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“The Wine Must Get Through”

...or how we learnt to drive in the HGV lane!

Now how often have we heard the saying “The Mail Must Get Through”?  I believe this is a corruption of the US Postal Service Creed which is inscribed on the James Farley Post Office in New York and based on a translation from ancient Greek descriptions of the Angarium – the ancient Persian system of mounted postal carriers…. 

So – back to the plot – you may have heard about the WCoMC Wine Club wine tasting trips; certainly there are a number of interesting blogs that have just been posted following our most recent trip to Sicily.  For Ann and me, this is the third trip that we have joined – and each time we have helped Patrick McHugh with the driving and navigating, which adds a certain something to the tasting, eating and site seeing that we have enjoyed in the Loire Region of central France, the Pfälz Region of southwestern Germany and now Sicily, which is about as far south as you can get in Europe: a journey of about 1,800 miles from London, depending on how you negotiate The Alps.  And for a journey of this length, we were glad that Patrick had enlisted the help of a professional driver, Haydar, who normally drives flat-bed HGVs, Black Cabs and Mini Cabs around southeast London.

Certainly it is one thing saying “yes, I can drive a 7.5 ton truck”.  But that was some years ago – and certainly not with a load of about 3 tons of wine on board, for that was what we amassed whilst spending a really enjoyable time searching around the ancient cathedrals, towns, villages and wineries of Sicily.  What none of us really appreciated was that a 7.5 ton truck is much happier chugging along at 50mph than 70mph (maybe this had something to do with the speed regulator and the silent hand of the tachograph recorder, who knows?).  This restriction did make the journey a little slower as we regularly found ourselves in HGV convoys (I now understand all about that 70s CW McCall song) and therefore our journey was not quite as exhilarating as the Italians and Germans in their Fiats, Mercs, Audis and Porsches.  But of course we had more wine – and olive oil – on board.

So I thought I would share a few highlights of the return trip (not forgetting that Patrick had driven the outbound trip with Haydar and that journey had not been without incident, particularly in Switzerland – but I will let him recount that…)

Our Isuzu truck sat three in relative comfort in front of the sleeping compartment which was handy as there were four of us on our first leg from Sicily to Cassino on the mainland, our first main stopover.  Actually, it was our second, as we stayed overnight in Messina, the Sicilian Port at the Northeast tip, the main ferry hub to and from the mainland.  Ports are always “interesting” places and we were staying in a B&B which turned out to be a very well appointed private flat in a somewhat unprepossessing block in central Messina overlooking one of the two main ferry terminals – perfect for a quick getaway in the morning – save that we were sailing from the other terminal at the south end of Messina.  Actually, this all went very well and as the picture to the left shows, we sidled up to massive tankers, artics and trailers in the ferry (look for the white truck at the rear, looking rather small even though it is about 8m long) for the hour long trip.

Then to Cassino – the location of a bloody battle towards the end of WW2 and the total destruction of the historic Benedictine Abbey on the hill overlooking the town.  The Abbey has been completely rebuilt and restored, and we had time to visit it and marvel at its statues, mosaics, pictures and baroque ornamentation, as the picture to the right shows.

At this point we skipped a few miles by taking a train to Venice whilst Haydar drove, allowing us to play tourists for a day (well neither Ann nor I had been before).  We walked for the day, taking in the sites, taking copious photos including of course spotting gondolas as in the picture! Certainly, Venice is a wonderful place to visit - spoilt a bit by the hoards of tourists!

And at this point, the great journey really began as we said a fond farewell to Patrick, who was staying in Venice for the weekend:

The first leg – Venice to Nuremberg – took us through the Alps.  Spectacular.  However, just when you thought that the EU meant “commonality” we found that cutting through Austria involved electronic road tolls for trucks and we didn’t have a GO-Box OBU – On-Board Unit.  We were lucky that they were quite understanding and we did not to receive a fine; but it still cost a pretty penny.  Austria has sensors along its roads that trigger the OBU and charges build against credits that you purchase in advance.  Basically, they use small, relatively cheap, OBUs, but they are heavy on the infrastructure of road-side/gantry sensors.  We even managed to return the OBU without any hassle at a Shell Service Station as we passed into Germany, where we had a booking in a very quiet modern hotel just off the autobahn.  Their room rates were very reasonable – but rather offset by €22 per person for breakfast!  I ask you?!  So in the morning we headed off to Liège in Belgium and stopped at the first motorway services where we had good freshly cooked breakfast for three for about €26!  (Our motorway service stations could learn a thing or two from the Germans….)

As we crossed the border into Belgium, Ann saw another notice about road tolls…  (What happened to “commonality” we wondered again?)  We stopped and after some Googling followed by a few long phone calls to the (very) helpful Customer Services staff of Satellic (the Belgium operators of their road tolls for HGVs), we managed to find a kiosk where we could purchase their OBU and load it with credits before travelling on.  Of course the Belgium system is nothing like the Austrian one, relying on GPS location and mobile phone telephony, which makes the Satellic OBU a lot larger (about 6” x 4” x 2”), heavier and more sophisticated, but of course this means that they have very little expensive road-side infrastructure to maintain.  (Note: this may well be the sort of technology that the UK adopts if we ever switch to pay-as-you-go road charging.)

Now you might wonder whether, at this point, the three of us were starting to suffer from a sense of humour failure.  Well – yes and no.  The hotel we stopped at outside Liège was “basic”, very basic, but was just across the road from a really friendly family restaurant.  So – on balance – we rested and were relaxed, ready to work out how to get rid of the Belgium OBU when we crossed to France…  Not the easiest of tasks as Satellic really had very few ‘service point’ kiosks (compared to the Austrian GO-Box organisation) – and they had placed them in what we felt were rather out-of-the-ordinary locations.

And so to the final leg – Liège to London via the Tunnel-sous-la-Manche.  You might have wondered, if you have stuck with the story so far, how we managed to bring some 1,800 bottles of wine into the UK.  All for personal consumption you might ask?  Let me paint a picture: the Eurotunnel Freight Terminal in Calais is quite different from the Domestic Terminal.  Four trucks at a time line up and everyone gets out.  They (the trucks not the people) are then thoroughly searched by sniffer dogs and, if OK, there is a quick “Le Mans-style” race where everyone gets back in to drive to the customs stations.  “Good morning sir; what is in the back?”  “About 1,800 boxes of wine.”  “Please show me…….”  Suffice it to say, we all have UK passports and we had individually signed letters from the 20 members of the Club who had been tripping around Sicily with us.  That said, the Customs Officer did marvel at the quantity that we had in the truck given it was for personal consumption…..  But after praising us for our paperwork, he warned that “next time, we should ensure that the owners of the wine were travelling with it; after all, sir, as the driver you would be liable for any duty payable at the border”.  Phew.

And with a smile and a “thank you”, I drove onto the freight shuttle, which are quite different to the normal shuttle trains as all drivers and passengers are taken by mini-bus to a coach at the front of the train for the journey to Folkestone, where another mini-bus takes you back to where (you thought) your HGV was parked on the shuttle train.  No time to hang about holding up a queue of HGVs!  Indeed, we were in London in very good time.  I will skip over the next morning when Ann and I drove over to join Calvert and Carole Markham to sort the whole shipment of boxes and offload about half into their garage for collection by colleagues, before taking the other half to the ARC wine store – where we offloaded it onto pallets.  It was a great day for weight-lifting exercise and I was delighted to hand the truck keys back to Patrick.

I need a drink just thinking about all this – and we all hope that you will enjoy some of the fruits of our labours at a Company Dinner in the near future!