This was one of the most tricky trips I’ve had to do so far. Customers had booked their transport to Italy for the week of the 8th March and as that date approached, fears were starting to emerge of the Coronavirus entering Italy with many infections being detected.
But with there being no real clue as to how bad things would become, I made my way to London for the collections. One of these collections was for a dog who would be travelling with me to Tuscany.
The dog’s name was Sibi and I had brought her back from Tuscany for her owner a few months earlier. Together with a piece of furniture and some other items, all was loaded and so I headed for the port.
Once in France, news started to come in that things might get serious in Italy and by the time I’d made it to Troyes, I was seriously considering turning around and coming back to the UK. The trouble is, Sibi would need a Wormer treatment that required a 24 period from then until when she could cross into the UK. And her owner had already booked a flight to go out and meet her in Tuscany. I was suddenly feeling pressure from family that this might not be such a good idea and that there could be a chance I’d be stranded in Italy!
I decided to stop at Troyes, have a sleep there and wait to see what events developed in the morning. And, sure enough, I woke up to the news that Italy had decreed all of Lombardy as a ‘Red Zone’ and that entering it would not be possible.
Lombardy was where two of my stops were. One for a Piano delivery to near Varese and the other was the collection of a Moped, south of Milan. After some frantic planning and responding to text messages from family, fellow couriers and customers, all feeding me with advice and Government advice, I decided that the dog, Sibi, was the priority and that I would find a route through Italy without having to touch Lombardy.
No sooner had I set off, news came in that the areas had been increased and that the route I was going to take through Mont Blanc would mean I’d have to travel through a locked down area, namely, Aosta and Asti regions. So I decided that I would pull over and see on a map what areas were not affected by this lockdown and see if I could get to Tuscany and Umbria without entering these Red Zones.
I saw that if I were to head to Lyon, down to Marseille and across to Nice, then the border at Menton would be clear and that region of Italy, all the way to Genoa and down the coast road would be in a region unaffected by the lockdown.
As I made my way there, reports were coming in that the border at Menton would be heavily patrolled. But it was too late. I’d made my way south and was just going to face whatever was ahead of me.
I was surprised to see when I arrived at Menton that there were no police patrols at all. I didn’t see one police car and was able to sail through with no problem. From Menton, I travelled the coast road all the way to Florence and rested there.
My first delivery was in Monte Santa Maria Tiberina. I arrived at about 9am and had coffee with the customers. They, along with the rest of Umbria, seemed unaffected by what was happening in the North of the country and described the situation as normal; everyone going about their business; shops with plenty of food and no one panicking!
So I made my way to the next deliveries. Both near Umbertide and up in the mountains. One was able to help me offload their shipment and the other was for a customer who gives me a key and I unload all the goods into his store area.
Next, I travelled into Umbertide to collect a few packages from an Estate Agent’s office. These goods were going back to East Sussex. And from Umbertide, it was a quick trip up the E45 to Montagna, in the mountains north of Sansepolcro, Tuscany. This is where Sibi was to be delivered along with a few bits and pieces.
At this point, I had to pause and see what other deliveries and collections would now be possible in Italy. The next one to do was in Ravenna and I saw quickly that this area was also NOT in the red zones. So I made my way there.
About 5 minutes from arriving, I received a phonecall from the collection point. The message was that the item I was collecting had not yet been paid for and so I would have to leave it for another trip. With a quick call to the buyer, that situation was very quickly sorted out and I went on to collect.
The item was a 2.5 metre sideboard. It is possibly the heaviest sideboard I have ever collected! It took three of us to lift it onto the van and we really could have done with a fourth! Once on, I strapped it down and plotted my route to Vicenza, another non-affected zone.
To get to Vicenza, I worked out that I would probably be entering red zones. But I decided that by remaining in the van the whole time, technically I hadn’t exposed myself to the virus. And so this is what I did. My fuel tank was full and my bladder emptied!
Arriving in the small town in Vicenza, it was about 8pm and the customer was waiting on the road for me to arrive! They had been tracking my route the whole way and could see exactly when I was arriving. I unloaded the goods there and then decided that all this running around and stress was deserving of a nice shower and bed for the night!
I loaded up the booking.com app and found a fantastic hotel 3 minutes up the road. It was a Best Western Hotel and for 32 euros, it was an absolute bargain! The cleanest and most well presented hotel I think I’d stayed in.
As soon as I had settled into my room, more text messages were flying in and the latest news was that the whole of Italy would be ‘locked down’ from midnight! I was then being bombarded with “You have to leave the country now! Don’t hang around!” and “You will be trapped!”. But at this point, I was so tired and sick of running! I decided that this was where I was staying tonight and whatever disaster was coming, I’d face it in the morning!
That evening, I worked out that if the whole country was now officially a ‘Red Zone’, then all my efforts to avoid these areas was in vain! I then decided that it would make sense to go into Lombardy the following morning and collect the moped and deliver the piano!
The next morning I set my satnav for San Donato Milanese and made my way there. The GPS was telling me I had to go the long way around and that all the roads into Lombardy were blocked. This turned out to be false.
Once at the collection point, I met the client’s Mum and Dad who were adorned with surgical gloves and facemasks! They kept their distance but helped as best they could to get the moped up the ramp and into the van.
The streets of this area were quiet but still I saw people getting on with their lives. Walking dogs, going to the shops etc. The main dual carriageways and motorways were flowing normally. For every 12 cars, I counted 50 vans and lorries. So it was very much freight and commercial operating as normal with fewer commuters in cars etc.
I reached Comerio, near Varese. Access was pretty tight going into the customer’s drive, but I managed to get close to the front door where the customer helped me in with the piano.
From there, I headed straight to the border at Mont Blanc. No police or medical staff there testing drivers going in or out. I headed back through France and reached Calais. Again, no sense of urgency. No one really bothered about where I’d been and so I managed to get back into the UK ok and delivered the moped back to London; and the sideboard to Sunningdale.
From there, it was a bit of self isolation on the south coast at a friends house that was empty at this time. Who knows what the next few weeks would bring. But work was now postponed until the situation was a little more clear.
As if the late June heat of 2018 was not enough to contend with on another gear-shifting Euro trip, the boss (that’s me) decided to spread himself impossibly thin by taking on way too much in too little time!
A month earlier, the lovely ladies of Duchess & Butler, a Hertfordshire based catering company, contacted me to see if I would transport charger plates, crystal glasses and cutlery to and from a wedding event at a chateau near Le Mans, France.
Of course, I accepted the commission believing I could fit it into an already packed June. I had a couple of guys lined up for extra busy times, one of whom would surely be able to cover this event for me if I was struggling.
Well, as is so often the case, my optimism was a fail, as neither driver could do that particular weekend!
And just to add to the complications, this particular consignment, whilst modest in volume (about one third van floor space), was heavy. The weight was going to be, legally, too much for the van on its own.
To cut a long blog short, this meant a trailer would be needed! But as the accepted transport price had already been agreed by the wedding planner, I worked with my catering clients to see how the trailer cost could be absorbed.
So the compromise was… the trip could combine other jobs instead of it being a specific, dedicated trip. I rallied the customers into packing action and then set the plan to make the 1,300 mile diversion to Italy!
The loads to Italy were in Oxford and London. The wedding goods were in Hertfordshire, as was the trailer.
I organised things so that I could collect Oxford and London first, including Tommy the dog for his annual holiday in Puglia, then the trailer; then Hertfordshire.
All loaded and on the weight limit, we made our way to Dover.
The chateau was in the centre of a small town. Right in the cobble stoned square behind a large set of old wooden doors. Once in, it feels like you are in the middle of the countryside.
It took about an hour to unload everything and the manager there allowed me to keep the trailer here while I did the trip to Italy.
I loaded everything from the trailer, onto the ow empty van, and headed south-east.
Next stop was about an hour from Monte Blanc tunnel. A small Italian town called Viverone, in Biella. This was a delivery of a washing machine. As you can see, the customer was pleased that I only just got the van down his narrow street!
The next place for delivery was Milan. The customer was happy to receive his newly purchased teak sideboard late that evening, so I made my way there and arrived at 23:00.
After some unpacking to remove the sideboard from the van (it was in an upright position on its end), the customer bid me “Bon Viaggio” and I headed for Pisa where I parked up for the night, fed the dog and fell asleep!
After delivering about 1/4 of the van’s goods to Pisa, I headed across to Brian’s place near Cortona. Brian is a regular sender of goods to Italy and was recently shocked by a lightning strike that entered his house in Italy, under the door and up into the fuse box! All while he sat there eating his dinner!
The delivery was for a new chlorinator for his pool after the lightning had destroyed the old one!
Next delivery was to a village near Todi, Umbria, called Torriola. This was a complete house move (no furniture) from Fulham to the Italian countryside for my customer.
It was also a great spot to take photos of Tommy while I waited for the key holder to turn up!
After a few minutes, another load of boxes entered their new Italian home in the country! The lady who let me in was Russian, which made communication tricky! But it was 33 degrees and I was carrying boxes into the house with sweat dripping into my eyes, so “aqua” was the only important word o needed to use and that was well understood!
The next stage of the journey was the delivery of Tommy. This year, I had arranged for his ‘mummy’ to meet me near Salerno so that my schedule wasn’t pushed to an impossible level!
I’d spent some considerable time a few days earlier researching the most simple, easily accessible and mutually convenient place to meet. I sourced the coordinates, google “streetview” screen shots and bonafide address which I sent to the customer so that her three hour journey could be less stressful and also saved me time.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that her journey would be made without the use of a GPS satnav, or indeed knowledge of how the iPhone google maps app worked!
I utilised the two hour delay to “tidy” the van, set up the dog cage for the next day’s ‘cargo’, and walk Tommy. The evening was cooling and a sunset was forming. Tommy and I discussed philosophy, quantum physics and an interesting theory he had on feline profiling!
With the eventual arrival of Tommy’s transfer, I was able to head further south to a beautiful, seaside town called Scario.
The collection point was a house in the mountains, overlooking the bay. The client had bought 42 boxes of wine from a local vineyard for his son’s wedding in England.
I was given a cup of coffee, access to a washroom and farewell from the family and I headed into the night as far north as Rome, a five hour drive.
I arrived in the early hours to a house on the suburbs, crawled into my recently installed ‘Hatcher-bed’ and dropped asleep.
The delivery was photography gear to a man, who, funnily enough, was a photographer! Offers of breakfast were made and the usual conversations were had about how long it takes me to drive, where do I sleep and how does my wife feel about it all!… after which, I finished my macchiato and said my goodbyes!
Next port of call was high in the mountains north of Rome, where Jarvis, a young Labrador, was awaiting carriage to the UK!
But before I could reach him, Mr Satnav thought he’d send me on a route that could cut the corner of the mountain road.
As I approached the turning, I could just sense that something wasn’t right about this!
The road started to become more and more pot-holey and narrow. As it was now a 1 in 6 downward track, I needed to make a decision as to whether I could carry on before it became impossible to retreat!
I jumped out, in the blazing heat, and wandered on foot to the bottom of the track. Sure enough, the deteriorated track became a rocky field!
Time to back-track, with an already tender clutch and a cargo of wine! The deep pot holes meant that my reversing up the hill would require a special blend of power and care, which, as any van driver knows, invokes that familiar scent called “clutch-burn” (for real men!!)
The overhanging hedges restored my dormant ability to utilise blind faith as my mirrors became surplus to requirements, but I made it beyond the entrance to an orchard, with just enough room to enable a u-turn!
Finally I managed to get back on the main road and 10 minutes later arrived at the country home where Jarvis was to be collected.
The final pick-up destination in Italy was three hours north in another mountain range near Turin. This was a village called Bosia where the customer was moving back to Scotland.
With that little load collected and secured in the van, I made my way to Paris where an interesting consignment of fine wines needed transporting to London.
It wasn’t so much that the wine was interesting, (although I dare say it was, given the value I was told it was!) more the method of locating it!
I arrived in Paris at 5:30am on the Sunday morning, passing hundreds of people from a variety of ethnicities, who seemed to have no home, all gathered in one area near the Periphique under a flyover.
And then, 5 minutes later, I’m entering areas with single properties that could probably house them all!
But anyway… my instructions were to drive to a hotel, collect some keys, go to the property where the wine is being stored and load it on.
Unfortunately, the email instructing me how to go about this, using which key for what door, had not reached my inbox!
Well, without wishing to wake the London based client up at 6am, I tried to work it out myself! Viewing those 80s Anneka Rice treasure hunts programmes was now going to pay off… finally!!
After 5 minutes of rifling through the bag of keys and trying each one in the huge doors of the building front, I discovered a key fob, which magically opened the door when I swiped it across the nearby sensor.
Now in, I gave Jarvis a much needed respite from van-life while I tried to hunt for clues.
Due to time constraints and over-tiredness, I relented and decided to bite the bullet!
I rang the customer up and, although clearly a bit sleepy, she was happy to guide me through the process.
A few minutes later I was loading the wine onto the van and ready to exit the courtyard, with Jarvis back in his cage. Next stop, the wedding venue for the collection of dirty plates and glasses.
The route out of Paris took me via the Arch de Triumph, normally the most hazardous ’roundabout’ in the world! But at this hour on a Sunday morning, empty!
Once back at the wedding venue, and after carefully driving through the town square full with market-goers right outside the Chateau doors, I found the place where all the used cutlery, plates and glasses were dumped and I set about counting and loading.
Once I’d strapped and secured the load, walked and watered Jarvis, I hitched up the trailer which I’d left at the venue and headed for the port of Calais.
I made it across the channel that evening and headed for South Ockendon where Jarvis was to be delivered.
The next delivery was to Basildon, only half an hour away. But time was catching up with me and I needed to fulfil my duties to the catering company in Hertfordshire the next morning.
So I met Don, a fellow courier, who’d agreed to drive up from Somerset that evening in order to help out with some of the deliveries. (The Paris wine client was his customer and so it was in his interest to get her goods delivered. I would struggle delivering to a house in Chiswick with a trailer behind me!)
We met in a Sainsbury’s car park at about 1am, juggled and transferred goods, then made our separate ways. Don delivered my wine from Italy to the Basildon destination the next day, collected another consignment of mine from Chelmsford, then headed into Chiswick.
I, meanwhile, made my way to the trailer hire place, parked in their car park overnight and returned the trailer at 8am. This enabled me to be at the catering company when I said I would, ie, 9am that morning.
With everything delivered successfully there, the van was almost empty! Not for long though!
Only a few minutes up the road was a customer I’d agreed to visit in order to assess what he needed to have transported to Italy in a month’s time.
It was decided that I could load all of the goods he’d need stored for a year; and the goods needed for transport to Italy in a months time, would be collected by good old Don, who, at the time of this last minute decision, was in Chiswick!
So after I had loaded and ‘set sail’ for Tewkesbury, Don turned up to pick up the remainder. Two very full vans to now unload into temporary and long-term storage.
The good people at Tewkesbury Space Program were quick to accommodate this unexpected need and we were able to unload and safely store all the customer’s worldly belongings that evening.
And so it is, that one trip ends, merges with another, and so it goes on. A hot and exhausting 6 days, but everyone was happy!
Bingo, Beavis and Bee-B’s epic journey to Italy!
Off to meet the animals!
Today is the 11th of November. Donald Trump has been elected as leader of the free world, it’s my father in-law’s 70th birthday and I’m off to Italy!
With all this in my head, at least one of the things mentioned there was having some trouble being processed. However, there was work to be done!
The van was already part loaded with a kitchen worktop-unit, a table and a bag of birdseed! These were the items collected earlier in the week from Nottingham. I also had on board some fragile furniture collected in London for a well known Interior Designer who’s face has been on a number of glossy home-making magazines. Her goods were going to Rome and to a place near Grossetto, Tuscany.
But today, the first stop was Uffington, near Farringdon, Oxfordshire. This is where I would meat Beavis and Bee-B, two male felines about to embark on a journey of over 1000 miles by road!
I was met by Annette who said she saw herself as the cats’ grandmother. After a kind neighbour had helped to place the cats into their individual travel cages – without too much hissing and wailing – Annette said her goodbyes and off I went.
The final pick-up point in the UK was in St Albans, Hertfordshire. This was the home (soon to be ex-home) of Bingo. Bingo was going to be travelling with the cats, but would have an extra 6 hours in which to put up with me! He was going to be with his adoring master – Matteo, a young boy who’d gone to live in Oria, Puglia with his mum and dad.
Dad was Ronan. I met him in St Albans with Bingo and we loaded the van with boxes and goods destined for the family’s new home in the sun! Once we’d packed everything in, I was offered Poulet a la Creme, a slice of cake and a coffee!
Sometimes, meeting customers involves just the usual formalities, a brief conversation about the weather and how great it is that they are starting a new life in another country. Not with Ronan! It was like chatting to a long-lost mate! Of course, breaking the ice with the bombshell that is: “So Donald Trump then…” is always going to initiate a lively conversation and kill any awkwardness, but there was no need. His positive energy combined with an incredibly similar outlook on life to mine, made for a very natural exchange!
Once we’d both spun out in quicktime our life stories, established that Marvel superheroes, fictional broomstick-riding, spectacled magicians and Batman were only really fine for anyone aged 14 years and less, we realised that the rest of the world must be mad and that we were duty bound to save it from it’s dumb-downed state before it is too late!
Finally, we placed Bingo, the white haired, bouncy and excitable terrier into the front footwell of the van with blankets and sheets to keep him comfy, and said our goodbyes.
A quick one-third of the M25 later, and I was on my way over the Dartford crossing and on towards Tescos for my week’s supply of nosh!
Dunkirk to Petritoli
Once on the ferry, I headed to the usual spot – The Road Kings canteen and lounge, where truckers, coach and van drivers alike all partake of bland food and appallingly slow wifi connections!
Eating meatballs and chips, I have decided, is better done without Eastenders on in the background! The outbursts of high-pitched female screaming and indiscriminate shouting is not conducive to digesting ferry-cooked food!
Back in the van, Bingo was beyond ecstatic to see me! Poor little fella must have felt abandoned while I was upstairs being screamed at by cockney women and tolerating the meatballs! I always think it’s a shame you can’t really gauge how a dog feels because they just maintain that dog look, whatever internal wrangling they might be dealing with!!! So I comforted myself believing Bingo was having the time of his life in there… alone… with two caged, disinterested cats!
Our next stop was just north of Basel, Switzerland. Time for Bingo to stretch his legs, have a meal and spend a penny! Bingo is almost uncontainable whenever the van slows down and he thinks we are going to stop!
Once I’d refuelled and tended to the cats, we were off again. Just the Swiss border to cross and a 2 and half hour drive from one end of Switzerland to the other. As we approached Border Control, one officer from a bank of 4 steps out and tasks to me about where we are headed. Meanwhile, the other three are smiling from ear to ear as Bingo pops his head up and shows his handsomeness!!!
The track across Switzerland was a journey of two halves, with the weather cold and snowy in the north, and then through the other side of the Gottardo tunnel, sunshine! We then made it to Chiasso where we were not even stopped on the Italian border, and headed south. An hour later, I decided to give Bingo another run around at the Autostrade service station.
Beavis and B-Bee’s delivery
A few hours down the Autostrade, I made it to the town of Petritoli. It’s a typical Italian town with beautifully lit streets, narrow passageways and alleys. The delivery point was a house on one of these narrow streets and so I had to find a place to park a long white van in a town that clearly doesn’t have many long white vans visit!
After some time spent walking about to ‘spy out the land’ before driving deep into narrow, one-way lanes that might prove impossible to get out of, I found somewhere suitable to park. I say ‘suitable’… I really mean completely UNsuitable, but in Italy, you take what you can!
Locating the customer was proving a little tricky as I wandered the upper level alleyways to find the right house. Phone contact was proving difficult and so after an unsuccessful navigation expedition, I resorted to emailing with my position!
Fortunately, I was met and we were able to successfully carry the expatriated cats to their new home!
300 more miles with Bingo!
The journey out of Petritoli was straight forward and once back out onto the Adriatic coast road, I looked for a service station where Bingo and I could settle down for the night.
Nestled between two lorries at the Esso station, I cooked me up some Tescos packet pasta, which, I have to say, was absolutely delicious! I was expecting a 25p bag of dried pasta to taste bland, but to my surprise, it was incredibly more-ish!
I took Bingo for his toilet needs and then settled him into his cozy, footwell position wrapped in blankets! He slept like a baby!
My alarm went off at 4am and with a quick change and Bingo in the passenger seat, I pulled out onto the coastal motorway and headed south. It was Sunday morning and the roads were quiet; and after about an hour and a half, the sun could be seen shining it’s golden, dawn rays into the sky.
We arrived in Oria, Puglia at about 9:30am and found the house for delivery immediately. Master Matteo, Bingo’s 6 year old number 1 fan was playing in the street with his uncle, eagerly awaiting his arrival! As we arrived, I wound down the passenger window so that Bingo could express his excitement at being reunited!
Once the excitement had died down a bit, I had a coffee with the family and then began the unloading into the underground garage.
All done, goodbyes said and photo’s taken, I headed 30 minutes east to San Vito Dei Normannie where I met my mate Gerry at his place for a pizza and a shower. (Not at the same time! No one likes soggy wet pizza!)
We discussed a little American politics, drank coffee and then went 1/4 of a mile down the road to Giulio’s house where I we unloaded the granite topped kitchen unit.
On to Roma!
I left San Vito after refuelling and a few more gratuitous van photos! Next delivery point was Rome. The flat was right near the River Tiber and close to the city centre. It was one of those places nestled in a maze of cobbled streets not designed with the Mercedes Sprinter in mind! With cars parked on either side of each narrow street, the twisting and turning from one street to the next was sometimes tense! I had to resort to driving up one-way streets the wrong way and performing 20 point turns in order to avoid clipping badly parked Alfa Romeos!
Eventually, I located the destination and found an ideal parking spot. This was the delivery of some artwork and furniture to an Interior Designers home. Unfortunately the lift wasn’t quite big enough to facilitate the largest item, and so the client’s brother helped as we carried it up to the second floor.
After a relatively simple delivery, I embarked on the complicated way out of the Roman road maze! The next delivery was to a rural place near Grossetto in Tuscany which was just a two hour drive north.
It was now 8pm and I was getting hungry again! So I found another suitable stopover point at a service station, got out the old camping burner and cooked up some rice and peas before turning in for the night.
At 6am I woke up and headed to the property. I was to meet Mariana at her place of work and this location was not clear to me. So using Google Translate on my phone I painstakingly tried to communicate with her via text messages.
This was not proving helpful at all, particularly because Google Translate was interpreting the street name (Strada del Giordino) as ‘the garden’. Not realising that Giordino means ‘garden’ in Italian, I thought I was looking for some random garden where Mariana would be waiting. All the other directions she was providing just didn’t make any sense and so after unsuccessfully asking locals to interpret her words through some kind of gesturing system of navigation, I gave up!! I headed for the actual delivery address and hoped the key holding Mariana would just turn up, which indeed she did!
I really need to take a crash course on learning Italian….
Loading up at Castel de Forma
The load back from Italy was waiting for me in Castel de Forma, about 2 hours east of Grossetto. It was a house move for Graham and his wife Lynne who, after 15 years in the Umbrian countryside, were relocating to Somerset to be nearer the grandchildren.
Everything was packed and ready to go and so I parked close to the house and we started loading up bed frames, boxes, cupboards and all sorts.
After loading, it was time for some alfresco pasta and clementines!
With 2/3rds of the van full, I headed to the town of Fabriano which was about 1.5 hours away. Here I was to collect some very expensive paintings destined for the Isle of White. They were located in a museum and I met Giorgino, who spoke perfect English, and was able to help me load the 6 foot, well packed frames onto the van.
A few photos later, and I headed to the nearest layby for a sleep! Just before I dropped off though, I answered a few emails requesting quotes for future trips to and from Italy. I also had a notification for an item to be collected in Milan the following morning and taken to Porton Down in Wiltshire ASAP.
This was a notification from the Courier Exchange, a useful subscription site that posts adverts for couriers like myself who happen to be in areas where there’s a need for transport. So I rang the company that was offering the work and in less than 10 minutes was told I’m successful with the quote.
I was 5 hours from Milan and it was 6pm. So I still had time to get my eight hours sleep and arrive in Milan (The Brain Injuries Unit) at 09:30 to collect the ‘dry ice’ package. (I dread to think…!)
I arrived at the Mario Negri institute and was invited into the wide open foyer with marble floor and comfy seats! Not totally unexpected, the contact I was given to see regarding the package, was surprised to see a courier waiting to collect a ‘dry ice’ package. I was asked to wait patiently while they sorted it all out; and I was promptly shown the direction of the ‘all inclusive’ canteen, where I feasted on a croissant and macchiato!
Eventually the situation was resolved. The Italians are very keen to ensure there is corresponding paperwork to everything. This is what I’ve found! So with that sorted, I was able to take the eyes to the van. (did I mention? This was a box containing eyes! And not on dry ice, but wet ice. Quite an important distinction apparently!)
I must admit, it is going to be very tempting when I get to the destination (where these are part of a Government Defense experiment, apparently) to look at the person receiving the goods, hold onto the box with a fierce grip and say: “You can’t take your eyes off of me can you?”
I spent a few minutes trying to work out the best route back. Normally, the simplest route is through Switzerland but as it was now about 10:30, this would mean I might increase my chances of being stopped on the entrance border with Switzerland. If the Italian border police see anything remotely commercial, they tend to either turn vans away or send them through the customs route, which, would be too complicated given that the paintings I had on were worth about £20,000; and the eyes… who knows?
Rather than go the long way around (accross to Verona, up the Brenner Pass and out through Austria and Germany), or the expensive way round (west towards Chamonix, Lyon and up through France), I decided to park up, cook me up some SuperRice and sleep! That way, I can cross at night when the pedantic police are all snuggled in their cabins watching tv and drinking coffee!
This trip materialised because Tommy, another doggy I took to Puglia for a holiday with his owners, was due to travel back. But at the last minute, his ‘mummy’ had realised his Rabies jabs were overdue! So Tommy would have to wait until September now.
Meanwhile, word had got out in the Italian dog world! And so… enter Poppy, the little pooch in the picture above. She had, as so often the case in Puglia, been abandoned and was in a bad way when her adopted Brit carers took pity on her. They took care of her for a few months and when friends visited, it was love at first sight for the new owner, who has requested transport for Poppy back to the UK where she will be living.
The trip south began, as always, with a journey to Dover. I arrived at said port with 20 minutes to go before the 6am ferry left. Normally, there’s no chance you can get on a ferry when arriving that late! But on this fine Saturday, my luck was in and I was straight on.
After settling down to a hearty breakfast in the ‘Roadkings’ lounge for truckers, I found a comfy chair and shut my eyes. The next thing I knew, it was disembarking time, which I was suddenly alerted to by a tap on the arm from a passing Polak, most concerned that I might end up back in Dover if I didn’t wake up!
Once in the van and on the road again, my route took me, as is becoming my ritual route, through Luxebourg and across Switzerland, with the first destination point at Maglione in Tuscany. (More Terracotta plant pots!) Once unloaded, I was invited to have a cup of tea with the customers, which I accepted with much eagerness of course!
Their place has a very steep drive, set at a horrible angle to the access road, so once again the neighbour with the pick-up tractor type vehicle was on hand to help.
After a good long chat about all manner of world issues, including the price of wedding photos, Demi-johns and German roadworks, I bade them farewell and head for Umbertide.
This was a delivery that had to be made right near the top of a mountain. The road to this mountain was not only step and winding, it was a white ‘road’; very gravelly and uneven. And with a full load, I was quite heavy, so to stop at any point on this mountain road, would have been a problem, to say the least! So it was ‘foot down’ and hope for the best type driving!
Just before I had reached the property, I saw another house with an English car parked in the drive. As I knew that my customer was living in London, I wondered if this was their car and that this might be the property I was looking for. It turned out NOT to be, but in stopping, I was approached by the owner, William, from Bath! I gave him my card and he seemed very keen to use my services!
Once arrived at the home of my customer, I met Matteo, a local man who looks after all the holiday properties and expat second homes in the area. We unloaded an outdoor, wicker type sofa, some sun loungers and two heavy ornamental stone pieces.
After a pint of refreshing water, I took my leave and headed down the mountain where I found a spot and cooked up some breakfast on my camping stove!
It was now about 3pm (so, a late breakfast then!) and time to head to the next stop. This was a 6 hour drive south. The location was a little town in the mountains of Molise. Reaching this town was challenging; and finding the house was not easy! The town was full of alleyways and steps and paths, with very little parking for a big white Sprinter van!
After finding a spot to park, I then had to walk around hunting for the right house, which turned out to be right at the end of a narrow, cobbled street about 1000 yards from the van!
The customer was very helpful and helped me as I trolley’d the cupboard up steps, down inclines, over uneven surfaces and into her tiny property. This was at 8 in the evening and as you can imagine, the temperature was still warm. Still, the hot cup of English instant coffee was appreciated as I sat there dripping with sweat!
My journey to the next delivery seemed straight forward. However, there was the small matter of negotiating the way down this mountain in the middle of nowhere with a GPS system that seems to believe I am on a horse, not in a van!! Not 10 minutes had passed, when I was being instructed to take turnings up roads that led to nowhere. I know people often complain that their Satnavs send them into all sorts of dead end places and off road destinations, but I generally think that this is because people don’t follow the instructions properly and blame the machine! But in this case, I really was being directed into fields and off cliff edges! It’s the first time my Garmin has gone back to medieval times, imagining that there were roads where there no longer were any! And all this in the dead of night with fox cubs randomly running at me and at one point a wild boar in the middle of the lane!
Unfortunately, I was too stressed to take pictures of what was a very frustrating part of the journey! Eventually, I found my way off this mountain maze and onto the straight roads leading to the Autostrade.
Next on the list: Fasano in Puglia. Here I would collect Poppy the Pugliese Pooch! I arrived at 2:15am where Klaus and Sue had kindly left their holiday flat unlocked for me to slip in and sleep! I did just that and woke up to a lovely cooked breakfast by the pool! Sometimes, this job has it’s rewards!
Then Poppy arrived at 9am. Poppy is a beautiful little dog and so friendly. She hopped up into the passenger seat while I loaded her supplies for the journey. We were off!
From Fasano, the journey to my next stop was only 40 minutes. A small collection of luggage from a customer who’s decided, after 10 years of summers in the sun, that it’s time to move back to Blighty.
Next stop was only 30 minutes away and I was running early. My customer was expecting me at about 2pm, so I quickly darted into the supermarket for some supplies… Namely… 12 bottles of Prosecco! And at 3.79euros a bottle, I was mad not too!
I turned up at Chris and Anna’s house for their delivery of Jewson roof batons! Apparently, the quality of timber in the UK is far superior and justify’s the shipment! Who am I to argue?
When I arrived, Chris was out in the garden tending to his nuts! He had 11 Almond trees and was harvesting the produce. I was fascinated by the machine that automatically just shells the almonds from their original coats.
There were bucket loads!
We offloaded the timber, had a cup of coffee and a chat, and I then moved on to a friend and old client who lives around the corner. He had a pool and I had a need to be in it!
I had some time to kill, (and kill it I did!) so after a dip in the blue, I had some sleep in the swinging chair by the pool. Meanwhile, Poppy was chilling out in the van with the windows down. She couldn’t joint me as Gerry had a lot of territorial dogs on site!
After some sausage, chicken wings and chips, followed by fruit salad and gateaux, I got on my way. The next part of the journey would take me west, from where I was near Brindisi, to the west coast south of Salerno. It is a place called Scario and the house is situated… You guessed it… Up a mountain!
I pulled over in a layby where I thought the shadow of trees would shield me from that horrible bright and hot sunshine through the screen at 7:30 in the morning! I was wrong! Poppy had her little walk and then settled down in her bed by the accelerated, clutch and break pedal area! She was fine and slept like a log.
I arranged to meet the local builder, Pepé at 8:30am, so once the sun had done it’s rude job, I was up and dressed. The house was only 5 minutes away, so I pulled into the driveway and waited for Pepé to arrive.
He was early and we got the 2.4 metre flatpacked table into the property in minutes. I then said goodbye and set up the breakfast burner!
The view from here is stunning to say the least. Looking out over the Tyrheann sea with the mountains hugging the curved coast, from the swimming pool, is quite something!
Unusually, I had time to use up again. The next customer is an artist who creates sculptures in his studio south of Rome. The gallery in London had asked me to collect the goods for exhibition in London in late August. Because it’s quite hard to juggle all the dates between all the different customers, I’d had to leave earlier than needed.
The artist, James, would not quite be ready from my arrival on the 23rd, so I’d promised I’m the 24th. But when you’re previous customer is happy for you to make yourself at home in his pool while he’s not there, then why would I worry about delays? 😉 Plus, Poppy was happy to play here all day, so why not!
By about 3pm, my skin had taken just about all it could from the west coast Italian sun! So I packed up and headed to the next drop: Isola Del Liri, an hour and a half hours south of Rome.
The journey was non eventful. Except to see Poppy up and down in the seat between the shade of tunnels (lying down) and the bright low sun hitting the passenger side of the van as we emerged from each tunnel (up and running for cover!)!
Also, there’s the crazy driving one experiences when cruising the autostrade of course! Using cruise control means I maintain a consistent speed, something that seems alien to the average Italian Alfa Romeo driver! Some of them zoom at crazy speeds along the outside lane of course, flashing lights and swerving across the lanes to get by. That’s par for the course in Italy. But the more frustrating drivers are those who insist on trundling along in the middle lane. Approaching from behind at consistent speeds means I am bound to overtake them. As I do, 9 times out of 10, the driver will feel obliged to shake off this uninvited take over situation and so will slowly speed up, leaving me to dive back in behind. Due to, what I can only imagine is short term memory loss, the said vehicle will inevitably slow back down to the speed at which I will need to do the whole manoeuvre again!
And so it goes for miles and miles! I’m thinking of sign-writing my driver’s door with a service announcement advertising my use of Cruise Control and that those confused by this abnormal use of consistent speeds should get over it!
I arrived at the destination eventually. It was 7:15 in the evening and the client was busy still packing his sculptures while the rest of his family were all running about catering to guests, organising builders who were renovating porches etc. As the goods would not be ready until the next day, I set up camp in the van, walked Poppy and then had a shower, offered to me by the customer.
After about an hour and a half, everybody went out for a meal, including me!
I awoke the next morning to the news that there had been an earthquake in Umbria, about 90 miles north of where I was (as the crow flies). A 6.2 on the Richter scale apparently. It was at about 3am and caused quite a bit of damage, the effects didn’t reach here, as both Poppy and I slept undisturbed!
I got up early and let Poppy out for a run and a wee. I thought about getting the burner out for a fry up, but then saw a fig tree! Easy breakfast!
Once I’d reached a point with the figs, I decided to set up a chair under the garden’s palm tree. The sun was peaking over the top of the trees which had shielded me from that familiar morning heat shock! I also got my book out and set my phone in front, on the ground, angled up to capture the moment, using the timer.
I posted the above picture on Facebook (as you do!), only to have it met with the usual amounts of derision! Normally, there will be some comment from a ‘wise guy’ stuck in rainy Britain deriding my working life! But this time, I’d unknowingly given everyone a priceless opportunity, given that the picture looks just like I’m reading a book on an outside loo! And with the caption “The long wait begins!” that I’d attached to the post, I really was asking for it!
Most of the day was spent defending myself against mosquitos, horseflies and licks to the face from Poppy! The property was a big old house on the hill with a long, sheltered part out back where I spent hours on the swinging chair to escape the boisterous Poppy! Also, my controversial reading material attracted the attentions of the home owner, a skeptical Italian man, himself disillusioned with religion since he was 21. Over his homemade spaghetti bolognese (of which there were half a dozen partakers, all sat alfresco), we discussed the finer points of healthy doubt, heresy and lost civilisations!
The intense heat of the day, even in the shady part, was too much and so I flopped down on the swinging sofa after lunch (when Poppy wasn’t looking!). I was woken up by the builders who were erecting a porch for the front of the house. They wanted to help with the lifting of the Ride-on mower from the van, while they still had some energy hidden from the sun!
I then did my usual tidy up of the loading area, folded the blankets, bound up the straps, straight-lined the bungies and swept the floor! My customer was nearly packed and would be ready for the loading of his 6 months-worth of commissions!
Once loaded, I said my farewells and headed for the capital. I reached the centre of Rome at about 8:30 in the evening, when all the tourists were out photographing the immense buildings with their columns and pillars all lit up. Romantic couples on every street soaking up the warm, city air. (Is that where the name Romantic comes from I wondered?)
The place I needed to be was an apartment in the heart of Rome. The streets leading to it were narrow, twisty and cobbled. Tiziana, my loyal client!, had arranged help and managed to bring everything that needed transporting, down to the ground level. So in the evening heat and dull light, we loaded for Trieste!
By this time, I was feeling a little shattered. Must have been all those hours doing nothing today!
With Poppy in the passenger seat, head aloft and upright back, staring at the passersby and mad traffic, we headed out of the metropolis. It was impossible to take clear pictures of the beautiful structures I passed. Trees hid their beauty from the roadside and the crazy drivers on cobbled main roads demanded my full attention! If only Poppy could have at least offered to drive!
I got as far as a motorway service area north of Rome at about midnight and after giving Poppy her pooing rights, settled down for a four hour sleep. At 4am, we headed to Triested. I wanted to clear Bologna at a reasonably early hour before the traffic chaos hit the surrounding Autostrade. The route took us past Florence, around Bologna, up near Paiva, a stone’s throw from Venice and along the Northeastern coast.
We made it to Trieste 30 minutes before the guys who were assigned to help with the unloading arrived at the property. So I grabbed a desirable Machiatto Latte from the Bar opposite and fed Poppy some dried whatever!
Unloading was straight forward. The lift to the 5th floor was typically small, so the process was long winded. But all good! A wee jog up and down the many flights of stairs was needed after all that sitting around and driving, anyway!
From Trieste, England was about 18 hours. I’d allowed for 24 hours, so Poppy and I went in search of a beach! Poppy wasn’t bothered about her lack of swimwear, but I was bloody annoyed that my Burkini hadn’t arrived from Amazon in time for this trip!
We found a nice quiet spot off the main road out of Trieste. It was a climb-down of about 500 steps and onto a narrow strip of rocks pressed up against a lapping, blue warm sea. Paradise!
The trip back from Trieste takes you through the breathtaking valleys of Austria. Miles and miles of meandering motorway channelled through tunnelled rock and between huge, imposing mountains. The pass winds up towards Villach and onto Salzburg before seamlessly becoming Germany.
The roads through Germany are endless! At the moment, the government there seems to be spending trillions on their upkeep and maintenance. Consequently, every few miles, just as you’ve got into your stride, as it were, another set of kinking roadworks, outlined by thick parallel yellow lines to contain your passage. Down to 80kms an hour. Then 60 as the bends approach. It becomes tiresome!
I continued to drive through the night, stopping once for an hour’s rest and a few times more for Poppy and for fuel. We entered Belgium. No security in these terror filled days! Weird! Then into the northern strip of France that leads to the ferry ports. Here there was a security checkpoint! Aha! The cones and signs directed traffic to pull off the Autoroute and into the slip road leading to a roundabout. I approached carefully to see no one! Not one guard, policeman or police vehicle! The signs directed us back onto the main road and away we went!
I arrived at the port of Dunkirk, handed Poppy’s passport to the ferry company official who turned to me and said, in her French accented, otherwise perfect, English:
“There is no stamp for the ‘wormer’. You have to go to the vet, get the injection and wait 24 hours before you can bring the dog back through”
Note to self: Never trust an Italian vet! One just assumes these professionals know the rules and will make sure the passports record what’s needed. Oh well. A quick trip to the local vet in Duinkirk then.
There was a small amount of waiting time involved once I arrived. After about 15 minutes, Poppy was on the hospital table ready for her tablets! The vet recorded the details, gave me the address for a local ‘Pet Hotel’, and 38 euros later we made our way to Poppy’s digs for the night!
Luckily, I had another job from London to Vron (northern France, just 60 miles south of Calais). So this, although somewhat inconvenient, was very lucky. The 24 hours needed before Poppy was allowed into the UK, I utilised with this job. Perfect.
We said our goodbyes and I headed for the Calais ferry, which, incidentally, is only 15 minutes from the Pet Hotel. I altered my booking online and hopped on the next available boat.
One Lasagne, chips and a nice sleep later, I was on British soil again headed for the cutely named delivery point: Billingbear Farm, where my artist client needs his work taken. I arrived to meet Jan, (pronounced Yan), an Easterner European man, or possibly Russian, it was difficult to say. He directed me to where the interestingly shaped sculptures and crated paintings were to be discharged, and promptly buggered off!
The peices were heavy and the sun was burning hard, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, an’ all that…. (Ooh, I now really fancy a Toffo!!! Remember them?? Whhhoooo??)
Next stop was West London. It was 5:30PM on a Friday and I was heading into the big Smoke! Crazy, but necessary! A quick unloading of just four suitcases and boxes into a second floor flat in Brooklyn Court, and I was off to the pick-up point for the next leg of this never ending journey.
A lucky break though… This next place was just 10 minutes around the corner! (In London language, that’s basically next door, but it takes that long to move the van that distance! I jest…!)
Here I met Elizabeth, a Seattle born lady and friend of the client, who let me into the nearly empty property in order to load up the remaining peices that were destined to Vron.
By this point, I was shattered and starving with the oh so joyful prospect of making my way through South London on a hot, Friday night. Traffic was it’s usual, congested state and there were people everywhere. The smell of kebabs, curry, Chinese chile beef…. Yes, that was the overriding smell filtering into my nostrils fro the entire 10 mile, 40 minute, ring-road experience… (Boy was I hungry for Chinese Chile Beef!)
I settled for Macdonalds on the Sidcup Bypass!
I made it to the ferry at about 11pm, slept the hour to Calais and drove off to find a rest area towards Bolougne. 4 hours later, I headed for Vron which was only 30 minutes away.
I arrived at the beautiful village of Vron, where idyllic bungalows were scattered spacious along the road. The neighbours had been briefed to watch out for an exhausted looking Englishman! They were super-helpful and assisted (all 4 of them!) as I explained in my French-accented English! which items were to go where, as per the customer’s email instructions.
Finally! That was the last one! Oh yeah, don’t forget Poppy! I headed back to the Pet Hotel after, annoyingly, failing to take the proper slip road onto the motorway and ended up having to drive 11 miles to get back on the north bound carriageway!
Poppy was very pleased to see me. That’s how I’d put it if I didn’t really want you to know she was pleased to see me! She was like a puppy dog…wait, she is a puppy dog! You know what I mean! Bouncy, rollie, jumpy, panty!!! I think she thought I’d abandoned her, and she wasn’t having that again, I got the impression she thought!
£50 euros later, she was back in the van, remembering the good times, no doubt; the 1700 miles of sleep, van-sun, air-con blowing through her floppy ears and “Ghettoside” on Audible (a fascinating audio books we listened to…! all about disproportionate Black homicide in Los Angeles during the late nineties early 2000s. Poppy was gripped!
Second attempt at a channel crossing! Poppy and I were greeted with looks of “Awwww…!” from the three DFDS uniformed lady staff as we walked into the air-conditioned, modern looking terminal office. Poppy seems to have the power to melt women, even in air-conditioned environments, a power I wish I could have possessed in my teenage years!
The staff managed to hold it together for passport checks, but I’m not convinced they weren’t shortly afterwards killed off by lingering cuteness fumes!
Once on the ferry, I had to leave Poppy in the van. It was then a trip up the stairs to the Roadkings retaurant again where I chose Chicken and chips before retiring to the lounge to blog a bit more!
Sitting in the truckers lounge is quite an experience if you’re a fan of ‘people watching’. Take, for example, the driver who was eating at the table opposite me. He looked Romanian, was about 25 stone, short cropped dark hair and only just managed to fit himself onto the dining chair. I pondered on how long it would be before this obese guy had a heart attack at the wheel of his 38 ton artic.
Then there was an unexpected family who entered the drivers area. They appeared Turkish. The dad was about 7 feet tall, round faced, wearing a baggy t-shirt that sat over his huge belly but didn’t quite cover up the ‘spare tyre’ hanging over his belt which held up a pair of long shorts. As he waddled over to the ‘free’ coffee machine, his wife, who looked twice his age and dressed in traditional Eastern European garb, plonked herself and kids next to me and produced a huge Tupperware tub full of provisions especially prepared in order to avoid expensive ferry food!
I waited for there to be an approach by ferry staff and after about two minutes, one appeared to instruct the wandering family that this was indeed the truckers and drivers lounge. From their appearance and manner, especially the loud and full-of-swagger dad, I thought there might be trouble! But they were very cooperative and left.
The ferry was packed, being as it was, Bank Holiday weekend. But I was the first vehicle loaded on at Calais, and consequently first off. As soon as the ferry doors opened, texts were flying into me from friends and family that a bridge over the M20 had been struck by a lorry.
Luckily, my journey to Poppy’s new owners took me off a good few junctions earlier and would mean me rejoining the motorway a few junctions after the incident.
Finally, Poppy was at her new home and the journey could end for her. We were greeted by a crowd of family members at the gate of their lovely home in the Kent countryside, all extremely excited to see Poppy! It was overwhelming for her, but Poppy seemed very happy to be made such a fuss of.
Poppy did keep rushing back to me after getting to know the other dogs in the family who would now be her brothers and sisters! So it was decided that I would exit the scene while Poppy was taken for a run across the fields.
I said my goodbyes to her and her new family and headed home. Another happy ending and a final trip home!
Until next time…