Follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park

DSC01419_493f8233da235-lightboxYup – you read that right. Moscow. The poor GTA had what can only be described as an eventful start to its time with me, as in August 2007, I embarked on an 8 day odyssey from London to Moscow via Scandinavia (safer and easier than attempting the likes of Poland and Belorussia!).

Alfa ownership in the UK is often described as being blighted by the dealerships and I regret to say that so far my experiences backed up the stereotype. Not long after I got the car, it developed a rumbling wheel bearing and so I booked it into HR Owen in Fulham to have the front bearings replaced under warranty before waltzing off across Europe. First it took them a month to source two wheel bearings, and then they had the car in for a week while they did the work, and finally they delivered it back to me with a windscreen that had been shattered in one corner. I was not impressed at all.  By comparison, Major Auto, the Alfa concessionaire here in Moscow, has provided impeccable service.

Anyway, back to The Big Drive. As many people felt compelled to point out, an Alfa wouldn’t seem the obvious choice for such a marathon journey but on the other hand it’s a reasonably young, comfortable, fast and fun device, so why the hell not! The trip started with an overnight ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland. Upon arrival at 8am, I was instantly seized and breathalysed by Dutch customs. However, once they’d ascertained to their evident disappointment I hadn’t been diluting my breakfast orange juice with vodka, I was mercifully free to go and quickly reached Germany where it is of course, compulsory to work up some serious speed on the de-restricted sections of autobahn, traffic and weather permitting.

I only managed to hit 139mph (according to my sat-nav memory), as I kept catching up with the next lumbering lorry before being able to test the claimed top speed of 155mph. It certainly felt quite capable of it, but interestingly enough when travelling at warp speeds, it transmits a slight twitchiness that is unnerving – my Z1 feels much more secure and planted by comparison.

I then made a two day detour to the scenic island of Sylt, before heading on up through Denmark to Oresund. Southern Denmark looks like East Anglia, just with different agricultural architecture and better surfaced roads, so it’s not terribly interesting until you reach the famous Oresund Bridge – all 16kms of it. It’s really quite spectacular and definitely an event to drive across. From there, I took the wigglier route that runs up Sweden’s eastern coast, stopping overnight in the historic city of Kalmar on my way to Stockholm.

The scenery is very pretty but even the wiggly roads are smooth and not particularly challenging so it is just a question of mile-munching, something the big-hearted GTA is excellent at. On these surfaces, the car’s stiff ride is not noticeable, and with deep reserves of power and remarkably flat cornering, progress is serenely effortless. I note that Swedish drivers are very fond of fitting gigantic spotlights to their cars and it’s amazing how intimidating an otherwise innocuous Volvo V70 can look in your rear-view mirror when the grille is obliterated by four giant round spotlights that look like they’ve been nicked from a World Championship rally car.

The Viking Line ferry from Stockholm to Turku in Finland is a real monster and I can recommend sitting up on the roof terrace watching the view since Stockholm is miles from the sea down endless fjords and thus the voyage is rather like a mini-cruise. This also limits your exposure to the hordes of rowdy Scandinavians getting ratted in the buffet (unless of course you feel like beer laced with aquavit all night long). The next day saw me crossing Finland and it should be noted at this point that Finnish speed limits are the stuff the UK’s safety weenies dream of. Nowhere else have I seen a perfectly good, straight and empty 20km section of rural dual carriageway subject to a 60kph speed limit – thank God for cruise control! And the Finnish police are polite but have fearsome fining abilities – it’s linked to your salary. Thankfully, I made it through without any wallet damage.

The Russian border is an experience, as you might expect – the queue of crawling HGVs starts at least 20kms before the Finnish control-posts (cars get to zip past them). The Finnish side is very quick but the Russian one is labyrinthine. Fortunately, lots of Finns nip across the border to buy cheap petrol at the weekend and so, it being a Saturday, I met two friendly Finns who, in between offering me smoked sausages, admiring the GTA and extolling the many and varied virtues of Estonian womenfolk, showed me what paperwork the Alfa needed and how to fill it in, which was a life-saver as the Russian border officials were distinctly unhelpful.

Once safely in Russia, I then went to visit a friend at his dacha in the countryside outside St. Petersburg. As my Garmin sat-nav had declared utter defeat at the prospect of leaving the confines of Europe, he met me off the motorway and then led me on an hour-long race along cratered Russian backroads in teeming rain. He was in an ancient Mondeo but drove like the clappers and it’s a miracle I did not destroy the undercarriage on the vast potholes and bumps as I tried to keep up, since the Alfa has very firm suspension (have I mentioned that?) and ground clearance that would make a Ferrari blush.

The last leg of the journey was a 500 mile slog from St Petersburg to Moscow on the M10 “motorway”. Now some parts could almost pass for a motorway, but much of it has such scarred, rutted and broken tarmac that it’s really debatable whether you could call it a road. At times, I was reduced to walking speed as I negotiated my way between the biggest potholes and ruts, which to be honest you’d do even in a Unimog! The consequences of destroying a tyre or breaking a spring miles from civilisation in the depths of a Russian forest really don’t bear thinking about!

Some of the ruts are nearly a foot deep and I saw one HGV nearly tip over as a result of crossing one laterally. There are also many insane drivers – on a two-lane road, they will make four lanes, and one Estonian HGV-driver was a particular nutcase – sitting right on my rear bumper in traffic and weaving from side to side like something out of a bad re-make of the old Spielberg movie “Duel”. Fortunately, a rare decently-surfaced stretch without oncoming traffic and full deployment of the Alfa’s impressive accelerative powers got rid of him before anything nasty happened.

A major benefit of driving in Russia is how cheap the petrol is – around 40p per litre for 98 octane! Plus, the generally awful road surface, the preponderance of police speed-traps eager to snaffle your hard-earned, and the low speed limits all conspire to keep average speeds down and so the Alfa was actually quite economical – I covered the 500 miles on a tank and a quarter of fuel.

So quite a trek to beyond the old Iron Curtain and the GTA performed admirably, covering the 2,000 or so miles without incident, proving a comfortable, relaxing device for covering big distances, and a fun, snorty hooligan when the roads got twistier and more interesting. One irritation, however, is that, although it is not afflicted with run-flats, the Alfa nevertheless has no spare wheel but merely a neatly wrapped Alfa-monogrammed air compressor and a can of tyre-foam, which is not ideal for long-distance driving. I suppose the standard space-saver may not fit over the GTA’s beefy brakes but in that case can’t they fit a full-size spare?? The well looks big enough.

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Jonathan Malim