Home of the Italian Grand Prix, one of the fastest tracks in the world, with more F1 races being held there than anywhere else.
And I had exclusive use of the high speed track for an hour. What is there not to like?
... it wasn't a guarantee of exclusive use - it just happened that, on a foggy February morning, I was the only one using the track.
... and the "high speed track" is in a somewhat bad condition:
... and the vehicle for driving on the track was this:
This probably needs explanation.
Monza has two tracks, the Formula 1 racing track and the high speed track, which both share the start/finish lane, but are otherwise separate.
And while the high speed track must have been impressive in its day, it does not see much use these days. They use it sometimes for historic car races and special events. But as the banked curves are made from concrete, it is not possible to put an asphalt layer on top of it. So they cannot make it fit for modern race track requirements. As a result, the "high speed track" can only be used for lower speed races.
So, most of the year, it is fenced off from the racing circuit and used as part of the trails and paths in the Monza park.
Still, the banked curves are interesting and fun to 'climb'.
The banked curves get steep towards the top, so I only managed to take a picture of both, the high speed and the F1 tracks, by walking up next to the fence that blocks off the high speed track when it is not in use and holding on to that.
Going along the track with a regular bicycle isn't the most exciting thing to do, but it is fun and unusual.
I also did get to see the Formula 1 racing track, but only as a passenger on a guided tour.
While they do state on their web page explicitly that they will not drive you at anything near racing speed, they have some revved up cars available for the tour. And I assume that, if they drive you around the track, they will at least do something like 'highway speed'.
But on that day, they were doing track repairs and had some heavy machinery on track.
So they did the tour in a mini-bus at, well, more or less cycling speed.
Still, it's the first time I've (been) driven on a Formula 1 race track.
And just in case that this comes across badly - they tell you in advance what to expect. So I didn't come there expecting to be driven in a Jaguar or Nissan 350Z at high speed across the track. I knew that I would only be able to go by bicycle along the high-speed track, that the "high-speed track" is the old, rarely used track and that there would be a minibus tour along the F1 circuit.
After that, there was a surprisingly interesting "behind the scenes" tour of the main technical areas, like the briefing room or the press center. The tour was a relaxed one, since I was the only visitor.
There are a couple of interesting features that brings (some) visitors of the Grand Prix closer to the action than on other places.
For example, there is this seating, which overhangs the pit lane exit and allows a good view of the activity in the pit lane during the race.
Nice seats, if you can get them. (They are not available individually - they area they are in is rented out to sponsors, who host their own hospitality there.)
The podium for the winners also isn't just at the side of the main building (as for most other tracks), it reaches out halfway over the track. And, traditionally, they open all the gates at the end of the race, so fans can rush in and see the victory celebration from the track below the podium. (Though the pit lane remains off-limit. That's for racing crews only.)
The press center has different designated areas for radio, print and photo journalists, but their workplaces pretty much look identical (although the photo journalists have more lockers for their gear than everyone else).
There are two different briefing rooms, one for the pre-race driver briefings, the other for post-race interviews. The reason for this seems to be that the larger of them (needed for the driver briefings) is too close to the press center and too noisy after the race for TV coverage, while the quieter one is too small to accommodate all the drivers.)
The rooms don't look like that at all on TV, since they usually (like when I was there) are Monza-branded, while, when Formula 1 takes over, they bring their own branding and backgrounds.
The same applies to the podium.
When I was there, it had the default 'Monza Look'. (I found it a bit presumptuous to step on the podium, so I only took a picture of me standing beside it.)
There was one more picture I wanted to have.
In Monza, they have a bronze statue of Fangio and his Mercedes-Benz W196, which seemed familiar.
I had seen (and sat in) one in Monaco.
So I wanted to have a corresponding picture to the one in Monza.
Update September 2018: I visited the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, so I was able to take a picture of the sculpture there and add it to my 'collection'.
(Though it is quite unlikely that this will ever be a full set - there are six of these sculptures, one of them being in Argentina.)
After Monza, I drove to Lago Maggiore, but I arrived there later than expected, so I only managed to see the last bit of a (admittedly, nice) sunset behind the mountains before it got dark.
As the next morning was a bit foggy, I didn't have much of a view there either.
Still, kind of idyllic.
I went to an Osteria close to Angera that someone had recommended. Nice food, but since I needed to drive back to the hotel, I didn't get to taste any of the wine. When I had paid the bill and tried to leave, the owner stopped me and insisted that I take the receipt with me. I didn't want it, as nobody will reimburse me for it and I don't get any tax refunds or anything, so there's no point for me in taking it with me, except to throw it in a bin later.
But the owner insisted, as, if I would be stopped by the police, I could prove that I was driving home from having a dinner. I have not the slightest idea why I ever would do that - as far as I know, you can drive around in Italy without having any written reason for doing so. So the whole thing left me a bit baffled. (The only point I could imagine would be to show that I only had water with my meal and didn't drink any alcohol - but I doubt that any policeman would just take a receipt as proof of that.)
Still: good food, odd experience.
But Lago Maggiore was only a stop on the way.
My main destination was Zermatt in Switzerland.
When looking for interesting things to do in the area, I noticed that they have an 'Igloo Village' in the mountains above Zermatt.
As I liked the ice hotels in Jukkasjärvi and Quebec, spending another night in a place build from snow and ice seemed like an interesting prospect.
So into Switzerland and over the Simplon Pass.
And - a complete novelty to me - a friendly and helpful border patrol that helped me to save some money.
I had rented a car in Milano and asked the rental agency whether I was allowed to drive to Switzerland with it. The said yes, but I needed to get the 'vignette' (pay the street toll fee for Switzerland) on my own.
Switzerland has a fixed annual fee, so even if you are only visiting for a day, you still have to pay for a full year.
I wasn't worried too much about this, even though the system is a bit weird.
The vignette is sold by calendar years. So if you visit Switzerland in January, you pay the full price for the vignette and have 12 months of street use for that.
But if you visit in November, you still pay the same price, but only get two months of use out of it. (Well, technically, the vignette is valid from December of the preceding year to January of the following year, so you get 13 and 3 month use out of it, but the principle is the same.)
While it's a slight oddity, it probably doesn't matter much - if you live in Switzerland, you buy one at the beginning of each year, so you get 12 months use out of it. And if you're a tourist just visiting for a few days, then it doesn't matter whether it becomes invalid two or twelve months later.
But you need to attach the vignette permanently to the front window of your car.
You can't just put them on the dashboard, 'pay and display' style.
The obvious reason is that you can't buy a vignette, use it for a few days and then give it to someone else. Or, if you have more than one car, put it into whatever car you are driving at the time.
But I checked whether the car rental company was ok with that, so they wouldn't mind me gluing a sticker to their car. (While, from a practical point of view, you bring them a car back that can also be driven on Swiss highways for a year, so it would be an advantage for them, in theory, they could complain that I put things into their car that didn't belong there and charge me extra for removal of the vignette.)
In any case, when the border guard checked my passport and asked where I was going ("Zermatt"), I asked him where I could buy a vignette for the street toll. And answered: "Well, over there. But you don't need one if you're going to Zermatt. All the streets to it are toll free, except for four kilometers of highway in Brig, but you can drive through Brig and circumvent that!"
So, very unexpectedly, a friendly border guard, who saved me expenses.
Driving over the Simplon Pass was nicely straightforward.
I didn't consider that in advance, but while driving towards it, I realized that this was a mountain pass in the Alps, crossing at an altitude of more than 2000 meters in the middle of the winter.
So it might be icy, snow covered, traffic jammed or impassable.
But in fact it turned out to be a well maintained road with not much traffic, so I neither had to crawl all the way behind a truck or block the traffic behind me.
And while the weather was at first kind of dull and cloudy, once I passed the highest point, it turned out that it was nice and sunny on the other side. A quite impressive example of a meteorological divide - the weather changed completely over a distance of less than five miles.
But I didn't stop to enjoy that, since they give you a very clear schedule if you want to get to the 'Igloo Village'.
In order to catch the train up to Rotenboden at 17:47, you need to be at the meeting point at Riffelberg at 17:15, so you need to catch the mountain train at Zermatt at 16:24, so you need to catch the regular train at Täsch at no later than 16:00.
And, as this is Switzerland, these are not approximate times...
So I wanted to avoid missing any of these connections, so I preferred to get there as early as possible (and rather spend a couple of hours at the Riffelhaus, drinking coffee, than risk not to be there on time) and didn't idle on the way.
In Zermatt itself, cars are prohibited, so I needed to stop at Täsch (a few kilometers down the road) and take the train from there.
Up near the Riffelberg station on the Gornergrat (at an altitude of 2582 meters) the weather was distinctly two sided.
A very nice looking mountain panorama when looking over Zermatt.
But lots of fog, clouds and snow in the air when looking towards the other direction.
And, after a while, the wind and the snow also came to the area where I was standing.
I didn't mind the weather itself, but it meant that I didn't get to see the main scenic attraction - the Matterhorn.
(In fact, in the picture above the preceding one, I tried to take a picture demonstrating "In this picture you could see the Matterhorn, if you could actually see the Matterhorn.", but since I couldn't see it, I didn't realize that it would have been right out of frame to the left of the picture, until I compared that with the Google view.)
In any case, everyone was at the meeting point on time and we caught the train to Rotenboden.
The igloo village is located between the Rotenboden and the Riffelberg station. And as there is an altitude difference between the Riffelberg station and the igloos of nearly 200 meters, it is much easier to take the train to Rotenboden above and then walk down to the igloo village (and then walk down the ski slope in the morning down to Riffelberg).
As it was already past sunset, there wasn't much to see when approaching the igloo village.
Though there isn't much to see anyway.
From the outside, the 'igloos' look like a pile of snow anyway.
Unlike the 'ice hotels', there is not much of an effort to give them a structure or 'look' on the outside.
The 'igloo village' term is a bit of a misnomer, since (at least to me) it implies a group of independent igloos. But the most of them (similar to the ice hotels) are in one structure - a large common room and from there a long corridor from which the individual 'igloos' branch off.
There is also another, smaller igloo, that contains the 'Romantik Suite', which has its own toilet, a warm room (not quite a sauna, though) and a private jacuzzi. The last one is in a nice half-open room with a large opening towards the Matterhorn, so that, when the weather is nice and the moon is full, you can sit in the jacuzzi and look at the stars and the Matterhorn in the distance.
It is quite noticeable that the igloo village is right within a skiing area. While the ice hotels are more targeted at people who sleep there, the infrastructure here is also aimed at day time visitors, who just stop and have a look between two skiing runs. So there's a wooden hut, but also an outdoor bar and shop. They also got a storage building for deckchairs, tables and benches, so that people can stop, rest, have a tour of the igloos and move one. (On the picture above, it is easier to see the support buildings than the actual igloos.)
While the igloo village itself is somewhat nondescript from the outside, once inside it's quite nice and comfortable.
After passing a small 'tea room' (where there's hot water all night to allow those who feel a bit chilly to make some tea), the entrance corridor leads into the large 'community room', where we were welcomed with mulled wine.
From there, a long corridor leads to the individual rooms.
There are two basic types of rooms - Standard and Romantik.
The Standard Igloos are just undecorated rooms with a large platform that has enough rooms for up to six sleeping bags, while the Romantik Igloos all are decorated with snow carvings. (There are some sub-classes of Romantik Igloos on whether they have a toilet, a jacuzzi or how large they are, but the main thing is whether they are decorated or undecorated. And you rent the Romantik Igloos as a whole, while the Standard Igloos are more 'dorm/hostel style', so you share the room with others.)
For the decorated rooms (including the 'entrance lobby') there is a different common theme each year (and on each location - there are igloo villages at six or seven different locations, depending on whether you count the franchise location in Andorra).
But the theme is, at best, a vague guideline for the artists.
The official theme in Zermatt for the season was "The world full of miracles".
Which, as a theme, gives inspiration for a room with a Dali-esque time-tunnel look. (Or maybe it represented the twilight zone).
It also included a steampunk-ish (snow-punk?) mechanical head room.,
And a room seemingly located on one of the moons of Saturn.
The "Treasury" from Petra also seems to belong to "The world full of miracles".
And, ever popular, aliens.
My room supposedly was representing 'science', which was reflected by the sign at the room entrance.
But it must have been a somewhat unorthodox definition of science. Over the room entrance there was a starburst pattern of 'ice quartzes', illuminated from within, representing the big bang. But over the bed was a carving of Shiva dancing, which is probably neither a manifestation of science, nor really of "The world full of miracles".
Still, better than Kali, I suppose...
After the tour of the rooms, it was time to go to the lobby again for some cheese fondue (after all, it's Switzerland and a tourist place...)
The lobby had a small bar on one side.
The decoration here was some frog-like animal hunting for a dragonfly. (As one of them was made from ice and backlit and the other one a snow carving, I didn't manage to find a camera setting that worked well for both, so the animal in the water is difficult to see.)
To rhe side of it, there was a T-Rex head coming out of the wall.
Always ready to devour careless visitors.
Next to that were three alcoves for dining.
Decorating the entrances were some more snow carvings. One probably representing Eve taking the fruit from the tree of knowledge.
Another representing - Xena?
Seriously - I have no idea who or what she is supposed to represent.
The only image I have that shows a bit more of the context she is shown in is a fuzzy panorama image.
I somewhat doubt that she is supposed to be a beach volleyball player (which was my first association). So maybe she's some sort of sun goddess...
The ice carvings were a lot easier to identify - just animals and plants.
The rooms in the igloo village are half-spheres, so, once you're in them, they feel properly igloo-ish.
The reason lies in the construction method.
For the ice hotel in Quebec, they use supports like the one shown below, so their corridors and rooms look a bit arched, like medieval wine cellars.
In Zermatt, they inflate large balloons, use a snowmaking machine to cover it with snow and then deflate the balloon, creating hemispheres.
After a nice 'starter plate' (northern Italy and the Swiss Alps are extremely good at bacon, 'Speck' and sausages) and the cheese fondue, we all moved from the igloo village to the wooden 'warm-up and bar' building nearby.
The reason was not so much that anyone was feeling cold, but because it was Thursday evening.
They have a 'Late Night Fondue' offer for people who want to enjoy the atmosphere in the igloo, but don't want to spend the night there. So we had our dinner first, but then had to move to make room for the late night diners. (Well, not really that late - they need to catch the last train at 22:48 back to Zermatt and leave about half an hour before that.)
In the meantime, we had some drinks and went on a snowshoe walk.
It wasn't a long walk, as the weather hadn't improved much. And while the igloo village is a good place for star-gazing, as you're already at a reasonable altitude (so there's less air between you and the stars) and away from any big cities or other big lights, but if it is cloudy, neither of that helps.
And, given that we were at about 2800 meters and Berlin (or Milano) are not really the places to get acclimatized to the altitude, I didn't really mind that it was just a 600 meter walk.
After that, it was time for some relaxation in the jacuzzi.
While there is one jacuzzi that is exclusive to the deluxe igloo suite, there are also two jacuzzis outside that can be used by all guests. (And they are quite comfortable to use, as they are next to a 'dry room', so you don't need to walk from your room to there in your bathing suit, but can change your clothes right next to the whirlpool.
The sleeping bags in the rooms are well isolated, so I didn't feel cold at night.
Next morning there was an early wake-up tea and half an hour to get ready to leave. (Breakfast is at Riffelhaus Hotel near the train station, so the tea is just to warm you up and get you going.)
Weather, if anything has gotten a bit worse, with more wind and less visibiliyy than the previous evening.
Time to say goodbye to the igloo village.
After a good and leisurely breakfast, it was time to take the train back down to Zermatt (to catch the train to Täsch, to take the car to Milano).
And while the weather didn't seem that good in the morning, conditions sometimes change quickly in the mountains, so by the time I was down in Zermatt, the clouds have moved and I did get to see the Matterhorn.
The weather stayed sunny until I reached the top of the Simplon Pass again. But as I didn't need to catch a train at a specific time, I stopped a couple of times along the way to take pictures.
Almost immediately after passing the highest point of the street, it became rainy, foggy and generally unpleasant again, so I didn't go for any stops until I was almost in Milano again. (I had considered stopping at Lago Maggiore again, but there didn't seem to be much of a point in seeing it in the rain.)
But just before getting to Milano, I made a quick detour to the Alfa Romeo museum.
Mostly because I didn't get it.
Alfa Romeos have the image of being not very reliable or well manufactured, but making up for that by being beautiful and charming looking.
And I couldn't recall the look of any of them. I'm not much into cars, but if I'm trying to picture a Bentley, a Rolls, an MG, a BMW, a Ferrari, a Chrysler, a Fiat or a Toyota, there is at least one model of that maker that comes up in my mind. It might not even be a typical car for that maker and, inversely, there are probably many cars by most of the companies that I wouldn't realize were made by them. (As a test, I looked up some Lamborghinis. If I had ever seen a Lamborghini Jarama, I surely would not have recognized it as one.)
But there wasn't a single Alfa Romeo that I knew what it looked like.
Which, for something that is supposed to be a famous style icon, seemed odd.
So I went to the museum mostly to see whether there was some car that I immediately recognized, but never realized that this was an Alfa Romeo. And whether Alfa Romeos in general were good looking cars.
The second question was easy to answer.
Any company that designs a car like this does not, in general, design good looking cars.
Admittedly, this car is from the early 50s, built as a racing car and not for sale to customers.
And these cars, which look like scaled-up children's pedal cars, were also just concept cars, so their shouldn't count against the company either.
I'm also skipping the historic cars, as the aesthetics of the 30s and 40s are hard to align with modern tastes.
Though there was one detail I liked in this car (besides the two spare wheels - seems like either the roads or the tires weren't as reliable as they are now).
And that feature was the way to stop drivers from accidentally selecting reverse gear.
Now you usually need to push the gear lever down or lift it or press some button to be able to go into reverse.
On this car, there was a little metal latch that you had to manually open to get into reverse...
But getting into more modern times, I still couldn't see the appeal of Alfa Romeo.
Here we were already in the late 50s and early 60s and the cars still looked unexciting.
At the end of the museum visit I realized four things.
But I still don't get the "Myth Alfa Romeo".
And, frankly, any company that designs a sports car like this, even in the early 70s, doesn't deserve it.
So, yes, Alfa Romeo is a car manufacturer that has built a couple of interesting cars, some historically relevant cars, some good looking cars, some racing cars, and various concept cars, some cool and some stupid looking, but that can probably be said for most car companies - I still don't get Alfa Romeo.
There was one more thing, not really car related, at the end of the museum visit.
They had a '4D Cinema' (i.e. 3D with physical effects) and that was... strange.
The idea was reasonable - a couple of short scenes of various Alfa Romeo cars driving in different environments, with a couple of physical effects to enhance the experience.
And some of it worked well.
There were little rotating strings in the bottom of the seat, which brushed against the back of your legs when the camera was moving through grass. And there were little nozzles that sprayed a bit of water in your face when the cars drove through a puddle of water.
Well done and well timed.
But the movement of the seats was uninspired. And confusing.
The main problem, of course, was that the seats were side by side in rows and could tip back and forwards, but not sideways. So you could (in theory) simulate the acceleration and braking, but not the sideward force when going into a tight corner.
So the experience felt wrong.
But the main problem was that the movement seemed unsynchronized with the movie.
While the water in the face and the string hitting the leg fitted events in the movie, cars accelerated and braked, but the chair rocked back and forth at some other time.
After a while I tried to figure out how much image and chair motion were out of sync, by trying to match chair movement with things I had seen in the last couple of seconds (in case the motion was delayed) and then trying to remember the chair movement and looking for similar car movements coming up. (In case the motion was coming too early.)
But I was unable to figure out which of these was the case. And that was due to a cinematic problem.
Because it wasn't clear what the motion was supposed to follow.
The point of view was from a virtual camera (the whole movie was computer animated) and the camera sometimes switched its view between two or more cars on the road.
So most of the time it wasn't clear at all whose movement the chair was supposed to follow.
The left car? The right car? The camera?
Conceptually, the camera would be the right choice, as it provides the spectators point of view.
But as it is free moving in three dimensions, there reduction to just back and forth movement of the chairs would be even more confusing. If the chair tilts back, is that supposed to simulate a forward acceleration or an upward movement?
And is the point of a 'motion simulation' in a car museum really to make the visitors feel what it is like to move like a camera? As opposed to, let's say, in a car?
The sensible solution would probably have been to produce the movie in such a way that you are virtually sitting in a car, racing another car of the same type. (That still leaves the issue of not being able to tilt the chairs to the sides, but if you don't include any high speed corners, that would probably be all right.)
In any case, I left the visit with more thoughts about the design of interactive or immersive experiences and how you need to plan the whole experience in advance (instead of producing a cool car action movie and then trying to spice it up with some immersive effects) than thinking about cars.
Back to other travels