INTERNATIONAL TRUCK STOP - The Italian job

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Motorways, tunnels, winding mountain passes, and impossibly narrow Italian streets. Paul O’Callaghan does it all with a Magnum in hand.


Photo: Taking a break on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc tunnel.

The big Renault Magnum was really growing on me as I made my way along the French A40 autoroute from Geneva to the Italian border. In tow was a Krone Euroliner trailer loaded with a variety of Irish-made products from horse feed to computer parts, all destined for five locations in the north of Italy. Looking out through the huge windscreen, I notice that the overhead illuminated warning signs are flashing with Mont Blanc tunnel updates. Tonight, the tunnel that connects France with Italy – referred to as ‘the pipe’ by Irish truckers – will be closed for 12 hours due to maintenance. With this in mind I decide to press on and reach the Italian side before nightfall. Towards the top of the mountain, the road follows a path of hairpin bends overlooked by jagged cliffs dripping ice water onto the frozen ground below. To travel the length of Mont Blanc’s 13 km tunnel costs about €360 (about NZ$600), which although expensive, is the quickest and easiest route into Italy. Switzerland is also an option, but as it is outside of the EU zone, customs clearance is necessary and there are even more rules on weight limits and driving times.

When passing through the tunnel I instinctively spare a momentary thought for the 35 people who perished in the catastrophic fire of 1999, ignited by a refrigerated truck. The narrow tunnel has one travel lane in each direction, meaning oncoming trucks are passing so close that I can stare into the eyes of oncoming drivers – whoosh, whoosh, whoosh is the noise as they pass, the air vacuum accentuated by the large, noisy, overhead ceiling fans. ‘Benvenuto in Italia’ reads the sign as I emerge from the darkness into the light of an Italian alpine evening. Abiding by my usual custom, I pull over to admire the view and pause for a moment to embrace a country I enjoy immensely, ever since my first trip as a greenhorn back in 2001. Everything is different here; the people, the accent, the road signs, the scenery, and even the driving techniques, something which will often bring a smile to your face.

Finding a handy parking spot beside a French-registered Scania R580 in the ski resort town of Courmayeur, I lower the electric windscreen blind and head off up the town on foot. Courmayeur sits in the upper end of ski resorts, as verified by the pair of Maseratis on display in the town centre beneath a banner advertising the ‘Maserati Winter Tour’ – how very grand! As affluent tourists walk past in designer brand clothing, I begin to feel somewhat out of place in my Volvo truck driver’s jacket. Two hours later, any feelings of inadequacy quickly dissipate after completing a tour of the local bars. Wandering back to ‘Le Hotel Magnum’, breathing in the crisp mountain air, I consider myself privileged that I can avail myself of what are essentially paid holidays to foreign lands. Feeling none too good after a restless sleep attributed to a variety of strange and strong beers I attempted to soak up with a large pizza, I find myself searching in vain to find a route around the town of Travedona Monate. Italy is notorious for narrow streets, tiny bridges and generally situations where a 40 tonne truck can get into serious problems. True to form, cars are blowing horns as their drivers gesticulate theatrically, unhelpfully highlighting my predicament. Amazingly, help will always arrive when situations go bad. A woman in a Fiat Punto stops alongside. “Where do you need to go?” she says in perfect English.


Photo: Miniature forklift struggles at the first delivery point in the north of Italy.

When I tell her the name of the town I am searching for, she replies, “Okay, follow me”, before proceeding down the street bearing a weight limit sign I had been avoiding. By now well and truly out of options, I take a chance and follow her lead with a sense of trepidation. Soon I can no longer see her car and the balconies of the old town houses are passing precariously close to the sides of my truck. Too late now and I press on with an increased heartbeat and sweaty palms, praying that I will make it through. Thanking the gods above, I am relieved when the street opens out and I arrive at a road leading out of the town. But if I thought that was the last of my troubles for the day, I was badly mistaken. The next delivery address (which later turns out to be a horse riding school) is located down another street with a weight limit, this time 7.5 tonnes! After first doing a reconnaissance mission on foot, I manoeuvre the truck into a small gravel car park and wait for the action to start. One of the stable workers eventually arrives on a tiny forklift, gesturing impatiently for me to reverse back. It is then the real problems start, as the front wheels of the big Renault have sunk into the soft ground while the drive wheels are spinning hopelessly. Ok, I say, let’s unload first, then try again. The miniature forklift is so small that the rear wheels are lifting off the ground as it makes feeble attempts to raise the pallet, resulting in the need to place bags of horse feed on the back to act as a counterweight.

After unloading, he declares in a reassuring tone that he’ll return with the tractor. Good, I think to myself, until I see ‘the tractor’. Again, another completely useless item in the form of a small, two-wheel drive Fiat. Wheels are spun, ropes are snapped, arms are thrown up in the air and my truck still hasn’t moved. Detecting that he has had enough of my situation, I am led down a tree-lined avenue to meet the female stable owner who is overseeing the training of posh Italian kids on horseback. I feel like a fool standing in this lunging ring in the foothills of the Alps, explaining my predicament. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Tarrant office is now ringing. “The Italian forwarding agent was just wondering how you were getting on Paul? “Oh, not too bad, just a bit stuck here, should be moving soon,” I add with an air of optimism. After what seems like ages, an angel appears in the form of a Renault Kerax 8x4 tipper that manages to pull me free from my embarrassing situation. Two cock-ups already and it’s not even lunchtime; what next?

Thankfully my next two deliveries – one at Arcese Trasporti at Cavenago di Brianza (the forwarding company) and one at Parma – are places designed for trucks, where I manage to deliver without getting into any difficulties. My last drop-off at Bologna will have to wait until morning, so I park for the night at a service area on the A13 Bologna to Padua Autostrada, let the seat back and smile to myself, pondering the day’s theatrics. The following morning, the last delivery runs smoothly, after which I have time to relax as I await backload details. Suitably refreshed after a day of leisure, I read the SMS on day six of my adventure: ‘Collection at Carrara, will load today’. It feels good to be moving again as I rejoin the bustling A1 Autostrada that connects Milan to Rome, continuing northwards to Parma where I branch left onto the A15 and head west over the Ligurian mountain range. The scenery here is spectacular, the road building impressive, and there are lots of cool trucks on the road. This is what trucking is all about! Carrara, set on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, is famous for its high-grade marble, which has been mined for the past 2000 years. Some is used by sculptors in Europe, while more is shipped around the world, providing container work for hauliers of the region.


Photo: Paul O’Callaghan stands with an Iranian truck while its driver prepares a campfire alongside. At the Campogalliano TIR park, Iranian trucks can wait days for customs clearance. (Hope that’s not a good CHEP pallet, Charlie? Some poor bugger will be paying for that the rest of his life – Ed)

Having located the collection address after an hour of searching due to a name change of the business, I manoeuvre the rig into the building with a tight blindside reverse. Once inside, we roll back the sliding roof of the trailer, which allows the overhead crane to lower the machine onto the bed of the trailer. After the complimentary espresso, I am on my way back across the mountains to Arcese in Milan, where I park up for the night inside the secure freight yard. The place is a hive of activity on Fridays, when trucks from all over Europe congregate to ‘finish out’ (top up with freight from a forwarding agent) with groupage for their home countries. The next stop is for a 45-minute tachograph break at old TIR’s (Transportes Internacionales Routiers) yard in Aosta, once an obligatory stop in the pre-EU days when customs clearance was necessary. After an excellent meal in the restaurant, spirits are high as I drive up through the Aosta Valley towards the looming peaks of the Alps. Picturesque villages bordered by carpets of green fields, stacks of neatly cut timber piled up alongside old stone sheds, all overshadowed by the majestic mountains, towering to the seemingly fast-moving clouds overhead.

Through Mont Blanc, back into France and descend the other side using the engine brake on the Magnum. With nine hours driving complete, I call it a day at Dijon. In Calais, as ever, the inevitable hassle of keeping immigrants out of the trailer ensues. Another trip across the English Channel, followed by an overnight sailing from Liverpool to Dublin. Sailing on this route is more preferential to the shorter Holyhead Dublin option, as a reasonable night’s sleep is possible on the much longer nine-hour voyage. In Dublin Port, Edward from Hungary, who is the Magnum’s regular pilot, is waiting with a 2003 model FH12 500. We do a changeover and the big French rig once again heads in the direction of the Mediterranean. Living with the Magnum was a real pleasure and I enjoyed every minute of the fortnight I spent behind the wheel. Having driven and lived in them all – Volvo, Scania, Mercedes, Kenworth, Mack, Western Star, you name it – I can honestly say that none impressed me as much as the big Magnum, a truck which still manages to look as bizarre as it did when introduced 27 years ago.