Best laid annual travel plans thrown into turmoil on the motorways


LETTER FROM ROME: This is the season of fresh fruit salads, air conditioning and traffic jams. That might not sound particularly coherent but it is, in fact an apt summary of the long, hot, travelling summer, writes Paddy Agnew.

You see in this family this is the season of long-haul autostrada travel, sometimes prompted by the annual pilgrimage back to the auld sod or, this year, prompted by the need to escort the youngest member of the family northwards for a summer camp in Vichy, central France.

Between jigs and reels and airport stops, we have probably clocked up 6,000 kilometres of autostrada-into-autoroute travel over the last month.

This, of course, means that we are experts at the business. Our escursioni are planned with military precision. Maps are spread over the kitchen table, slide rules are produced and with the aid of a swagger stick and empty jam jars we not only carefully plan the route but also work out where we will stop overnight.

All of which explains why we found ourselves missing an aircraft to Spain the other day as we sat in a 2½ hour traffic jam on the ring road round Milan.

That we chose to drive around Italy's industrial capital on one of the busiest Friday evenings of the summer when most Milanese were getting away was simply a mere blip in our otherwise perfect planning.

It is, of course, important that the long haul road traveller stops regularly at the wayside cafe, not only to deal with pressing needs but also to buy those last minute presents for uncle Joe or cousin John that had somehow escaped the collective mind while we were otherwise busy, struggling with our compass and trying to hold the map the right way up.

One thing you do not do at the autostrada cafe is to fill-up with petrol, especially if it is the last one prior to crossing the French border. If you do this, you will miss the matchable desperation that comes with arriving in rural southern France late at night in search of allegedly cheaper French petrol, only to find that 24-hour petrol stations are few and far between. Meanwhile, the red light on the petrol gauge has been glowing in a smug, self-satisfied way since the Fergus Pass.

Seasoned travellers like ourselves realise that, in the interests of finally getting to your destination sometime before the end of the century, it is a good idea to overnight close to the autoroute or main traffic artery. Which explains why we recently found ourselves negotiating a Tour de France style mountain climb of hairpin bends as we struggled for more than an hour to get to a "handy little stopover" at a place called St Pierre de Chartreuse.

Well, on the map, it had looked close to the autoroute and, you will agree, it does have a nice name. We were not to know, that it was high up in the foothills of the Alps. Anyway, it was very nice and the good news is that the brakes worked on the way downhill, next morning.

Then too there is the question of in-house entertainment. On the long haul, we tend to listen to recorded versions of literary classics (this year, it was Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd, no irony intended).

Concentration sometimes lapses, the play-back may be called for and basically it only requires the combined diplomatic skills of Talleyrand and Dag Hammarskjold, plus an honours degree in advanced physics to satisfy the passengers while keeping the air-conditioning at an all around acceptable temperature.

(Irish readers may not know that the rest of Europe has been suffering from a heat wave).

There is, too, the splendid moment of homecoming.

That is when you leave orderly, clean, advertisement hoarding-free rural France behind you and return to chaotic, overcrowded Italian roads where visibility is not helped by roadside billboards every ten centimetres.

Even better, you may arrive at your pre-booked northern Italian hotel at 1.30 a.m. and find that there is, alas, no room at the inn despite the fact that you had phoned ahead to warn of your delayed, late arrival.

Only the flash of mad Irish eyes and hasty Italian improvisation saved that particular day. Mind you, the homecoming does always have one truly Wagnerian moment of cathartic intensity - namely, the first fresh fruit salad at your first Italian autostrada stop, not to mention the first cup of real coffee since before the Frejus Pass on the way up.

For these little mercies, we must be grateful.