Road Trip - Rome Via The Mont Blanc Tunnel

Posted: Monday, 23 September 2013 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,

As everyone seems to be getting all stoked up over the forthcoming ski season, I have  decided to step slightly outside of the remit of this blog and slip in some reportage from a recent trip to Rome. Why? because I got to see some real snow.
Normally, Rome is just a 2 hour flight from any of the London Airports, but for various reasons I was asked to take a van overland from the UK and back. This is a distance of around 1200 miles and at least a 2 day road trip in each direction.

There would be the chance to make an overnight stay in Ferney-Voltaire near Geneva, have dinner with my older sister, who has done so much to "sponsor" accommodation on my many trips to the Alps and also drive past my spiritual winter home.
The down side was that I wasn't going to be able to stop off and go walking or biking, it would be strictly a case of "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" whilst heading down the A40 Autoroute Blanche at a steady 65 mph. On the up side this would be my first journey through the Mont Blanc tunnel which cuts through the highest mountain in the European Union and was, for a time, the longest highway tunnel in the World.

View from inside a van whilst passing through the Mont Blanc tunnel
The Mont Blanc tunnel - once the longest highway tunnel in the World

The entrance to the tunnel on the French side is accessed by a huge long and very exposed viaduct, which winds it way up to the surprisingly high entrance at 1274m (over 4000 feet). On a calm and warm September morning it was blissful, but this must be a daunting place to wrangle a heavy goods vehicle in winter time. 
Once you have passed through the toll gates the journey is somewhat of an anticlimax, following a disastrous fire in 1999, speed and minimum distance restrictions are actively enforced. I rolled through at around 50 mph in my Iveco 3.5t van, always keeping the correct two blue marker lights distance from the truck in front. A discipline, I should add, sadly lacking in the Italian cars whizzing towards France bumper to bumper.
On the Italian side you catch a quick glimpse of Courmayeur before heading rapidly down the Aosta valley through a long sequence of smaller tunnels.

When in Rome... visit the colosseum

A week later with my job in Rome all done and dusted, it was time to head back in the reverse direction. This time, thanks to some clever wheeler dealing by my guvnor, we where both to make at overnight stop in the village of Pré-Saint-Didier some 10 Km from the tunnel at the charming Locanda Bellevue hotel.

View of Pré-Saint-Didier and a backdrop of mountains in the early evening
Pré-Saint-Didier at dusk

I have to confess that I had never heard of Pré-Saint-Didier but it is just below the much better known ski resort of Courmayeur. The village itself is very quaint and much larger than it first appears from the main road, it reminded me a little of Andorra, where every last scrap of free space has some or other vegetable or fruit growing on it. It must have been a very poor and isolated place before the tunnel opened, made Geneva a little over an hour's drive away and brought a steady stream of tourists eager to ski, hike and soak in the thermal baths.
Having made a little exploration, we returned to the Locanda Bellevue hotel and enjoyed a great evening meal, most notable was the starter; a mountain stew of broad beans, dumplings and croutons covered with a thick coating of melted cheese. I had just enough room left for a jumbo salad and some wine, but desert would have been a bridge too far.
Other diners seemed to have no problem making their way through piles of typical mountain fare; cold meat platters, cheeses, roasted joints and being Italy, pizzas and ice cream too.

A splendid view of the Mont Blanc from a window at the Locanda Bellevue hotel
Locanda Bellevue hotel - room with a view

The following morning, it was a crisp 8 degrees as I departed, a far cry from the 28 degrees it had been in Rome. There had been fresh snow higher up on the Mont Blanc, I stopped just by the tunnel on the French side to grab a few snaps then headed homeward. I struggled against the pull as I passed Cluses, the exits for the Portes du Soleil and The Grand Massif, this was work, pleasure will come later this year.

View of the peak of the Mont Blanc through a pine forest
Fresh snow on the Mont Blanc