The Simplon Pass to Italy

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September 29th 2009
Published: October 2nd 2009
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We haven't noticed that the sun in Europe has been causing us to become sunburnt and we have been a bit slack using sunscreen and always wearing a hat.
However the sun has struck back when we(or should I say I) didn't take into account that the air was clearer at 3089 metres above sea level and protection against the brilliant sun on the vivid snow.The consequences were a sunburn head for me as I left my cap in the car at Tasch in our desire to get up the mountain.Gretchen reckons I glowed in the dark last night.Thankfully the redness has diminished somewhat this morning and I will be putting plenty of moisturiser on over the next few days to limit the peeling that I am sure will come!!!
Todays drive takes us over the Simplon Pass to Varese in Italy.We had read on TripAdvisor that the road was narrow and one lane in parts so we are a little apprehensive although the road does not reach the altitude of the Furkapass we drove over the other day.
There is of course another option and that is to put RR on a car train and ride the rails through what used to be the longest rail tunnel in the world at 19km.
We will choose the drive as after all this wouldn't be an adventure if we didn't challenge ourselves every now and then.
We have another clear fine day and although the temperature this morning in Brig is in single digits we have checked what the Italian side of the border is due to go to today and Varese,our destination,is due a high of 25C.
As we started on the climb up the Simplon Pass we met semi trailer trucks coming down so our fears of a narrow and winding road reduced as trucks of this size wouldn't be on the road.
In fact the gradient is very easy in the first couple of kilometres and RR took it in her stride in 4th gear.
As we headed away from the valley we had started from and took a more easterly direction a very impressive viaduct crossing a deep ravine came into view.We couldn't see the bottom of the ravine as we crossed the viaduct.The constuction of the viaduct was an interesting one as it was all concrete yet it had the appearance of a suspension bridge.
The road continued its fairly easy gradient and at every turn we were treated to more scenic views of the mountains above and ahead of the road.Here too the mountains were snow covered at their highest points where their greatest exposure was to the north.
Once we cleared the treeline it became more obvious that the mountain side up from the roadway was extremely steep and it wasn't long before we entered a series of "tunnels'that were really galleries built so that one side of the 'tunnel'was partly open to the valley.The gallery gave protection from avalanches which would be an extreme danger to vehicles once snow returned to this part of the world.Inside some of the galleries there were short recesses back further into the solid rock which we assumed had been built to give further protection to motorists in an avalanche should the gallery collapse in an avalanche strike.The recesses would only be of use if you could get of your vehicle in time of course!!It would be an awesome road to drive in the winter and we understand that the road is open for most of the winter season except in extreme conditions.
We reached the top at 2005 metres and took a stop to check out the views without having to watch the road.An interesting feature on the summit was a huge granite or stone statue in the shape of a bird that looked like an eagle.It was atop a small rise facing towards the Italian border.We took a walk over to it for a closer inspection hoping that there might be an inscription telling us what it was there for.The only writing on it was '1939 - 1945' and mentioned what seemed to be an army division.As the Swiss have been neutral for years and weren't involved in WW2 we can only assume the statue recognises the army division that protected the border during WW2.
Though the Swiss are neutral when it comes to being involved in conflicts their defence forces are heavily armed and all Swiss males serve two years in the army.We had noticed a lot of movements of army vehicles near Brig and we assumed they were doing some sort of exercise.
As we drove off from the summit we passed a large army installation which seemed to confirm that the Swiss take the defence of their border seriously.
The road down the Italian side was an easy grade as well and before we knew it we were crossing the Italian border and had reached the bottom of the pass where the road levelled out.The Italian side was quite different in the although there were mountains to take in the road also travelled through some narrow gorges in its descent with an alpine river running alongside the road at times.
We left the mountains behind ,although still in clear view and the outside temperature recorded by RR rose into the low 20's.
It was lunchtime as the road joined the edge of Lake Maggiore and now the scenery had changed dramatically to that of large and grand looking Italian villas set behind ornate fences and across the lake we could make out towns dotted around the edge along with small villages in the hills rising up from the lakeside.
We took a stop at Stresa for lunch and found a lake edge seat where we sat back and enjoyed the view.
When we got back on the road we wondered why the traffic volume had dropped off and then remembered that many businesses closed for 2 or 3 hours in the middle of the day as people took a "siesta".The drop in traffic volume certainly meant our progress quickened.
By tradition we avoided taking the motorway even though the local road into Varese was slow to drive.As we arrived at the town we knew we wanted route #394 as our instructions to get to the hotel up in the hills above the town started with that route #.
However,the Italians are not that good at numbering their roads on their road signs and at a point where the road split before the town we took what turned out to be the wrong option.
We had covered the distance from Brig over the Simplon Pass quite quickly even though we had had many stopos during the day and we had arrived in Varese earlier than we had anticipated.But,it was just as well as it took us another two hours of driving from one side of the town and out to where we picked up route #394 which is what we wanted.
Even when we found the road to take us up the first part of the hillside we ran into a further problem when one of the roads on our instructions was closed with no detour.To get to this point we had driven through narrow lanes and to ensure we didn't connect RR with the side of a house we pulled the wing mirrows in !!!
We should say that the lanes up the hillside ran at all angles with no pattern so it was impossible to guess which lane we should take to get to the hotel which we knew was still further up the hillside.
We spotted a butchery shop in the piazza and went in to ask how to get around the closed road.The guy didn't speak English although he seemed to understand what we were looking for and took us outside and with a flourish of his arms we gathered that we had to go back down the hill and take another road further along.However even this didn't work for us and we were on the verge of trying to find somewhere else to stay down from the hillside.
It was then that we spotted a list of signs directing to hotels including the one we were looking for and we were back on tghe trail again.A few minutes later and after nearly 3 hours of searching since we arrived in the Varese area we found the place high up on the hill.We can at least say that as yet we haven't been beaten although Gretchen is now talking more seriously that we should have invested in a GPS for RR at the start of our lease.!!!Still we do see the countryside!!
Dinner was a pizza up at a restaurant above the hotel.We think we were a bit early in dining at 7pm as people dine later in Italy but it had turned out to be a long day after the trial of finding the hotel.The road over the Simplon Pass hadn't been as tricky as we had been led to believe by the entry in TripAdvisor and in fact it was quite easy in comparison to the Furkapass.
And another highlight of this adventure.
We have a lovely Italian style room with a view out towards Varese and the lake below the town.


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