Matterhorn Magic, GPS Woes, & Elusive Gas Stations

Trip Start Sep 18, 2010
Trip End Sep 30, 2010

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Flag of Italy  , Lombardy,
Thursday, September 30, 2010

September 28, 2010 (Post 1 of 2)
Our last morning in Zermatt was supposed to be spent packing up and driving into Italy's Lake District. Because we still hadn't really seen the Matterhorn, however, we flipped on TV channel 41 - the alternating webcam views of Zermatt's three mountain viewing areas - before heading down for breakfast. 

Though completely socked in where we were down in the valley, the webcams showed some blue sky and even a few shots of the Matterhorn's famous triangular profile.

So throwing our Lake District schedule to the wind, we geared up for the cold, grabbed our 3-day train passes, and headed for the Gornergrat train station. Thirty minutes later, our train was breaking through the clouds and the Matterhorn began to put on a show. 

We rode through a white Alpine wonderland to the last station - at over 10,000 feet elevation - and stepped into the rarefied air to drink in the vistas. It truly was spectacular, not just the iconic figure of the Matterhorn, though that did not disappoint, but the entire 360-degree panorama of snow-capped mountains, braided glaciers winding down rocky ravines, blue, blue skies, and layers of gray and white clouds softening the unforgiving austerity of this cold, beautiful, angular world.

Remembering we had some serious planning to do in the Lake District, we enjoyed 30 minutes of photography and Matterhorn magic, then pulled ourselves away from the wintry fairyland and headed back down the mountain.

Luggage retrieval from the hotel was followed by a train ride on the shuttle from Zermatt to Tasch (no cars allowed in Zermatt) where we were reunited with our rental car. Plugging Stresa, Italy into the GPS, we headed back out of the dead end valley overshadowed by the spectacle of the Matterhorn. 

All went well until I saw a sign indicating the possibility of a car train through the Simplon Pass. Since the car train had saved us significant driving en route to Zermatt, I dutifully followed the signs of the cars riding on trains, ignoring the GPS routing that kept changing on its little dashboard screen. 

Ten minutes later, we reached the loading area, only to find that the next train didn't depart for over 45 minutes. In that amount of time, I estimated we could be over the pass and well into Italy if we simply drove the route. So, turning the car around, we headed back to the freeway and climbed the pass. I had assumed the GPS would take the most obvious route, clearly the shortest route to Stresa, Italy, our next destination. 

However, as I tried to determine the correct turns to approach the pass into Italy, the GPS kept insisting that I turn around, perhaps because it read the car train as the fastest route to Italy. Not fully confident that I knew better than the computer, I exited and followed its directions, which pointed me down the mountain.  

Now as anyone on the WAI team could tell you, I have a long-running feud with the concept of the GPS. Many a coach driver has taken our tours into obviously wrong territory by putting their brain into neutral, eschewing the work of reading a map, and blindly following the GPS. In this case, my lovely wife gets easily car-sick, so I as navigating and driving and not happy with where the GPS was taking us. 

After driving a couple of miles down towards the valley -- away from the Simplon Pass -- I exited the freeway again, consulted my map, jerked the GPS off the windshield, and reversed my route yet again. As we climbed up the highway into the Simplon with lovely Alpine views on all sides, I stuff the GPS screen into the storage compartment between the front seats, where it remained on detention until we were well over the pass, and it could relinquish its fetish of using the car train.

Finally, we arrived in Stresa, Italy a couple of hours later, enjoyed a relaxing cruise on Lake Maggiore to the Borromeo Islands, then drove to Como at the end of a long and interesting day

September 30, 2010 (post 2 of 2)
The flight this morning was scheduled to leave around 10 am; we had an hour to drive to the airport from Como, fill the gas tank, and turn in the rental car. 

All went will until we started the search for a gas station. I have a theory about gas stations and airports: I suspect that rental car companies are in cahoots with the gas stations. My theory is that rental car companies pay gas stations a percentage of the penalties they receive when the car is returned with a less than full tank. Gas stations are then obligated to leave a sizable gas-station free radius around the airport so that unsuspecting motorists are unable to fill their tanks and are then subject to outrageous fees ($8 per gallon) from the rental car companies! 

Actually, we did find a place on the approach to the airport - maybe about 5 miles out. Turned out, however, that the pumps were activated only by inserting Euro bills into a machine. So you couldn't really fill the tank, you could only estimate how much money to insert into the machine and hope you got close, or insert extra bills and overpay. The machine did not dispense cash - you could not get change.

Decided against this guessing game, we hopped back on the freeway in search of a manned gas station that would completely fill our tank. Ironically, the only other gas station we saw was an AGIP petrol station situated on the far side of the freeway leading away from the airport. We arrived at terminal 1, having passed no more gas stations. 

At that point, I remembered that we could use our GPS to find a gas station. Sure enough, just 3 km away was a gas station. After winding through the countryside around Malpensa airport (Milan's international airport), we arrived at another self-serve gas station activated only by cash bills. 

Tired of hunting, I started feeding bills into the machine. I used my 20 Euro - still not full. I used another 5 Euro bill - still not full. Another 5 Euro bill - not full. My final 5 Euro bill - not full. All I had left was a couple of 50 Euro bills and I knew the tank had to be nearly full.

So I stomped back to the driver's side and flopped down into my seat, asking the GPS for the next closest gas station. We'd cushioned our time liberally, so I was not overly concerned about getting to the airport in time, just frustrated with the merry-go-round gas station circus with visions of my conspiracy theory buzzing through my head.

The GPS led us back onto the freeway northbound - away from the airport - right back to the AGIP station we'd seen on the opposite side coming on. I pulled in and spent another 6 Euro to fill the tank, probably about the amount of gas I'd spent driving through the Malpensa district back roads over the past 30 minutes.

Full and finally satisfied, the car was dropped at the rental agency and we checked in at the Delta counters. We still had a couple of hours to kill before our flight, so I powered up my laptop and sorted through photos of the past couple of days while Linda roamed the airport stretching her legs and checking out the shops. 

It's been an amazing 12 days of Pure Alpine Delights. I'm excited to get home and assemble the various pieces of the puzzle into a walking adventure we can share with our travelers!

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Diane H on

OMG! Hilarious - you totally crack me up. At least you didn't think the machinery was in cahoots with the rental agencies. LOL

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