The Ballards - Syndicate


In Easter 1998 we went camping in the Italian Lakes.
We left the girls with my parents, borrowed our friend's 6-person tent (for the 2 of us) and took two double air mattresses, two double duvets, a petrol stove and a coffee percolator for maximum comfort.... This lot filled the Volvo, prompting people to ask if we were moving house!
Practice sessions with the tent at home got construction time down to about 20 minutes from "Volvo door open" to "in with zip done up". We were determined not to be embarrassed in front of the more seasoned French campers....

We started in France, as you do when arriving through the Channel Tunnel (the finest piece of civil and railway engineering I've ever witnessed).

Northern France is boring to drive through: even the French thnk the Pas de Calais is dull: they call it the "grey country" because the weather is so like Britain. It's a place to travel through, not to stop.
Once South of Reims we turned East towards Strasbourg and began to pass through the disputed region of Alsace-Lorraine, where the 1st World War was fought. Evocative names like Verdun and Ypres appeared on the map and the road signs, together with signs to the Allied War Cemeteries (strangely, no German War Cemetery signs).

Once we reached Strasbourg we turned South towards Switzerland, enjoying the relatively empty autoroutes and looking for somewhere to amaze the French with our superior Anglo Saxon tent-construction techniques, finally settling on an excellent campsite near Riquewhir surrounded by vineyards.

The following morning we headed further South for Switzerland.
The huge motorway from Mulhouse ends abruptly in concrete barriers and a time-consuming queuing and Swiss Road Tax procedure. Switzerland is not part of the EU and wants no truck with it's liberal Schengen laws. If they don't like the look of you, you go back to France.

A swingeing contribution to the Swiss road system later, we returned to the road, now reduced to a two-lane highway.
The signs through Basel are appalling, as is the road system: the entire North-South flow goes through one set of badly-adjusted lights, causing endless congestion.

Finally leaving Basel, we made a startling discovery: a lot of Switzerland is like France, not mountainous at all but with rolling hills, gentle inclines and many flat areas. It's only in the South of the country that the mountains dominate, and it takes a few hours to climb in to the increasingly vertiginous and interesting scenery.

Switzerland does not disappoint: the Alps are huge, snowy even in summer and thoroughly penetrated by the efficient Swiss road system (Zurich apart, obviously...). The autoroutes are akin to a child's drawings: swirly and with huge bridges and tunnels constantly dancing with the landscape.

Switzerland is also an anally organised country: lawns are mown, roads are swept, railways run on time and order prevails. It's a bit antiseptic, actually.

We left Switzerland via the Simplon Pass to Italy and the contrast could not have been greater: leaving Switzerland via an organised, beautifully-maintained border post you drive downhill through several miles of no mans land before reaching the Italian border.
The moment you enter the country you realise that Italy plays by a different set of rules to the rest of Europe. The policeman are surly, arrogant, unshaven, the border post a shack. The houses are less well kept, the roads are potholed, the signs rare and confusing. The road improves in fits and starts, driven by Mafia contract-letting and kickbacks.

We reached Lake Orta, set up the tent and it rained in the night, water roiling past our tent. In a tent you are so very close to nature it is occasionally uncomfortable.

We spent a week exploring the Lakes before returning, spending the last rain-soaked night in a surprisingly-comfortable hotel in Verdun.
The experience cured us of camping forever, though....