I spent the first month of this summer driving a van through the Italian Alps. It is a beautiful place to be driving. Anyone who has driven through the Sudtirol will know what I mean. Weaving through cobbled streets under shuttered windows and tiled roofs and past colourful painted churches and frescoed shops. Listening to the clang of cow bells as they wonder off, a troop of windchimes, to Summer Pasture. Seeing vast meadows of wild flowers and bright mountain lakes still overlooked by snowy capped peaks.
I loved zooming past and catching sight of little mountain streams, glinting like ribbons of molten silver, snaking their way through the country side. Admiring the thick clouds, seemingly at eye level, clinging protectively to their forested slopes. Shooting past innumerable precariously placed castles and churches, or spotting them silhouetted in the distances.
However, this post is not about these perfect fairytale places. It is about driving.
I had heard stories about driving on the 'Continent': Of getting muddled at roundabouts, of forgetting to 'stick to the right', of knocking unsuspecting cyclists off their bikes with fast approaching wing mirrors. Believe me, I was scared. Especially once it hit me that not only would I be driving in Europe (in Italy - notorious for its somewhat 'unpredictable' driving), on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car, but worse - my vehicle would be a VAN. A large white van. A large white van SOMETIMES WITH PASSENGERS . Oh brother.
Needless to say, I survived and I quickly got the hang of it. I did however, learn a couple of very important lessons on the journey.
Lesson one: Alpine roads can be very, very exciting. Spiralling down a mountain side, making hairpin turn after hairpin turn is enough to keep even the most confident driver on their toes. Throw in gorges and fast rushing rivers, driving in the Alps can definitely be exhilarating to say the least.
Lesson two: After driving through a tunnel for 7km, it is easy to believe that you may never see the light of day again. I personally started to forget what it was like to drive anywhere else than down this long, lonely, underground pass.
Lesson three: Sometimes people do the darndest things. Like stopping at a red light and then two minutes later losing patience and going for it anyway. Or over taking three lorries and a terrified white van on a blind hairpin bend. I found that the best thing to do was assume that people would be random and make up their own rules and to drive as though everybody was about to unexpectedly do a U-turn.
Lesson four: On long long journeys, from Verona to Munich say, your SatNav can be your best (and only) friend. I named mine Sandra. She was a bit rude at times - she never said please and was kind of abrupt and scathing when I went wrong. But she kept me company and had a hilarious accent when she tried to attempt Italian place names. Oh Sandra....
Lesson five: If you're driving a white van, people often expect you to be a grumpy man. This results in the following: a) People are sometimes more aggressive with you when driving. b) Toll booth people double take when they see your heart shaped pink sunglasses. c) Often people laugh at you when you pull your manoeuvre face. You get used to this though.
Lesson six: When you introduce yourself as VANhelsig with a wink, very few people actually find it funny.
Lesson seven: Italian people seem to respect you more once you have a couple of dents in your vehicle.
Lesson eight: Italian people are also some of the most generous people I have met. Always eager to give you encouragement, advice or directions (3/4 people I asked for directions even had a pad of paper and a pen in their pockets seemingly for this purpose!?). When reversing or turning particularly tight corners, smiling Italians would gesture and beckon to give me a hand. And on one particularly tearful day, one Italian lady gave me a hug and a glass of water, while another man got into my van and executed one of the most expert 12-point turns in a tiny street that I have ever and will ever see.
Lesson nine: It is possible to get travel sick even if you are in the driver's seat.
Lesson ten: Going back home to your little Peugeot on the left side of the road takes even more adjusting to.
SO tell me, do you have any driving-related escapades to share? How do you find adjusting to driving on the 'wrong side' of the road?
Also a big shout out to my brother's band, Wolf Choir, for the beautiful music in the video at the start. The song is called 'Marco's Study' and is available to download here for free, or however much you want to pay.