Ancona, San Marino, Imola, Bologna, Modena. The towns on the exit signs from the autostrada indicated our gradual progress north as Le Marche and the coast slipped away to be replaced by the flatlands and fruit groves of Emilia Romagna, which in turn became Veneto. We were on the road to the UK to perform the remaining parts of the still unfinished process of transplanting ourselves from one country to another, as well as to visit family and friends.
The first 250 miles of our route north brought us to Verona for the night – along with a very welcome thunderstorm that had brewed up as we approached the city in the early evening rush hour and 36˚C temperatures. I swear you could hear the city sizzle as the cooling rain splashed onto the ancient palazzi, the cobbled streets and the world-famous amphitheatre. Wandering its elegant walkways after the storm had passed it struck as simultaneously both very familiar and surprisingly foreign. Familiar because it is somewhere we have visited several times down the years. Plus, of course, simply being in Italy is now the norm for us. But still decidedly different thanks to its city feel, its grand buildings and the polyglot crowds of tourists that thronged the pretty squares and avenues. We joined them only for long enough, though, to find somewhere quiet to eat before heading to bed as we had an early start the next day and a 450-mile drive ahead of us.
Within barely half an hour of leaving the waking city we began the long climb up into Trentino-Alto-Adige (aka South Tyrol) towards the Dolomites, as the Alps are known in these parts. The hazy outline of distant peaks gradually solidified into soaring crags whose lower flanks were carpeted with dense forest. As we climbed higher, oak, birch and beech surrendered to pine and fir, and dabs of snow in sheltered gulleys glinted in the strengthening sun. Italian building style, with its jumble of terracotta rooves and ochre tones, gave way to something much more distinctly Alpine with deep gables, whitewashed walls and window boxes spilling geraniums and petunias over carved wooden balconies. This architectural ambiguity along with the mix of Italian and German still spoken in these parts reflects the area’s turbulent past when these alpine territories were pawns in a centuries-long game of geo-political chess that ended barely 70 years ago.
As we continued our ascent we played hide and seek with the foamy green Adige as it tumbled south, weaving from one side of the road to the other through this narrow valley that remains as important a trading route today as it was in pre-Roman times. Indeed, as we pressed north an entire lane of the autostrada was permanently occupied by an endless train of container trucks grinding nose to tail up the relentless incline barely any faster than the mules they have long since replaced.
Finally, we reached the summit and there were only the toll booths to clear before descending towards Innsbruck, the Austrian winter sports Mecca that lies tightly packed within the narrow confines of the Inn valley. Then after another brief but precipitous up and over, we switch-backed down into lush glacial valleys and verdant pastures dotted with dark wooden chalets and pretty beige-grey dairy cattle whose wooden bells clonked softly in the clear still air.
As the landscape relaxed into rolling hills, we realised that Austria had become Germany. The winding mountain road straightened into a brutally efficient Autobahn that carried us swiftly north-west through the edge of Bavaria between Ulm and Augsburg, then on into Baden-Würtemburg past Stuttgart and Karlsruhe and on to our next overnight stop in Heidelberg among the vine-clad slopes of the pretty Neckar valley. Here it was another cocktail of the familiar and the different: familiar because it is another town to have featured in our many touring holidays during the ten-plus years we lived in Germany, and yet different because it looked, sounded and felt so little like where we now call home. The next morning it was over the mighty Rhine and on into Rheinland-Pfalz past Ludwigshafen and Kaiserslautern and then into the Saarland and another chunk of territory that has enjoyed lasting peace in only the last half century. From here we pushed on through the searing heat into Belgium, Mr. Blue-Shirt’s home for most of his teenage years. Another invisible border, but another instantly visible shift from culture to culture, and from language to language, each successive country’s identity as distinct and strong as ever, with little sign of the alleged homogenisation of Europe at the hands of ‘Brussels’ to which so many in the UK seem to take such grave exception.
Our experience of Brussels on this occasion, however, was limited to its hair-raising traffic system. But having safely negotiated the white-knuckle ride that is the city’s ring road we eventually escaped into the flatlands of Flanders, where the current generations are the first in centuries not to have known war and occupation. Then as the heat at last began to wane, we slipped into northern France and on to Calais and the end of our 1100-mile journey across mainland Europe.
Later in the evening as we sipped our drinks at a quayside bar we looked out across the sparkling waters of the Channel. The UK now lay just 22 miles away. Reflecting on the fact that in these turbulent times it has seldom seemed more distant and isolated, and utterly adrift in a stormy sea of uncertainty and division, we wondered how far – or even whether – it might still feel like ‘home’…