Thursday, 19 January 2012

 On the Road to Samnaun

My heart’s in free-fall. This shouldn’t happen in Switzerland, land of road engineering par-excellence, with state-of-the-art tunnels and wide, smooth roads that slice effortlessly through rock faces. Not here though.
The road to Samnaun is a scratch on the mountainside; its edge crumbling into the abyss hundreds of feet below - mere inches from our car wheels. One wrong move…
“I can’t do this,” I say to my husband, gripping the steering wheel.
“Well, we’ve got two choices,” he says unhelpfully. “Continue on, or turn back.” Doing a twenty-point turn on a knife edge isn’t an option. So going on it is. 
We weave through ink-black forest, hoping we won’t meet any on-coming traffic on this ridiculously narrow road - or worse still, the local bus. Then through drizzle, I see the mouth of a cave swallowing the road ahead. I edge the car into a tunnel. It fits snuggly between roughly-hewn walls of blasted rock. The tunnel curves a long snake through damp darkness. 
“What if we meet another car?” My voice sounds pathetically shrill.
“You’ll have to reverse back out.”
I glance sideways at the man who has promised to love and protect me. Is he speaking to the woman incapable of reversing two metres on a perfectly straight road without hitting the bank?
We are in the Lower Engadine, in a valley so remote that its inhabitants continue to speak an ancient Latin language long forgotten by the rest of the world. Here, isolated villages, teetering on the edge of v-shaped valleys, are surrounded by harsh, ragged mountains. It’s an unsettling beauty.  Samnaun sits high up at the end of a side valley in a narrow corridor flanked by sheer Austrian mountains on three sides.
Emerging from the last tunnel, the dashboard flashes up REFUEL!!! 
“Better pray we find a petrol station,” husband says with a touch of the absurd – after all, there’s a wall of mountain on one side of us and a void on the other.
But as I inch round a corner, road barely discernable in the rain and fog, a petrol station appears like an aberration on a rocky promontory.
Now we can reach the forgotten ancient Romansh village I have imagined… but no… instead we find Heathrow’s duty-free lounge has taken off and crash-landed on the mountainside here. A jumble of shops strewn across the valley is spilling watches, perfumes, leather bags and designer clothes. Samnaun is a duty-free haven.
We make a hasty departure, flying down the valley on the Austrian side with its state-of-the-art tunnels and wide, smooth road.

Delighted to have won the World First December writing competition with this piece.