Part 1 of Our Road Trip to Cinque Terre, Italy
As you might have guessed from reading this blog, my husband and I love to travel. When people ask me where I want to go the most, I can never decide on just one place. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single place I do not want to visit! Unfortunately, there are so many places I haven’t been to yet. But on the plus side, we’re living in the center of Europe right now and traveling to exciting places is really easy (compared to living in the US). I’ve never been to Italy before and that is why I was so excited when Ryan suggested we go to Cinque Terre one weekend.
I had never heard of Cinque Terre before, but one of Ryan’s co-workers suggested it. So, we did a little research and hopped in our car and headed to Italy. It was kind of surreal for me because our road trip to Cinque Terre took us through 3 countries! Having lived in New England in the US, I was used to hopping between states, but hopping between countries was something new for me. Our route took us from Switzerland into France and then to Italy via the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Here was our driving route there and back:
This trip was kind of a spur of the moment idea. We knew we wanted to travel somewhere over the weekend but didn’t know where. Once we decided on Cinque Terre, we hopped online to book a hotel for Friday night in Milan. We then quickly packed for the weekend and headed out the door. While I was definitely excited about Milan since I’d never been before, it wasn’t the focus of our trip- it was just a convenient point to stop for the night. Unfortunately, we didn’t plan our route leaving Geneva very well and ended up taking Pont du Mont Blanc, which goes right through the center of the city and has terrible traffic! I mean really terrible traffic because it took us an hour and a half to get from our house to the French border. Without traffic, this route only takes about 15-30 minutes! So lesson learned for next time: just take the A1 into France and then cut over to the A40.
Despite the traffic, it was a nice drive to Milan. Neither Ryan nor I had ever driven through the Mont Blanc Tunnel before, so we were really excited to do so. The Mont Blanc Tunnel is about 11.6 km or 7.2 miles long. The drive through the Chamonix valley approaching the tunnel was gorgeous. The road takes you through quaint towns and farmland nestled at the base of the Alps. There are also numerous waterfalls which can easily been seen on the exposed rock faces of the mountains on either side of the highway. As you get closer to the road up to the tunnel, the Alps and Mont Blanc come into view.
It’s amazing how much taller Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco in Italian, which means “White Mountain”) is than the other mountains nearby. Mont Blanc is the tallest mountain in the Alps and the whole of the European Union at about 4.8 km or 15,781 ft. From looking out our window at Mont Blanc every day, I’ve learned that its peak is often covered in clouds because its so tall, and this was the case as we approach the tunnel. It was amazing because we could see the tops of the other peaks, but not the top of Mont Blanc.
As we started the climb to the Mont Blanc Tunnel, the road signs were in both French and Italian instead of just French. This is because the tunnel connects France and Italy. Once we reached the toll booth at the entrance to the tunnel, we purchased our ticket for both the outward journey and the return journey and were given some safety instructions. You are supposed to keep your headlights on (pretty obvious when going through a tunnel), listen to the radio for updates, stay between 50 and 70 km/hr, and keep at least 150 meters between you and the car in front of you. The tunnel took quite a while to drive through and when we finally emerged, we were in Italy!
Once we were in Italy, I realized how easy we had things in Switzerland. First, we both took French in high school and college so while we are by no means fluent in French, it does help significantly in everyday life and in driving! The road signs in Switzerland were mostly easy for us to figure out. Actually, in pretty much all of Europe, they are standardized and don’t have much text because people speak so many different languages in close proximity to each other. However, things in Italy weren’t so easy. There were a lot of signs in Italian that we were struggling to figure out what they meant. One of the easier ones was for a rest area. In Switzerland, rest area signs show pictograms of a fork and knife for food, a gas pump for gas, etc. This is most likely because Switzerland has 3 official languages and people don’t need to learn all of them. In Italy, rest areas are marked with text, so we had to figure out the Italian Translation. For a great comparison of road signs across Europe, check out this web site.
The drive down from the Mont Blanc tunnel was just as pretty as the drive up. One thing I was not prepared for was the number of tunnels in Italy. I think there were two main reasons for this: first, I didn’t realize just how mountainous Italy is and second, in the US, we tend to have roads which go over the mountains rather than through them. We lost count of how many tunnels we went through and sometimes we could see the next tunnel before we were even out of the one we were in! Another thing that surprised me about Italy were all the really old (I’m talking Middle Ages) castles/manor houses scattered around on top of hillsides and in towns. However, this really makes a lot of sense. Based on what I know of history, back in the Middle Ages you pretty much had one really rich noble per town and they lived in a manor house/castle. There would often be a sign along the highway stating the name of the castle/manor house and the century in which it was built.
Eventually, it grew dark and we arrived in Milan quite late at night (due to the earlier traffic in Geneva). One thing we’d heard about Italy that we first got to experience when driving in Milan was that people are crazy drivers. On the interstate, we definitely had several people zip passed us going way over the speed limit, but that’s the interstate and people were mostly driving as you’d expect. Once we got off the interstate and arrived on the streets of Milan, it was a different story. People were kind of crazy drivers and used their horns a lot and wove around each other. However, it really reminded me a lot of driving in Boston. The streets of the two cities are very similar in that when the street plan is viewed from above on a map, it doesn’t make any sense. The streets are the original farm and horse paths from way back when.There are also plenty of traffic circles with some exits actually being two different streets with the same exit and lights in the middle of the roundabouts. People also had that funny habit of turning streets into one lane when then wanted it to be and two lanes when it suited their needs.
Despite the funny traffic patterns and crazy drivers, we found our hotel and checked in (after a bit of trouble finding our reservation). Then we headed out to dinner. Even though most of Europe eats pretty late compared to the US, 10:30 is still pretty late for Italy so we didn’t have very many restaurant choices. However, the hotel recommended a place that was open till midnight and was quite delicious. As we were looking at our menus (luckily in both English and Italian), I realized how different eating at a restaurant in Italy is compared to Switzerland/France. In Italy, you have your appetizers, then your first course, then the second course, then sides and desserts. The first course is often pasta or soup and the second course is often just meat/fish/seafood (no veggies).
The next morning, we woke up bright and early so that we could finish the drive to Lerici. It was about a two and a half hour drive and we needed to make it to Lerici in time to park our car and walk to the ferry to board the 10:30 ferry. Luckily, we didn’t hit any traffic on our way from Milan to Lerici and we pulled up in front of our hotel at 9 am. We were a little tired from the late night and early morning, but glad to be in Lerici where we would depart for Cinque Terre by boat.
I’ll share the rest of our Cinque Terre road trip next week.