two days in Torino to kill - yum, yum. Went for a wander into town to get some dosh and do some shopping, and had a look round Torino centro. Italy is improving rapidly - it is the first country which has cashpoint machines that actually recognise my eurocard and will give me dosh (and English instructions). Checked out the very cheap and revoltingly uncensored porn in the high street, and spent the rest of the day festering in the car (doing the expo accounts), except for a couple of hours in the evening watching all 29 channels of Italian tv, in the nightwatchman's hut in the garage (it was manned 24hrs as it doubled as a lock-up car park for rich Italians).

Su22Sep91: I was woken up by Maurizio (Modolo), the garage manager, and told that I could have dinner at his place. He had obviously been practising his English as yesterday he had been frustrated by a complete inability to communicate with me (I was not particularly frustrated as this had become the standard state of affairs - and just smiled at him a lot until he gave up the attempt). After being stuffed silly on ham, melon, pasta, roast beef, chips and salad, by his mother, I was taken on a tour of Torino: Including the Basilica Superga, a huge cathedral on a mountain thingy, then ice cream and some bloody great tower in Torino Centro which, of course, one wasn't allowed to climb to the top of or to ab down the side of. Then it was back for tea (his mother is trying to kill me with too much food). He even let me use his phone to ring Henri in England! Astounding hospitality, these Italians.

Mo23Sep91: Rolled back to Volvo by Giovanni, and Maurizio. Punto Auto Volvo finally get their act together, identify a shagged fuel pump and replace it by 11.30am. Had to pay by cash as they are such tossers, so to avoid being lunchtimed again I had to sprint into town to find two banks that would cash Eurocheques to cover the 473,000 lire they wanted (about £180, gulp). I just made it, and was impressed by the mechanic's English efforts!

Then the relatively trivial matter of 11.5hrs drive to somewhere nondescript in France.

Tu24Sep91: Car took 15mins to start: badly in need of a fettle - good job it has a battery that will turn the engine forever. Crashed slightly en route - oops. Accelerating uphill on tightly left curving dual carriageway. Just made it past an artic when the back started to drift. Caught it, but it thrashed back the other way, I ran out of steering travel, and thus bounced off the barrier (front left corner), directly in front of the artic. Fortunately the hgv stopped (I thanked him when I overtook him again a few klicks later). The only damage was a deformed bumper, and the radiator grill fell off (good gear, Volvo's). This was the first time I had driven the car in the rain in the three weeks I had had it, and had discovered that it was a bit frisky. Arrived at Bologne at 3pm and told pay £38 extra or wait. I waited - another few hours after spending 5 days trying to get back to the UK was no big deal.

So there you have it. National Breakdown are stars. However they do have limitations, and in order not to have epics it is worth remembering not to:-

a) crash your vehicle if it contains more shit than can be got into a large estate car.

b) break down in Italy if you have an ancient Volvo & you don't speak Italian.

Just remember these simple rules and you should have years of trouble-free European motoring.