We went to bed with cold wind belting rain against the side of our van, and woke to pretty much the same conditions. Thankfully, the car wasn’t shaking, and the wind wasn’t howling, so we slept just fine. Also, I’m happy for cooler temperatures at night – much more enjoyable.
We checked weather again, and it still showed poor weather for the next week in Zermatt. It’s an expensive place, and we don’t want to spend money and not have amazing views. We had an amazing day here in February, admiring the beauty of the Matterhorn from the comfort of skis/snowboard. Maybe we’ll be back another time to see it and some lakes in summertime.
We also visited some of the amazing villages that are tucked up high in the valleys here when we visited in February. It was a torturous drive in our rental car, so I’m not going to put Gunter through the same!
It was an anticlimactic way to finish in Switzerland, but we’d had a good time, and we have a long journey ahead of us – so we decided to keep on going. As it was the last time we’ll be in Switzerland, we had to spend the remainder of our Swiss Francs. I was going to spend the ~30CHF on things we needed, like food/fuel, but I walked past H&M… and ended up with some (needed) new clothes, which cost far more than the ~30CHF I needed to spend.
Grand Saint Bernard Pass
We are roughly headed towards Val d’Isere, and we decided to head back via the Aoste Valley in Italy. This meant crossing over two large mountain passes. The first of which is the Grand St. Bernard Pass, which is around 2500m.
I’ll admit, I was anxious about punishing our poor van over yet another torturous mountain pass, but it was surprisingly easy. There were only a few points that the gradient pinched hard enough that we had to use 1st gear. There is a tunnel that avoids the final steep section, but it’s expensive, and you miss the best views. With the cold weather, the engine temperatures never rose too high, which makes me much more comfortable pushing on the climbs.
This is where the fun ends. I stopped to take a photo of one of the small streams that were flowing next to the pass, and when I continued driving, I noticed that the brake pedal was solid. There wasn’t really anywhere convenient to investigate, so I continued on the final ascent, some further 300m above. These final set of switchbacks were by far the steepest.
At the top of the pass, I pulled in to a large car park by the hotel, and the brakes were still rock solid. They worked, but only if you pushed your hardest. We were now 2500m above sea level, and were facing the prospect of travelling down some 1800m in a 2,500kg van, without power-assisted brakes. At least the van is manual, so we could engine brake, but having not driven the pass before, I don’t know how steep the descent is – or how safe it is to drive without power-assisted brakes.
I investigated the braking system, and in the process learnt a great deal about how it works. As far as I could tell, our vacuum pump was broken – though, pulling it apart (I love how simple our engine is), I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t making vacuum.
It was incredible that it was snowing while I was out there pulling things apart in the engine. Perfect.
We decided to call ADAC (German roadside assistance), who sent a local mechanic up to investigate. They agreed, the power-assistance was broken, but they said they couldn’t do anything at the top of the mountain (they arrived in a Land Rover, rather than a tow truck). He drove our van back towards Martigny, showing me that it’s OK to drive without the power-assistance, just being careful and braking early.
He was honest, and said that it would be quicker (and cheaper) to repair in Italy, since it’s an Italian car. He took us back down as far as the tunnel entrance, which he suggested we take, as it avoided the steeper descent on the Italian side.
It was late, so we left the van on the side of the pass, and mulled over our options for the morning.
By finishing our drive early tonight, we had time to watch a movie – we continued the Alien franchise, with Alien 3. It’s been decades (quite possibly) since I’d seen it, and I didn’t understand the hate that gets thrown at it. It’s not terrible, but agreed, it’s nothing compared to Alien/s – though I could have spent my evening doing many more useful things. OK, the CGI alien looked terrible – but so did the man in the costume in the original! I’m a sucker for punishment, so the next will likely be Alien Resurrection…
It didn’t look like the mechanic had any problems driving us back down the Swiss side of the pass, and with the tunnel being so expensive, we decided to drive up and over ourselves. This was helped by the morning being beautifully clear and sunny. Unsurprisingly, there was fresh snow on the higher peaks – today is June 30. We saw that there were weather reports predicting snow in Zermatt, which I now believe.
As we were preparing to leave, a large van with two giant St. Bernards arrived. Risa saw a couple last night while I was trying to fix the car. We just assumed that the tourist office kept a few around, because, you know, St Bernard Pass. We posed with them, cuddled them, and fell in love with their enormity. They were truly like walking teddy bears!
We tacked the pass again, this time it seemed much quicker/easier. The clouds were already starting to gather in the skies by the time we’d made it to the summit of the pass, but there were still fantastic views. The winds were still chilling, even with the sun, and my choice to wear shorts and thongs may have been ill advised.
We noticed a few more St. Bernards up on top of the pass. We couldn’t resist taking more photos (and more cuddles). The German owner explained to us that this weekend they are having a special gathering, with up to 280 dogs expected in Martigny! We definitely thought about driving back down to Martigny to see this festival tomorrow…
We crossed back into Italian soil and slowly made our way towards the valley floor. The road was much flatter on this side, and we had no problems at all. We were nearly able to get by with engine braking alone.
All this time I’d been so focused on the descent being scary and dangerous – something about staring down giant drops from sharp corners. It wasn’t until we’d arrived in Aoste that I realised that the true danger comes from driving in a city… It was a great quad workout, but we were just fine with the occasional sudden stop.
In typical fashion, I’d forgotten all about Italian lunch breaks – and we arrived at 12PM. There were several mechanics in town, but they were all going to be shut for the next 2hours…
In an odd turn of events, Risa fancied a pizza lunch – and I’ll never say no to pizza. Finding one that was open was another challenge. Most of the ones that we tried to get to were shut – it seems the town is quite seasonal. We did find a decent Napoli-style pizzeria, with prices that weren’t too far from Naples (only double).
I stupidly left my camera in the van, as I thought we’d be eating nearby. We ended up in the centre of town, walking around Roman ruins, and beautiful old streets – and all the while surrounded by huge snowy mountains. It was a large town, and quite industrial/residential in places, but the centre was pretty, and the views of the surrounding mountains were epic.
After lunch, we went to the auto parts shop, who unsurprisingly didn’t have any new pumps in stock – but they understood the problem, and escorted us to a wreckers. It took them 20 minutes to find a spare, and a further 5 minutes for me to swap them and we were back on the road! And for a grand total of €40 – I think we got lucky this time.
Today will be the last time we visit Italy on this trip, so we stocked up on Italian food (pasta/risotto) before crossing back into France. We’ve found the little risotto packs perfect for an easy dinner, only requiring some water – though, usually spruced up with some fresh ingredients. But, it’s the fresh (and cheap) pasta and sauces that I’ll miss the most.
Small Saint Bernard Pass
Once again, we had to cross mountains to cross borders. And strangely, once again, the pass was named Saint Bernard (after the Saint who had hospices on these two passes to help travellers), though this was the smaller of the two. We actually skied/snowboarded here earlier in the year, when visiting Val d’Isere, from La Rosiere to La Thuile, so I was looking forward to seeing it in summer-mode.
It was surprisingly easy going, even easier than the Grand St. Bernard Pass, with gradients that never really stretched Gunter, just long sequences of switchbacks along perfectly sealed (and wide) tarmac. Light was fading, and the weather was closing in. The wind was picking up, and once again temperatures were rapidly dropping. The scenery was wild up here, with small series of rapids leaving white stains down the mountainside. The foothills of Mont Blanc were there, not too far away, with the peak of Europe safely tucked away behind clouds.
Since we’re self-contained, we stopped at the summit and cooked dinner, enjoying the views into France, and back down into Italy. The sun set never happened, but the rain that were threatening remained at bay a little longer.
It was a long and windy descent into the French side, never seeming to get any lower, yet seemingly doing just that. Now it was the same familiar road into Val d’Isere, with that long constant climb – and this time we’re the slow car on the road. We’re going to spend a few days here, mountain biking, hiking, and relaxing with our friend.