It’s the first day in our comedy of errors, from the flowing roads of the Black Forest’s Wine Routes to motorways and mountain passes in Switzerland..
We’re not expecting a racetrack. A nicely tended, winding road past vineyards and castles maybe. But a designed succession of straights and (some banked) corners, with wide run off areas, few steep drops and – of course – a perfect surface? Absolutely not. But then the Germans are pretty good at racing – and cars – so it shouldn’t be a surprise they put an effort into their famous Wine Roads. But it’s shockingly blatant. As ever, there are far more motorbikes than cars.
Getting there was a faff because they’d closed the through road before we left. Neither we nor the satnav could cope with the dense residential roads behind the Opera House so it’s back into town and around the hills again before yet another chance to check the window display at Hermes.
It’s also so densely wooded you can’t see much – we didn’t find the panoramic view from above Baden Baden we wanted – then the road veered off towards a vast plain.. Do we sound ungrateful?
We got the map of wine roads from the tourist office (‘a curve paradise for geeks’). I don’t know why we didn’t use it. Fortunately, at Steinbach there’s a big sign for ’SchwarzwaldweinstraBe’.
These are great roads. The straights are long enough to put your foot down while clear visibility means you know what you’re getting into (and often the corner after too). And they are wide enough that the bikers coming at a good tilt in the opposite direction don’t cramp your style.
We just keep going and going, venturing off piste to the narrower and much twistier local road between Freudenstadt and Wolfach. The challenge here is to keep up with the locals in their superminis. To be honest our Audi does pretty well. In dynamic mode, in third gear and the power band, the punch is fantastic. The problem is in not getting carried away.
So at 14:10 we pull into a layby beside the river in Wolfach, about 15 miles as the crow flies from where we started three hours ago. To stay on schedule we need to be in southern Switzerland tonight, about 250 miles away. We’ve no choice but to take to the inevitably busy main road west to the A5 and the border.
Worse, it means buying the Swiss motorway vignette (why we thought we’d cruise through southern Germany and Switzerland in one day is beyond me). Since we’re probably not coming back through Switzerland, and unlikely to return this year, it costs €40 to cross the country. Mind you that’s cheaper than France.
First timers to Switzerland even subconsciously expecting maybe a rustic wooden fence and a milk maiden strolling through lush pastures will be devastated by Basel, right on the border in the north west of the country.
From the motorway it’s dirty, messy and disorganised, populated by garish plastic clad low rise office blocks straight out of the 1970s. But don’t worry, it isn’t long before the country of snowy peaks and vibrant green meadows reveals itself in all its glory. We can now pinpoint precisely where this happens: as the A3 splits off east to Zurich, ten miles in.
Another 40 miles down the road, nearing Luzern, the snowy peaks are filling the top of the windscreen. Then there’s the fabulous lake.
Like almost all motorways in Switzerland (and Germany for that matter) the A2 is dual carriageway. As it’s also one of the most important commercial routes through central Europe – there are only a certain number of ways through the mountains – you can expect it to be busy. But the major pinch point is always the Gotthard Road Tunnel (see our Traffic/Travel/Weather page). We’ve never been delayed here before but this time roll into a 90 minute queue. Luckily there is – or can be – an extremely amenable alternative.
Andermatt, virtually the last village before the tunnel entrance southbound (come off at Wassen or Goschenen, junctions 39 and 40) is the epicentre of some of the most famous mountain passes in Switzerland – Furka (from Goldfinger), Susten, Nufenen, Grimsel and Oberalp. You can string a few together for a wide detour but naturally the Gotthard Pass – with its famous Devil’s Bridge – most closely traces the route of the Tunnel.
The catch is, mountain passes are not always, reliably open, even in summer. On 8 May at 19:30 they were all closed apart from Oberalp which heads east (the Andermatt Pass connects from Wassen. You can of course catch the Furka car train here).
Because it’s better then sitting in traffic we check out the Gotthard Pass, just in case they’ve been tardy changing the signs or something: no chance. We don’t get that far before there’s a truck parked across the road with a guy inside staring at the mountains through binoculars. On the way down we notice big chunks of ice inching onto the road. Before you shout ‘elf and safety! bear in mind that last May we were allowed on Oberalp in dense fog, snow, ice and rain.
Because it’s ten miles long and single lane – huge trucks flash past your ears – the Gotthard Tunnel is naturally intimidating but don’t worry. You are acclimatised by all the trainer tunnels down the A2 (including the mile long Sonnen Tunnel after Luzern that doubles as the world’s biggest nuclear shelter) while Gotthard is fitted with the latest safety gizmos. The rule is to leave two arrows (50m) between you and the vehicle in front, a reassuringly considerable distance (and longer than in the picture above!) so settle back and chug through at the mandatory 80kmh (50mph). At that speed it takes 12 minutes.
After the tunnel there’s the rest of the A2 to look forward to. Southbound it has to be one of the most impressive stretches of motorway in Europe, a 60 mile continuous descent down the Ticino Valley (lovely even at night). Right at the bottom is Lugano and the first hotel we ever stayed in on a road trip: the Continental. More about that tomorrow. Suffice to say we check in at 22:24 after 300 miles, not impressive for eleven and a half hours driving but we don’t care.
Next: Mmmn, for the second time in succession there are checks at the Italian border. Then, the legendary Futa and Raticosa Passes. Are they unsurpassable? (Answer: Yes!)