23 August 2010

A European Jaunt - part 2

Warning: this blog entry contains numerous Australianisms, befitting the company in which I've been keeping recently. Your patience would be greatly appreciated.

Day 2 dawned at 0700 when we awoke following our first night's sleep in a hostel. It had gone better than we'd expected. We'd been nattering to our fellow dwellers before heading to sleep the night before. All Australians appear to either have relations in the UK or have visited London and seem reasonably knowledgeable about the city's transport and the Oyster card.

Breakfast was not offered at the Hotel Baccarat, so we headed round to corner as we knew there were a couple of small supermarket-type shops opposite Nice Ville station, which is where our Busabout coach would depart from at 0800. Unlike London - and indeed any UK city or large town - these newsagents were not open at 0730. Nor did they open before we had to jump aboard our 51-seated VDL SB4000/Marcopolo Viaggio coach.

They're not the most attractive coaches in the world and we understand Busabout will receive Berkhof Axial-bodied coaches next year

The Busabout guides do not check passengers on using a sheet of paper. They use an 'ipaq', which connects to the Internet through their company-issued mobile phones. It all seems very progressive and enables the driver to concentrate on, well, the driving, though first he has to load the luggage. We only had seventeen aboard our coach today. We were travelling to Lauterbrunnen in the Swiss Alps, via Milan. The journey time was between 10-11 hours, with a number of stops en route at various motorway services.

The stops are all prescribed and approximate timings are given. Our driver, Simon (British) and our guide, Dave (Australian) had both returned to work today, following two days off in Nice. They'd both popped to Cannes and had watched Inception at the cinema there and both were still talking about it this morning. Simon's day had commenced at 0600 when he'd left the Busabout accommodation and headed to the No. 23 bus stop with his suitcase to get to the coach park, which was just under 2 miles away. There, he'd done all the checks required of him before driving to the pick-up point, opposite Nice Ville station.

Initially it seems strange to seem all the controls on the wrong side, but you soon get used to it. Our driver said he and all new Busabout employees receive a week's training at Stellendam, learning to change gear right-handed and to get used to driving on the 'European side' of the road

Owing to the EC Drivers' Hours Regs, he needed to take a 45-minute break at the pick-up point to then enable him to drive 4.5 hours, taking a 15-min break at the first service stop and 30 mins at the second. Consequently, he was parked in the centre of town at 0720. The guides do not conform to such guidelines (and consequently do not appear to generally receive such generous weekly rest periods). Their days do start later than the driver's (and don't finish as late, either), with Dave arriving at 0745 and he got to work loading passengers while Simon packed their suitcases in the boot.

Newcomers to Busabout are issued a lanyard and credit card-sized I.D tag that they need to put round their neck while on board. Existing people, i.e. those who've travelled in the past few days, simply present these to be checked-off on the ipaq. It's all very straightforward. A large number of those on board had travelled with Busabout recently, so Dave only had to issue a couple of lanyards/cards out to the newcomers. Most of our contingent were travelling through to Lauterbrunnen, with a couple choosing to leave us at Milan.

This was the scene the following morning in Lauterbrunnen, though the same occurred in Nice today, with Simon (in orange) seen loading luggage while Dave (stood at front in black) loads passengers. It's a lot calmer than the scene in London Victoria Coach Station

Busabout's advantage over equivalent European operations is that if passengers wish to change their travel plans and, say, remain in Nice another couple of days, they simply inform the guide who'll book them on the coach in two days' time at no extra cost. Likewise, if someone booked to travel in two days decided they wanted to leave Nice early, they simply turn up at the coach and the guide amends their requirements for immediate travel. No amendment fees of any kind are charged. The only risk is that your desired service may be full, but for delayed journeys, once the guide books you on using his ipaq, you're then guaranteed a seat.

Also departing from Nice Ville was a Busabout coach heading to Barcelona. This, said Simon, is one of the lengthiest journeys drivers are required to undertake in one day, and also sees some of the highest exterior temperatures, too. "It was 40 degrees Centigrade the last time I was in Madrid," said Simon, "which made cleaning the coach out - even with the climate control on - quite a challenge!" Apparently the heat is so intense that cleaning the windows becomes almost impossible, with the water drying as soon as it's applied. The Barcelona coach was fully booked and left a minute before us.

We headed out of Nice, due east, slowly climbing and following the coast road (D6007) through to Monaco. We saw a very bad accident just a couple of miles outside Nice, which involved a Mini Cooper and three motorbikes - one rider had been 'covered up' by ambulance crews at the scene. It brings it home to you just how dangerous these meandering roads can be, with their sheer drops and tunnels. Also pointed out to us was the spot where in 1982 Grace Kelly came to her death - her car plummeting off the cliff top into the sea below. As a result of this very high-profile accident, the road now dissects a chunk of rock, rather than skirting round it.

Monaco, one of the world's smallest countries, where an application to become resident will cost €1 million. Since the application is just that, there's the possibility it could be turned down and refunds are not offered

Having skirted Monaco, we joined the A8/E80 into Italy. Two things caught our attention here. The first was that it was just before 0900 on a Friday morning and the dual-carriageway was very quiet indeed; there was barely a vehicle to be seen. Crossing into Italy actually took place in a tunnel, with just the change of brickwork the only noticeable sign until the official Welcome sign once the other side. While the Italian scenery differed not one jot to that of the French, the second observation was the one addition to the landscape: greenhouses - hundreds of them. Dave told us (in what Australians refer to as knowledge bombs) that within them are flowers grown for the perfumeries that sell their fragrances around the world.

Italy was also the location of our first motorway services stop, at Cireale Sud, just short of Genoa. The service area belonged to the Autogrill chain of companies, who appear to have Italy all sewn up. They don't, though, appear to offer any kind of grilled food. The situation within the establishment is not straightforward. For those requiring food, you enter the restaurant area and look to see what's on offer beneath the glass counters. You then cross to the other side of the room, to the tills, and order/pay, before taking your receipt back to the counters and presenting it. Your food is served as soon as they get round to you.

This was the case at the second services, another Autogrill, at Dorno Est, just south of Milan. The route taken between services was north, along the A25/E25, then east on the A7/A26 and then north on the A7/E62 to Milan.

The most attractive thing in Milan was our coach, parked at the only YMCA used on the Busabout network

Milan, despite it's place in the fashion history books, it has to be one of the most dour-looking cities Europe has to offer. Those planning on leaving the coach here were not impressed with what they saw either, so, mid-journey, amended their requirements and continued with everyone else to Lauterbrunnen. It's worth stressing again how convenient this can be. No fee was charged for choosing to alter their journey plans, even mid-route. Amending your plans on Eurolines, for example, necessitates a fee and simply cannot be done at all once a coach has departed.

This section of route had been the most uninspiring. The dramatic coastal scene had long since left us and we were now heading north inland with scenery that, quite honestly, could have been stolen from Lincolnshire. The weather was nice and the climate control being set to 22C was ensuring no one was becoming too hot. While Nice was hovering around the 30C mark today, northern Italy was a more comfortable 23C.

In Part 1 we mentioned that luggage provision wasn't as comprehensive as that you'd expect from a rear-engined coach. Seen here is the luggage of 17 people, taking up most of the front locker while boarding takes place in Nice

By mid-afternoon we came to the Swiss border and our coach's Swiss road tax sheet needed renewing so Dave went off to do that while we observed the Swiss border control officers dressed in blue t-shirts and automatic machine guns stopping car drivers in a parallel queue. As soon as Dave returned, we were away, with no one wanting to check the coach, its passengers or their passports. This also marked the point where the scenery improved considerably: mountains lay ahead.

Simon told us that we'd be passing though the St. Gotthard Tunnel, which is one of Europe's longest. He also dropped the bombshell that overhead signs were stating there was a 10km queue for entry. There's no toll to pay, just traffic lights which regulate the entry of vehicles that slows things down considerably. However, he and a number of other drivers, had concocted a short-cut that saw a good deal of the queue omitted. We left the A2/E35 (our road of choice since Milan) at Junction 42 and followed a parallel road to Airolo. Here we rejoined the A2/E35 right at the front of the queue for the tunnel, saving at least one hour's worth of queuing. We were all very impressed.

Measuring in at 10.5 miles long, the St. Gotthard Tunnel is the world's third longest road tunnel, opening on 5 September 1980. Significant congestion is generated as only one tunnel bore is used, with traffic using one lane in each direction and entry is regulated using traffic lights on an overhead gantry, which permits just half a dozen cars in every 30 seconds. The speed limit within the tunnel is 80km (50mph), and it took us 13 minutes to pass through.

Simon told us that sometimes not only can the weather conditions be completely different upon emergence, but the whole climate can change. You're now in an Alpine region with some of Europe's highest mountains. Snow is still visible on the peaks of some of them. It's amongst this very dramatic scenery that our third service station was to be found, at Gotthard-Raststätte, still on the A2/E35. Free Toblerone was being offered and we changed our appearances slightly to avail ourselves or more than just one morsel (which worked), before buying some traditional Swiss chocolate for the remainder of the journey.

What I hadn't realised is that the Toblerone logo was more than just a random mountain - it's one that contains the image of a bear, chosen because Switzerland's capital city, Bern, is Swiss for 'Bear'. Can you see it?

As with virtually every establishment we'd visited so far, English was spoken very well indeed. Switzerland was the first country in which we'd travelled that offered another currency. While they accepted Euros, your change was in Swiss Francs; and with the prices all being in Swiss Francs, a calculation was needed to ensure you tendered as accurate a denomination of Euros to limit the number of Swiss Francs in your change as possible. To be honest, the chocolate on offer here was not wildly different from that on offer at any Tesco back home, though perhaps the range of flavours may be a little greater.

Knowledge bomb time again as Dave told us why cars from Switzerland have stickers with CH on. GB, of course, means Great Britain; E meaning Espania; IRL for Ireland etc., but why CH for Switzerland? It's because the official title of the country is the Swiss Confederation, which was translated from Confœderatio Helvetica in Latin and abbreviated to CH for cars identification within the EU and web domains. Wikipedia offers an in-depth entry on why Switzerland is known as Helvetica. Incidentally, the word Helvetica seemed to resonate for another reason. In a knowledge bomb of my own, I can reveal that it's one of the standard fonts offered with Microsoft Word.

Our service station stop just north of the St. Gotthard Tunnel was nothing like Toddington on the M1!

Dave rang ahead to the Lauterbrunnen accommodation - a site called Camping Jungfrau, which describes itself as being "located at the feet of the world-famous mountain giants Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau in the valley of the 72 Waterfalls. Even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe referred to the beauty of our valley in one of his poems" And we were not to be disappointed. Lauterbrunnen has to be one of the most spectacular places I've ever visited by coach. Before that, there was the small matter of the Brünig Pass to negotiate, which elevates to road to 1,008m above sea level.

A stop for photos was made as we meandered our way through the Brünig Pass

It was all very spectacular and our coach managed well through the winding roads and steep hills. Simon said that sometimes he could do with a little more power, but wasn't too concerned since their arrival was not timetable to-the-minute. Our arrival was expected, however, following Dave's phone call, and Lauterbrunnen is also Busabout's administrative centre. Upon our arrival, lots of Busabout people emerged from the woodwork (literally - wood cabins aplenty) and greeted the driver and guide. Moments later the coach from Paris arrived so there were double the hugs and handshakes.

No one on board our coach was leaving here the following day, except us. Being Australians, they all wanted to be far out and indulge in some very respectful paragliding and tandem skydiving from planes. We much preferred an evening of Swiss beer and cheese fondue before turning in for the night - to our individual wooden mini Swiss cabins - our feet always firmly on terra ferma. Incidentally, I can heartily recommend the cheese fondue - it was so strong, it reminded me of Vodka!

To be continued....

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