Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Long Journey (prt IV) - Reims to London

Waiting for the ferry in CalaisThe morning of Monday 3rd January we left our hotel as early as possible, again to make full use of the daylight hours. A quick stop for petrol and we were on our way up to our first target for the day, Laon. We arrived there as the sun was just beginning to rise, casting the shadow of the car on the grass banks that line the road to Laon. It was funny peering at our tiny little shadow! Unfortunately we didn't have time to stop in Laon - though it did look nice on the hillside in front of us. We carried on around the bypass on towards Saint-Quentin, then on to Cambrai, the site of battles in both World Wars.

It's strange driving through this countryside that twice in this century has been torn apart by conflict. As you get past Laon the terrain starts to become very hilly again and I found myself imagining what it must have been like to fight here in World War II. It must've been terrifying! The fact is you come over the brow of a hill and the next brow is only 2 miles away. So every time you hit the top of a new hill you must've been dreading what you might see in the valley bottom. And by the time you had poked your heads over the hill top it would be too late. You'd be in a fire-fight whether you liked it or not.

We were making excellent time but we did have one unexpected problem that was specific to this day. Lorries. Thus far we hadn't come across much commercial traffic - we left on a Saturday - but it was now Monday and truckers were everywhere, and if there's one thing a Fiat 500 hates more than hills, it's the draft from lorries! Every big lorry that passes throws us around like we were made of papier mache! All we could do was go slowly when we saw a lorry coming and hang on as the car got tossed around.

And so we forged on ahead to Arras. Here I had another one of my little navigational temper tantrums. I have to say, the streets of Arras are an indecipherable maze. Here we hit the usual issue when a main road takes you in to the centre of a French town. Not a road number or confirmation of your direction to be seen! We scoured Arras for about half an hour looking for signs for Bruay-en-Artois and only found a sign for Bruay-La-Buissiere. Now, given the French habit for naming four or five villages in an area exactly the same except for some trailing descriptor, we naturally assumed that this was the wrong Bruay. It was only later that we discovered that the town on our map, Bruay-en-Artois, had changed its name to Bruay-La-Buissiere. Instead we ended up heading out of Arras in the wrong direction but using a side road to cut through to the road we wanted. This is the point at which there was a mixture of cursing and relief as we realised the Bruay sign we hadn't followed was the one we should've followed. Note to self: must buy better map!

Finally back on track, we headed off for our penultimate French stop, Saint-Omer. We got here for about 2:30pm and decided to stop for lunch since the next destination was the ferry terminal at Calais. Saint-Omer is a nice enough place, but it's full of the English on this UK public holiday. It seems that half of England is taking advantage of the UK public holiday and traversing northern France after a break in Europe for the New Year. And they're all in Saint-Omer having lunch in the same brasserie as us! Still, I had the best omelette EVER - so I didn't mind.

After lunch we headed on to the Calais-Dover ferry port without fuss. In fact we arrived about 5 hours early for our ferry - I'd booked it for 9:30pm just in case. I went to try and transfer our tickets to an earlier crossing, expecting the usual nonsense - admin fee, no spaces, non-transferable, etc. But no! Top marks to P&O Ferries! The lady behind the desk said "no problem", printed us new tickets for the 5pm ferry and sent us to go and check-in. Fantastic. And the French lady at the check-in was really lovely - she couldn't believe we came from Milan and loved the car!

It takes about two hours to cross the channel, so because of the time difference (we gain an hour) we arrived in Dover at about 6pm. Straight through customs and off we went. Avoiding the M20 because it was dark, we chose to take the A20 which is the old road - it follows the M20 most of the way. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a bad choice. Most direct, it is - best road, it isn't! And I had to eat some humble pie when it turned out that Folkestone shared similarities with Arras in terms of road signage!

We got in to the outskirts of London for about 9pm. We were pretty tired and grumpy by this stage, but the car was certainly attracting attention as we headed over Tower Bridge and up to Angel! We got home at about 9:30pm, exhausted and thanking our lucky stars that we weren't just leaving Calais as originally planned! We'd done it. The Fiat 500 was outside our flat in London, in one piece and safely back in the buzz of city traffic.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Long Journey (prt III) - Bourg-En-Bresse to Reims

Cooling the car down, somewhere in FranceThe next morning we were in good spirits. It was Sunday 2nd January and learning from our mistakes, we made an early start and worked out a route that not only avoided motorways but was also shorter, using France's minor roads. We were under way just as dawn was beginning to break. We drove straight north out of Bourg-En-Bresse and made good time up an empty country road, stopping for our first "cooling break" after about an hour and a half of travelling (that's the photo from this installment - can't remember the name of the town).

Actually, the first few hours of our day were lined by pretty towns and villages. The Ain Department is really quite a nice part of the world. Our cooling stops were a pleasure (though admittedly sometimes a little too hurried - we felt the time pressure constantly). It was our intention to try and make Saint Dizier by night-fall. I secretly wanted to get a bit further, but that would've done.

As the morning progressed we discovered that one thing our map didn't point out was hills. And if there is one thing a Fiat 500 hates more than pot holes, it's hills! It now seems to us that France slopes gently upwards all the way from Lyon to Calais. Common sense will tell you otherwise, but I've never been up so many hills in all my life. My girlfriend was becoming less and less amused with every time we were brought to a 25mph, 3rd gear crawl by yet another steep hill. In fact such was her sense of humour failure, she could no longer say the word "hill" without a slightly unnerving air of malice coming out in her voice.

Powerless to alter the geography of the country we'd chosen to navigate, we pressed on and to our amazement (in spite of the hills!) we made Chaumont by late lunchtime. This was beyond our wildest dreams. Suddenly it looked like we might make it to Vitry-Le-Francois or even Chalons-En-Champagne by the end of the day. Phenomenal progress!

After a late lunch from an open boulangerie we managed to find, in spite of it being nearly 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, we continued towards Saint Dizier. The hills were subsiding a bit as the roads we were taking at this point pretty much followed the River Marne in the bottom of the valley. As a result, our pace quickened and we arrived in Saint Dizier at about 4pm. We would normally schedule a cooling stop about now, but everything smelled ok, it was getting dark and there were about 35 kilometres of dual-carriageway along the main road to Paris, the N4, to negotiate if we wanted to make it to Vitry-Le-Francois.

And so we did. We reached Vitry-Le-France about half an hour before sunset. It didn't look like the nicest place in the world so we decided to push on further still to Chalons-En-Champagne. It was only a short hop up a further stretch of motorway and we had a bit of daylight left. And more importantly, I knew that there was a minor road (presumably the old road) that ran up the other side of the valley. We drove up the motorway for about 20 minutes until the light began to fail, then pulled off in to the countryside to finish our journey out of harm's way. A series of farming villages lined the rest of the route to Chalons and the progress was pretty good. We got there about half an hour later. It was just after 5pm, and though we were tired it now wasn't at all far to the city of Reims. A goal we felt was impossible the night before, but we were within touching distance! We decided to give it one final push, as the more ground we covered today, the easier tomorrow would be. We hit upon two problems though:

One, our map was not really detailed enough for the maze of villages surrounding Chalons and two, French road signs in town centres are an absolute joke. Not for the first time that day we found ourselves going round and round in circles trying to find our route, but doing this in the morning when you're fresh and cheerful is one thing. Doing it when you're tired, fed up and looking forward to a hot bath is tantamount to massachism!

The problem is that the French tell you what road you're on regularly (in this case the D1 towards Tours-Sur-Marne) as you're trundling along, which is great. Every sign-post signs the next big village or town and the number of the road you'll be on if you take it. Lovely. Until you enter a major town or city. Then, for some reason known only to French town planners, all route numbers disappear without trace leaving you floundering! No sign reading "Tours-Sur-Marne (D1)" any more - oh no - that sign is plain white and reads simply "Juvigny". As it transpired this was a tiny village on the outskirts of Chalons, not even on our map. Of course we missed our turn... useless! I stood about 10 minutes of Chalons' back streets and side alleys before I exploded in to a torrent of abuse directed at the French (in particular, their signage manufacturers) and our woefully inadequate map.

Thankfully, my girlfriend speaks fluent French (I usually call it showing off, but I was grateful on this occasion) and she asked for directions. A lovely elderly couple gave us detailed directions to get to Reims using the back roads. Of course, we took their word for it but we weren't really sure we were going in the right direction so there were still some tense moments. As we went it became clearer though and ultimately the directions were perfect, so many thanks to them. It took us over an hour to get to Reims and we were pretty tired so we stopped at the first hotel we came across, a Holiday Inn on the river. Not a great hotel and it didn't look very central, but we turned the corner and were greeted by the main road up to the cathedral, which looks pretty stunning as you head towards it. We were very central! We just didn't realise it.

We dropped our bags again and set straight off to find some food in Reims. There's one particular street/long square called Place Drouet D'Erlon which cuts across the city centre from north(ish) to south(ish) which is just packed with little brasseries and restaurants so we found a brasserie there called L'Apostrophe. The food was good, the environment was relaxing and it wasn't too expensive so we had another nice evening before going back to the hotel and straight to bed.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Long Journey (Interlude - Bourg-En-Bresse)

The Brou monasteryTired and hungry and finally free from the infernal noises and smells of the poor little car, we set about finding food in the small market town of Bourg-En-Bresse. The hotelier was certainly proud of the location of his hotel, but we were a tough crowd, being in bad humour after the days' ordeal.

As I mentioned, like anywhere these days I guess, the outskirts of Bourg-En-Bresse don't exactly fill you with promise. A typical suburbia just off the motorway - motels, petrol stations, car parks and small businesses. However, the approach to our hotel gave us the first sign this town might be more than that. There's an enormous gothic monastery (the Brou monastery) that greets you from the bypass - a beautiful old building of great history and recently restored, it's an impressive sight. A shame we were too grumpy to appreciate its flood-lit splendour at that point in proceedings!

However, as we walked from the hotel towards the historic town centre our mood began to lighten. After a couple of streets we found ourselves following increasingly narrow passageways between beautifully kept old town houses. And by old, I don't mean Victorian. Oh no, I mean REALLY old - 15th/16th century old at a guess, with bare timbers and "wattle and daub" walls. As we walked through the little streets we were wowed by architectural feature after architectural feature. Pretty little squares, interesting roof lines, sculpture, hidden entrances, you name it, we happened across it. It's almost as though Gordon Cullen wrote his famous architectual study, The Concise Townscape (a must for all architecture students), after visiting Bourg-En-Bresse. Best of all, we were fortunate enough to wander down the streets of Bourg-En-Bresse just at the end of the Christmas season so all the decorations were still up and the festivities under way. The more we walked, the more we realised we weren't really that hungry yet and we were simply enjoying whatever the next corner had to offer.

You know what else I liked about this little town? There are lots of pretty towns in this part of the world of course, but there's something really special about a town the people are proud to live in. It shows. People care for their property, the streets are clean, there's an obvious community effort to keep the place nice. And there's an air of contentment in a happy town. That's what Bourg-En-Bresse has.

It's also obviously a town that is forward-thinking. The nice new bus station in the centre of the main square, well kept and respectful of its historic surroundings. The pretty medieval market square we happened across - with an underground car park! This isn't a place suspended in time. This is a place that understands and respects its history but doesn't let that get in the way of its development.I really liked it here. It was the perfect place for us to stop and relax.

After a while we happened across a brasserie called Chez Blanc that our hotelier had mentioned was nice. We popped in to take a look and it was much nicer than we expected, but we figured we deserved a treat so we booked a table and went for another quick poke around the town. After half an hour we came back to eat a really nice meal in cosy surroundings, with a good local wine. After settling up (it wasn't cheap, but the price was reasonable) we slowly walked back to our hotel, full and relaxed, ready to face the next day. We said goodnight to the porter and turned in. We both slept like logs!

So there you go. I thoroughly recommend Bourg-En-Bresse as a good stop-over place for any journey across the east side of France. In fact, it's well worth a weekend break as well if you live close enough to drive/fly relatively easily.

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Long Journey (prt II) - Valle d'Aosta to Bourg-En-Bresse

The Fiat in the snow, outside our rented villa in the Italian AlpsThe next day was the 31st, New Years Eve. It was a beautiful, sunny, Alpine kind of day so we went to a snowy kids playground place at the top of the valley to let my girlfriend's little nephew run around and play for a while. That was fun - you basically walk in and there are sledges, inner tubes, skis, etc. just lying around - once you've paid your entrance you just walk in and do what you like! Unfortunately I was suffering from a bit of a dodgy back, otherwise I'd have done more, but oh well. Next time.

We weren't going anywhere that day, but we waited until the sun shone fully down the valley (doesn't happen until about 2pm because of the narrowing of the valley near the north end and the angle of the sun) and warmed the car up, then we "stirred the tanks" and took it for a little spin down to Introd to buy some petrol and a grolla from a really pretty little wood-working shop in the village.

Satisfied everything seemed well, we returned the car to its spot on the hillside and set about enjoying the evening.

It was the usual affair of guitar, singing, chat, food, wine and general good fun. Then came midnight and we got champagne out and ate the traditional lentils for luck. We chatted on until about 2am and decided to turn in for the night as we knew we had an early start and it was already late.

The next day it was really cold in the morning. We got up at about 8:30am, but we messed about for a while and I think we got down to the car for about 10am and got all our stuff packed again. This morning, I could already feel, was one of those mornings we'd be glad we bought jump leads. The poor little car wasn't going to be at all happy about waking up this morning in the sub-zero temperatures! Still, after a bit of bullying from the alternator of a bigger, newer cousin, the little Fiat sprang in to life and we waved goodbye and set off down the valley towards Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc, as it may be better known).

After an hour winding along a minor road towards the Mont Blanc tunnel (we weren't touching the motorways in Italy any more if we could help it), via Courmayeur we arrived, had our passports checked and passed through in to the tunnel. All was well, we were in good spirits and about to cross the French border. But then disaster struck. About two thirds of the way along the 11.6 kilometre tunnel through the heart of the mountain we both started to smell petrol. Fresh petrol in fact, very strongly! At first I told myself it was the air but after a minute or two we both realised it was our car. We were both pretty calm as we knew we had to get out of the tunnel anyway, so we just kept driving. What else could we do?

We came out the other end of the tunnel, thankfully, and pulled in to the first lay-by we found! I leapt from the car and ran to the rear, shouting to stop the engine. I opened the engine compartment just in time to see the last of what was a stream of petrol evaporate off of the cylinder head with a sharp "fiissssss". A quick examination revealed that it wasn't serious - clearly something had rattled loose. However, stupidly we had no tools with us and it was New Years Day. It was time to make the call and hope the pan-European breakdown insurance was worth the money we paid for it.

We were a little worried at this point. We'd barely travelled 40 km, we were right up on the side of Mont Blanc, the cloud was thickening and it was freezing cold - the French side of the mountain gets practically no sun in winter and the temperature drop is significant. My girlfriend was already getting cold feet - literally and metaphorically - and we had no idea how long the breakdown truck would be. At first they said they would take the car in to a garage over night, but fortunately we managed to convince the operator at the insurance company that it was simply a couple of loose bolts, so as long as they sent someone with some spanners and spares who knew their way around an engine we'd be fine!

Fortunately, only an hour later a very nice French mechanic appeared, a short-haired chap with a no nonsense manner and a small tool box. We started the engine again for him and this time I was able to see the petrol in full flow! Frankly, I'm amazed enough petrol was still entering the carburetor to keep the engine going. It was pouring everywhere. It was difficult to tell where the petrol was actually coming from as it was spraying, but on a hunch the mechanic changed the clip holding the fuel line to the carburetor and that was that. We were on our way again.

The next stop was only about 3 km down the road at Chamonix to see friends briefly before continuing. Unfortunately our unplanned brush with coldness had left us running behind schedule, so it was a quick hug, a chat and some photos and we were on our way again. Anxious about the time, and no longer in Italy, we took to the motorway once more. Fortunately it was down hill practically all the way out of the Alps from Chamonix, so we were able to keep our speed and didn't get in the way too much. That, coupled with the fact that French drivers are definitely much more courteous, made our motorway stretch reasonably uneventful.

One of the things I forgot to mention is that when you're doing long runs with these little air cooled engines at what passes for "speed", you need to stop for 10 minutes every 100 kms or so to give them a breather. They do get too hot otherwise and you can smell it. This isn't really a bad thing, since you can usually do with stretching your legs every hour and a half or so anyway. And so we crept along, swinging up past Geneva then stopped for lunch quite late about two thirds of the way between Geneva and the turn-off for Lyon. A motorway service station. They're the same all over the world. Globalisation in action. Except for one vital point. In France the food is at least edible.

As we left the service area it was getting dusky and I went very quiet. My girlfriend asked me what was wrong. I was starting to get the sensation that one might get if you lived in Transylvania and dusk was approaching. I wanted to bolt the doors and hang up the garlic! I didn't want to panic her, but I really didn't want to be on the motorway at night. During the day people can see you from a long way off. They can see you're driving a little old car and going slowly. At night all they see is two red dots in the distance. They assume you're going 120 kph like everyone else. They don't realise you're not until it's bordering on too late! This is really dangerous.

I just said "we need to get off the motorway as soon as possible" and left it at that. And sure enough, it happened. We were about 10 minutes from the Lyon (South)/Reims (North) turn off when the sun finally dippped beneath the horizon and the witching hour began! We had never been so scared in our lives. I still swear it's the closest I've been to dying and known about it. I'm not joking, I'm deadly serious. All of a sudden the visibility goes and every 30 seconds someone screams up behind you with their headlamps on full beam, they realise how slowly you're going, slam on the brakes, beep and swerve then scream past you. You think every time this happens they're going to hit you. And you know that IF they hit you in this little tin box, you're dead. My girlfriend was on the edge of tears and we moved to the hard shoulder to continue - we weren't safe anywhere else - not even in the slow lane. We took the first exit we could find. It didn't matter where we were! It probably took about 5 minutes to get off the motorway, but it felt like an eternity. We finally got to a place where we could stop and we just sat there shaking for a minute, both of us thinking about what might have happened.

We never took the little car on an unlit motorway after dark again.

We arrived in a rather sad little town in the valley of the River Ain, with two hotels, both closed. However, we managed to realise that there was a fairly significant town called Bourg-En-Bresse about 20 km away up a minor road that ran parallel with the motorway. We set off, after getting some directions to make sure we were heading the right way, and arrived on the out-skirts. We tried 3 or 4 motels on the outskirts, all sad, all dirty and all fully booked. I was starting to despair but my girlfriend was not going to give up, so we headed in to town where, by chance, we found a nice hotel with a couple of rooms and within walking distance of the centre. We snapped up one of the rooms and dumped our bags. The hotelier told us that Bourg-En-Bresse was a very old and very pretty historical town. We figured he was a local and biased, but it sounded nice. And I have to say he was right. It is so nice it deserves an entry of its own.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Long Journey (prt I) - Milan to Valle d'Aosta

Our Fiat 500F, newly purchased, street parked in Milan's Navigli districtHere's the plot: Christmas 2004, a crazy English guy and his Italian girlfriend decide to buy a Fiat 500 in Milan and drive it back to London... no, really, we did! The photograph shows the very car parked up in Milan prior to its lengthy ordeal.

This particular car is a 1971 Fiat 500F Berlina. We bought it (with loads of help from my girlfriend's very kind brother) from a classic car collector in Milan. It has only ever had 3 owners, including us and him! That's pretty amazing. And best of all, the first 32 years of its life were spent in a cosy warm garage being looked after by a proud old mechanic who had it since it rolled off the production line and that little engine fired for the first time.

(We were naturally cynical about this claim at first, but people who have examined the vehicle subsequently have all agreed it's been looked after very well, so it probably is a true story.)

This is one very original, very nice little car. Don't get me wrong, it's a Fiat 500 which means it's small, it handles like a bucket of frogs, it smells, it averages 40mph (65kph) and it rocks if a knat farts in the wrong direction - but damn, it's cute!

And so, on the morning of the 30th we loaded the little car with all our Christmas luggage and (via a local mechanic to fit a new battery - long and boring story) set off along the motorway for the Italian Alps. The luggage all fitted nicely on the back seat and I, despite being 6'3", had no problem folding myself in to the passenger side of the surprisingly spacious 3' high car. My girlfriend drove because it was on the wrong side of the road for me, you have to double-declutch and she'd had about 5 days' practice hurtling around the streets of Milan. However, we learned two things fairly quickly.

One, the motorway is not like central Milan. Central Milan is Fiat 500 country. There it rules. People smile and let you go. Old folk wave nostalgically as you grind the awkward little gearbox. No one seems to care that you don't even have a 0-60 time (the car tops out at about 55mph). Motorways couldn't be more different. There we cease to be an object of nostalgia and beauty and become a nuisance and a menace. People hate us!

Two, Italian drivers are *%!*&^%s! Excuse the sweeping generalisation - clearly not ALL Italian drivers are *%!*&^%s, just like not all English people like roast beef, but suffice it to say even my Italian girlfriend had to admit they're pretty appalling after about an hour on the motorway. They tail-gate, they drive too fast, they don't leave room, they're impatient - everything you don't need if you're trying to get a little old car from a to b with as little fuss as possible! I could rant for an hour on this subject, but... ach, whatever. There really is no point in raising my blood pressure.

We bit our lips, hoped that no one collected us from the rear, and continued our journey up towards Valle d'Aosta, nestled in the Italian Alps, where we intended to spend our New Year. To be honest, the 500 isn't too tiring. It doesn't make an unpleasant whiney noise like you might expect a tiny 499cc engine to make. In fact it makes quite a soothing "putt putt" sound, so were it not for the 120mph Mercedes and BMWs whistling past our ears, we would've been quite relaxed. Trouble is the prospect of instant death doesn't exactly set you at ease, so I was very relieved when we got off the motorways and in to the winding mountain roads.

Progress through these was steady and we spent a lot of time in second gear, but we had no pressure to go flat out and the little car can climb out of anything because of its very low 1st gear! And we pretty much remembered where to go from a visit to the same villa a year previous, so we didn't get lost which is always a bonus. We left Milan at about 1pm and arrived at the mountain chalet for about 6pm - 5 hours to go about 220 kilometres. Alarm bells were ringing, but we decided to get on with our New Year celebrations and cross whatever bridges the trip threw at us as they came.