It could be argued that the autoroutes and autostradas of France and Italy are very much like our roads in Britain. In many ways I would agree but for me the numerous subtle differences make them quite different and of course what you see from the road is very contrasting. In northern France roads go through hundreds of kilometres of open prairie like landscapes. This is almost the US Mid-West equivalent of France. Here there no hedgerows and if you are lucky you may see the occasional block of woodland. Large robot-like irrigation machines rotate quietly in fields that seem to stretch to the horizon and large arrays of windfarms dominate the skyline. The contrast to our soft, intimate and well enclosed British landscape is stark. These differences become more obvious when reaching the Alps where the sheer drama and scale of mountains dominates the view, and quite frankly take your breath away.
However, in terms of features along the route aside from the landscape, what else makes these journeys different? Driving on the right is a pretty obvious difference but what I find really interesting in France on the autoroutes is the large pictorial brown signs that tell a story about the region you are in, the next city you are about to pass, the history, economy or culture of the area. This really does bring alive the journey and give a greater sense of place and identity to where you are. This could be done in the UK albeit in a way that minimises any potential clutter of signage or perhaps automatically through our sat-navs or in-car information systems.
Another welcome feature of autoroutes are the informal picnic service areas known as ‘aires’ that are set back from the road which are no more than grassy areas with picnic benches, toilets and some basic local information. These are lovely spaces to stop and relax especially in the summer. Do we always need the ubiquitous Burger outlets of the high street? The French invariably bring their own food and lay on a simple meal in these areas and in fact shouldn’t we be getting back to this idea to minimise packaging and the harms fast food outlet that in many instances are bringing about the gradual destruction of the Amazon rainforest through intensive cattle grazing.
Leaving the fast autoroutes on our return journey from the Italian Lakes we took the St Gotthard Pass that connects southern and northern Switzerland across the Saint Gotthard Massif at an impressive 2,106m (6,909 feet). The alternative would have been to take the tunnel through the mountain and endure long queues for the pleasure of its use. The decision was easy and so we took a breath-taking journey along a beautiful road that elegantly swept up and then down the mountain. The engineering of this road was truly impressive as it cantilevered itself away from the mountain side to make broad sweeping curves upwards to the summit. This was engineering at its best and as a driver the experience of leaving the mountain side on this bridge like structure was not one to forget. The snake-like form of the road as it descended from the summit was equally compelling. The sculptural from of the road was a thing of beauty only matched by the stunning backdrop of the Alpine landscape around us, engineering in harmony with its surroundings. As an aside the original road over the pass, known as Tremola, is granite sett paved and is on the inventory of listed Swiss roads. Now that is an interesting concept. Today the old road is used by ultra-keen cyclists and the occasional motorist.
Other elements that stood out were the more extensive use of green bridges or wildlife bridges to provide that very important connection of habitat from one side of the road to the other. These seemed more common place in France than I have found in the UK where I have only seen about two in my travels around England. Perhaps there are more but the impression is that they are pretty limited in their use.
So, my ‘ground level’ holiday through Europe did reveal differences, only some of which I have touched on here. Firstly, having a sense of geography and place is important in your journey and the autoroutes in France help in this. Similarly, rest points do not have to be dominated by commercial opportunities – green spaces are just as good. Finally, and perhaps most importantly roads in the landscape can be a thing of beauty if designed thoughtfully and sympathetically with their landscapes and not just something to be screened. The final word should I believe go to Dame Sylvia Crowe, one of the founders of the landscape architecture profession. In her seminal publication, ‘The Landscape of Roads’ in 1960, she made an analogy with rivers and stated:
Nearly 60 years since writing this book the principles she wrote, at a time when motorways in the UK were only just being introduced, still apply both here and in Europe.