Alps roadtrip – Days 11, 12, 13 and 14

Day 10 – Cannobio to Beckenried

Cannobio lies only a few miles from the border with Switzerland, so our first stint in the car is incredibly brief. A quick pit-stop at the crossing to purchase a vignette to allow passage on the motorways, and then it’s on to Locarno at the northern end of Lake Maggiore, before swinging east towards Bellinzona.

A fuel- and time-efficient individual might choose to head north at this point, directly up the E35 towards Andermatt, and arrive in Beckenried early. However, that route would deny us the pleasure of the San Bernardino pass, and is therefore off the table. While the perfectly-surfaced motorway towards Chur eventually disappears into a four mile tunnel, the single carriageway that has previously run parallel with it now begins to wind up the mountains, over moorland and glacial terrain that is simply breathtaking. Exit the E43 at the Pian San Giacomo junction just beyond Mesocco and you get the best of both worlds.

The switchbacks begin almost immediately around Spina. Not since the mountains above Monaco have the roads been quite this good. The drive up to Cannobio was well-matched to our diesel saloon, but it’s here in the foothills of the Swiss Alps that I really begin to miss the revvy 1.7 we left behind in Italy. The ten mile stretch up and over the pass’ summit at Lago Moesola is the kind of drive that makes you want to turn around and do it all again, all day.

We stay with the E43 until junction 18, where we leave the dual carriageway and head westbound through Tamins and Flims towards Andermatt. While peppered with small villages, the route is smooth, fast A-road; that is, until we get past the commune of Disentis/Mustér. It’s here that the road’s name changes to ‘Via Alpsu’, and begins to climb slightly as it heads towards the summit at the Oberalp Pass.

The traffic grinds to a halt just beyond the sweeping curves at Tscherschers. There’s no obvious incident up ahead, but no signs of anyone moving either. We’re surrounded by Swiss motorists; most have got out of their cars and are smoking or entertaining their kids. Nobody seems to know anything – just a lot of shrugging and shaking of heads.

After about ten minutes, we turn around and head back down the pass in search of a café or restaurant where we can grab a cup of coffee and wait for the queue to disperse or move on. Six miles or so further on, we’ve had no luck. All the cafés we found were inexplicably closed, and the one restaurant we tried wouldn’t serve us coffee unless we bought a huge, hot lunch as well. We decide to give the Via Alpsu another try and point the Insignia back towards Tscherschers. Happily, even though the queue is still present when we return, within two minutes we are moving, though on a slightly bizarre diversion.

For the first few hundred metres, it looked like your average single-track country lane, but it quickly turned into what could only be described as a safari trail. For about two miles we followed a rutted, twisty, overgrown pair of tyre tracks through woodland and fields. Doing any more than 10mph would have had the our car crashing on the bump stops, so heaven only knows what it felt like in the TVR Chimaera we were following…

Eventually we rejoined a single-track lane that deposited us back on the Via Alpsu in the commune of  Disentis/Sedrun. Five miles later we were climbing up to the Oberalpsee at the top of the pass. Nine hairpins guide you to the Restaurant Piz Calmot (also a hotel) that sits on the lake. Nipping in for a quick coffee, it looked like a perfectly decent place to stop for a bite too, and the views from the water-facing rooms must be spectacular. There’s room for about 50 or 60 cars to park safely off the road, so I’d be surprised if this isn’t already a favourite with drivers’ clubs.

As I came back out of the restaurant, the thick cloud of mist that I had seen approaching us was now firmly sat on top of the car park, extending as far as I could see down the road running parallel to the lake. The route follows a railway track along the lake, through a 500m tunnel, then over four miles of open road until it hits the switchbacks down into Andermatt.

Unfortunately for us, the mist was forming an impenetrable white blanket over the region. Visibility was down to about 10 metres. Those first four miles passed easily enough with the sat nav still working, but when we got to the hairpins it decided the signal wasn’t quite strong enough. I’d imagine that the road into Andermatt is pretty lively at the best of times, but having barely a car length of tarmac visible beyond the bonnet bumped it into nerve-wracking territory.

Once safely at the bottom of the descent, it’s only a few miles north to Göschenen and the end of the St. Gotthard Pass (opting to drive the San Bernardino Pass earlier in the day means we miss the more spectacular part of this road at Airolo). We join the E35 and for the next 15-20 miles drop in and out of beautifully-engineered motorway tunnels before reaching the South Eastern tip of Lake Lucerne. The final stretch our today’s journey is through the Seelisberg road tunnel – at nearly six miles it’s Switzerland’s second longest. Our final destination is the lakeside town of Beckenried, just a mile from the other end. We’ve booked two nights at Hotel Nidwaldnerhof, and when we arrive we’re not disappointed.

The hotel is great – the rooms have private terraces with lake views and there’s a fantastic restaurant on the ground floor. The rest of the afternoon and early evening flies by before we check out that night’s menu. Considering we’re in Switzerland, the prices are reasonable. I go for a ballotine with gnocchi, while opposite me arrives a searing hot stone topped with an enormous sirloin steak. This looks like a superb choice: beef cooked to perfection accompanied by three sauces, ratatouille and a spectacular potato gratin. At least I know what I’ll be eating tomorrow…

Day 11 – Around Lake Lucerne

Breakfast at Nidwaldnerhof is unmistakeably German. A veritable smorgasbord of cold meats, crusty rolls, hard cheese and preserves. The selection of cheese in particular was fantastic, and included plenty of local varieties. The ‘Seaterrasse’ really makes this place – it’s nothing more than a well constructed platform reaching out into the lake, but breakfast here in the morning sun is unmatched by any other hotel on the trip.

The day’s itinerary is simple: a trundle around Lake Lucerne with plenty of stops for lunch, snacks and whatever else we find on our lakeside tour. The circumferential drive pales into insignificance compared to the grandeur of Maggiore; this lake is “only” 19 miles long and 12 miles wide at its extremities.

Unfortunately, there’s no coastal road between Seelisberg and Baumgarten to the east of Beckenried, so it’s back through the Seelisberg tunnel, which deposits us at the southern end of the lake at Aschoren (point B on the map). The road then swings north up to Ingenbohl (C), before heading west towards Lucerne itself. The route is twisty and flat, and for the photographically-inclined, plenty of location and landscape opportunities along the way.

We follow the road all the way to Kussnacht (D), then down towards Eiholz, but as we turn the corner into Rebstock a curious shape grabs my attention at the side of the road: a jet black Wiesmann Roadster MF3.

Having only ever spotted one or two briefly in London before now, I feel obliged to go and check it out up close. I swing into a car park 600m further down the road and head back to the Hermitage hotel, where it is parked outside. Upon further investigation, I find out that the car is available as part of a ‘Drive and dream’ package when you book a stay at the hotel – not sure how many other establishments offer something similar, but it sounds good to me!

The MF3 is a remarkable vehicle. The company is essentially a much younger, German version of the UK’s very own Morgan Motor Company. Established by the Wiesmann brothers in the 1980s (originally to manufacture bespoke hard tops for existing roadsters), they started building their own vehicles in the 1990s, and now offer the straight-six MF3 and V8 twin-turbo GT models using tried-and-tested BMW drivetrains. The latter’s 4.8-litre unit gives it nigh on 300bhp per ton, which is late ’90s Lamborghini Diablo territory.

I’ve always liked the sheer originality of this little sports car. While it has echoes of Morgan and Jaguar, it’s not trying to be either: it’s just a Wiesmann, through and through. The MF3 outside the Hermitage is wearing substantial 285/25 ZR 20 Michelin Pilot Super Sports. For some reason the rag top gets fatter rubber than the twin-turbo GT as standard, albeit by just 10mm. While I contemplate why that might be, here’s the car in all its glory.

Wiesmann Roadster MF3

Our next stop is Lucerne (E). There are plenty of underground car parks here, which is pretty much your only option if you’ve arrived on four wheels. Despite being a major tourist destination, Lucerne is relatively compact and it doesn’t take long to walk from one end of the city centre to the other. Along the Rathausquai we spot an interesting ‘British’ hostelry, Hotel Pickwick, which is littered with Dickens references and the Union Flag. I’m not entirely sure of the rationale for going abroad only to book yourself into a hotel aimed exclusively at Brits and British culture, but that’s a rant for another day…

The final leg of the trip around the lake takes us through a series of tunnels to Stansstad (F) and then Buochs (G) before returning to Beckenried. What’s left of the day mostly involves me tucking into an ridiculously large ice cream sundae while sat on the ‘Seaterrasse’, watching half a dozen hot air balloons floating above the lake and a few locals arrive at the restaurant in their speedboats, as the clouds roll in over the mountains and end up sitting just above the water.

Tomorrow we return to Andermatt to kick off a scenic drive across the country, towards Lake Geneva and our next stopover in Romanel-sur-Lausanne.

Day 12 – Beckenried to Lausanne

The first leg of the day’s journey begins by retracing our steps back east from Beckenried, through the Seelisbergtunnel, and then heading south to return to Andermatt.

It’s worth loading up Google Maps to look at this particular route, if only to see the technique used by the trains to gain or lose height. Hairpins are obviously impossible for trains, so instead, giant underground spirals of track are carved through the mountains at a steady gradient, allowing the trains to enter and exit the rocks at substantially different altitudes.

Once back in Andermatt, we head south west along the Furka Pass towards the famous Belvedere glacier. Some of the sections of road here are just sublime – in particular the climb through Galenstock and the switchbacks down from the glacier and across the valley into Gletsch. From here we swing north up the Grimselpass. The next 20 miles are equally magnificent – nowhere near as twisty; the road slices through the mountains with wide sweeping passes.

We are en route to Lake Brienz, with a planned stop in Interlaken, which separates Brienz from Lake Thun. The town is a bit of maze in places, but I swing the Insignia into a small car park just off the Bahnhofstrasse in the centre. We have the good fortune to stop alongside a PGO BR 500i SPR. You’ll probably recognise the company name as the guys who also knock out the modern retro spins on the Porsche 356 Cabriolet. But this PGO was no pastiche.

The Wiesmann had just been replaced at the top of the “coolest vehicles I have seen on the holiday” list.

The 500i must weigh about as much as a microwave oven but is powered by a 496cc Piaggio engine. It’s fitted with super chunky tyres, and as the video below demonstrates, will therefore go just about anywhere…

We find a nearby hotel café to grab a cup of coffee in, then have a wander around the rest of the town centre and street market. It’s only a quick stop and we’re soon back in the car driving alongside Lake Thun towards Spiez.

We turn off the A8 towards Saanen. For the first 10 or 15 miles the road is fairly flat and open, following the path of the small river at the bottom of the valley. Get past Zweisimmen though and the road becomes tighter, more twisty and less densely populated. We follow the road to Chateau d’OEx before heading south towards Aigle along the Col de Mosses. The next 20 miles makes up for deliberately missing out the Jaun Pass earlier in the journey. The brief stretch that cuts through forest just beyond L’Etivaz and the gentle ascents and descents make for a perfectly engaging drive.

A few minutes after joining the A9 motorway, we pass Villeneuve and get our first proper look at Lake Geneva. It is vast. While Maggiore is on average deeper and only about ten per cent shorter, Geneva is much wider and covers an area well over twice the size. Jurisdiction of the lake is split 60:40 in Switzerland’s favour, with most of the southern side of the water being part of France. Indeed, if you stop in the centre of Geneva itself, French territory literally surrounds you and can be located dead north, east, south and west.

Rather than faffing around with the route that takes us the absolute nearest to the water’s edge, we stick with the péage to maintain a decent speed. I yet again marvel at the road-building abilities of the Swiss – you’ll struggle to find a smoother piece of asphalt anywhere else in Western Europe.

Our journey’s end today is about a third of the way around the lake in Romanel-sur-Lausanne. Hotel-Restaurant à la Chotte is utterly charming – bags of parking at the rear and an antique feel to the lobby and rooms. If you insist on mod cons everywhere you stay, you will hate this place. But if you find that dinky wardrobes and wooden chairs that creak when you sit down in them add character, this is a great place to stay. It looked like you could have your friends over, too – the balcony accessed from our room had enough comfy outdoor seating for seven.

Now, you might expect that antique furnishings meant an antique menu, but the food here was truly imaginative – easily some of the best grub of the entire holiday. We headed to bed well fed-up and agreeably drunk, under the watchful eye of the hotel’s resident Labrador, Luna.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to Switzerland and reacquaint ourselves with the French.

Day 13 – Lausanne to Besçancon

Luna the Labrador obviously likes to keep her guests company – she sits, head resting on her paws that are hung over a step, watching us as we put away the morning’s breakfast offerings. This is one of those proper establishments that makes coffee to order in the morning; a fresh cappuccino making all the difference to the drab, grey helping of caffeine found elsewhere.

It’s possible to do today’s journey in well under two hours on the most direct route, but as you might expect, I have other ideas.

The Jura Mountains Regional Natural Park lies west of us, and I can’t resist a diversion through at least the nearest part of it. We start off heading roughly north-west towards Cossonay, then bear south-west until we turn onto the forest roads about half a mile north of Bière.

The next 30-odd miles are the surprise of the trip as far as roads go. As far as I know, this isn’t a particularly renowned driving route. It should be. The first stretch of the route, along the Col du Marchairuz, is a gem: a cross between a European forest rally stage (with the myriad pine trees) and a British B-road (the dry stone walls). It’s worth trying this section if only for the three mile descent down into Chez Maylan. The surface isn’t perfect in places, but overall it’s still a cracking piece of tarmac.

We follow the road to the east of Lake Joux, before turning north west and aiming for Mouthe, in the northernmost part of the Natural Park. Once on the other side of the Jura Mountains, it’s difficult to know which route to choose. Scores of roads are laid out before us in a random web, presenting seemingly endless ways of reaching our final destination.

Opting for a road that runs around Frasne, about three miles south east of the village, we press on until we reach Bulle. Here, the so-far twisty asphalt has been squeezed into a perfect three-mile straight. The temptation to bury your right foot will be huge here; just be wary that the kink at the end of this run arrives VERY quickly at the roundabout near Chaffois.

We press on to Doubs, then rejoin the E23/N57 heading north. The main road was littered with speed traps and badly-driven lorries when we visited, which I was glad to see the back of having turned off just before Saint Gorgon Main, towards Ornans.

Thanks to the mountainous terrain, the roads here seem to have been dumped on the region like giant concrete spaghetti – we’re a good 70 miles from the Alps, but it feels like we’re back on the Col de Turini…

It’s incredibly scenic in places too: the road runs right beside the river all the way from Mouthier Haute Pierre to Vuillafans. Once at Ornans, the road takes us north to Saone, before the final stretch to Besançon. The heart of the city is one-way-street bonanza, and to reach our hotel we have to use the 400m tunnel that runs underneath the giant Citadel.

It would be fair to say that hotel here is not the best of the trip. Very cheap and cheerful, but the staff are incredibly helpful. It’s just a shame the room’s on the fourth floor and there isn’t a lift! Still, we have plenty of time to explore the city given today’s relatively short drive, and the shopping along the Grande Rue is great. Then, as we turn onto the Rue de Boucheries nearer the river, I scan the piazza in front of us and can’t quite believe my luck.

We’ve stumbled into Besançon on a day where the whole town square has been taken over by a fantastic selection of classic and sports cars. It’s remarkably eclectic: a Citroen DS23, Frogeye Sprite, Fiat Abarth OT 1000 Spider, Peugeot 504 Cabriolet, BMW 2000 CS, Mercedes-Benz W111 250 SE, and even a Venturi Atlantique 260 are just some of the highlights.

We grab a coffee on the square while we watch the cars gradually start up one-by-one with gurgles, burbles and whirs before they head home. It’s a lovely sight to see as our holiday nears its end. We kill a few more hours before heading back to the restaurant we’ve booked on Place Granvelle.

Once again, we can’t quite believe how good the food is. We’re paying about a tenner each for main courses that look and taste like they’ve just walked out of the kitchen at La Gavroche…

Day 14 – Besçancon to Home

We’re up bright and early and the car is packed for the final time. I should have taken a #peepsinboots shot with the Insignia, because even fully loaded, I reckon the two of us could have made it in there as well.

The weather holds as we make our way out of the city and onto the autoroutes. It’s a shade under 650 kilometres to Calais and the pessimistic iPhone reckons on a total time of 7 hours 9 minutes. Even at 110 kph you’d do it in under 6, and I’m expecting 130 kph for more-or-less the entire journey.

Doing this stretch in the Puma would have meant a fuel stop at some point, but the big Opel just munches through the miles with the needle barely moving – in fact, a full tank could probably take us double the distance.

We waft our way back to the channel with plenty of stops for coffee and food along the way, arriving hours before our ferry is due to depart. We leave the car in the drop-off location outside the passenger terminal, popping the keys and check-in form into the Hertz dropbox inside.

While waiting in the restaurant upstairs for our turn to board, we get through five cups of coffee, three apples, a newspaper, two of the largest slices of lasagne known to man, a smoothie and a Mississippi mud pie. Finally, our ferry is ready for its foot passengers, and we head down to the shuttle bus.

The huge amount of luggage we’re carrying is halved thanks to P&O’s ‘check in’ baggage option – essentially, it just gets heaped onto a metal cage luggage trolley and lashed down onto the ferry deck for the crossing!

As the boat leaves port, my natural urge to find a Full English returns (despite the time of the day), but I manage to resist in favour of something marginally healthier.

One copy of evo later and we’re docking in Dover. We’re stopped from getting on the shuttle bus with everyone else while we wait for our bags to be extracted from the ferry. Unfortunately, this involves waiting for all the remaining cars, vans and lorries to thunder past us first, but finally an airport-style tow tractor hurries down the ramp onto the boat. After a minute or two it reappears, looking utterly ridiculous with the tiny luggage trolley in tow. We claim our bags and the tractor disappears while we have to wait for our very own shuttle bus to trundle down from the terminal.

Just 90 minutes later we were finally back home. Wine drunk, stories told, and a chance to reflect on what had been a truly epic two weeks on the continent.

The trip in numbers

Total mileage: 2,724
Countries visited: 3
Cars driven: 3
Cars photographed: 27
Spend on petrol: £223.82
Spend on diesel: £163.53
Espressos consumed: 33

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