To the Alps by uber-jeep

Progeny pressure is a terrifying thing, because it never lets up. Daddy daddy daddy …. please please please …. why why why

Why, in this instance, could we not keep the Volvo XC90 I had borrowed for the family ski holiday?   

Well, I explained, the Volvo costs a lot of money.

“What about Poppy? She loves it and she wasn’t able to come skiing so she hasn’t had her turn. It’s not fair.”  I’m sorry, our dog does not need a Volvo XC90.  

“But it’s got a box in the door that’s exactly the right size for my CDs,” said my son George. 

“Yes, and it’s got MY booster seat.”  George’s sister is convinced that the whizz kid designers at Volvo had her alone in mind when they made the hinged seat that pops up to form a bouncy high chair in the middle of the back seat, a perfect control tower for the back seat driver who likes nothing better than to tell her father he’s going to prison for doing thirty two in a thirty limit. 

“Yes, and mummy likes it because we can put the cheese and your socks in the ski box so they don’t stink the car out, and you like it because it’s got the map machine for you to play with while you’re driving.”

It’s true: like all Sat-Nav novices I took childish delight in my new toy and drove all the way to St Anton without feeling the need to play a single note of music on the XC90’s nightclub quality sound system. 

There is fun to be had from programming an itinerary, setting off in the opposite direction and listening to the crescendo of disapproval from the disembodied navigator, Miss Whiplash.  But this delays progress and I prefer the game of switching to a different language as we approach a particularly awkward place name.  The problem is, having set the system to speak Finnish for the journey to Nether Wallop, how do I understand the instructions to return to a known language when I need help? 

Vous arrivez à Pawsmoose.”  Our route to the Alps involved the overnight boat to Le Havre, where after a good night’s sleep I reset the system to English for the journey through France.  A gentleman sounding like Geoffrey Palmer acting the part of Winston Churchill took over the task of guiding us around the Boulevard Périphérique in the morning rush hour. (This is the only drawback of the Le Havre route). 

Is there anyone out there who still says Lions and Ma-sails?  I  bet Geoffrey does, although we did not go quite far enough south to find out, heading east for Troyes – rhymes with boys – soon after passing Montargis, which comes with an emphatic n, a hard g and a sonorous final s.  Mon-targ-iss.

I was tempted to head for the Alpes via Aquitaine, just for the pleasure of hearing Geoffrey say ‘you are entering K-whores.’    

If we are to be strictly honest about Sat Nav, we should admit that while it may be extremely useful when ferrying children to birthday parties, its benefits for a long journey across Europe can be exaggerated. These great migrations involve long hours of motorway driving where navigation is pretty straightforward. Would it be possible to have a Sat Nav with an audio book option whereby Geoffrey can be programmed to read Gibbon or Harry Potter between instructions?  I feel a motorway journey with Fifty Shades of Grey in Finnish might be educational in all sorts of ways.   

It is true that the system is programmed to alert us to traffic jams and suggest alternative routes, and in theory this could be useful.  In practice it is difficult to know whether a diversion saves time or merely creates the illusion of doing so.  As I happen to know people who are in the habit of alerting the local radio station to non-existent traffic jams in order to clear the roads before they set off, and I assume Sat Nav uses the radio traffic news service and not some satellite camera of its own as its source, I am not inclined to believe what I hear.       

Sat Nav is good at finding hotels and restaurants, but strangely unhelpful when it comes to finding the British motorist’s prime target in France, the hypermarket.  Eventually I found one near Dijon and, after stuffing the boot with wine and the roof box with cheese, hit the motorway from Basel to Bern late in the afternoon.

Traffic was heavy and every five minutes Geoffrey would pipe up, in a more cheerful tone than usual: “Traffic problem ahead. Do you wish to avoid it?”  Well, that depends: what sort of problem, and what is the alternative?  Geoffrey had no answer to that. As most motorway drivers do, I ignored the warnings and grew so irritated by Geoffrey’s constant badgering that I turned him off.  I was becoming a more mature Sat Nav user.  

I have done more than my share of 4×4 driving in the Alps, and the XC90 is quite the most comfortable jeep I have been in.   After a long day of shared confinement we hired ski equipment, unpacked and ate family supper, without a shouting match.  What a car!   

In resort we rarely found an excuse to use our XC90, but it saw enough snow to confirm my previously held view that while four wheel drive saves time, frustration, filthy trousers and frostbitten fingers – from chaining up – it significantly increases the risk of spinning off the road or getting stuck in a snowdrift. Like a ski helmet, it makes us braver.  Would I have driven down the red piste from Courchevel 1850 to 1550 in January 1985 if my research vehicle had been a Ford Focus instead of a Suzuki jeep, for example?    

On this trip I was hardly going to pay good money to take the Arlberg Tunnel when I could drive over the Arlberg and throw the XC90 through her paces.      

She swept impressively through the hairpins above Stuben and sailed over the pass with glorious ease.  On the other side, however, everything went slalom-shaped, and had it not been for the roadside safety rail a large amount of Carrefour claret might have been severely shaken up. 

Abandoned by my family, I had only Geoffrey for company on the return journey and decided to put him to the test.  So I programmed the system to take me to Le Havre via a golf club near Orléans avoiding the motorway, climbed in to the driving seat (as one must, in the XC90), and set off without a glance at the map. I was determined to obey every instruction.

For someone who loves maps and is used to knowing where he is, on the road if not in life, it was an extraordinary journey; the motoring equivalent of blind man’s buff.  

Where Geoffrey took me, I couldn’t tell you: through orchards and forests, past Gothic chateaux and fields full of prancing race horses.   The XC90’s high driving seat gives a splendid view of the countryside as it goes by.     

Somewhere deep in the Normandy Perche, long after dark, a narrow country lane deteriorated to a muddy farm track.  An owl flapped angrily away from my headlights, and I began to fantasise about the great sat-nav romantic novel.  Any minute now, the track would terminate at a lonely farm where Juliette Binoche would come to the door …..     

But the muddy track led only to a yellow D road which in turn brought me back to the dreary old Route Nationale.   And finally, half an hour before we were due to sail for Pawsmoose, Geoffrey announced, as solemnly as a priest at a funeral:  “You have reached your destination.”       

After the skiing holiday I kept my head down, in case Volvo forgot to reclaim the XC90 in time for our weekend trip to Wales. The children would dearly have loved one last adventure in it.  Even their mother, who had protested throughout our holiday that the XC90 is “obscene”, seemed reluctant to part with it.  And I was longing to find out how Mademoiselle Whiplash would cope with Cymystwyth, Penbontrhydybeddau and other tongue twisters on our route to Machynlleth. 

It was not to be.  The call from Volvo came through just as I was shoving a camembert in the ski box.  “I was rather hoping we might be able to keep it until Tuesday,” I said. “Sorry, mate. It’s booked. We’re in your village now. Where’s your house?” 

“Why don’t you try the Sat-Nav,” I said churlishly. Unfortunately he found us.









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