(Or how to make it on 60 gallons of petrol, a pint of oil and few bottles of plonk!)
First published in November 1971 in ‘Car Torque’ the magazine of the Forces Driving Club of Malta. (I won £5 for the naming the magazine! Catchy eh?) Additions in italics were written this year.
By way of introduction I would point out that this is not a comprehensive account of my journey back to England. That would take far too long. However one or two people have already received detailed accounts from me of the costs involved. It is more of a general description and does not pretend to suggest that this is the ideal route, accommodation, food that everyone will enjoy. However I hope it will provide some idea of what is involved. The main point of my journey, apart from the obvious one of getting the car back, was to take in as many places of historical interest as possible within fourteen days. The route, fairly direct, was planned with this in mind. I had two passengers with me, Vic DeGiovanni, a Maltese friend going purely for the holiday, and Graham Mewha, tour-ex like myself. The idea being to split the cost of the cars expenses three ways and look for cheap hotel accommodation. We took a camping gas stove with us and cooked at least one ‘lay-by meal’ a day with it. This we found reduced our expenses considerably. But to begin at the …
I made most of my arrangements through the RAC (which all good members will belong to already?) There were still a few items for me to organise this end (Malta). The International Certificate for Motor Vehicles was obtained from Floriana Police Station. Forms C3 from Customs for clearance of a duty-free car. (£819 on the road in September 1970!) A ‘Green Card’ from my insurance company, and the ferry to Sicily. The Le Havre-Southampton ferry was booked by the RAC. I also took various insurances with the RAC and entrusted them with the documentation for the importation of my car. (roll that round your tongue a few times!) Petrol coupons for Italy were also obtained through the RAC – a saving of 35% on the price of Italian petrol!
Thus on 23rd September 1971 the three of us and one fully- loaded FIAT 128 arrived at Bridge Wharf ready to go. (It was fully loaded. One inch off the stops would you believe!?) Aha! We should have gone to Customs House first. Didn’t they have any Customs at Bridge Wharf? Yes, but we had to go to Customs House first! And so to Customs House where we had our passports checked and I handed in a C3. Back to Bridge Wharf having found out we were not on the passenger list at you-know-where, although the car was! (?) Fortunately we were on the Egadi’s list so all was well. The paper work over we embarked. A friend of ours stopped by to wish us well and promptly at 9pm the Egadi pulled away and very soon had come to a grinding halt waiting for a tanker to go by! We had booked reclining seats not wishing to pay the price asked for a cabin. Very nice too except that the seats were over the prop shafts. Anyway we eventually vibrated into some sort of sleep. We awoke the next morning and arrived on deck to see Syracuse off to port. The Customs men went through the motions being mainly interested in my ‘Green Card.’ and stamping the petrol coupon card.
Now we headed for Messina and the next ferry. The road between the two ports is fairly fast except for a short section near Taormina. Of course, they drive on the right? Having left Syracuse around eight we arrived in Messina shortly after mid-day, in time for the one o’clock ferry to Villa San Giovanni. This is a very short crossing and the ferries are well organised. It looks as if it is every man for himself at the embarking point, but although they may not look it the policemen are wide awake! I am still smiling when I remember the friendly German who tried to queue-jump me. (Ve shall zee Englander!)
Once in San Giovanni we headed for the Autostrada. It is not yet completed all the way south and we had a fairly twisting section of normal road to negotiate through the hills. Here we met some old friends; the long-distance lorry drivers! However Victor in the passenger seat had the pleasure of seeing them come hurtling round corners inches away from him! We were heading for Nicastro. A place of little consequence but picked out on the map as a suitable distance into Italy for the first day. On that first day we travelled about 200 miles, arriving in Nicastro around five in the evening. We found a hotel after some rather evasive answers from one or two of the locals. (Mafia? Not me!) The following day we were heading for Naples, stopping to look at Pompeii on the way. All very well if you can find Pompeii. Having left the Autostrada a little before it was shown on the map it was with some surprise that we found ourselves in Sorrento! (Come back Roy all is forgiven!) As it turned out we should have stayed on the Autostrada a little longer. As it was clearly signposted to Pompeii. By the time we reached the ancient city modern man had closed it for the day. So we could only look round the outer fortifications. Still as Frankie Howard would say, ‘Up Pompeii!’ This left us rather late in getting to Naples. A crash held up traffic near Amalfi and this proved a charming introduction to the Italian driver. Scene One: A queue in both directions, car blocking one side. Three big lorries converging on each other. Red FIAT 128 behind one of the lorries. Car just in front. He slips through gap before lorry from other direction gets there. I stop! FIAT 500 behind me pulls out swearing and cursing, car behind him closes the gap. Lorry keeps coming. 500 proves the effectiveness of his brakes! Jumps out, swearing and cursing at the lorry driver. Large crowd applauds, 500 driver shouts at them. Lorry keeps a ‘comin.’ 500 reverses behind me at 90 degrees to his normal position. Lorry inches forward swearing and cursing at 500. The latter leaps out and returns same. Local hero assures me by hand –signals that everything is OK. I have said nothing! Lorry just gets through and local hero waves me through to applause from the crowd. I just make it! Scene Two: Further down the road with traffic coming from everywhere 500 zooms by to appropriate gestures from FIAT 128!
And so to Naples…
Now, if you have ever arrived in Naples on a Saturday night in the rush-hour you will know what I am talking about when I say, “Bloody Hell!”
Cars to the left of them, cars to the right of them etc, etc. In other words it was rather busy. We circumnavigated the fair city about three times in search of a Pension Hotel. Turning left in these conditions is rather like a walk across a rifle range with the red flag flying and hoping they will miss! Every time we tried to park the attendant told us to move on. An English student told us later that this was because as our car was fully loaded they would not accept responsibility. Naples being notorious for its thieves. Coming round the third time we came to a stop near the station. Out of nowhere appeared a Hotel Porter on the look-out for mad ‘Ingleses.’ (Apologies to Vic and Graham). ‘ Did we want a hotel,’ he asked in his best American-English. It turned out to be quite a reasonable place, much against my expectations. The car was parked in a cul-de-sac about two blocks away, where, for a small fee, it was looked after by a man who had nothing better to do than look after cars and talk to the ‘ladies.’ Thus Naples. A place we left in double-quick time after the nightmare of the night before. I am sure it is a charming place if you know your way around. However most of my driving was in and out of the backstreets. However to continue…
Our next stop was Monte Cassino. The Monastery has been completely re-built since the war and is worth visiting as it affords a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside. On then to Rome.
Naples had beaten me hands down but I was prepared for Rome and came out with a draw! (Eyes in the back of the head, low gear, right foot down, make sure he gives in first, good brakes; Italian driving! In Rome we found rooms at the YMCA! With its very own car park! Our stay in Rome was all too short but we managed to throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, the tradition being that if you do it ensures your return to Rome, someday… We left Rome rather later than anticipated, around mid-day and headed towards Florence. We didn’t quite make it that day, but stopped at Sienna, a small town not far from Florence. (This is where the Palio horse race takes place around the Piazza del Campo. From the restaurant we walked back around the Piazza on a clear warm night. Very atmospheric)
It was a short drive into Florence the next morning. We encountered our first rain of the trip, the previous days having been bright and sunny. Florence is a charming place and if you are only remotely interested in history then it is a must. If you visit only one place then it has to be the Uffizi Gallery. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt, Bottocelli and Carravaggio are all represented.
We continued our journey the following morning, heading for Piacenza, a convenient stopping place. We stayed in the K2 motel just outside Piacenza that night. The next morning Graham broke the key in the garage door which prevented any progress being made for a while! On then to Switzerland! The scenery around Milan is uninteresting. We by-passed Milan on our way to Como. This is on the Italian side of the border and is one of those places where you could spend a fortune on coca-cola! Most of our travelling in Italy was on the Autostrada although we did leave quite a few times to take in the scenery or cook one of our renowned lay-by meals! The speed limit is 110 Kph (70 mph) which I kept to most of the time. However the Italians cannot read! An Alfa passed me as though I was standing still. It disappeared in about 10 seconds flat. and it was a long road! If the Autostrada was taken for the whole length it would cost about £8. The southern part is not tolled as it is incomplete.
With barely a nod from the Customs we passed into Switzerland. Through Lugano and to our destination, Bellinzona. Here we stayed for the night at a rest house, very reasonably priced. On the ferry from Le Havre we voted the plonk at Bellinzona the winner although it was a little more expensive than the rest. From Bellinzona we headed over the St Gottard and Susten passes. (7000 feet approx.) A word here about the car. It did not falter once although on top of the St Gottard one or two cars, which shall be nameless, were falling by the wayside.
And so to Interlaken. The scenery on the way is better than any photograph you have ever seen and is just how you imagine it is going to be, the only time it has happened with the places I have been to. Superlatives would be wasted, but if you are driving back and you miss Switzerland you miss an awful lot. Interlaken provided us with our cheapest accommodation. Bed and Breakfast costing less than £3 for the three of us, and as you can see from the photograph it was a chalet and next to the lake. (It was hell folks!) Here we had our first introduction to the duvet! (Wot no sheets?) Interlaken was yet another delightful place where we could have stayed longer, but ever onwards to France.
Into France through Pontarlier where we exchanged our money at the railway station and then to Besancon. This was the worst place we had visited and is to be avoided at all costs! A rather ropey hotel was found, cheap hotels being few and far between. Perhaps Switzerland spoiled us but they wanted £5 for the three of us, just for the beds. Vic stayed the night in the hotel and Graham and I spent the night in the car. (Reclining seats and all that!) We collected Vic the following morning and got the hell out of it! The 200 miles to Reims was covered at an average speed of 34mph. Not particularly fast until you consider this included two hours of stops for lunch and coffee! There are only two Autoroutes in France but the A roads from the south are very fast with frequent stretches of dual carriage-way. Reims is a modern city but still retains an old charm. It is well laid out after having been demolished in two world wars. We found a very reasonable hotel and parking was no problem. The cathedral is beautiful and well worth a visit.
From the quiet charm of Reims it was onto Paris. We had been warned that it was one big traffic jam. However we found it the easiest city to drive through although we didn’t go right into the heart of the city. There are so many hotels to choose from that accommodation was no problem. Unfortunately the Metro was going on strike the following day which meant a lot of walking. It was while unpacking that I found my jacket was missing. I had last seen it hanging up in a wardrobe in Reims…. a quick phone call confirmed that it was still hanging up in… I will not record my words at this time, suffice to say they were far from complimentary to myself! (The hotel in Paris belonged to the same chain as the one in Reims and the manageress kindly made the call) Well we were in Paris and the city is not so much a place, more a state of mind. On the Tuesday with the Metro being on strike we decided to walk. Looking on the street map later I estimated we had walked 15 miles that day. Still we took in all the sights including a walk along the left-bank and a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Paris was the best place we had visited and is to be recommended before anything else. Like Switzerland it is as good as the guidebooks tell you it is going to be. You can live extremely cheaply there or spend a fortune. The following morning we had a quick trip to the Louvre which had been closed the day before. As time was pressing we took a taxi back to our hotel. Whew! Until you have tried it you wouldn’t think it possible to get a Peugeot through a three-foot gap. (Ask Joe Vassallo!) At least that is what it seemed like at the time.
And so to Le Havre, via Reims. This proved the longest stretch of the journey. About 300 miles when it should have been 120. The moral of the story being, never leave your jacket behind you. This last day provided me with the only real ‘moments’ of the trip. And of course they came in a bunch of three. All my fault, partly through tiredness (we didn’t leave Paris until 1pm) and the fact that we were driving directly into the sun for about two hours.. Anyway we stopped at Rouen for dinner about 9pm. Fully refreshed we covered the 54 miles to Le Havre in 54 minutes! Arriving there about 10:45. Could we find a hotel with vacancies? It took until number eight before we did, almost opposite our ferry. The next morning we took a quick stroll round the town and then onto the boat. This was an excellent ferry and within a few hours England came into view. And the sun was shining! The Customs proved to be no trouble, the RAC were waiting with all the documents and my new licence plates and there we were! I dropped Vic and Graham at Portsmouth station, merely pausing to drive the wrong way down a one way street! (Of course you drive on the left over here, how quaint!) There we said our farewells. We had travelled 2114 miles together and for the most part enjoyed every minute of it. ( Pleased to say Victor and Graham are still in touch)
That was a brief summary of the journey. A detailed description would fill the magazine. Below are listed the costs, but before that a few words of advice. We were fortunate to have Victor along in Italy. He was able to understand Italian and was quite handy with a few words himself. French, German and Italian are spoken in Switzerland plus an understanding of English so we struggled through there. In France we relied on our hands and the phrase-book plus the Frenchmen who understood our pigeon English! Ours meals along the way were cooked in lay-bys or in Italy in a Trattoria, the English equivalent of the Café. Our meals in Switzerland and France were taken in similar places. As for the journey itself you will feel more tired that you expect. Although you know the distance in miles, the actual physical distance is greater than you expect. It will cost more than you expect. ie. Coke and coffee are very expensive but on long stretches necessary to break up the monotony, especially on the Autostrada. The first day is one to be wary of and the last day of the journey will be your worst. After the second day driving on the right comes naturally. Except on my last day when pulling out of a garage rather angry with the attendant and still thinking about it I automatically pulled out onto the left. Victor has a higher pitched voice that I thought! (I really didn’t think you were going to make it!) Switzerland was the best country we visited and Paris and Florence the cities. A visit to Paris is highly recommended. It is worth the traffic. The scenery in Sothern Italy is spectacular. The Autostrada goes through tunnel after tunnel and across an endless number of viaducts. Switzerland is of course unbeatable for its scenery. The countryside around Florence is worth seeing. The Marne valley which we passed through on the way to Rouen is very scenic. The RAC provide an excellent service and their recommended route proved invaluable. Finally as this is a motoring magazine, a word about the car; I mentioned earlier that Switzerland provided it with no problems and this was the case throughout the journey. It averaged, fully loaded, and with some pretty fast motoring for long stretches, 34 to the gallon, and that figure includes the town driving I did. For those interested my tyres were at 30psi all round. So much for the plug.
Having said goodbye to Vic and Graham it was time to head west to Plymouth. I arrived just before 10pm to see my wife and two daughters last seen in Malta three weeks before!
Petrol £18 (At today’s prices it would cost £210!!!)
Registration Book £1:30
Ferries (3 plus car) £50
Average cost of accommodation per person £1:25
Average cost of meals £0:75
Green Card £5:80
Importation of car by RAC £4:50
Cordon Bleu Service by RAC £5:75 A get you home service covering all possibilities
Insurance (Medical, Luggage, Personal) £3:90
Naturally the question of the Insurances is up to the individual concerned, however you will need the Green Card and the Registration Book. A refund of Maltese Road Tax is available from Floriana Police Station. And that I think is that!! VROOOOM!
No one took me up on the invitation as the situation deteriorated in Malta after I left and British Forces were making a hasty departure from the island. I guess the duty free cars that did come back were on board ships. Not as much fun!