My very good mate Hoges had come over from Sydney for a very special appointment in Italy, for which I was also lucky enough to accompany him as his nominated guest. But, as we didn’t need to be there until Monday morning, we had the whole weekend to get there via some of the stunning scenic routes of my neighbouring country of residence. With a rented Ford Focus to make the journey (a not-so-exotic choice in light of where we were headed admittedly, but at least not without some rallying pedigree), we set out on the autoroute rounding the edge of Lake Geneva towards Lausanne.
A minor tragedy soon unfolded as we attempted to get some good blokey, Aussie music cranking in the CD player when it would not accept my Hoodoo Gurus disc. This terrible situation was resolved by pressing the eject button of the CD player, which released an unexpected ‘bonus’ of a Nelly Furtado CD left behind by the last renters. Once that was treated with appropriate disdain and put safely out of harm’s way we were ready to rock.
Past Lausanne the autoroute was built high into the vineyard covered hills above Vevey, which, on a clear day like this one, revealed a breathtaking vista over Lake Geneva and across to the French and Swiss Alps. I have driven along this motorway numerous times in the previous 18 months or so, and I doubt I could possibly ever get jaded at the panorama.
From there we exited the autoroute and dropped down into Montreux to stop at Chateau de Chillon. The thirteenth century fortification juts out into Lake Geneva, a stunning setting which not even the man theatrically throwing up over the car park railing could detract from. Though I didn’t let on, the stop here was just as much for me as it was for Hoges: Montreux is my girlfriend’s favourite town in Switzerland and I was scouting for a suitable location where, assuming a diamond ring is purchased in the not-too-distant future, I could propose. I decided Chateau de Chillon would be the perfect place – though preferably without the vomit.
At Aigle I turned onto my favourite road in Switzerland, cutting up first through stone terraced vineyards and then through thick forest, ablaze with autumn colours at this time of year. Reaching open, verdant grassy slopes at the bottom of higher mountains we passed the ski resort of Les Mosses, where my church holds a weekend ski trip each winter, and the postcard-perfect village of Rougemont, with its wooden chalets and flowerboxes and picturesque church and cemetery. From there the road crossed the imaginary border between the French and German speaking parts of the country and dropped down into a densely vegetated narrow gorge, running alongside a long creek which is itself crossed by numerous covered wooden bridges, before the road ended by the town of Spiez, superbly situated on Lake Thun.
A little further on Hoges and I stopped for a late lunch at Interlaken. The weather here can be extremely changeable (a frustrating paragliding trip to Interlaken with friends last year where three people got to go and the other three, including me, missed out when conditions suddenly closed in is testament to that), but today the sky was wonderfully clear and the snow covered Jungfrau mountains looked at their enticing best. I doubt a whole lifetime would ever be long enough to get bored of the invigorating vista of snow covered Swiss peaks.
I again soon stopped at another favourite place of mine, the little village of Isetwald on the shore of Lake Brienz. There’s not a whole lot to do here, but the lake’s exquisite blue colour, the boat-sheds and marina, the tiny lake island and the village’s classic styled chateau make for another fairytale-like backdrop.
From there Hoges and I were both in undiscovered territory as we traversed the Sustenpass to Andermatt. Though the range of scenery was not as varied as the Aigle-Spiez road, the Sustenpass has to replace it as my new favourite Swiss road. Its long succession of torturous turns and small tunnels up and down both sides of evergreen forest and then dry, sparsely vegetated high country waiting in expectation for months of heavy snow cover, was the pinnacle of a challenging road-trip without equal. By the time we reached its end I was feeling elated but quite drained from the concentration required, and at this point I set a personal goal that before I leave Switzerland I’ll take a few days to drive as many mountain passes like these as I possibly can.
Hoges and I found an attic room in an atmospheric small hotel in the middle of Andermatt, and then went on the hunt for a restaurant that would serve us a hearty rösti dinner, my favourite Swiss speciality of fried shredded potato. With the hiking season over and the ski season not yet begun, I was expecting the town to be very quiet, so it came as some surprise that a procession of costumed people with large bells spent the entire evening going from door to door in the town centre making as much noise as they could in a twice annual tradition to scare off evil spirits. I could make a joke about Hoges’ night-time farting at this point, but I won’t. Evil spirits indeed.
With Italy to the south, we instead continued east along the Oberalppass. It was fun to drive, though not as memorable as the Sustenpass, and on getting to the bottom at the limits of the small town of Disentis/Mustér I was requested to pull over at a police caravan set up at the roadside. I had not remembered the speed limit outside towns for all roads, other than motorways, in Switzerland was always 80km/h – not that the signs with 50km/h crossed out makes that perfectly clear – and the police speed trap at the top of the Oberalppass, along the sole stretch of straight road we’d travelled, had caught me going at 105km/h.
I was handed an on-the-spot fine of 240 Swiss Francs payable immediately by credit card, which, given the efficient and no-nonsense demeanour of the Graubünden Kantonspolizei, I really wasn’t in a position to argue with. I went into the caravan to pay my first ever speeding fine in twelve years of driving with an attitude of taking it on the chin, and I also respected that they did not try to lecture me at all about breaking the speed limit by 25km/h either. After swiping my credit card and giving me the receipt the policeman warmly wished me a good journey and gave me two tins of lollies to take with me. Despite the fact they were by far the most expensive sweets I’ve ever bought, they tasted very nice.
Once past Disentis/Mustér we turned south, and the place names and changes in architecture immediately proclaimed we were in the Italian part of Switzerland. I’m continually amazed at the diversity within such a small country, so much so that I really don’t know how the 26 largely autonomous Cantons, each distinctly parochial, influenced in part in food and customs by their nearest bordering countries and divided by the use four official national languages, has ever been able to function effectively as a unified confederation since the original Cantons first joined together in 1291. But, somehow, it works with efficiency that has become a trademark, and as a nation continues to provide a standard of living for its residents envied by the world over. My first experience of the Italian part of Switzerland gave me no clearer answer – the architecture in the city of Lugano looked Italian, the people looked stylishly Italian, and, even with the low rain clouds closing in fast, Italy was plainly in view just across the other side of the lake. Lugano seemed nothing like the French side of Switzerland I lived in, nor the German side I visited semi-regularly.
But, looking harder, the streets were free of potholes, the lakeside was completely free of rubbish and there was a general feeling of orderliness that could never be confused for Italy. This really was still the same country I lived in.
The difference was obvious as soon as we crossed the border. The autostrade was a little bumpy and the fog became smog as we passed through the unsightly industrial core of northern Italy around Milan. Continuing on to Modena we got off the motorway and headed for the small town of Maranello and, with the afternoon fast disappearing, we looked straight away for a place to stay for the night. We found a centrally located and quite modern hotel, and the man at the reception desk proudly announced he had one last factory-view room. Now this wouldn’t usually be a selling point for most hotels, even in places like this where the manufacturing works is the focal point of the town. But then this is not your normal, bog standard factory. Since the 1940’s it has been manufacturing Ferraris, and from the balcony of our room we could look directly across the street to the factory’s front gates, where we would be presenting ourselves at 9am the next morning to go inside for a tour.
Hoges and I set out on foot to spend the evening exploring the small town, and in only a couple of minutes found ourselves in the town’s central piazza. It was a fairly uninspiring place surrounded by quite ugly mid-twentieth century buildings, but a buzzing crowd of a few thousand people was gathering to fill it. A giant screen was set up in one corner of the square in front of the municipal chambers, with the building’s frontage covered in its entirety by a large hoarding with the words “Grazie Schumi!”
We thought coming to Maranello for the Ferrari factory tour was incredible enough. But, remarkably, it had just got even better. The Brazilian Grand Prix, the last Formula One race of the season, was about to start. And we were in the spiritual heartland of the prancing horse to watch Michael Schumacher race for Ferrari for the very last time before retiring – with a chance at winning an eighth World Driver’s Championship and earning Ferrari the year’s Constructor’s Championship. Hoges and I looked at each other in disbelief.
That said, the chances of Michael Schumacher actually pulling it off were slim. He needed to win the race and Renault’s Fernando Alonso had to finish outside the points completely, and Schumacher was starting from tenth place on the grid. The Ferrari faithful were in full voice early on as he undertook a series of aggressive passing moves to lie in sixth place. But on lap 9 he was forced into the pits with a puncture, and all hope for the title was lost. Over the course of the race he still gave the Maranello crowd a lot to cheer about, coming back from last place to finish in fourth, and after the race was over the packed piazza was still running high with scarlet fever.
I may not follow Formula One anywhere near like I used to when I was a kid – and even then I was never a fan of Ferrari (my allegiance was to Nigel Mansell and the Williams team), but this night will still live long in my memory nonetheless.
Though it’s free of charge, not everyone can tour the Ferrari factory – there’s just the small matter of admission being limited to those who actually own one. But with Hoges the proud owner of a blue 1979 Ferrari 308 and a member of the Australian Ferrari Club, it had been a relatively straightforward process of cross-checking his chassis numbers and then setting a date to come.
Once inside the gates and his passport was checked, our cameras, phones and anything else capable of taking photos were locked away in the reception room and then we were transported by bus across to the far side of the factory site. But that was pretty much where the close supervision of the dozen or so owners and their guests ended. For the next few hours I was amazed how the tour guide didn’t seem to mind how far away we wandered from her in each area, and how the duration spent in each section was driven more by how long we were interested in staying rather than a pre-determined timetable. The only rule was that we weren’t to touch anything. I’m sure the workers hate it though, with these nosey visitors having so much freedom to get in their way while they’re trying to work.
With the Research and Development and Formula One sections strictly off-limits, the first stop after a brief introduction in a presentation room was the component processing area. Here in a very new and spacious building the employees were producing crank shafts, cylinder heads and cylinder blocks, with the factory floor also home to a dazzling collection of classic Ferrari models from various eras – intended to be an inspiration to the workers of the finished masterpieces they are each playing a part in creating.
After then passing through the paint shop, our next stop was in a much older and pokier part of the factory at the engine assembly room, where both V8 and V12 engines are built for all Ferraris and Maseratis. Then, having seen some of the parts being put together, we finished off at the car assembly area where each of the current F430 and 599 models progressed through the production line, starting out as mere skeletons and finally rolling off as the completed head-turners. The most frenetic movement came when the lunch bell rang and all the assembly workers piled out for the cafeteria, allowing us to wander up and down the production line and the inspection area for finished vehicles without risk of getting in their way.
Since leaving Australia for Europe over two years ago I’ve managed to see some things I would never have dreamed possible; the Northern Lights above the Arctic Circle in Norway (on two separate trips), thousands of troops assembling in Moscow’s Red Square in anticipation of a public anti-government demonstration and coming face-to-face with Hitler’s last surviving bodyguard at the site of his Berlin bunker, to name but three. But never, ever would I have imagined that I’d get to tour the manufacturing plant for Ferrari.
After leaving the factory we went to the nearby Galleria Ferrari, the museum open to members of the public. Name any generation of Formula One car or your favourite road car models and you’ll find them here. But despite how impressive it all was, I think Hoges and I had just seen a wider range of museum piece Ferraris on the factory floor. Ferrari seem to have saved the best vehicles for the pleasure and motivation of their employees going about their day-to-day work, and I liked that methodology a lot.
With the primary goal of our trip completed, we set out to spend the rest of the afternoon in Bologna. It was only 40km away via the back roads, but we wasted an enormous amount of time stuck in traffic en route, and barely halfway there decided to cut our losses, find an autostrade heading north and look around in Verona instead.
Once in the middle of Verona and crossing under the enormous Porta Nuova, a huge piazza opened up to form the forecourt to the third largest surviving Roman arena in the world. The first century open amphitheatre seating 20,000 was very impressive and Hoges and I explored it for quite some time. Though it now functions as Verona’s opera house, both of us independently came to the same conclusion that it could also be put to a slightly different, less Italian, use: Its mini-Melbourne Cricket Ground proportions were absolutely perfect for a game of backyard/park cricket with a large group of friends or extended family.
As it got dark we were walking against the tide of day-trippers pouring out of the streets away from Piazza delle Erbe, and we somehow missed Verona’s most famous tourist spot, Juliet’s mythical balcony from that Shakespeare play, in the small amount of time we had to meander the streets. But we had to press on because dinner was waiting.
Heading westwards to Brescia and then making for Iseo (a town on a lake of the same name) without any real idea of where we were going, we were hampered by heavy rain cutting our visibility. I was definitely fortunate enough that Hoges had asked for directions at a service station near Brescia (not something my pride normally allows), as that made spotting the turns we needed to make so much easier. Once in Iseo we met Hoges’ mate Gerry who was renting an apartment here for a couple of months, using it as a base for his family on an extended holiday, and who was toiling away to cook up a great feed for all of us.
Iseo seemed a pleasant enough little town in the morning, though the daylight didn’t help my spatial awareness much. Driving from the Bed and Breakfast we had stayed at back to Gerry’s, a parked truck took up most of the space in one of the town’s narrow laneways. Thinking I had comfortably enough space to get by it, it came as a rude shock to hear a loud scraping noise as the passenger side mirror and front wheel arch brushed the wall of a building. With the damage bill for that, on top of the speeding fines, fast turning this into a very expensive long weekend, I tried to be philosophical and remember that in the many times I’d hired a car this was the first time I’d ever damaged one. My number had to come up at some point, and it was probably a healthy way to have my driving self-confidence knocked down a peg.
Leaving the now badly scratched car outside Gerry’s, Hoges and I took the ferry across Lake Iseo to Monte Isola, Europe’s largest lake island.
Like Iseo, it was very quiet, and was an agreeable enough place to wander by the water and into the hills and sit around in the afternoon sun eating gelato. Lake Iseo certainly hasn’t caught on as a haven for Hollywood stars and rich retirees like nearby Lake Como, but I liked the fact it still retains a soul.
After returning to Iseo by ferry and having some more gelato with Gerry’s kids, I left Hoges there to spend a few more days in Italy and take in a car show at Monza. It was time for me to make the five hour drive skirting Milan, crossing back into Switzerland through a lonely and remote border post in the mountains, negotiating the Simplonpass to Brig and finally making it home to Geneva.
This gave me a lot of time to think about a suitable Christmas present for Hoges when I soon next saw him back in Sydney. I needed to find something meaningful that would wholeheartedly convey my gratitude for the incredible opportunity to go to the Ferrari factory with him, but I was racking my brains without success. And then I finally figured it out – such a thing had been there beside me the whole evening. The leftover Nelly Furtado CD would do nicely.