How to start off a visit to France on the wrong foot:
1. Drive an hour from your hotel in Aosta to the Mont Blanc tunnel before remembering that you left your treasured jacket in the hotel room. Treasured might seem like a strong feeling for a jacket, but it’s also your only method of staying warm on cold alpine nights (and days) and it’s literally day two of the trip. You don’t want to die out there, at least not until you’ve been to Barcelona.
2. Drive back to the hotel and get the coat. This part isn’t actually so bad – Aosta valley is gorgeous. You could drive back and forth through it until tectonic plates shift enough to erase the valley and still not feel satisfied that you’ve experienced it all.
3. Pay several million euros simply to enter the Mont Blanc tunnel. Note that there is no other option here – once you reach the toll booth it’s either pay the fee or drive several hours on a different route to cross the Alps.
4. Marvel at the tunnel. Or try to. Here are some fun facts about it that I wish I had known at the time because, honestly, it was a pretty damn boring, empty, and long tunnel:
- Begun in 1957 and completed in 1965, the tunnel is 11.611 km (7.215 mi) in length, 8.6 m (28 ft) in width, and 4.35 m (14.3 ft) in height.
- The passageway is not horizontal, but in a slightly inverted “V”, which assists ventilation.
- The passageway is one of the major trans-Alpine transport routes, particularly for Italy, which relies on the tunnel for transporting as much as one-third of its freight to northern Europe.
- On the morning of 24 March 1999, 38 people died when a Belgian transport truck carrying flour and margarine caught fire in the tunnel.
5. Suppress all thoughts about that last fun fact. Yep. Just push those on down. Don’t think about how there were 16 previous truck fires in the tunnel. Don’t think about how toxic fumes quickly filled the tunnel and caused vehicle engines to stall because of lack of oxygen. Don’t think about how the fire burned for 53 hours and reached temperatures of 1,000 °C. Just…just forget about watching burning fuel roll down the road surface as you roast alive 8,000 feet beneath the highest mountain in Europe.
6. Get to know the border patrol on the French side of the tunnel. They’ll direct you sternly to a parking area and take the driver into a concrete building that was probably a World War II bunker/gas chamber.
7. Wait endlessly while your friend is probably being waterboarded by the border patrol. Don’t worry, there’s a lookout point with great views and, like, a bathroom you can use if you want.
8. Receive a speeding ticket because apparently they take such things as speed limits quite seriously in fire-prone tunnels deep beneath the earth’s crust. It’s expensive, but apparently could have been more expensive. Take solace in this fact.
How to start off a visit to France on an even worse foot:
9. Do all of the above and also don’t have a passport when you get pulled over because you’re kinda maybe an illegal immigrant. Let’s just say we all felt pretty relieved to have passports after learning about that guy.