The Italian Job – Pups on Piste; Monte Rosa

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Our view for the next 3 months. Not too shabby!

“You don’t look old enough to have given up work!”

9th January – 18 years ago I stared across a crowded room and saw a tall, handsome man leaning against a bar. Little did I think that within 37 days, we’d be engaged, after 37 weeks, married – and 18 years later feeling completely at home on the first day of a 3-month stay in our Italian Ski Residence!

We had always wanted to do a ski season, but never envisaged that we would achieve it without working – we really are Livin’ the Dream! We feel so lucky and so excited. And for those who ask “How do you do it? You don’t look old enough to have given up work…” (which is just about EVERYONE – we clearly don’t look wealthy!) here goes; you rent out your house, which brings in 1/3 more per month than the cost of renting a basic apartment in a small, uncrowded Italian ski resort with all bills included.

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We don’t look old enough to have given up work – but we didn’t want to wait until the Autumn of our years to start living.

Yes! Renting in Italy means no heating, water, electricity, council tax, WiFi or other domestic bills, other than food, which you would have to buy anyway. This makes it about half the price of staying at home. A season ski pass is not massively more expensive than the weekly one, especially if you buy in advance (Note to self; Next year buy your ski passes before November and save €100 each!) You need to be frugal with your outgoings, but the question you have to ask yourself is; “Would you make that sacrifice to spend three months on the slopes?!”

Of course, you need to be homeless to do it – and that is the point at which every bloke whom we have ever met absolves himself by saying “I’d do it like a shot – but the wife won’t go for it!”

We have been living in a caravan called Kismet since last June. Although we spent the summer touring France, which was fabulous, since returning to Britain in the autumn, the experience hasn’t always felt like Livin’ the Dream.

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New Year’s Day – before towing, we needed a sufficient interval between bottle & throttle…

On New Year’s Day, we felt the need to leave a sufficient interval between bottle and throttle before leaving our friends’ house to go and pick up our caravan. In the late afternoon, we collected Kismet from Selsey, on the South Coast, to drive her to Chertsey, Surrey, in the pouring rain. This meant pitching in the wet, freezing cold and dark.

Of course, finding on arrival that the caravan had flooded AGAIN, when we were feeling a little delicate anyway, was not the greatest start to the New Year. However, we were grateful that we weren’t also stuck in mud, in the dark and in the teeth of Storm Angus as well as being flooded – which was a vast improvement on last time! (See Black Monday to read about our worst EVER day caravanning!)

As our friend Stephen said when we told him what had happened “You make caravanning sound so appealing…!”

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Kai expresses his thoughts on starting the New Year in a flooded caravan.

Amid a frantic bout of visiting friends and relatives, we also managed to pack the van for 3 months away. As when we departed these shores for the summer, Mark’s famous last words – again – were “We don’t need to worry about capacity!” Had the van been in a Monty Python film and we offered her ‘a waffer thin mint’ on departure, she would have replied “F*** Off, I’m full!” before exploding. (Don’t view this clip over breakfast!)

And so our three month trip to Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps began; with a long day of driving. From Chertsey back to Selsey to leave our beloved Kismet in storage, before making our way to the dog-friendly Sandgate Hotel in Folkstone, which was right on the seafront.

It was the Hounds’ first time in an hotel. They all reacted differently – Rosie went exploring, Kai and Ruby relaxed on the bed (Princess Ruby in prime position on the pillow) and Lani decided that starched, white linen and rolled, white towels were a perfect foil on which to rub her fish face, garnered from our walk on the beach.

Needless to say, the dogs attracted attention in the bar as we ate dinner in front of a crackling, log fire. A couple of ladies abandoned their husbands, who were swearing loudly at the bar, petted the dogs and fired out all the usual questions; “What breed are they?” “Cava-whats?” “Havapoos? What’s that?” “How old are they?” “Are they related?” and “How come you’re going to Italy skiing for 3 months? You don’t look old enough to have given up work…!”

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True or False; If Stephen Fry gets an erection, it’s a Fry Up.

We started the following day as those who depart the fair shores of England should; consuming a National Treasure with an erection – a Fry up. (You need to know Stephen Fry to appreciate my reference!) This was followed by a bracing walk on a grey beach and a very kind man in Halfords checking our antifreeze level for us; “You’ll be OK unless you’re going to the Arctic, mate!” he assured us. He didn’t charge – and we even got free coffee and a biscuit for his trouble!

Then we headed Chunnel-wards, feeling fully prepared for a Continental Alpine Climate on our difficult-to-source winter tyres from Berlin, our cooling system confidently replete with ethylene glycol from Halfords and “A lot of tinned food. We’re going skiing for 3 months.” This was in reply to Martin, who X-rayed our van at customs. ” You don’t look old enough to have given up work…” he informed us.

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Winter has Come – and we’re not even in The Alps yet. Our preparations were not in vain!

Our preparations were not wasted! On arriving at our stopover in Dole, the local paper reported “Froid Sibérien dans le Haut Jura; -18°C a Saint Pierre!” which is just a couple of miles from Dole. I don’t think that needs translating!

While providing us with good reason to congratulate ourselves on our winter preparations, it was during our trip to The Haut Jura that we first experienced the phenomenon known as “The Paw.”

Lani suddenly discovered that she really enjoys tummy tickles while travelling. So much so that if you stop tickling her tummy, even for a few seconds to attend to your own needs (such as scratching your nose or trying to regain feeling in your tummy-tickling hand!) you would find yourself subjected to “The Paw.”

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The owner of “The Paw” has just discovered her true purpose in life!

“The Paw” is an impatient series of sharp and insistent scratches, which will continue until satisfactory tummy tickling is resumed. Like a qualified acupuncturist, “The Paw” is very particular about finding the correct location of tickling points. Get it wrong and rest assured that as Lani sits impassive, “The Paw” will be there to correct you, by shoving your hand roughly to a more acceptable position. You must appreciate, after all, that the owner of “The Paw” has just had an epiphany. She has now discovered her true purpose in life – the real reason why she decided to get a human as a pet in the first place!

It did feel like a homecoming to be back in France. I didn’t believe that I would ever say it, but I have missed France and have fallen ever so slightly in love. The uncrowded roads, the open spaces and the sense of freedom that comes from having a whole continent just down the road made me glad to leave our crowded, stressful isle.

The drive to Dole, through bland, agricultural fields was dull and long, however. Long enough to wonder whether Dole is, in fact, HQ of the fruit company Dole; or where they invented DOLING out dosh to the unemployed; or that it is where the Dole Gudbrandsdal horse breed originated. (Yes – I was a horse-mad teenager. I had ‘The Observer’s Book of Horses and Ponies’ – and I knew how to use it!)

Sadly, I hadn’t remembered that Dole Gudbrandsdal is not a French breed; it is actually a Norwegian draught horse. When I checked later on Wikipedia, it illustrated the breed’s description with a picture of a “Dole Gudbrandsdal eating grass” – and that is about as interesting as Dole got (certainly more interesting than Dole’s own entry on Wikipedia!)

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A Shetland pony expresses his opinion to his friend; “You’re just trying to get yourself on Wikipedia by imitating a ‘Dole Gudbrandsdal eating grass.'”

We stayed in an Hotel Ibis Budget and, having scouted the area, which was largely ‘industrial estate’, we decided that our best option for dinner was a ready meal for two out of the machine in the foyer! We know how to roll on a Saturday night, those of us who are Livin’ the Dream!

Siberian – I’m not sure, but it snowed enough overnight for us to wonder where in the packed-to-the-gunwales van we had put the windscreen scraper. We used a credit card to de-ice our screen, then tested our brakes in the slippery car park. We praised the grip of our winter tyres, then set off confidently in the wrong direction for Mont Blanc.

Once we did a U-Turn and went in the right direction, we wound through the beautiful scenery of the Haut Jura on the Autoroute Blanche and rejoined some familiar routes. We passed a sign for Albertville, which prompted a discussion of cool boys’ names beginning with A. (I know that Albertville is pronounced ‘Albo-VEE’ but it will ALWAYS be Albert-VIL to us!)

We decided that Alvin was more cool than Albert, especially when conjoined with ‘Stardust’ as a surname. We can’t remember his new Buddhist name (or was that Cat Stevens?) Mark agreed that a conversation about Alvin was acceptable. However, my entry into full ‘Coo Ca Choo’ mode, singing “I love ya yes, I love ya yes… I really love my Coo Ca…” with accompanying bejewelled-leather-glove hand-action beckoning and jabbing towards his left eye was deemed too distracting for the hairpin bends leading up to Mont Blanc.

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Mark deemed my rendition of ‘Coo Ca Choo’ “Too distracting.”

Fortunately, we encountered a traffic control, which was also a double paradox; we got stuck behind a cautious Italian driver – in a BMW!

C’mon. BMWs are the archetypal car of the inconsiderate, incautious idiot for goodness sake. What’s your luck?!

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There’s only one thing in the world worse than a BMW driver. An Italian BMW driver. EXCEPT for the one behind whom we got stuck. We were nearly fined for going too slowly!

We wound up to Mont Blanc at 20mph and ended up behind him in the tunnel. As well as a maximum speed of 70kph, there is also a minimum speed limit of 50kph in the Mont Blanc tunnel . We really struggled not to break the speeding law FOR SLOWNESS behind our Italian friend!

As we broke out into blinding sunshine on the Italian side, he pulled over and our confidence was restored. As we drove down the Aosta valley, streams of Italians shot past us, breaking the speed limit by a factor of at least two as we negotiated the many tunnels on the autoroute. A fire in there and you’d never get out alive; but crashing and burning is as nothing to the macho pride of an Italian behind the wheel!

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An Artist’s Impression of a typical Italian driver juxtaposed with the one behind whom we got stuck!

‘Designed by lasers, built by robots, driven by…’ a nostalgic look back at Italian driving skills with ‘Not the 9 O’Clock News!

We arrived in daylight; welcomed by brilliant Italian sunshine and Sylvia. She was a little surprised when she saw what we carried up to our room. We hadn’t brought the kitchen sink, but we did have a superkingsize memory foam mattress. Well, we have stayed here before and didn’t fancy three months on a small sofa bed with 4 dogs. The crystal glasses had survived intact; cocooned in a Bridgedale Merino Light Hiking Sock each and we have the legendary travelling Wedgewood dining service. We’re set!

We fell onto our superkingsize memory foam bed, exhausted after covering nearly 1000 miles in the last three days. We had driven for nearly 24 hours (23 of which Lani was demanding tummy tickles) and had two tunnel-tastic crossings; 150 feet under the sea bed beneath the English Channel and then under a 4810m peak. We carried our 15 tonnes of corned beef up to the room, in which we have rearranged all the furniture. For hygiene reasons, we were going to cook the mince that seemed to have been sampled by a Mystery Muncher on the way up from the supermarket in Aosta. However, we were beside ourselves with fatigue and the best we could manage for dinner was a tin of pea and ham soup!

We also had a bottle of local wine to celebrate our arrival. It was Torrette Superior. What can I say? The spelling is slightly different but it still made me snigger and think of the sweary chaps in the bar of The Sandgate Hotel. It was f***** good. B******.

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Torrette Superior & a Superkingsize bed. The pups approve! We were so tired that sll we could manage for dinner was a tin of pea and ham soup!

For further information on what is involved in taking your dogs to The Continent, the best ways to travel and how to care for them in a cold climate, please see the advice in The Wuff Guide to Travelling with Dogs.

For a review of Monte Rosa as a ski resort, see Gressoney, Monte Rosa – Hidden Gem & Off Piste Ski Paradise!#

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