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The Most Beautiful Place on Earth: Joan Trip Part X

Follow contributing editor Ed Perkins as he embarks on a round-the-world "Joan Trip." (What's a Joan Trip? Find out in Take That Special Trip ... While You Still Can.) According to Perkins, "neither frequent-flyer miles nor people improve with age," so he's working off a bundle of miles seeing the world, combining places he missed over the years with some old favorites. Read the rest of Perkins' round-the-world-trip posts.

Getting Around Geneva

Arrival at Geneva is easy—the airport is very well-signed—and arrivals from within most of Western Europe don't have to go through any immigration formalities. As noted earlier, the plan was to rent a car from the French side of the Geneva airport because rates are much lower in France than in either Italy or Switzerland. To get to the French side, you walk a few steps to the east end of the Swiss lobby, turn a corner, and you're at the "border," where you pass through an unstaffed border control point. Renting cars seems to be the main function of the French portion of the airport, where you encounter the usual array of multinational rental car desks, plus counters for two small regional French airlines.

Most cars rented outside of Switzerland lack the sticker required to drive on some Swiss roads, so when heading to France you have two options to avoid a possible Swiss fine: Go through the middle of Geneva, or take a longer but uncongested all-French route. I did the latter, then headed to Lyon for dinner with family.

When you drive the French peage and Italian autostrada—much faster than non-toll roadways—you need either a chip-and-PIN card or lots of small bills and coins. Driving from just outside Lyon to Chamonix cost about 15 euros in tolls, some by a ticket system and some pay-to-pass.

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The Mont Blanc tunnel isn't even close to being the world's longest automotive tunnel—that's in Norway—but at more than eight miles, it's still quite a trip. When I drove into the Val d'Aosta, traffic was minimal, but signs indicated that traffic backs up at peak times. The cost to drive through is high, at 38.90 euros each way, but a seven-day round-trip toll is a more reasonable 46.80 euros.

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth?

What can I say about the Val d'Aosta, other than it's one of the most beautiful spots on earth? Snow-covered peaks that tower two miles over a green valley, a wonderful mix of old and new development, and hundreds of restaurants serving classic Italian food—what's not to like? This is, as I had hoped, a wonderful spot to veg out after the more hectic earlier stages of my trip

You might be surprised at the number of place names here that are French rather than Italian: Courmayeur, Pre Saint Didier, Roissan, and many others. The reason, apparently, is that this region was held by the Kingdom of Savoy during much of the middle ages. Regardless of history, a few folks here seem to speak French, but not many know English. As usual in Italy, however, it doesn't matter; you deal with it and enjoy.

Val d'Aosta is very much a tourist area, and May is very much a shoulder season. The valley has two peak periods: winter skiing, now over, and summer vacation, not yet started. As a result, I found quite a few restaurants closed, and I encountered few other diners when I went out to dinner. Traffic was fairly light, and, for the first two nights, I was the only guest in this small hotel. Shoulder season is a great time to visit places such as this, but if you like crowds and lots of action, come in winter or mid-summer.

Overall, driving in Italy is not much different than driving anywhere else in Europe, although the experience can be a bit more intense. One suggestion: If you don't like to be tailgated, don't rent a car in Italy. If you're going even a little slower than the maximum a road could possibly accommodate, you'll find another car on your rear bumper.

This will be my last posting while on this trip. Coping with a sick computer has been an extreme frustration—for me and, I suspect, my editors. I'll post a final wrap-up after I get home.

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