We decided to drive our own car from home in Southampton through Switzerland and on to Italy for our summer holiday in order to save on the extremely high cost of flights for our family of six and the very expensive cost of hiring a seven-seater car.
We certainly saved money and having our own car was a great advantage too, allowing us to explore much further and wider than if we were relying on public transport. But there’s no doubt the journey was a long one!
Google Maps suggested it was a five-hour journey (we’d already spent 12-hours in the car over two days from the UK to Switzerland, so five hours from Lauterbrunnen to Italy seemed pretty straightforward in comparison).
We set out pretty early in the morning, leaving Lauterbrunnen at 6.30am in the hope of avoiding traffic and getting the journey done early in the day. That proved to be wishful thinking!
We discovered that if you’re driving to Italy via Switzerland, the area you need to be aware of is the Gotthard tunnel – a 10-mile long tunnel under the Gotthard Pass. At the time of its construction it was the longest road tunnel in the world – and is still the fifth longest in the world now.
Travelling on one of the busiest days of the year!
Using Google Maps as satnav, we kept thinking there was a glitch with it as it was suggesting a 3-hour traffic jam at about 7.30am on a Saturday morning.
But no, there was no glitch, the traffic jam was real – and 3-hours was just the start of it!
We found out later that we were travelling on one of, if not the, busiest travelling days of the whole year – the first weekend in August when huge numbers of Swiss holidaymakers head for the Italian sunshine.
And also that traffic jams of 10-miles or more around the Gotthard road tunnel are not at all uncommon in the summer months.
There are traffic lights at the entry to the tunnel which limit the number of cars that can enter it at any one time (for fire safety reasons) and with that huge volume of traffic, even so early in the morning, at such an enormously long tunnel, it was a massive bottleneck.
There is an alternative to the Gotthard tunnel, which a road over the mountain that the tunnel passes through. But that is a lot of extra distance to your journey and I’m not sure it would’ve been any quicker, even with the big delays through the tunnel.
When we eventually made it through and out the other side of the tunnel, we were horrified to see the queues at the other side heading the opposite direction (from Italy in to Switzerland direction). They were even longer.
You know those traffic jams that are so bad people are getting out of their cars? Well we saw people not only getting out of their cars but sat down beside them on blankets eating a picnic! That is a bad, bad sign!
– “Google Maps was going completely haywire trying to constantly re-plan our route to avoid traffic”
The rest of our journey took us down through Lugano, across the Italian border via Lake Como and then towards Milan, Monza, Bergamo, past Lake Garda and on to our final destination just outside Verona.
The entire journey was fraught with traffic jams and our Google Maps navigation was going completely haywire trying to constantly re-plan our route to avoid traffic, only to then head us straight in to more traffic.
It was a long, hot and extremely frustrating journey and one which filled us with dread at the idea of the return leg a week later.
What was meant to take us five hours ended up taking us over nine hours in total.
Having said all this though, it should be noted we were doing this drive, as described above, on the busiest travelling day of the summer. If we were doing it again, we’d have tried to time the drive a bit better to avoid travelling on the weekend.
Conscious of the journey home (for which there was no viable alternative route other than to go through the Gotthard tunnel again), we decided to leave our Italy holiday villa and start the journey at 2am.
Sure enough, that did the trick and we sailed straight through. The journey back was much quicker and easier (though tiring, with the middle-of-the-night start).
– “if you’re driving to Italy via the Gotthard tunnel, beware that it’s potentially a serious bottleneck”
On our drive back from Italy to the UK, we had an overnight stop planned at a roughly half-way point of Strasbourg. We arrived there at breakfast time, very tired but relieved we’d avoided the hellish traffic of the week before.
When I checked my Google Maps for the traffic conditions at the Gotthard tunnel later that day, as it happens it didn’t seem too bad after all (there were delays, but more like 30-mins than three hours).
Perhaps we’d just got unlucky on the way there – but if you’re driving to Italy via Gotthard tunnel, beware that it’s potentially a serious bottleneck and try to avoid travelling through it at peak times if you can.
After a day in Strasbourg recovering at the hotel, we got up early the next morning for the final part of the journey up to Calais and the Eurotunnel terminal.
This part of the journey went smoothly. We were back to the same driving conditions we’re used to in France, particularly on the toll roads, with the long, straight, wide open roads and minimal other traffic.
Verona to Strasbourg on the way back was a 6-hour journey. Strasbourg to Calais the next day was about the same.
There’s no doubt this was a marathon road trip and by the end of it we were all pretty much fed up of being in the car. But it had enabled us to save a lot of money on plane tickets and car hire and to have a holiday we’d have been unlikely to have had otherwise. The driving (almost 24-hours spent in the car over the outward and return journeys, was a challenge but well worth it!)