by Major J.M.B. Dove
This article is of particular interest in view of the fact that it may be possible to travel abroad again after May 1st. Two people on their allowance of £35 each, should be able to cope with a modified form of Continental Tour, for Major Dove last year travelled through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland and Italy, without undue economy, on an expenditure of £75. –Ed.
As we left Dover in “The Prince Baudoin” on August 12th last year, the objects of the trip, which was undertaken at short notice. were to have a motoring holiday on unlimited petrol and to see as much of Switzerland as possible in the short time available, without covering large daily mileages. The original plan to cover 200 miles a day on the way out and back but. to restrict other motoring to 100 miles a day was adhered to ; with a modern car and softer suspension greaterdistances could comfortably be covered. The car was a 1928 12/40-h.p. Lea-Francis with 90,000 miles to its credit, hereafter referred to as “Fanny,” which name will not be found engraved on its bonnet nor on any other part of its anatomy. I admit we took a few spares, but none of them were required and the only casualty was the battery, which developed a leak due to the buffeting it received ; see that your battery is firmly secured in its cradle. Otherwise no preparation was carried out on the car except that which any prudent motorist embarking on a similar journey would carry out, that is to say, she was thoroughly greased and everything that might work loose on bad roads was tightened up. A drum of Castro! oil was carried as we had been told horrible tales of the filth in French oil casually taken aboard at filling stations ; certainly French filling stations do not inspire confidence.
Sailing from Dover in the afternoon, after a thoroughly excellent lunch at the White Cliffs Hotel, Ostend was reached at dusk. The customs people there were a bit comic-opera, but freed us in time to permit Bruges to be reached that night. The Sablon Hatel was the first of many to offer a real welcome to the traveller arriving late and demanding breakfast at an indecently early hour. Bed and breakfast worked out at 16s 6d. Luxembourg was the next night’s objective and was comfortably reached after a run, of 203 miles, that varied from atrocious pave and war-torn tarmac to long fine stretches in the Ardennes. The latter must be a camper’s paradise ; the choice of delightful sites is quite embarrassing. It must, too, have been hard country to fight in and as you drive along you can almost see the ghosts of anxious American staff officers jeeping at high speed from General Bradley’s headquarters in the Alfa Hotel in Luxembourg towards Bastogne. Incidentally, if you want to see how rapid rebuilding of houses can be effected, go to Bastogne. Do you hear that, Mr. Bevan ? At Luxembourg the Continental Hotel provided a good harbour for the night, and, having partaken of hors d’oeuvres, river trout, a colossal steak, a peach melba and a bottle of red wine, one dropped off to sleep very nicely indeed. Bed and breakfast here cost 32s. 6d. Luxembourg is worth a longer visit, but to linger there was not on the agenda, and eight o’clock next morning found “Fanny” heading south again with a view to getting into Switzerland that night. This admirable plan was thwarted by the incredible inefficiency and prolonged lunch-hour of the gentleman who is supposed to organise tourist petrol arrangements in Nancy. Thanks to his efforts and also, I admit, to procrastination over an excellent but expensive lunch at the Grand Hotel, we wasted three hours in Nancy and by dusk had reached Besancon, when we seized upon (and quickly regretted) the first visible hotel. Never do this. Always make a tour first of the town before deciding where to stay ; it pays. The day’s run was 208 miles—latterly around Plombieres and Luxeuil-les-Bains through country which reminded one of Peeblesshire at its best. Incidentally, take not the direct route between these places but deviate by St. Loup, it saves both time and your springs, besides being a very pleasant deviation. France is incredibly shabby on the whole and poverty-stricken; it is not safe to leave a car unattended in most places. Whereas in Belgium you are constantly being passed by new American cars—Mr. Kaiser is doing very well—travelling at high speed with their wheels pattering like nobody’s business. In France you are all the time overtaking the most decrepit Citroens (11.4 and 7.5-h.p.), Donnets and Peugeots of the 1920s; how they manage to go is beyond my comprehension. The few new cars you see are usually driven by gentlemen of the type you see driving new and expensive cars in London.
We were off from Besancon at dawn and breakfasted at the Hotel Bell Abri in Ornans on delicious coffee, rolls. fresh butter and strawberry jam. This place was an unexpected oasis and, at peace with the world, we drove on through country that got less and less like France. You enter Switzerland and the feeling of being among friends prevails ; the roads immediately become good and even the cattle are clean, nothing is apparently in short supply and all property, whether a house or a car. is scrupulously maintained. The way in which the Swiss keep their cars is instantly striking. You seldom see a battered wing or an unclean vehicle, and even vintage machines are kept right up to pitch.
On through Lausanne we drove, and after some financial transactions in Montreux, and talking to a Parisian who was quite an authority on British vintage cars, we spent an hour by the lake before the last lap along the Rhone valley to Visp. Here the road to Stalden was taken and the winding, climbing, dusty way to Saas-Grund, where the car had to be abandoned and the last 40 minutes of the journey covered on foot up a mule track to Saas Fee. At this stage, “Fanny” had covered 670 miles without the slightest protest or fault and had consumed one quart of oil. She had three days’ rest, here while we idled in the mountain air. On the 18th we descended to the valley road again and headed for Brig. At Brig you must go In the Hotel Trois Couronnes et Poste ; apart from the fact that Mr. Ritz served his apprenticeship in it, it is typical of the very best Swiss hotels which cater for hungry travellers on a much-used highway, and lunch there was of such excellence that it took a lot of energy to get up and under way to tackle the Simplon Pass. This from Brig ascends steeply arid relentlessly from the word go ; it is dusty on the lower reaches and we met the whole of the Swiss Army (including its famous one tank) descending from manoeuvres. Despite all this and the intense heat, old “Fanny” really set about the Simplon, and although the thermometer needle momentarily registered 100 deg. C. she did not boil, and arrived at the Hotel de Fosse at Berisal (where her conductor felt the urge to take on board beer) completely cool and collected, which was in striking contrast to one well-known American sedan of modern vintage also halted there. That night saw us in Stresa and the day’s mileage was 72. The Albergo Italia housed us very adequately for two nights, and on the 20th we took the road for Lugano via Como and Cernobbio ; at this latter place we lunched at the Albergo Miralgo and the menu, to my recollection, was a mushroom omelette, a colossal mixed grill and iced pineapple, washed down with suitable wine. Lugano was reached early in the afternoon, after a day’s journey of 70 miles. Next time I go abroad, I shall go venire a terre to Lugano and stay there until satiation point is reached. As it was, we were only able to spend one night at the Albergo Walter, which besides being the most comfortable hotel (with one exception) we sampled, was also remarkably inexpensive ; the manager is a mountaineering enthusiast of some repute. Lugano has everything ; Italian architecture and people with Swiss ideas of plumbing ; magnificent arcaded streets which make shopping a pleasure, wet or fine ; a sweep who rides a vintage motorbike in a top-hat, and the most superb Rolls-Royce “Phantom I”, Sedanca I have ever seen.
We had to get on, and, reluctantly, next day “Fanny” headed for the Gothard Pass. On the lower reaches, at Faido, we lunched while the car rested under the shade of the trees. Refreshed, we went on and just climbed and climbed until a cloudburst near the top forced us to stop and put the hood up. The Gothard is gruelling and you seem to spiral upwards for ever, but the thermometer never rose above 95 deg. Gently we dropped down to Wassen via Andermatt and the famous Devil’s Bridge. At Wassen it was decided, in view of the weather, to leave the Susten Pass until next day, and we stayed very comfortably and expensively at an hotel the name of which escapes me. On this day we covered 82 miles.
From Wassen you embark on the Susten from the main street. This pass, constructed between 1938 and 1945, is a fine engineering achievement and the surface is good. It should cause no trouble to any adequately-cooled car, and we just toured up non-stop. A pleasant interlude on the way down the other side was a stop at the Hotel Steingletscher for beer ; they keep a tame goat there which has an urge to get into departing cars ; when thwarted, it just grunts, wags its rudder and meanders over to another car load. We lunched at the Albergo Brunig at Meiringen. I do not know if it adds to the delicacy of your trout to see it swimming about in a tank ten minutes before it appears on your plate, but ours were certainly delicious. Near here are the falls where Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty had their famous death struggle. After lunch, it really rained and the hills were cloud-hidden, so we drove on fast through Thun, Interlaken and Speitz to Berne, which was reached after a day’s mileage of 87. Berne, where we stayed very comfortably at the City Hotel near the station, must be the most beautiful capital in Europe. quite apart from its beauty, the shops are superb, and the choice of good places to eat and drink in is unlimited. The famous bear-pit was visited ; the bears must have cast-iron constitutions ; all -day they have tit-bits thrown to them. You must not blow your horn in Berne, with the result that traffic moves at a slow, well-disciplined speed. Why don’t we ban horn-blowing in our cities ? Basle was reached via Biel and Delemont. This is not the quickest route, but is picturesque and free from traffic. The Hotel Euler in the Station Square at Basle was extremely comfortable, and the day’s mileage was 75. We dined on the banks of the Rhine and found time to see a little of this lovely city. It deserved more time than we could spare. The motoring high-light in Basle was a 2-litre Ballot with an abbreviated two-seater body not unlike a certain H.E. known to me.
Before leaving Switzerland, another word about the Swiss and their cars. The astonishing thing is the way that they keep their vehicles. You seldom see a shabby car. Such widely differing vintage cars as Lancia “Lambdas” and Chrysler 70s are superbly hooded and painted. The Swiss object to the size of American cars and to their tendency to boil on the passes ; they like Standards and Wolseleys, especially the Eights. Of the pre-war era, you see many examples of F.I.A.T., Lancia and Mercedes Type 230. Service stations universally inspire confidence ; their standards are high ; so, too, are their charges.
Sadly we quit Switzerland and covered the 480 miles to Ostend in two days. We arrived back in England the evening they announced the abolition of the basic ration. Truly a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous.
A word about petrol on the continent. My low-compression engine thrived on Belgian and Swiss petrol, and even on the passes, with full advance, it was impossible to make it “pink.” In England it is extremely “pink-prone.” In Belgium and Switzerland, where petrol is unrationed, the price is about 4s. per gallon. In France, where it is rationed and occasionally of poor quality, the price is about 2s. 6d. We bought no petrol in Italy, where rationing is nonsense and if you only require a small quantity it is better to go to the black market than pay for a liberal ration book upon which there is no refund for unused coupons.
What did the trip cost ? Transportation of the car and driver to Ostend and back cost £22; the A.A. fixed all this with its usual efficiency. Over and above this, I spent £50 staying in good hotels and eating and wining without particular regard to economy. This figure included petrol, garaging, etc., and a few presents. Finally, a word about the old Lea-Francis. We covered 1,500 miles and it gave no trouble apart from oiling a plug due to descending the Simplon with an over-full sump. We cruised at 40 to 45 m.p.h. when road surface permitted, and used four pints of oil. It never boiled and at no time was it really necessary to top-up the radiator. The regular, untiring performance speaks volumes for the quality of it, and, as one Bernese admirer put it, “a car like this is a fine advertisement for British goods.” Since returning, it has been used as a hack every week-end, and last autumn, without any attention apart from plug cleaning, it won the 1,500-c.c. Class in the V.S.C.C. Risley Rally. Now, it must go into enforced retirement. I know that, like its owner, it looks forward to further expeditions abroad in happier days. Bravo “Fanny.”