The second stage of my travelogue finds me and the family in the French Alps, heading to the Italian lakes. Shortly after finishing this, I set off for Venice to take a ferry down the Adriatic …
1.Men in Tweeds
We left Switzerland to go to Chamonix, via the Swiss railways and the Mont Blanc Express. You need the right kind of weather for Chamonix to be special, and when we arrived the big peaks were all in the clouds. But we passed by the statues on the Rue Whymper and explained what they were all about to the kids. My wife’s grandfather climbed Mont Blanc in the 1930s, wearing a tweed suit and hob-nailed boots and carrying ropes and pitons. My uncle reached the top in the 80s, with Gore-Tex weatherproofs and blocks and wedges, the practice of banging spikes into rock faces having rather gone out of fashion as rock climbing became a mass market sport. The town was busy with extremely fit people; it was a five-day festival of what the French apparently call “Ultra Trail”, and I’d call fell-running. The runners were going to cover tens of kilometres of distances and thousands of metres of vertical ascent, but they weren’t going to get near any of the major tops.
The biggest Alps are not really all that big in the scheme of things; even Mont Blanc would be a big, but not exceptional peak if it were located in the Rockies or the Himalayas. But there’s a real sense of menace to the high European mountains; everything about them tells you to take them seriously. The danger on a mountain isn’t related to its height – Helvellyn in the Lake District is under a thousand metres high but people often die on it, while Pike’s Peak in the Colorado Rockies is over 4000 metres high but has picnic tables at the top. It is the route (and, massively, the weather) that makes the danger, and the big high Alpine peaks tend to have very few safe routes and a lot of dangerous ones. Twenty people died in the Haut-Savoie the summer we were there, and the regional mayor had to give a scathing interview about a man who tried to take two of his children (aged 11 and 9, almost the same as my kids) up Mont Blanc. He gave up shortly after having posted a video of them being swept off their feet by a small avalanche in the “Corridor of Death”.
2. The Methods of FFEs
I have a little bit of experience with the French engineering caste, as so many of them take their mathematical skills and go into equity derivatives these days; the Ecole des Mines and the Ecole des Ponts et Chausees are about forty per cent business schools these days. In some corners of the financial markets, they are ubiquitous, to the extent that “FFE” (the last two letters standing for “French Engineer”) is a recognised acronym. And FFEs have a particular way of dealing with you. They start of with, always with perfect politeness and usually in perfect English, something like;
“Hi Dan, I realise you say that it is basically impossible to get good data on this, but maybe you could help us out with a rough estimate?”
A few weeks later, they will come back; sometimes it’s the same one, sometimes a different member of the team (FFEs always work in teams). The question will now be;
“Hi Dan, I understand that these numbers are just a rough estimate, but is there any way you could help us to make them more precise?”
Then, and this is the really horrifying bit, they will start to iterate. Step by step, every little source of uncertainty is chipped away at, with a series of “just a rough estimate”, then returned to with a “can we work on making this a little more precise?”. And they know no cease; they will appreciate that you are busy, understand that this is annoying, never want to cause too much trouble, but never stop. Often, the initial enquiry will come with a strong instruction from their or your boss that you should not spend more time or effort on the question than it is worth, but this is meaningless; for an FFE, there is no such thing as too much trouble, and any imprecision is worth a literally infinite amount of time and effort to remove. The process might be terminated by the physical death of the parties involved, but I strongly suspect that this would merely trigger the first of a long series of contingency plans. And always with the subtle implication, unsaid of course under the skin of perfect politeness, that the question is actually quite simple, and that the real reason why the FFE does not have an immediate answer to a satisfactory level of precision is the laziness, slapdash attitude and failure to prepare of the people he has to work with. It’s one of the vestiges of the military culture that shaped the Grandes Ecoles, I think, and so stretches back to the order and organisation that Napoleon Bonaparte brought to the French Army.
3.Mont Blanc tunnel memorial
We took a bus through the Mont Blanc tunnel, another piece of engineering that set new standards in its time. There’s a monument outside the French side, which I thought might commemorate all the workers who died in building it. Actually, it’s a monument to the 39 victims of the Mont Blanc tunnel fire of 1999, which was the occasion for a lot of reappraisal globally of the kind of safety precaustions that it’s appropriate to take in long tunnels. You can see that the Mont Blanc authorities are still very sensitive to safety issues today – the bus had to radio ahead and check in, and we had to wait up for a minute or so, because they were preparing a convoy of trucks, which goes through with a safety car at the front and another at the back.
As regards workers dying in construction, though, I can’t find any record of there being any. There were a small number of fatalities in the construction of the Aiguille du Midi cable car, but in general, these projects were carried out with attention to detail, and as a result, they were built well and nobody died unnecessarily. I’ve made an argument in financial contexts a lot of times in the past to the effect that the “risk return tradeoff” is often a very bad way of thinking about the two concepts. Most financial risks, from Enron to CDOs, weren’t the natural and inevitable concomitants of chasing higher returns. They were just, purely and simply, failures of quality control – stupid, unrewarded risks which came about because something wasn’t being done properly. Drilling a tunnel through Mont Blanc, or stringing a two kilometre wire hundreds of feet above a glacier, is in some senses a risky thing to do, but the people who did these things didn’t treat it as ineivitable that some workers would die doing it.
4. Cranes that never build anything
As we passed the outskirts of Milan, I was surprised to see cranes sticking out of the horizon everywhere I looked from the motorway. I thought this was a bit odd; the North of Italy has been affected less than the rest of the country by the Euroland crisis, but I didn’t think that anywhere was really in any sort of state to be supporting a construction boom. It took an embarrassingly long time to realise that the “crane-count” indicator for monetary policy wasn’t going to work here; these were loading cranes, for moving metal containers round yards and on and off lorries. Of course, when you think about it , it’s obvious; Milan, Bergamo, Turin – there’s a string of cities across Lombardy that are perfectly placed to be hubs of a logistics operation even if they didn’t have a load of manufacturing of their own. Anything going to or from Italy, and quite a lot of stuff just generally wanting to make its way between France and Germany, is going to find an easier path going around the Alps rather than over them, and the A4 autostrade effectively serves as a bypass for the country of Switzerland. I saw something similar in Denver, every time I took the journey from the airport to the business district; a massive loading yard that apparently handles some large percentage of the trucking logisitcs of the Safeway supermarket chain.
5.Trucks along the way
There is a firm of refrigerated lorries based in Lambach, Austria, which is called the Gartner Group, and which advertises itself on the sides of its trucks. Tess was a consultant in the technology industry, and thus enjoys following these trucks at confusing intersections, declaring “this is the only time in my life I have been happy to follow a Gartner Group recommendation”. The trucks all seem to be carrying agricultural produce back and forth along the road from the Alps to the Adriatic, and as a result our decision to give up on thinking for ourselves and blindly follow them works better than anyone dared hope.
6. Birds on the lakes
The Italians don’t swim in the lakes, as far as I can see – they sail boats, they sometimes windsurf, and one or two of them appear to be, painfully slowly, teaching themselves to kitesurf. But, despite the posters up all round the lake shore, posting evidence of a comprehensive, EU-financed water quality testing programme, and making it totally clear that the water is indeed as perfect and crystalline as it looks, there are only a few sunbathers and literally nobody in the water. Maybe we’re late in the season, or it’s the wrong lake, or something, but this was what I saw – the Italians don’t swim in the lakes.
I do though and it’s fantastic. The water’s not as warm as a swimming pool or the ocean off Palm Beach, but it’s degrees warmer than the British seaside or Llyn Peris in Snowdonia. We share the beach with a gaggle of ducks – this family have a distinguishing mark of a single feather on each side that’s coloured white and blue, standing out from the usual mallard in a way that makes them look almost exactly like they’re wearing military insignia. There’s also a swan with her half-grown cygnets, who strut up and down the path hissing and preening, and leaving behind the most extraordinarily large green turds.
In the water, though, we are all calm, me and the birds. A few strokes out from the shore, you’re on your own to an even greater degree than if you’d walked up a path a hundred yards from the gift shop. The ducks and the swans politely glide away from me; they seem much less inclined to defend territory when they’re out on the water than when they’re on land. I can swim front crawl with my head out of the water, about the only thing left from Bronze Medallion life-saving classes, and it gets me across the bay quickly enough to not really realise how far out I am. And just as I’m ready to turn back, a bird – I thought it was a heron, but it couldn’t have been, possibly a grebe – pops up from below the surface, throws its head back to swallow a fish, and then struggles once, twice and it’s up, flying away toward the mountains.
7.Roads carved out of cliffs
For something like a year (I think, although the telescoping effect of memory seems to stretch it out to my whole childhood), there was blasting every evening outside our village, as they constructed the tunnels and cuttings that were needed to expand the A5, bypassing a few notorious traffic bottlenecks along the North Wales coast. So I tend to notice when the roads we’re driving on have been built into a mountainside, and how it’s been done. It is a hell of a lot of work, making any sort of even reasonably direct route, and the whole of the French, Italian and Swiss Alps are covered with them. It gives you a new perspective on development – there are dozens of countries in Africa and Asia where the economy has stagnated for years, simply because there is not much point making things if they can’t be transported to somewhere for people to buy them. But if you drive through the cols and passes, you begin to appreciate that these are multi-year projects, not the sort of thing that anyone would bother starting unless they had sufficient confidence in whoever was commissioning them to see the building through to the end. The big motorways have tolls on them and are generally privatised these days, but frankly when you look at the toll roads, they’re not that impressive; anyone can lay down miles of blacktop, and you can produce a project like that a kilometer at a time. The real economic secret of this prosperous belt of Europe is the network of little, perfectly maintained cuttings into the rock and stone. This sort of thing won’t pay back for a long time – like the Swiss railways, it’s something that has to be done by a community that doesn’t need a quick cash return on its money – and a mountain pass, unlike a motorway, can’t be half-finished and start paying. This kind of road is basically useless until it gets over the top to join up to a different network.
8.Jungfraujoch in the rain
The true “roof of Europe”, in the sense of the probable owner of that trademarked phrase, is the Jungfraujoch, apparently the highest railway station in Europe, or possibly the highest point you can get to using non-cable-car travel or some such; I didn’t do the research because I was just hanging around in Interlaken station having locked a mobile phone in a hire car, then waiting for my train. It looked like kind of a tourist trap though, so I didn’t go. The railway is basically a status symbol for the regional railway aimed at showing what they can do; it doesn’t serve any actual town, just the station, a restaurant and a massive great terrace sponsored by Piz Buin sun tan lotion. I could imagine thaat it would be a great sunbathing spot on the right kind of day, but when I passed through that part of Switzerland it was cloudy and grey in the valley; there’s a webcam down in the station showing what it’s like at the top, and fair do’s to the Swiss, they took it on the chin and broadcast us the images of pissing rain lashing the Piz Buin terrace as a few disconsolate tourists walked back and forth in front of the cameras, zipped up to the neck and presumably trying to convince themselves they hadn’t just wasted their money. At one point I seriously thought that the site owners had put a cut-out silhouette of a tourist up, to make the place look less deserted. On our return from Grindelwald, the sky was a beautiful clear blue, but I had already decided, ne vaut pas le detour.
9.The little things of Italy
Trains across the north-west of Italy, going from our Alpine campsite to pick up a hire car in Como Vineyards give way to apple orchards as we progress from the mountains into the valleys, but the Italian railways are perfectly serviceable. The rolling stock isn’t as spiffily maintained as the Swiss system (we only travel on one train which is noticeably new, and this turns out to be an SBB service going back toward Lugano), but it works well. And it makes sense to me that this line would have the older trains; like the North Wales line of my youth, this railway is all breathtaking mountainsides and short tunnels. I hardly speak any Italian at all, but I’m confident that there is a heated regional debate on the vital need for electrification, and that the national system is highly reluctant to shell out the cash. Meanwhile, everyone kind of knows that the bullet will be bitten one day, so nobody in their right mind is going to order new diesel kit.
But diesel is pretty cheap in Italy, and the old trains work well, and there doesn’t seem to be much freight on the lines, so the trains run nice and regularly. We roll past Banca di Bergamo, and Credito Valtinese, and Poplare di Vincenza and Banca Cattolica, as well as the conglomerates of UBI and Unicredito and Intesa SanPaolo. I would guess that if I’d been trainspotting bank brands (I mean, doing so more systematically than I actually was), I could probably have identified as much as 25% of the European Central Bank’s balance sheet – these Italian small business lenders were the main users of the Long Term Refinancing Operations which helped to save the euro. These little Italian lenders deserved help from Frankfurt – they basically never set a foot wrong, they didn’t get involved in speculation, their loans were not exactly risk free (small Italian manufacturing companies) but certainly not irresponsible, and all that went wrong with them is that the funding markets had a massive panic about the Italian state. Now they own large portfolios of Italian government bonds, bought with cheap ECB financing, and this props up their profitability and economic viability so they will still be around when the business cycle picks up again. I hope nobody starts to unwind the scheme before time – there is rarely a shortage of commentators in the Financial Times or its epigones to point an accusing finger at European banks, but these smaller Italians are the ones I really feel sorry for.
10.The real roof of Europe, and how it was built
A tourist trap that has to go down in my book as “totally, totally worth it”, though, is the cable car ride up from Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi. My parents took me up when I was 16, but I hadn’t remembered how special it was; you just can’t keep something that intense in your mind at its full value. They keep adding bits to the top, but the original stop (although slightly lower than the new bit, which includes the “Step Into The Void” cantilevered glass box attraction) is still the most stunning. You go up about 6km of cable car in two stages, the last one being the longest single cable span in Europe at just under 2 kilometres. And then you come out, and you’re right on the top, and it’s a difficult top too; although the summit was first achived in 1818, the difficult south face was only completed in 1956, by Gaston Rebuffat, a legend of the Alps. Without the cable car, the Aiguille is quite serious Alpinism; from the observation terrace, you can, flask in hand, stand and watch tiny rows of climbers, roped up, make their way slowly up the glacier.
The views are indescribable. Bright, scorching light reflected off the snow, sharp granite ridges and points everywhere, and the clouds spread out a few thousand feet below you. And the constant amazement – how did they make this thing? Work started on the cable car shortly after the end of the war, and finished in 1955. There are black and white pictures of the men who built it, at work in overalls and cloth caps, drinking wine with their lunch and holding hammers in fur mittens. Swinging out to the pylons, feet on the traction wire and hands on the supporting wire. I doubt I know more than a dozen or so people who would be capable of climbing the Aiguille at all, and these guys packed cement up to the top, and steel bolts, and kilometres of wire. They’re still expanding the site and building a new terrace, so you can still see people standing bolted in, swinging picks and welding.
I can understand how it got done though. There was a head engineer, a graduate of one of the military schools. And he stood up there, as the site grew around him, smoking a Gitane and making notes in a ledger in precise handwriting, with a steel propelling pencil. And people would come to him with problems and explanations of why things couldn’t be done. And he would say “thank you so much for this information. Now, can we try just a little bit harder to get this done exactly right?”. And men, wiry men who had faced death on the glacier every day, many of whom would have been veterans of the resistance, would shuffle off and lose fingers to frostbite and risk their limbs once more, all to avoid having to meet that withering gaze again. Yeah, I know how things get done in France.
11. Roads made for motorcycles
Everywhere you go in the Alps and the Lakes, you see motorbikes. It’s not at all hard to see the almost sensual appeal of the roads themselves – you could take all the scenery away and hide it behind a screen wall (something which the planning authorities in my home town actually had to do once; there was a truly stunning sweep of the A5 Expressway over a viaduct which revealed a gorgeous bay which tended to attract drivers’ attention just at the point where, it transpired, they really needed to be looking out for a slightly tricky junction) and those roads would still be great fun to drive on a big motorbike. The bikes are in general big tourers, American or American-styled, and a lot of the cyclists are clearly members of clubs, but they don’t seem to be wearing patches or colours, so I presume they’re for the most part not outlaws. Some guest houses advertise that they are receptive to motorcyclists, though, which I would guess is not a thing that you would bother to advertise if it wasn’t teh case that most of them aren’t.
On the Italian side of Mont Blanc, there is a smaller monument than the official one to the tunnel fire victims. It commemorates Pierlucio Tinazzi, nicknamed “Spadino”, who was a security guard who essentially functioned as a motorbike cop, patrolling traffic in the tunnel. On the day of the fire, he took a breathing apparatus and rode into the blaze five times, pulling people out – in general, the ones who died were those who tried to stay in their cars. He saved as many as ten people from otherwise inevitable death, and died himself on his fifth journey into the furnace, after pushing a trucker into a fire refuge. His motorcycle melted into the tarmac. Every year in late March or early April, there is a ceremonial gathering of bikers, who ride through the tunnel, in convoy, in his memory.