Nov. 16 (Friday)

by Berck

Nov. 16 (Friday)


In the morning, it seemed high time to head North and find the Alps. Though the memory of the cold night at the campground had just started to fade, the bruises from sleeping on the rocks had not. If we’d had our thermarest pads, I think it would have made all the difference in the world. But the ground was cold and rocky, so we thought we’d try to find cheap beds for the night. We elected to do our first real travel on the autostrada (like our interstates), which we’d avoided so far for a couple of reasons. The first being that they are all toll roads, and in our original estimation, we thought they’d be very expensive, though it turned out not to be too bad. The second reason is that we wanted to see the countryside. And the third, big reason, was that Berck wanted to drive on the fun, small roads. But we wanted to make some progress, and we could only average 30km/hr on the small roads, with all the curves, roundabouts, and stops.

Last time Berck was in Italy, he mostly remembered the Autostrada routes as being 4-lane, but most of the roads we drove on were 3, sometimes even 4 lanes per side. Such large, wide and generally well-paved roads seemed somewhat out of place with the general Italian character– but before we get too cozy describing them to our Interstates, I should point out that they are very much not. Where as a car on the interstate takes up barely 2/3 of a lane, the Italian lanes are just wide enough for a car, and there’s not really much wiggle room. There is no median– merely a small concrete divider, and there is no shoulder on either side of the road. I suspect that a breakdown or flat tire is very dangerous, since you’d simply have to stop in an actual lane of traffic. The signs are quite cryptic, even with our guidebook helping to decipher some of them. The lane markings are sometimes white, sometimes yellow, sometimes solid, and sometimes dashed. Sometimes double solid and/or double dashed. In general, there seemed to be little standardization, merely the construction crew’s mood. I experimented with different speeds. Even while driving at the top speed of our little Sirloin (about 160 km/hr on level ground), German-made BMW’s would fly by me. Attempts to pass other cars often resulted in four giant circles in my rearview mirror of an Audi about to mow me down. Not wanting to waste petrol (≈$8/gallon) and fearing speed cameras, I tried to stay somewhere around the speed limit, which was rarely posted unless it dropped below the typical speed limit of 110 or 130 km/hr.

The Lakes

So we managed to get out of Modena far less painfully than we got in, just following the green signs to the autostrade. After a couple of hours, we were almost in Switzerland, and decided to exit at the Italian Lakes and see what we could see. The lakes are at the foot of the Italian Alps and are a favorite summer holiday location for much of europe. The towns all had that summer resort feel, with almost all the hotels and much of the other establishments closed for the winter. We enjoyed driving around Lake Maggiore, but it seemed too early to stop. Berck wanted to start looking for an open and hopefully willing to bargain hotel in the Lakes, but Joanna wanted to press ahead to Switzerland. While driving though Como we saw signs about road closures for a rally. We’d have loved to stop and watch a bit of it, but there was no good way to figure out where to go when.


Border control mostly seemed to consist of show, with traffic momentarily slowing down to a crawl and endless uniformed men waved cars on through. With no ceremony, we found ourselves across the border. The language may have been the same, but there was no doubt we were in a different country. The roads suddenly became relatively wide and smooth and well marked. Traffic had a car’s length or two space between vehicles and people seemed to be posting the now oft-posted speed limits. Turn signals were used whenever they might be applicable. We stopped as soon as possible at an ATM and were horrified to find that the Swiss Franc was now worth just over $0.90. Which made everything insanely expensive. We drove by Locarno to Lugano, where one of our guidebooks mentioned a hostel. We had little difficulty locating the town, but as soon as we arrived, traffic simply stopped. The traffic was so bad, we’d spend 15 minutes or so at each stoplight, and it appeared that this was normal for this town. With none of the marked streets matching up with Joanna’s rough map of the town, she found it difficult to navigate, but after a couple hours, we managed to find the correct road to the hostel. Unfortunately, we drove to the end of it without finding the hostel and wound up on the main road again with a half hour wait to get back. This sort of nonsense continued forever, and eventually we pulled off somewhere that happened to have free internet. Berck mucked a bit with the internet while Jonah stared into the dark, it seeming nearly useless for her to continue to look at the same maps that didn’t get us where we needed to go. We eventually went back to the road where the hostel was supposed to be and drove up and down it with no success. We eventually stopped somewhere and Jonah got out to walk around and try to find it. Berck noticed that his laptop was getting free wifi from an SSID with the same name as our hostel, and it was nearly full strength. Joanna came back 10 minutes later and pointed at the building we parked next to and said, “That’s the hostel, and I have no idea how to get in it,” and stormed off again. A long time later, she came back and showed Berck where to park, saying we had a room. It was 75 swiss francs.

In a hostel. That’s $68. And we didn’t get any sheets– they would have been an extra 4 francs/person. Insanely expensive. After checking into the hostel, we discovered it was very Swiss. Built of hardwood and solid fixtures, it seemed like it could withstand nuclear attack. It was extremely clean and pleasant. Our room was on the top floor wedged in where the roof meets the wall, and the only window was in the roof. It swung open to allow us to stick a head through. After doing so, the view was spectacular, the hostel faced the train station below, and the town below that, with a lake below that, then the suburban sprawl climbed the mountain beyond.

hostel view

We headed into Lugano looking for dinner. The restaurants were indistinguishable from Italian ones, save the fact that they were insanely expensive. We looked in all the window shops at the watches costing more than most cars, the crazy fashions, the meticulously laid out antiques. Berck hates shops, but in general really enjoys Swiss shops. They often sell things that interest him, and they are neat, clean and well organized, in sharp contrast to the average Italian shop. Berck suggested skipping diner, or eating at the only cheap place which was Burger King. (To put prices in perspective, a #1 meal at the burger king was 11.60 CHF or over $10.) We had 25 CHF, and after much discussion decided to get more money and go eat. We took out another 40 CHF, leaving us with 65, which should have been enough for dinner. Berck utilized his remarkable restaurant-picking ability and settled on a place, primarily because it only had 3 antipasto choices, 3 primi piatti, and 3 secondi. Berck’s tip: any place with only 3 things on the menu is bound to be good.

Berck ordered, because while he certainly can’t speak Italian, he can at least approximate the pronunciation, which is better than Joanna generally managed. He got a plate of meat and cheese as an antipasto, and one pasta dish to share. This totaled about 40CHF, which would have been fine, but the trouble came with the wine. Berck ordered some house wine, and the waiter told him how expensive it was. Berck thought he heard “15”, but when all was said and done, it was 35CHF, which put us over the 65 in our pocket, and made for an $80 meal, where we were only able to get wine, an appetizer, and a plate of pasta.

Still, it was excellent. The pasta was taglietelli with mushrooms, the meat and cheese were excellent, and the wine is the only Merlot Berck’s ever really liked. Fortunately, they took credit cards. Joanna said they were the best mushrooms she’s ever had.

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