Wednesday….. First job of the morning is to have a coffee, it’s a must before anything. If the coffee is good, then the day will be good, but if the coffee is bad, lets not even think about that one. Once coffee had been consumed and a brief chat to the other PTM drivers who were in the yard at this late hour of the morning, I did a quick check of the lights and filled out a tacho and we were off. Well, to Basingstoke at least where I was to load 24 pallets of pharmaceuticals to go to Prato, just outside Florence in Italy. Once in Basingstoke I was politely informed that I was an hour ahead of my booking time so would have to wait until 11 o’clock before being loaded. Once the cab had been polished and windows cleaned the pleasant young girl waved me onto a loading bay and within an hour I was sealing the shutter door of the Tri-Axle Fruehauf box and I was away. A quick satellite message from Peter in the office confirmed I was shipping out P & O, which made a nice change from Norfolk line, our most common way across the channel. A trouble free run round the M25 was only blighted by the numerous phone calls from other drivers taking the P**** that I would’** be home for the weekend, again!, I think it was just jealousy but they did have a point, only a month into the year and already I had been weekended three times. Soon enough Dover harbour came into view as we dropped down the hill on the M20 and after a short queue for a weighbridge i was booking myself onto 1530 to Calais. Nothing changes with P & O and the Aquataine rolled into Harbour at 1545 and after disembarking the incoming vehicles I was eventually waved onto the upper deck. One thing P & O has to be commended on is the quality of its drivers lounge, waiter service, cutlery all laid out for you, decent coffee and the prices are good too. Less than £3.50 got me a large steak with all the trimmings and quite a few cups of coffee. A quick read of a newspaper and the captain announced we were arriving in Calais. Being one of the first on the upper deck means almost first off, and I was up and away before some drivers were back to their vehicles. Out onto the A16 heading for Brussels, I decided to go down Via Lille for a change, it makes little time difference when your heading for Luxembourg but I fancied a change. Once round Lille and across the border into Belgium the traffic thinned out, so much so, that at one point I even thought the road had been shut and I missed the signs. After that it was a straightforward run through Belgium and down towards Lux, as the signs loomed for Habay at junction 29 my timer went off to indicate four and a half hours were up. As I pulled in to the over crowded truck stop there were lorries everywhere trying to find a space to park. As I was only after somewhere to have 45 minutes I decided to press on for the border, 10 minutes down the road. I had been hoping to get my transit T-form made up tonight but as soon as I saw all the lights in the Douane’s building off, I knew it would have to wait until morning. As I pulled the curtains closed I gave a little thought to tomorrow and what lay ahead. Lets hope the morning’s coffee is a good one.
Thursday….. The Alarm stirred me from my sleep at 0545, and knowing that time today was of paramount importance I was up within minutes, and after a brief wash in the barely worthy of the name washroom, I headed back to the cab for the all important first coffee. Coffee finished I sorted my paperwork and went across to the Douane’s office. Although I was off to Italy which is in the EC, I had to transit Switzerland which isn’t, it was no hardship after showing the officer my CMR and parting with 28 euro’s it was across to the Belgian Douane for a quick stamp of the form and then back to the first office for a quick double check and then we were issued with a transit T-2 form. Formalities complete it was back to the cab for another quick coffee before filling out a tacho, firing up the big Volvo and I was away, well for at least 300 metres at least as no sooner had I pulled away than the traffic came to a halt, mainly due to the trucks queuing to get into the large BP garage at Cappelen to take advantage of the cheap fuel. Not to be left out I decided rather than sit in the traffic to follow suit and to my utter amazement found an empty pump as soon as stopped. 906 litres of fuel later and I was back on the road, the traffic seeming to flow a bit better now, I passed through Lux without any further hold ups and headed down towards Metz and on to Nancy. As I passed the A4 turn it was though a magnet was trying to pull me down there as it is the normal route to Switzerland but as we were only transiting I had to opt for the scenic route. On the south side of Nancy I picked up the signs for Besancon and the N57 and for the first 100km or so it’s a good fast moving road. But then it narrows down to single track and roundabout’s which slow the whole game down a bit, but even so, I was making good time. About 20 km before Lure the road splits, both directions are signed Besancon and both are signed with a 3.8m bridge. Knowing that I am 4.1m this causes slight concern, but I turn left and head for Lure, in the hope of cutting out Besancon as I have heard it’s a pain in the arse to transit through. At Lure the whole town is signed up 3.5t weight limit, but I find a road that doesn’t have that sign on it, driving into the unknown I discover that of all the roads this one should definitely have a weight limit on it as it’s a housing estate, but I continue on and eventually find signs for the D486 to Villersexel. Back out onto the 486 and it’s a good road, and the steady stream of trucks coming the other way seem to indicate so, however, things do get a bit tight going through Villersexel, but nothing yours truly could not cope with. I pick up the D50 heading towards Baume and although it was pretty tight in places, this was not my main concern. The weather, which until now had gone un-noticed, had turned wintry. Once into Baume it was just a matter of following the signs for the D50 and we were out the other side in no time at all. It was at this point I noticed a rather large mountain in front of me and it didn’t take Einstein to figure out I was going to have to go over it. Having only a touch over 3t on helped progress no end but there was a couple of hair raising moments in the snow as some local petrol tankers thought they owned the road, but other than that it was quite a pleasant drive through the white countryside. A quick check on time revealed I was close on needing 45 minutes but had a problem. All lay by’s and parking areas were shut because of the snow so it was not through choice I pressed on until I found the first available place to stop, shortly after rejoining the N57 at Besancon. 45 minutes later and we were away, time was dwindling away and I needed to be in Italy tonight, preferably down by Genova but that might be a tall order. By this time the snow was getting thicker as I approached the Swiss border crossing at Vallorbe. A quick stop to lower the air suspension to make sure we were under the Swiss height limit of 4 metres and I made my way down the slippery slope into the customs park. Having never been through Vallorbe before it took me a few minutes to sort out where to go for what, but a very helpful Swiss customs man pointed in me in the right direction and within 15 minutes I was out on the road to Lausanne, pausing only to level the suspension once clear of the border. This would not be the only time on this trip I would have to do this. Once into Switzerland the snow started to disappear quite quickly, which came as a surprise being January. As I approached Lausanne I started to see the signs for Simplon and Milano, it just a shame they put the distance on them as I thought I was making good time! As you drop down the hill from Lausanne to Vevey the view is superb. For those who don’t know, Vevey overlooks Lake Geneva and I came from the highest point overlooking it at sunset, it was out of this world. But no time to stop for sight seeing, I still had kilometres to cover and rapidly running out of time to cover them in. At Vevey you can fork off left for Bern and the north, or go right for the south and Italy, so after heading south for a few kilometres you start to get signs telling you if your chosen route south is open, or in the worst case is shut. The Simplon Pass was open but proceed with caution was order of the day. Having never been over it that is what I had intended to do anyway. With a little over 2 hours driving time left I started to pick up the signs for Brigg and Visp, but strangely not the Simplon. Then one would appear, but then you would not see one for what seemed like forever. Eventually after going through the town centre’s of both Brigg and Visp I came to the sign I had been waiting for, SIMPLON PASS – RIGHT. I duly swung the big Volvo right and started to climb the mountain. Having only 3 and a half tonnes in the back aided progress somewhat and just as I started to wonder what all the fuss about the Simplon pass was, when I saw another sign, SIMPLON PASS – 18km. Right I thought, 18km of this terrain, than 18km down the other side, now I understand. As we started to climb some more the snow started to get heavier, then came the hairpin bends, this was more like what I was expecting! The further up I got the colder it got and at one point the in cab temperature gauge was down at -12 degrees. Most of the uphill sections of the Simplon are two lane, but not two lane as we know them, imagine the narrowest two lane street where you live and put two lorries overtaking on it. Now your somewhere close. As I reached the top of the pass there were two or three lorries travelling at very slow speed and it was with some ease I overtook them. Quite fortunate really as it then went back to single track each way for a few very steep kilometres. I was’** really prepared for how steep the downward section was going to be and all I could do was thank god I had Volvo’s magnificent engine brake fitted to my truck, as it made this section so much easier as I didn’t keep having to use the service brakes therefore keeping them cool for when they were really needed. Soon enough I started to see signs for Gondo, my point of entry into Italy. On Arrival in Gondo it struck me that were no Italian Douane, only Swiss. On asking the Swiss official if there were any, he replied “ Funf Kiolmetre” pointing down the mountain. A quick stamp and check of mileage from the Swiss side and I was off to the Italian side five kilometres away. Now, when the reach the Italian side, there is no parking areas, just abandon your truck by the side of the road and walk in. Here they wanted to see my passport, driving licence and all the documents relating to my load. After a brief moment of feeling like I had done something terribly wrong, I was handed back my passport, licence and papers I was on my way. The road from Gondo to the Autostrada at Varzo is horrid, potholes and bumps. It seemed to go on forever. Once on the Autostrada I picked up the signs for Alessandria and Genova, which was the point I realised I was not going to make either of these places tonight. Genova was 237 kilometres away and I had just under an hour left to drive. I cracked on for about 80 kilometres before finally calling it a day at a service area about 20km from Sesia. With how dangerous Italy is for the British Drivers, I went through the truck park and parked on the Garage forecourt. At least it was open 24/7 so I had some comfort in the fact that I could be seen by the attendant at all times. As I pulled the curtains closed I thought about tomorrow and if I would make it out of Italy tomorrow as I had planned.
Friday….. The Alarm went off at 0400 but I was already up with the kettle on. After coffee I ventured outside to do the morning checks and to check the trailer had not been broken into. Once they were complete, it was back to the cab and I fired up the Volvo leaving it to warm up for 10 minutes while I made another coffee and filled out a tacho. With the temperature gauge reading well below zero I headed out onto the Autostrada and for Genova, mindful of the fact that if I could not make Prato in four and half hours then I would not be leaving Italy today. As I got closer to Genova on the A26 it becomes a series of tunnels through the mountain as we dropped down towards the city, once onto the Genova Ring road I picked up the signs for Livorno and then Firenze. I had done nearly two and a half hours driving by the time I cleared Genova. Then I saw a sign saying Firenze 173 km, now knowing Prato was 15km this side of Firenze it made it possible I could make it in two hours, but it would be close. When you are in a rush and counting down the minutes things seem to take forever, there were overtaking bans on hills and in tunnels, roadworks, traffic. You name and I saw it. But I was still making reasonably good progress. Just past La Spezia the road splits off, the A11 to Firenze, or the E80 to Rome. As I came off for Firenze I had to stop to pay the toll attendant. As I handed over my VIA card, she swiped it but it did not work, so she did it again and again but still nothing. She was asking me to pay it in cash, but 124 euros I did not have. I offered the Shell card or the UTA but they took neither. Finally, just as I was going to pull through the Toll booth and over to talk to the Polezi I put the card into the automatic card reader and bingo, it worked, but it was nearly 10 minutes wasted. Once up to speed again the signs told me I was 88 kilometre from Firenze, but there was an accident at Prato East, the turning I needed. About 10 km from Prato I pulled into the service area and consulted Auto route on the best way into Prato. As it turned out, the road I was looking for, Via Albert Einstein was a main road and by following the road I was on straight through Prato would bring me straight to it. True to its map, 10 minutes later Autoroute again proved an invaluable investment as the large Eli Lilly building appeared on the right hand side. A quick check of the vehicle at the security office and I was directed round to bay 9. Almost as soon as I had backed on there was somebody on the back of the vehicle and tipping me. I wandered inside and within 45 minutes I was signed up and off before 11am. Now I was tipped it was time to find out about the reload,just at that point the satellite beeped into life with reload details. First reload point was Figline Valdarno, a small town about 120 km south from where I was now. I was due to load steel coils from the Pirelli tyre factory for Burton upon trent here, the back up to Sesto Fiorentino to load shoes for Northampton. After working my way back to the Autostrada I haeded south on the A1 towards Rome and Naples, making a mental note of the very large traffic jam heading north for when I came back. Flashes and waves were exchanged with a group of English drivers heading for home, the CB crackled into life “PTM you on Channel”, a short exchange of traffic info, and friendly banter with the Northbound drivers and I continued south. The one thing that still stands out on the Italian run is the camaraderie that still exists between the English drivers. In Germany and France you can pass quite a few English trucks and not one will raise a hand to acknowledge you are there. Shortly afterwards, I came off the Autostrada and onto the signposted route into Figline. As i went through the town of Incisa Valdarno I drew some strange looks, perhaps it was they had never seen an English truck, or that an English truck was this far south on a Friday. Whatever there reason, it did not deter me from carrying on through their town. After about 10 kilometres the large Pirelli factory came into sight on the right hand side, and after stopping at security, I was informed they were on lunch, and to return at 1400(local time). Now this is where the day started to go wrong. I pulled over the road to a small parking area and wandered into the small Garage/Bar. 5 Euros got me a coffee and Cheese sandwich and I sat with the locals, who in broken English wanted to know where in England I was from etc etc. They were friendly enough and I returned to the cab to give it a good clean inside while I waited. At exactly 1400 I pulled across the gate and was waved in, once inside I reported to the office, where a lady who spoke excellent English told me to pull alongside the weighbridge and wait. After doing as I was told and waiting an hour or so, I went back to the office and asked how long I would be, the lady replied with a typically English answer “how long is a piece of string”. There is no answer to that so after coaxing a coffee from the antique coffee machine I went back to the cab. A knock at the door was George, who worked for Sigma Transport out of Milton Keynes. He was also loading for Burton, but had to load another drivers load too, and take to Sesto, but it was too heavy. Could he put 4 pallets on my trailer to take to Sesto for him. I had no problem with that as I was going that way anyway. While we were waiting George and I got talking, he told me Sigma was a new business in Milton Keynes, run by a Greek guy. He pays George 900 euros a trip and george can do 3 trips a month. George is Greek, and every 4th trip his boss sends him to Greece so he can have a few days at home before coming away for another month. George told me it is better for him to do this as in Greece truck driving is poorly paid. As we were talking the fork truck driver appeared along with an electric pump truck and someone else to operate it. Within an hour I was loaded and went in to collect my CMR’s and paperwork. It was when I came out of the office I had a problem, the centre axle on my tractor unit had a flat tyre, and there was no way I could lift it up as I had 19 tonnes of steel coils on the back. A call to peter in England didn’t help much either. He had a point though, once a tyre company got wind there was an English truck with a flat tyre it would cost us a fortune on a Friday afternoon to get it sorted. I was instructed to sort it somehow, or if needs be take the wheel off and run home without it on. This, to me was not an option. I went back inside and the lady was very helpful. She knew a tyre fitter and instructed me to drop my trailer on the car park and gave directions to his yard. With the trailer dropped and the axle now up I made my way to Incisa. Her directions were spot on as I found the tyre company without any problems. Once inside, the staff were helpful enough and although they did not speak English I managed to get across I did not want a new tyre, only repair this one. Once it was repaired we had to settle the cost, which started at 75 euros. As I had already thought he would take any currency I had locked my English and some euros in the cab’s safe, so only had 65 euro’s on me. I managed to get him down to 50 euros after gesticulating that I would not be able to eat and the bloke seemed to take pity on me. Once back on the road I had to go back for the trailer, but by now it was rush hour and it took forever to get back for my trailer. Once back to the garage I coupled up and a quick check round and I was off again, but having lost 3 hours in total, I was not even going to make it out of Prato tonight, which meant not getting home until Tuesday. Back onto the A1 north and traffic was flowing well, I made good time and pulled into Sesto only to find 3 trucks in front of me, all waiting to load for England. The most annoying part was though, I had been in front of them all at Pirelli but due to the flat tyre they had all beaten me to Sesto. George was there too and we had coffee and a chat about the best route home. I was coming back through Frejus, whereas George was getting the train out of Novarra into Germany then driving. As it was going to be a while before I was loaded I asked the staff to give me a knock when I was done. The knock at the door came at about 2030, and after sealing and padlocking the trailer and signing the CMR’s I was heading for home, well to be more precise the nearest service area to park for the night as time was almost up, a goodnights sleep was needed as tomorrow was going to be a long day.
Saturday…. The alarm clock makes its unwelcome noise and wakes me from a deep slumber, realising time is of the essence today I am soon enough out of bed and got the kettle on whilst getting dressed and doing the usual morning walkround to check everything is where it should be and more importantly, making sure the seal and padlock are intact. Coffee consumed and tacho filled out and inserted I am ready for the off. Once out on the deserted Autostrada the 460 Volvo purrs along, taking the majority of the Italian climbs with little more than half a split, that is until I reach Genoa some two and half hours after setting off. For those who don’t know, Genoa is a Port Town on the Mediterranian coast of Italy, and its road system is made up for hundreds of tunnels carving there way through the mountainside. Some of the hills around Genoa really need to be seen to be believed, but take my word for it, the 460 struggled on some of them. The final climb came just after the motorway splits for Nice, and for Turin and Alessandria, bearing right for Turin you start to climb, and continue to climb for what must be the best part 10 kilometres, halfway up I overtake a very well laden British plated Mercedes Sprinter, with three of them in the drivers cabin, I hope they are not going to England like that. Once over the top normal service, and more importantly cruise control is resumed. A quick stop for a call of nature and I continue further on and just before Alessandria I split off for Turin and Frejus. Normally coming back from Italy I would be instructed to come back through Swiss, but you can’t get T forms made up on a Saturday morning to transit so I am told to come Frejus, which in all honesty is a lot easier and less aggravation. Once past Turin I stop for a break, bracing myself for the big climb up to the toll’s at the entrance at the Frejus Tunnel. Each truck passing through any of the tunnels or passes into Italy must display a Euro 1/2/3 emissins sticker in the windscreen of the truck, which tells the toll booth operative which class you are and how much to charge you. If your truck does not have one of these you have to stop and have you truck catogorized by Tunnel officials at a service area about 5km’s before the tunnel entrance. As it was early Saturday morning, the tunnel was quite quiet, usually you get lots of skiers heading into the Alps for a day on the slopes, but luckily I had missed them this morning. Due to the fire in the Mont blanc tunnel a few years back, there is now an obligotry 60km/h speed limit in the tunnel, and all trucks must be 150m apart when passing through the tunnel. The view from the tunnel upon exit is nothing short of breathtaking as you look down upon the small town of Fourneaux, which sits right in the foothills of the Alps. As you descend the French side of Frejus, the road cuts and weaves through the mountains for about 5km, and the Volvo engine brake was working hard to keeps it below 90km/h. Once back on the level, I pulled into the first service area for a call of nature and some lunch, as it was almost 1200. A quick calculation of time and driving hours, I worked out that I could just about make the BP at macon, if I had a good run through Chambrey. Back out onto the French motorway, with the cruise set at 57mph, I took in the brathtaking scenery whilst making undeterred progress towards Chambery and Lyon. However, as we know, all good things come to and end, and my good luck was about to run out. About 15km short of Chambery, the traffic, which had been light all the way, came to an abrupt halt. One of Pulleyn’s Drivers informed me over the CB that it was stop start all the way to Chambery then eases off a bit towards Lyon. My plan to reach Macon was all of a sudden looking very unlikely. All I could do was sit and crawl with the rest of the traffic watching the time tick by and not being able to do anything about it. Once onto the Chambery ring road, things picked up a little, and gradually the further away we got the better faster flowing the traffic got until we were back up to speed, but all that had cost me the best part of an hour. As you approach Lyon the signs tell you that all traffic over 7.5t is banned from transiting so onto the ring road you go, which at 1400 on a saturday afternoon is pretty busy. It didn’t help that two cars had come together, causing all traffic to filter through one lane, but once passed that everything quickly got back to normal. Back onto the A6, it was into the first service area for the compulsory 45 minute break. Just as I am readying myself to leave, a Spanish Wagon and Drag pulled alongside me and wanted some directions to his Tuesday morning Delivery Address in Barking. A quick look at the London Map found his Delivery address, and after drawing a map, he left a happy man. I had 49 minutes driving left, so reaching Macon was out of the question, so all that I could do was run my time out and stop at a suitable place for my legal break, which as it happened turned out to be a Service area I have stopped at before and was not too bad. As today was my sixth day, I had to have 24hours off at least. After parking up on the garage forecourt, for security reasons, I made the decision to leave at 0000 Sunday night, and make for the train, but therein lies another story.