THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

Home again. Travel Mode OFF

IMG_6248My journey got off to a bad start when a group of us were given the wrong directions to our section of the car deck on our ship. Speranza was right at the front of deck 4 and my late arrival held people up. How embarrassing,

The drive from Plymouth to London  can be summed up by this screenshot of Speranza's trip computer. Over five hours to cover less than 250 miles is a disgrace. My average speed was 40 by the time I made it to the M4, after encountering endless delays. It was stop/start driving all the time on the A roads from Plymouth and the M5. I managed to improve my average on the M4, despite a fair amount of stop/start and many miles of average speed monitored road works (with not a single worker visible at any point). 

The final run back home on UK soil is often the worst part of my continental jaunts, because our roads are so depressingly bad and overloaded by comparison with those of our continental neighbours. We used to have the excuse that we paid less tax than them. That's simply no longer true. Is it because their engineering skills or industriousness are superior? Perhaps so in Germany, but their roads aren't as good as France's. In my view it's entirely because of the ideological capture of our public services.

Whereas we pay public servants to be just that – servants – they decline these days to serve us. Rather than do a good job of public infrastructure works and their maintenance – a sort of blue collar, essential job in the national enterprise – they prefer to be our HR Department. They cajole, they threaten and above all they try to shape our thoughts and behaviours into conformity with their own.

They're neither rewarded for pleasing us nor fired for failing us. Their employment arrangements are Soviet in that sense. Unfortunately if you want the Soviet apparatchiks' opportunities for idleness, irresponsibility and superior benefits to the productive proles, you also need the Soviet discipline of the gulag and the firing squad – and ours don't have that. 

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That said,  Speranza is back in her parking spot having brought me safely home. I thoroughly enjoyed my little adventure – even some of the unforeseen parts. I learned a lot about myself and at least one of my friends and I will certainly always remember where I was when I learned I am going to be a granddad! My final Track My Tour map (from which the above is a screen shot) is here. 

Without the late Mrs P. to edit me, I worry that I may over-share. If so, I am sorry, I hope that, despite that, you enjoyed riding along in imagination. Thank you.


All at sea

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If it were not for my worrying about Speranza’s wellbeing I might have enjoyed my Santander hotel. The bed was comfy, the shower was so good I’m thinking of having my own restyled to match it and the air conditioning eventually worked.

They also provided a nice breakfast though such service as there was, was as surly in English as it was elaborately polite in Spanish. For a tourism-driven economy, I can’t help feeling that Spain hasn’t yet raised the art of the insincere welcome to French standards.

I delayed checkout to the last moment as the ferry port was less than a mile away and I didn’t want to toast in the sun too long. I arrived two hours before the last check-in and sat patiently in the bright sun with the roof down, apart from a break for lunch in the cheap and cheery port café.

2024-06-13_121218A good 30% of waiting vehicles were madly uneconomical and anti-environmental RVs and caravans. I just don’t understand why anyone would travel in a flashy gypsy van when the art of the hotelier is so widely (if variedly) practised in these parts. I’m pretty sure they’d get quite a few four star nights at least for the annual capital depreciation and excess fuel costs of their fugly, view-obstructing trucks.

You may think I have no moral ground to stand on with my 4.2 litre V8 but Speranza is a delicate fairy among such dinosaurs and most Ferraris never make it to landfill so her embodied energy (an important element of the lifetime consumption of any artefact) will likely never be wasted. Also her fuel consumption, at about 24mpg, is the same as my first car, which had a 1.5 litre BMC B-series engine and could barely do 60mph downhill with a following wind. Science has made advances in this field. That first car is still running however. My late father managed to restore it enough to make it into a lasting classic and it's in the hands of a Dutch collector and still running. So that embodied energy was never wasted either!

IMG_6210I’m embarrassed to admit that it was only during the boarding process that I realised the ferry docks not in Portsmouth, but in Plymouth. So tomorrow’s journey on ill-maintained British roads will be about twice as long as I thought. Entirely my mistake. It means I’ll get to drive on the only British road I had anything to do with building, when I was briefly seconded as a boy lawyer to one of Mrs Thatcher's development corporations intent on urban regeneration. It’s had plenty of time to degenerate to Britain's pathetic standards since then. If only our deep state apparatchiks were as interested in shaping our infrastructure as they are in shaping our thoughts, eh?

The voyage was uneventful enough. I spent the evening reading and watching Netflix. The onboard wifi was expensive and adequate, thought slower than I'm used to these days. The big disappointment was the sleeper seat, which did not recline and was uncomfortable. I had to draw on my experience of rail commuting and business flying to get some sleep. To my surprise I got an uninterrupted eight hours, though I woke feeling a little achey. 

All I have to deal with now is the drive from Devon. My Track My Tour map has been updated here


Onward to the voyage home

Breakfast in Bilbao was a noisy affair. Out on the hotel terrace, enjoying the cool air and views of the river, my ears were assailed by the horns of cars driving up and down the opposite bank with red and white balloons. I know those are the colours of Atletico Bilbao but their last match was the day I set out last month. Whether it was a political protest or a wedding I have no idea. It didn’t seem to attract any policing and passers-by on the street paid it no attention, so I suspect it’s just some tradition I don’t know about. 

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Bilbao from my breakfast terrace

I thoroughly enjoyed the short drive to Santander. The Spanish motorways I've experienced have lower speed limits, but are well-surfaced and more curvy than those of the other countries on the tour. My roof was down the whole way. The sunshine was pleasant and the temperature was perfect. The drive inside the city to find the hotel however, was unpleasant down narrow teeming streets. A key one was closed for road works and my sat nav kept bringing me back to the amused chaps working there, who may have learned quite a bit of less polite English vocabulary as a result. Eventually I found a place to pull in and work out a different route, targeting the public car park, which the Santander hotel informed me at the last moment was where I should park. 

I’m not really sure why I booked an hotel in Santander anyway. My ferry doesn’t leave until 4pm tomorrow and the port is a short enough drive from Bilbao. I checked and I could have extended my stay in the very nice hotel there, but I would be charged for the Santander hotel anyway so decided it was too late to change.

I wished I'd let them keep their money when I finally reached the place. I might have guessed from the tone of the imperfectly informative last minute (after it was too late to cancel without 100% penalty) email, which finally confessed that the hotel has no parking of its own. The sneery words "should you have chosen to come to Santander by car" should have warned me I wouldn't feel at home. Do they think their guests have teleports?

Santander Hotel Information
I fixed their Booking.com info for them

I am scrupulous about secure parking on my road trips. It's not that I care more about Speranza's safety than my own, but I don't care very much less. The grim public car park they'd suggested had one space free. When I neatly slotted Speranza into it, there was no way for me to get out – even if I were Hollywood-slender. This was a place for SEATs their owners care less about than their least favourite T-shirts. I had no choice but to reverse out and circle again. I got lucky and another car pulled out. By reversing in and parking millimetres from the passenger side of the neighbouring LHD car, I managed to leave just enough room to open Speranza's long door and squeeze out. The LHD car on my driver's side had gone in forward, so whatever problems he will have getting in are of his own making.

The hotel's snooty email had warned me there were two entrances. It hadn't told me that only one of them had a sign on it. Actually, that's not quite true. The entrance I arrived at did have a sign on it - for a completely different business. After wandering up and down the square for a while, asking nice Spaniards for directions (none of them had heard of it), I called the hotel and someone emerged to lead me in. I rubbed her up the wrong way by pointing out the misleading signage. She told me that there was "no problem" and that they'd sent me a helpful email, which I clearly hadn't read. Judgemental commentary on the intelligence, or diligence, of a paying customer is pretty poor marketing, even in these less polite times. 

It's an hotel with ideas above its station, run strictly by stern ladies of a certain age. No checking if the room was ready– just a curt "check in is at 3pm, can we hold your bag for you?" Babička would have gone to town on them, but I elected for peace and quiet. Even I was tempted to go babistic when, after lunch at a nearby restaurant, I was finally admitted to my room. It has a view of other rooms with no views. The curtains were drawn to prevent heat from the atrium making it even more unpleasant and it took a while for turning on the air-conditioning to make a difference.

Booking.com rates it as "fabulous" and among the "top picks for solo travellers". The room is clean, the bathroom is excellent, the wifi works and I don't have to deal with the harridan until I check out tomorrow so I'll forgive myself the error. Gentle reader if you like public transport or your mum was a bit fierce with you when you were growing up, you might like the Soho Boutique Palacio de Pombo. As for me, I hate public transport and my mum is lovely. 

My Track my Tour map is updated here


Bilbao baby

I rose at a sensible hour; showered, dressed and loaded the car. My remote room left me out of the way of early-morning childcare so Babička's grandchildren were up, fed and dressed by I appeared. Young sir remembered my name from yesterday and politely asked if he could drive Speranza. I led him by the hand and put him in the driver's seat where he looked very much at home while Babička took photos of him turning the wheel and pushing all the buttons. Today's childhoods are so well documented! He is probably photographed more per week than I was to age 18! Unlike his grandmother, he was suitably impressed with Speranza and offered no irritating observations about Man's greatest invention just being for "getting from A to B." I think he and I are destined to be friends. 

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While saying goodbye to his Mum and other grandma, I asked if I could hold his little sister. She looked sensibly cautious as I took her in my arms, but was soon reassured. She rewarded my one-sided conversation (the late Mrs P. abhorred baby talk and insisted our children were spoken to in real words arranged into sentences) with friendly smiles. Given how long human children are dependant, the more big scary-looking guys they have in their friendship group, the better. I personally think they know that and that's why they usually like me. I am a gentle soul, but given my height and weight, I look like I might do serious damage to any threats and children find that subconsciously reassuring. 

Babička took this rather poignant picture of me disappearing off into the distance with Speranza's roof down. It remained down for most of the way to Bilbao, where I am staying tonight, though I did have to put it up due to heavy rain at one point. I just pulled into a truck stop and she did her 14 second party trick of becoming a coupé again. The weather had cleared by today's single refuelling stop though, so the roof was down again on the final sunny approach.


2024-06-11_155119My hotel —  opposite the Guggenheim – has underground parking accessed by lift. She barely fitted in (her rear end is quite wide) but by folding in the wing mirrors I just managed. The lift was so smooth I thought it wasn't working and was frantically pushing the button the whole time. Considerately, the hotel had installed control buttons on both sides so her being RHD wasn't a problem for once. Since I set up telepeage accounts years ago for the French and Spanish motorways, actually it's rarely a problem now. 

As for today's drive, Speranza was in fine form and the air-conditioning was not an issue with her roof down, My first 100km+ were on country roads. It took ages to reach an autoroute but I still averaged a good speed. The country roads gave me a sweet Ferrari moment – an overtake no lesser car could manage. Ten cars had formed a tail behind a slow moving truck on a winding road in Armagnac. None of them could pass, even though they were sitting on the correct side to have visibility for an overtake. I spotted an upcoming straight on the navigation map that was preceded by a right hand bend that gave me the visibility. The way was clear and before any other driver could take the chance, I roared past the entire convoy in one go. I couldn't hear the oh la la's over the V8 roar of course, but I know they were uttered. That moment will account for the trip computer's recorded maximum speed for the day. 

For the rest of the ride I broadly complied with speed limits - keeping up with local traffic. I was in no rush and I liked watching the French and Spanish countryside flash by with the sun on my forehead, the wind in my baseball cap and Speranza's V8 in my ears. I didn't turn my music on at all.

IMG_6185I had hoped to visit the Guggenheim and arrived in plenty of time to do so, but my mum has received a nasty letter from her county council about the fencing of some leased fishing land held in my late dad's trust. So I shall use the hotel's excellent wifi connection to attend to that instead. Ordinary life is intruding it seems, even before life on the road has quite ended.

I shall transition back to my old intermittent fasting breakfast/lunch regime today by having only the one (rather banal) meal I had at today's petrol station.

My Track My Tour map is updated here.

 


Mission accomplished, now for home.

This trip came about because Babička told me her plans to visit Czechia for an arts course and then rendezvous with her daughter in Aquitaine to meet her new granddaughter.IMG_6154

I was looking for a road trip to celebrate passing 100,000 miles in Speranza. This is sadly not something that happens to most Ferraris. They are far too often doomed to live unfulfilled lives as trophies. I resolved when I purchased mine to use her as designed. She's a grand tourer and has done many thousands of miles of grand tours - not least the great American road trip of 2013, which was 14,500 miles through the Lower 48 states. 

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Enzo Ferrari was famously contemptuous of those who bought his cars for any other purpose than racing them. I am no racing driver but I thought il Commendatore’s shade might smile on me if I bought a GT and actually toured her. 

So in this spirit I offered to drive Babička to Prague and beyond. Plans changed when she had to fly to Prague to take care of her sick mother. We agreed to meet and continue from there. Either way, our mission was therefore to introduce Babička (grandmother) to vnučka (granddaughter) by mean of my motorové vozidlo (motor vehicle).  Today was that day.

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Vnučka and her nukefam landed at Bergerac airport and were with us by late afternoon. I introduced myself to Vnučka's two year old big brother, of whom I have heard a lot in the last few days. He shook my hand politely and then was off to play with the new toy ride-on Bentley his grandparents had bought him, complete with personal number plate spelling his name. My kind of people!

I took a lot of pleasure watching the two grandmothers meet their new granddaughter and noted the care with which they included their grandson in their attentions so he didn’t feel left out.

I stayed out of the way, folded my laundry, packed and then read The Spectator as the ancient home was taken over for the children. I pondered a little what it will be like to meet my own grandchild later this year. I can’t imagine it will be anything but great. I like children and usually, once they get used to me, they like me back. I’m intimidating on first contact but once they know I’m on their side, I seem also to be reassuring.

Once the children were in their beds the adults ate, drank and chatted. In the morning I must say goodbye to all this and to my travel companion Babička, who was still trying to tell me over dinner that Speranza is just a means of getting from A to B. The poetry of fine engineering is entirely lost on her alas and the loss is entirely hers. She’s still my friend, heretic though she is, and I pity rather than condemn her! 


Monpazier

Today (Sunday) we ventured to the Dordogne to visit a favourite lunch spot of Babička and her late husband. It is a pub associated with an artisan brewery run by two Essex refugees from Brexit (according to the Daily Mail). The brewery is called Biere de la Bastide and the pub is as un-French as could be conceived.

To the accompaniment of the songs of a fully-mulleted Rod Stewart wannabe, I had a blue cheese burger and fries, before setting out to photograph one of France's most beautiful villages, a bastide town called Monpazier built by Edward I (Longshanks). Ted 1er may have been the Hammer of the Scots but it seems he was a benefactor to French architecture.

There's an hotel in the village named in honour of him. He's one of history's most vicious (if effective) monarchs, who defenestrated his son's lover and eviscerated William Wallace among many other acts of violence. I guess it goes to prove that there's someone other than his mum to love every man.

Monpazier pano-1
More of my photographs of the village are here if you are interested. I am particularly happy with this 360º panorama I made of the medieval market square from ten original photos stitched together in Adobe Lightroom.

2024-06-09_170121The other highlight of my day was taking Speranza for a much-needed wash at an automated facility near where I am staying.

As is inevitable in a high-wage regulated employment market, where virtually no-one can be fired for underperformance, the French are becoming specialists in automation.

The task was performed by a robot haute pression sans contact with detergents and high powered jets.

I just had to park, stand clear, select my program and pay by credit card.

It did an excellent job done without dodgy brushes touching her precious paintwork.

I scrounged a couple of euros from Babička to pay for a vacuum cleaner that wouldn't accept my credit card and the job was done. She was ready once more respectably to represent her illustrious brand – consistently ranked the world's strongest – on our journey home. 

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At ease in Aquitaine

IMG_6138It is remarkable how cool it is (in the literal as well as the figurative sense) inside the 17th Century French home where I am fortunate to be a guest. Outside it’s been unpleasantly warm at times. Inside it’s crisply cool. The walls are made of thick stone and the floors are tiled. One cannot achieve the same efficient result in modern buildings without expensive air conditioning. If they could time travel, our ancestors might wonder why, with all our other advances, our technologists can't replicate the insulating properties of stone. It would save a lot of energy.

The only downside is that it blocks wifi and cellular signals. As there's a penthouse element to my London apartment, the concrete slab of the roof  divides my two floors and has the same effect in relation to wifi. I suggested they invest in some of the adapters I use to make my electrical mains function as an ethernet and create additional wifi zones. That wouldn't solve their problem with cellular signals, but my phone is set to use wifi calling at home and they could do the same. There's a sweet spot where their Skylink network is powerful where they have their home office set up, so I have had a good connection when I need one.

I had a restful first full day here, performing some duties in Second Life®, catching up on episodes of the TV show I was watching back home before the trip began, reading in and by the pool and generally chilling. I feel very relaxed and happy. Babička has attended to our nutritional needs and it's been wonderful to have home cooking. It will take a while to readjust to my diet of Marks & Spencer ready meals when I get home!

The two grandmothers are each excited in their own ways (two more different characters could scarcely be conceived) about meeting their new granddaughter and of course the grandson they already have in common. Babička's daughter and her family arrived in London from the Middle East on Saturday. They are staying in her home there and will fly here on Monday. There's a barbecue planned for Monday evening, which I am looking forward to.

I will head off to Bilbao, my penultimate stop on the way home, on Tuesday morning. I am hoping for clear skies so I can drive with the roof down all the way, rendering the lack of air-conditioning irrelevant. Even if that's not possible, I'll be happier knowing there's no companion in discomfort because of it. I did my best to fix it, having spent about €1,500 in Lorraine on an AC service kit, but still Speranza is my car and I have felt guilty. Also the poor lady has not been able to make herself heard over the wind noise, so I have missed much of her wisdom that might otherwise have elevated my being.

There was a spectacular thunderstorm at night and I left my door out onto the yard open to enjoy the display.


The Last Big Run

We had a five to six hour run ahead of us from Barjac to Penne d'Agenais in 30º heat – mostly on autoroutes. By now we know the drill for driving without air con. Babička has even found a way I didn't know was possible to open the tiny rear window behind her (Speranza is a 2+2 if the +2 are hobbits) while keeping the main window up. The problem was not the driving but the stops. The roads (and so the aires) were packed and shady parking spaces were at a premium. We were on a three stop strategy and came back each time to a little furnace. 

We'd hoped to find some nice little village to stop at for lunch, but Babička is not a digital native. She could find restaurants but she couldn't figure out their proximity to a motorway junction. In the end we settled for an Autogrill at an aire and it wasn't too bad at all.

The final 60km was on country roads where Babička kept reminding me her late husband had managed to clock up €800 of speeding fines on a single day. The speed limits vary from 30-80kph, the signage is poor and the whole route is sous surveillance. Time will tell if I did any better. It wasn't easy and – to be honest – by this stage I didn't care. I was anxious to get Babička to her destination safely and to have a few days rest before my return journey.IMG_6130Her daughter's in-law's place is a beautiful old farmhouse dating back as far as the 17th Century, complete with all its land. The in-laws rent the fields out to locals and enjoy watching the farming around them.

After dropping our bags, we headed to town for Babička to shop for dinner and for me to refuel Speranza. I made another young Frenchman happy when he asked permission to photograph her. I asked for his phone and let him sit in the drivers seat to be photographed. I  hope some young French lady is suitably impressed when he flashes the photos. It's a myth that Ferraris are "chick magnets" – the glances one gets are all from heterosexual males so it's more an expensive form of gaydar. It's the FPC (Ferrari Purchase Capability) that is the magnet – and that attracts entirely the wrong sort of woman.

While I waited outside the butchers shop, an older Frenchman came over to talk cars with me. He was an Aston Martin driver and happy to learn I'd originally set out to buy a Vanquish but didn't fit into it, which is how I ended up with first a Maserati and then a Ferrari. One of the things I like about Speranza is the way she starts so many conversations with like-minded people. No Guardian-reader is ever going to come over for a chat! She has built-in anti-Bolshevik defences.

IMG_6130After dinner outside accompanied in my case by some Cheshire-brewed ale, I retired to my motel-style bedroom with Speranza immediately outside my hobbit-sized door. I'd hoovered out all traces of Babička's rather messy occupancy and plan to wash Speranza's exterior before I leave for Spain and – ultimately – my ferry home next Tuesday. Babička has all kinds of plans for outings in the meantime and while there are vehicles a-plenty here, until her daughter and son-in-law arrive I am the only licensed and insured driver . Despite that, I am hoping to give most of them a miss and enjoy French rural life at leisure rarely afforded to the area's hard-working folk.

My Track My Tour map is updated here.


A pause

The Track My Tour app map is updated here. No waypoints will be added today as I'm having a break. 

My Ferrari guys in London think the mecaniciens de Lorraine serviced the air-conditioning just fine, but that there's a more basic problem. It blasted cold air when I took delivery but stopped working again very quickly. They infer that there's a refrigerant (freon) leak. The service kit may therefore not have been necessary at all, but another part of Speranza is now new so the money's not wasted. They'll fix the leak when I put her in for her annual service next month, They say it's not a roadside repair because it may take a few days to work out where the leak is by putting coloured liquids into the system and waiting to see where they emerge. So we shall continue to run warm.

Hobbit sized doorFor me, it's not a problem. If I were alone, I would put the roof down anyway so blasting along with the windows down is a pleasant way to enjoy the heat of the South of France. I feel a bit guilty about my poor friend Babička though. She's accustomed to her luxuries, disappointed with the lack of sightseeing stops and is not enjoying the trip as much as I would wish. It's a disappointment to share a passion with a friend but find the reaction is "meh" at best.


After morning coffee – no breakfast for us intermittent fasters – among the cheery, carb-loading French residents (we're the only foreigners here) of our B&B, I deposited Babička at the Eschaton –Anselm Kiefer Fondation five minutes away. Our B&B is very near to it, so I got the booking right this time. In fact Babička really seems to like the place, which is a relief. It's the last accommodation I will arrange for her, as our next stop is her family's home.

I put my laundry into a washing machine. "Pah!! Here we 'ave the sun" said madame, when I asked if there was a dryer. In fact she hung it out to dry herself and delivered it to my door neatly folded. She and her husband run the place alone and their industry is remarkable.

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I collected Babička from her event and we had lunch in the nearby village. It rained and everyone else in the courtyard was moved indoors but Babička took charge, moved chairs and table so we could stay outside just out of the rain. The staff looked bemused but went along with it. As she described the exhibition to me, I wondered out loud how much her genius artist was worth. She thought it likely he was worthy, but poor. A moment's research disclosed he is one of the wealthiest Germans with a net worth, at the last estimate, in excess of €100 million.

After lunch, we retired to our "mas" (a Provencal word for manor, apparently). Babička wanted to swim. I went to my room for a snooze. I've loved all the driving but I was pretty tired. I woke, refreshed, just in time for dinner. It had been an agreeable day.


Aix and pains

The Babička has a rare-as-hens’-teeth ticket tomorrow to the Anselm Kiefer monumental art installations near Barjac, so that was our destination today. We had only 3.5 hours of driving so decided to time it to arrive in Aix—en-Provence for lunch. The Babička is used to tours based around sights and entertainments and does not buy into the “road is the destination” ethos of my trips, so I wanted to accommodate her today.

The Yurt that was almost my home for a while
The Yurt that was almost my home for a while


What a mistake. Aix (which is lovely — I’ve been before) was a time-consuming bitch to navigate. The Babička’s chosen destination had a car park with spaces but proved further from the sights than she wanted to walk in 31° heat. I have a sore foot, so just wanted to camp out at a café near the car park while she took her pleasures. Sadly they didn’t materialise so my sacrifices were in vain.

On returning to the car, it was boxed in on either side and we could not get in. For the joy of being able to tell people she’d driven a Ferrari, a passing young French lady offered to climb in from the passenger side and reverse Speranza out! I am very grateful to her.

Back on the road we soon left the fast autoroute and were briefly on the “Route National 7” famed in chanson. Then we cruised through countryside to our home for the next couple of nights. My plan had been to stay in a yurt but I looked so forlorn in the heat that Babička negotiated an air conditioned room for me with a bathroom that isn’t across a gravel yard.

It’s a B&B not a hotel and we’d not booked food so there would have been none without the Babička’s stern approach to dealing with French service-providers. She has lived in France and adopts an approach that makes me cringe with embarrassment but is undoubtedly effective. It came in very useful today, for sure. 

Tomorrow I get to rest while she visits the institute. I plan to stay cool, still and barefoot to give my poor damaged toe a rest.


Garda to Cannes

Our apartment near Lake Garda was a good idea in concept. Clean and modern with secure parking and minutes from the lakeside restaurants, bars and cafés. Two bedrooms to accommodate both travellers and a nice living area. However there was confusion and hassle about checking in, the WiFi connected to devices but not apparently to the internet and the air conditioning appears to have been installed by my mecaniciens from Lorraine! It blew convincingly but delivered nothing of value – rather like a politician. I knew I was likely to end today as a hot mess but I’d hoped not to begin it so!

Babicka was once more unhappy with the accommodation; this time because she couldn't see Lake Garda. I'd rather have crashed after our stressful journey,but I wanted her to enjoy the trip too. Rather stung by a barb about the journey not being just about the motoring for her, I drove her to a lakeside restaurant where we mostly had a lovely evening. It lasted longer than I, in my exhaustion, would have liked and in consequence she held up most of the conversation single-mouthedly.

After another little tussle this morning over whether it was worth further delay and cost to try to get Speranza's air-conditioning fixed en route, we set off bright and early. The drive was (apart from noise from open windows at speed) wonderful. We had a great run with only a few road works to slow us down. We made two stops in Italy; one comfort break/fuel stop and another to refuel ourselves. We made great speed and arrived mid-afternoon.

This met our objective of having time to relax before heading out to our evening meal at the best (in my opinion) restaurant in the world.

I really was a hot mess on checking in; not so much from the journey, which I found fairly comfortable, but from carrying luggage in from the car park in South of France heat. I took the first room key offered (it was fine) and left Babicka making a fuss about her room. She likes things her way and usually gets what she wants but I find the resulting contretemps a bit embarrassing – especially when she insists on taking up cudgels unasked on my behalf. So I was happy to leave her to it. 

Alone for a while, I set my room's air conditioning to the max and took a cold shower. Then (having booked an Uber to the restaurant so we could both have a drink) I sat reading for a while before dressing for dinner in the few moderately formal clothes I have with me. 

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The Maison de Bacon lived up to very expectation. Even the highly-critical Babicka, who will tell anyone, anywhere doing any job how they can do it better (and is quite often right) had very little criticism to offer. I wrote a review of it in 2016 and it's still  true, even if the Sordello family who owned it for 7o years, having built it up from a fish stall on the beach, have since sold out. The new owners have not changed a winning formula. They even still offer the cheese platter (most unusual in French fish restaurants) which the Sordellos introduced after I asked for cheese when I was on the Atkins diet twenty-odd years ago! 

We had a wonderful evening and I retired to my bed to write this full of martini, fish and fine white Burgundy. I told our waiter we were there to celebrate the news that Miss P the Elder was expecting in the place where, 19 years ago, my late wife and I had met her from a French language course in Nice to celebrate her 18th birthday.

My TrackMyTour map is updated here. Tomorrow, on to Barjac, where Babicka has a sought-after ticket to visit La Ribaute and where, while she does so, I shall do some laundry and then relax in the yurt which is to be my home for two nights, 


Salzburg to Lake Garda

I shall draw a veil over this journey. Speranza performed beautifully but we had bad luck with extreme weather, heavy traffic, road works and some kind of massive incident on the A12 in Austria that caused a delay of over an hour. We were stationary for all that time in two disciplined lines at the extreme edges so that emergency services could zoom back and forth up the middle. When we made it to an exit our navigation system took us on country roads to the other side of the obstruction  

My French mechanics definitely didn’t service the air conditioning correctly. When temperatures reached 26C for the last 90 minutes in Italy we were unable to cool the interior and had to drive with the windows down. As I was driving at 140-150 kph to try to make up lost time this rather inhibited conversation!

I enjoyed those 90 minutes though. I like to take Speranza home and for much of our route we were following signs for Modena, her birthplace. 

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Having found our home for the night in Cola, Babicka was disappointed we had no view of Lake Garda. As our bags were in the rented apartment, we were able to put the roof down and cruise to a nearby lakeside restaurant to enjoy Mojitos (virgin ones for me as I had to drive home) and watch the sun set over the lake 

Not the best day but life’s still good. Yesterday’s news still had my soul singing. Tomorrow onward to Cannes and to dinner at my favourite restaurant in the whole world in Cap d’Antibes  

 


An extraordinary day in Salzburg

Over morning coffee, Babicka and I decided to do a city tour by bus. After yesterday's downpours we didn't fancy a day seeking shelter. When we got to the tour company, we were upsold to the Original Sound of Music Tour.  As well as seeing the same sights as on the tour we'd intended, we'd go on to the Mondsee and other sights in the surrounding countryside.

Almost sixty years on from the release of the most successful musical movie ever – 300,000 tourists a year come to Salzburg (a city of 150,000 souls) specifically to visit its shooting locations! I should not be surprised. When planning our route, Salzburg was the only place B. specified. Why? Because she wanted to see where The Sound of Music was made. 

We hadn't accounted for the fanaticism of our fellow travellers. The songs from the film were played in between commentaries. They knew all the words and sang along. At the locations, they re-enacted the scenes shot there. To be fair, there were a whole bunch of men being patiently accommodating to their womenfolk, but it still felt like we'd wandered into a cult!

That said, there were photographic opportunities galore. My album of the day is here

Salzburg-1

On the way back, the group on our bus were singing along to The Lonely Goatherd, while tossing around a toy goat. They were having a great time and it was noisy. Babicka and I weren't joining in, but I was quietly chuckling to myself at the absurdity of the situation. It would require advances in quantum physics to measure my level of interest in The Sound of Music and yet there I was among super-fans. At this point my phone rang.

The call was from Miss P, the Elder. We mostly communicate by text, so I was a bit worried there was a problem. She could hardly make herself heard over the yodelling. I explained what was going on and she laughed. Then she told me her news. She's pregnant and I can expect to be a grandfather in December. I think she was surprised by the intensity of my reaction. Through tears of joy, I managed to tell her that this was the best news ever; that I was delighted for her and that I would try to be a good grandad. She sent me a copy of the 12 week scan and there on my phone – absolutely clear – was my first grandchild.

Salzburg became a special place for me today. God help me, The Lonely Goatherd became a special song for me. It was a wonderful moment and the surreal circumstances of the call are already richly comical in retrospect.

This clearly required a celebration. When we got back to town, we skipped the final part of the tour in the Mirabell Gardens. We'd been there in the morning anyway. We walked to the Stein Hotel in the Old Town, which has a rooftop terrace with views of the city. It had been recommended to us by one of Babicka's friends and we'd had a late night drink there last night –  inside because of the pouring rain. Today we sat outside in warm sunshine and enjoyed the views of the city as we drank our champagne. Life never felt better.

Tomorrow we drive to our next stop on the shores of Lake Garda, getting ever closer to Babicka's first meeting with her new granddaughter. She read my blog for the first time yesterday and didn't at first appreciate her nickname. She threatened to post a comment calling me dědeček (grandfather). I don't care if she does! It's a role I've long wanted, but had given up hope. All I can say now is;

Layee odl, layee odl layee-oo

 


Salzburg

Things almost got fraught in Prague today. I might have known something was amiss when Babicka said she would get up early to finish her packing. When I presented this morning, ready to leave, she announced that the packing regime for the trip was "simply impossible" and presented a larger case than we'd agreed upon in London. This was a strain on our friendship before we'd travelled a single kilometre together! Not because she wanted more luggage but because she couldn't see my issue. She insisted she'd intended to keep to the agreement, but had been mistaken in thinking she could. 

A male friend would have been informed he was taking the piss at this point - and then decked. As ever, relations between the sexes need to be more nuanced. The mistakes were mine. Firstly in inviting a female to be my travel companion and secondly in expecting her to have good spatial awareness. Perhaps I had been spoiled by travelling so much with Mrs P2, who always packed with verve and economy?

Fortunately, I'd been super-disciplined. My own bag was smaller than the one we'd agreed for her. I managed to fit her larger bag in the available space and her gifts for her grandchildren and medicines into other crannies unused as long as the roof isn't down. As there's no prospect of that with her bags on board, this wasn't a problem. I walked to the parking garage with my bags and came back to collect her - and hers.

The weather was dreadful and the going was slow. We escaped Prague soon enough, but the highway south varies from modern, EU-funded motorway to winding country road, for no apparent reason. The navigation map went red (indicating stationary traffic) several times.

Eventually, we found ourselves on clear roads and started planning a lunch break. We decided – imagining some quaint Czech inn on an ancient square – to lunch in Cesky Krumlov; a UNESCO world-heritage village on our route. It didn't seem keen to encourage this. The signage is so paltry that we drove by and had to retrace our path for 10 miles to get there. Then we discovered WHY there was no signage. Such is demand from coach loads of Asian tourists (mostly Chinese) that the town is crammed. So much so that the authorities are building new roads to steer visitors to massive new car parks from which you can walk to all the heritage. 

Caught up in those works we queued and idled for over an hour to reach the car park for the castle. We pulled in, only for the barrier to stay down and the machine to announce "car park full". This would have been more useful information if viewed from the road, to be honest. We found ourself trapped by other, irate motorists assuming we were somehow incapable of taking a parking ticket.

This was where having a fluent Czech-speaker on board came in handy. Once she extricated herself (not easy as I'd thoughtfully put her as close to the ticket machine as I could) she soon had the others agreeing this was poor design - and backing up to allow us out. Cesky Krumlov is no doubt wonderful, but we'd had enough and headed back to our route. 

2024-06-01_141532We are both on 18:8 intermittent fasting regimes and had agreed to harmonise them so we could eat together. This meant I hadn't eaten for over 24 hours and lunch was a matter of more urgency than usual. I am proud of how calm I stayed during the Cesky Krumlov fiasco, but I was beginning to be hangry! We pulled in at a "saloon" full of Western memorabilia, but which turned out to serve very traditional Czech food. It was late but the charming sole member of staff agreed to cook for us. 

IMG_6025We had one of the best soups I think I have ever had - garlicky and spicy. B. said her mum used to make it and it's a Czech delicacy. Even allowing for hunger being the best sauce, it was wonderful.

Then I had a veal schnitzel and our hostess, remarking that I seemed hungry still, suggested these excellent sweet Czech dumplings with blueberries in them. I was definitely no longer hungry!

During the meal we made such friends with our hostess that we talked about our children and showed each other pictures. She was a hard working young mum in the countryside who reminded me of many girls I'd known growing up in rural Wales. She was visibly flabbergasted by our plans of driving around Europe for fun. She probably never leaves her village.

She came to the road to wave us off as we left.

Back on the road we soon clattered across the abandoned border crossing with Austria. The weather turned nasty again and we could only speculate at the lovely mountains and lakes we were missing in the spray from other vehicles. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the drive. Behind Speranza's wheel while her Modena-crafted V8 is playing fine Italian music is truly my happy place. 

After an uneventful journey through Austria, during which we agreed Czechia's roads aren't so bad after all, we arrived at our Salzburg hotel. B. declared it inadequate (though it's one of the more expensive on our route). Having secured a ticket to the parking garage, I headed off to secure Speranza, leaving her in reception negotiating a better room from the pretty Austrian desk clerk, who had earlier been very patient in dealing with a queue of grumpy old folks from various countries who were drenched and miserable after their various journeys.

Perhaps my proudest achievement of the day was to be the least grumpy of those international elders.

My TrackMyTour map has been updated here.


Prague at last

IMG_6023I set off from Ansbach at 0815 am after an excellent German breakfast. The journey to Prague was predicted to be three hours and forty minutes. I was hoping to arrive in time to have lunch with an old friend and didn't fancy my chances of parking near the restaurant. My plan was to arrive early, leave my car at the underground parking I'd booked near Babicka's apartment and take an Uber to lunch.

The drive through Germany was great. There was some heavy rain as forecast but mostly conditions were perfect. There were occasional road works, which slowed traffic to 80kph, and a few speed-restricted sections of autobahn, but a fair chunk of the run was on unrestricted roads. I didn't go nuts (I never exceeded 182kmh (about 113mph) but in no time at all, I was in the Czech Republic where the generous (by British standards) 81mph limits seemed like a snail's pace.IMG_6021Stopping for fuel and a comfort break on the outskirts, I was in central Prague by 1130am and parked up by noon. Babicka was still at the hospital with her mum, so would't be back until late afternoon. So my other friend and I had a long, leisurely lunch and enjoyed reminiscences of our careers in Central & Eastern Europe. I arrived in Poland in 1992. She arrived in Prague in 1993 so we'd lived through the same experiences of post-Communist revival. She'd also lived in Poland for a while, which is where we got to know each other working on the same deals. 

She's not ready to retire yet, but we discussed her plans down the road. I was surprised to learn they involved leaving Prague and offered some advice about how to plan for it.

When she headed off for a meeting at 1530, I returned to the garage to collect my bags and walk with them to Babicka's flat. She was not home yet, but I had keys and let myself in. It's lovely and I am sorry I missed my opportunity to stay here for a week.

When she eventually returned much conversation ensued - particularly about the cabin baggage only policy for the trip. She was still convinced she could increase Speranza's cargo capacity by arguments about her needs. She expects feminine logic to warp reality. I held firm. I really don't want anything in the cockpit to tempt opportunist thieves. 

A word about my parking arrangements in Prague. I booked them in advance online. The operator has locations around the city centre and they use interesting technology. You're issued with a telephone number, valid for the duration of your contract. No-one answers when you ring it, but the garage doors open. Access was tight, but with care I was able to drive Speranza in (despite her muscular haunches) and install her safely in place.

No new photos today, but the TrackMyTour map has been updated here. Tomorrow, Babicka and I take the road together to our first stop - Salzburg.


Germany!

I missed a friendly, exuberant email from my French mechanics last night. The work was finished at 9.30pm and the car was ready to collect. I woke early and was happy to read it. I'd booked an Uber for this morning. I was downstairs, checked out and waiting when he arrived 10 minutes early. I was in jolly mood and made the mistake of beginning to chat in French. This earned me compliments on my language skills and a tricky 30 minutes of conversation. Fortunately friends began texting to check on me so I was able to excuse myself before I ran out of my limited vocabulary. 

The car was done and the team was present, smiling and waiting for praise. The charming Melissa showed me a picture of her four year old with a Ferrari, then I paid my bill (and pourboire), packed my cases and set off. Speranza seems fine, though I don't think they've nailed the air-conditioning. It's working, but it's not as cool as it used to be. That can be attended to at the annual service in July. For now, I am just delighted to be up and running. 

I stopped for breakfast in France and was very disappointed. The aire I chose was being refurbished. Nothing much was open and there was nowhere to sit. I bought a sandwich and a drink and broke the "no food in the cockpit" rule as it was raining. Soon I was on the autobahn, driving with unusual caution for me. I wanted to be comfortable that the fix had taken! Pretty soon, I was provoked by lesser cars into giving her some beans. It's amazing how much faster you can drive through Germany than any other European country. It's also amazing, though we must remember that this is a country where you can go to jail for quoting accurate government statistics annoyingly, how free it makes you feel. 

Not that it was flat out all the way. There were plenty of speed-limited sections and many roadworks. Still I made good time, singing along to "Forever Young" and "99 Red Balloons" in weather varying from sunny through overcast to gentle rain. There is a severe weather warning for tomorrow's route, but today was fine. 

It was good roads all the way until I turned off for my hotel. At one point it got quite Hansel and Gretel through darkling woods on single track roads, but soon I was in the clean-to-the-point-of-sterile German countryside wondering if those farms with 100% solar-panelled roofs grew foodstuffs or machine parts. COVID19 must have interfered with the maintenance programme because some of the country roads looked quite bad by German standards. Not UK-bad you understand; with tyre-shredding potholes and undercarriage-wrenching bumps. Just cosmetically bad. Perfectly-smooth, but the patches are visible. 

2024-05-30_155137My hotel is in a little village and gives the appearance of being some local farmer's pet project. It's neat and cleanly-rustic. The lift has a dead-man's switch, which I've never seen before. You have to hold it down to keep it working. The receptionist and I didn't have enough of either language in common to discuss why that was a good idea. "Don't have a stroke on the way to your room", was all I could think as I rode it.

My plan for the morning is to breakfast early, get underway by 8am and drive straight to my parking garage in Central Prague (which foolishly I forgot to reschedule the dates for, so I've paid for an unused week). I shall  leave Speranza there while I head off to lunch with an old friend - a tax partner with one of the Big Four. Sadly my former client with whom we'd also hoped to meet up is in Ireland for the weekend so I will miss out on seeing him. 

Then I shall find my way to Babicka's flat (via the garage to pick up my bags) and settle in for my one night in Prague. On Saturday, it's onwards to Salzburg.

Tonight, having secured my e-vignettes for both Czechia's and Austria's motorways already, I shall watch Netflix and (literally) chill. My room has a view of Speranza and a soundtrack of gentle birdsong.


A quiet day

As planned, today was laundry day. I went out in the morning with a bag of washing, rather than my camera backpack. I was apprehensive about having the right coins and so forth, but remarkably the local laundrette had central wireless control for all its services, complete with contactless payment. The elderly proprietor helpfully talked me through the process in clear and elegant French. 

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Every product and device had a number. I typed in the one for washing powder, held up my phone and it dropped from the dispenser. I loaded the washing machine, selected my programme, typed in its number, flashed my phone and was ready to go.

Armed with clean clothes for another six days I returned to the hotel via my favourite Metz brunch spot where I had just one meal for the day.

Back at the hotel I checked my roaming minutes and was happy to find I have many to spare, despite streaming TV shows of an evening. Reassured, I settled down on a rainy afternoon to watch the latest episode of Welcome to Wrexham.

When I was a teenage boy my mum, worried I wasn’t getting on with dad, made him agree to take me to the football. I was a Liverpool fan but he refused to take me there saying that, at 30 miles away in North Wales;

My car’s already parked too close to bloody Anfield!

Rather than pay Scouse scallies running parking protection rackets, he bought season tickets for Wrexham. So I was a fan before it was fashionable. Dad and I followed the club from the old fourth division to the second — during what I now know from the documentary were its glory days. Then I went to university never to return.

Mum’s idea was a good one. Dad got into it and we made happy memories together but once I was off the scene he stopped going. In later years I suggested taking him to a Boxing Day match for old times sake but he replied; 

Wrexham?! I’m better now thanks

He was bemused by the club becoming a global phenomenon because of the documentary. I showed him an episode and it did nothing for him. I however am oddly moved by it and by the the theme song an American fan has written for it;

Don't forget where you came from
Don't forget what you're made of
The ones who were there
When no one else would care
I guess my memories affect me differently. It was a chore for Dad, but I am grateful I was worth it. I may well go to a match when visiting my mum sometime and surprise the locals with my emotion. For now I just enjoy the show and the odd familiarity of the featured fans I’ve never met who are quite probably the children or grandchildren of schoolmates!
 
This, the newspapers and some text exchanges passed a quiet afternoon until my clothes were aired enough to be packed.
 
Tomorrow, deo volenti, the tour continues. I don’t expect to hear from the garage today as the work will continue into the evening. However Speranza’s security systems reported to me that she was moved quite early today, so work has begun as planned. Wish me luck, gentle readers. 

Les violons de l’automne

I studied French at A level fifty years ago. The only lines of French poetry that have stuck in my mind all those years are these;

Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne blessent mon coeur d’une langeur monotone. 

It’s from Chanson d’automne by Paul Verlaine, who was born — I found out this week — in Metz. I visited his birthplace; an unassuming apartment building near the Palais de Justice. It wasn’t open so I didn’t go inside. Interestingly, given the 80th anniversary of D-Day currently being celebrated, those lines were broadcast by the Allies to signal the imminent landings to the French Resistance.

My first conversation with the late Mrs P. was on that A level course. Her father later told me I'd made quite an impression. She was the star student and teachers pet. I was comme çi, comme ça — I eventually scored a C. She was infuriated by my dominance in the conversation classes and protested too much about me to her family for the importance of the grievance.

I’ve been expecting to see you for some time,

her father wryly observed, when first I met him. 

The teacher whose pet she was, was a cynical careerist. He later escaped the boredom he never bothered to conceal by becoming Director of Education for our County Council. It was not he who introduced us to Verlaine and Rimbaud (who had a passionate romantic affair in their youth). That fell to a prudish lady whom I teased with constant sly references to the affair. In the 1970s teachers had not yet been trained to praise and promote homosexuality. The poor lady loved their poems and — blushing furiously — defended their “honour” from my insinuations.

A more influential teacher for me was an eccentric who took his three best male pupils to France every year in his Renault 4. My worst enemy, a friend and I qualified when we were 12. After inviting our parents over to meet his wife (and thus be reassured) it was he who took me to France for the first time. It was my first visit abroad. We camped our way down to the Loire Valley and its chateaux — and back.

I remember being impressed by the flying buttresses of Chartres Cathedral and the beauty of the Château de Chenonceau. From the Eiffel Tower in Paris we looked down to watch him be arrested for sunbathing shirtless while he waited for us. Skin cancer was no more discussed than gayness back then. He sunbathed constantly to maintain his nut brown tan. Quite a character, who wouldn’t last ten minutes in suspicious modern times, but a good teacher who believed in what he did.

I wonder what influence these teachers had on my eventual international career — all unforeseen then in rural Wales. As I sit in the lawyers’ quarter of Metz I’m pretty sure they didn’t know France’s legal system differs more profoundly from ours than its language does.

Metz 2024 Day 4-5Given a year living here, language would not be a problem. I love the lifestyle, good manners and culture. However I’d miss the organic, bottom-up nature of English Common Law and the way it informs our attitudes. Abolish Parliament, repeal every statute made by our politicians and within five years we’d once more have the best legal system in the world, grown organically in the soil of our everyday experiences.

Metz 2024 Day 4-6We have humble courts of law. They have palaces of “justice” (yes those are sneer quotes). Our laws grew like mushrooms. Theirs are gifts from on high for people to submit to gratefully (or evade). Just as Shariah is a gift from Allah, so Civil Code is a gift from Ancient Rome, rewrapped by Bonaparte. You can build a civilisation on it — they have and I am fond of it — but I couldn’t breathe their legal air for long.

One good reason to leave the EU was to prevent more generations of our politicians being infected with the pompous self-importance of theirs. It may take decades to get our MPs back to humility, but our future depends on it.

Tarte au citron meringuéeBefore returning to my hotel to process photos and blog, I had lunch at La Bistro de la Cathedrale, TripAdvisor top pick for Metz. I had my most substantial meal for days and thoroughly enjoyed it, staying on afterwards to enjoy a Ricard in the sunshine.   

My album of Metz photos has been updated.

 


More Metz

Fair play to the AA. They extended my hotel booking as promised and confirmed by text message. I was happy to be spared a wait on the line to their call centre and headed out earlier than I’d hoped,

Today I was less fortunate in my choice of breakfast café. Still, a baguette and jam will do the trick, washed down with a morning cappuccino. During breakfast the devis (estimate) arrived from Speranza’s workshop. The journey-stopping repair is incredibly cheap. They also offered to fix the air conditioning, which I was going to leave to the annual service.  I agreed as long as it didn’t delay completion and I’m glad I did as — although that’s a much more expensive item — I’m sure it’s cheaper than in London. It will make for a more comfortable ride as we head South next week.

I signed and returned the devis as requested and promised a 10% pourboire in cash if she’s fixed on schedule. The French present as less materialistic than us but the goddess of the market responds reliably to such offerings in my experience. At any rate, the nice lady receptionist emailed this afternoon to say a mechanic will work Wednesday evening to be sure the job is done on time.

After dealing with these matters at my breakfast table, I set off to the cathedral and this time ventured inside. The vaulted ceiling is one of Europe’s highest and the stained glass is superb. I’ve added more pictures to my album.

Metz 2024 Day 3-1I still have no religious faith. The more of my loved ones I lose, the more I wish I could believe again. I’d like to think Mr P. Senior is making peace with his dad and perhaps even the late Mrs P. right now (if he can get a word in now her mum has joined her). He was such a good man. My own mother would love to see him again. I never found a wife who wanted 67 years with me, still less one who thought it insufficient! He was as much nicer than me as my grandad was tougher. When young, I hoped to combine their virtues but genetics just don’t work that way.

The late Mrs P. became a Catholic in her final year. When I visit their cathedrals (my Catholic friend, the Navigator, reckons Henry VIII’s theft doesn’t count so they’re all their cathedrals) I light a candle for her. She wasn’t fond of road trips but, graduate in French that she was, she loved this country and would have enjoyed Metz. It’s 13 years since she passed away but lunching in a French square brings her back. She’d have looked for ways to demonstrate her mastery of the subjunctive. Then she’d have edited this post. You may have noticed the blog is wordier since she departed.

Metz 2024 Day 3-2I wandered into the Old Town and found a pavement restaurant of which she might have approved. Then, because that silver lining must be pursued, I made menu choices she’d have vetoed. I’ve been slowly losing weight on my intermittent fasting regime, despite making less rigourous meal choices than I did on my 50kg megadiet of 2018. As long as I’m punching a new hole in my belt every month or so, I’m not going to worry about the rate of loss.

Metz 2024 Day 3-15After lunch, I headed back to my hotel to process photos and write this, pausing en route for a Ricard. I like it generally as a Summer drink, but it tastes better in France.

Practical consequences of my delays will kick in soon. To make space for Babička’s luggage, I restricted myself to a carry-on and my clean clothes are running out. I’d expected to be in Prague with access to a washing machine. My hotel has no laundry service so some of Wednesday will be spent in a local launderette.

We aim to set a cracking pace from Prague to make an appointment Babička has in Provence so there’ll be no time en route. A Wednesday wash should see me through to her daughter’s in-laws’ French home where she’ll meet her new granddaughter next week. I hope my mechanics deliver so I can be a witness to that tender moment. I envy none of my friends' successes or possessions, but I confess to being jealous of their grandchildren. 


Metz day #2

“Breakfast near me” typed into Google Maps this morning yielded several better prospects than yesterday’s mediocre fare in my hotel. I was delighted with my choice — a brunch spot favoured by young French families. The only disadvantage was it made me feel old! Polite young children sang along quietly to the English pop music in the background and were generally delightful. I’m pretty sure they’d no idea what they were singing, but then neither did their parents so only I got to be amused. I’d have been delighted to be a grandad at any of their tables.

Metz 2024 Day 2-2
The late Mrs P. and I braved disapproving fellow diners on many occasions in England by taking the Misses P to restaurants when they were little. They learned how to behave and never once showed us up. One proud parenting moment was at the old River Room at the Savoy. If daggers looks involved real daggers we’d have been acupunctured to death as we were shown to our table. Our girls behaved with perfect decorum however (just like the young French children this morning, who brought the story to mind) and we had a lovely family meal.

Metz 2024 Day 2-1Before we called for the bill the Italian leader of the band providing live background music came over to chat to the girls He was surprised to find we were English. He said we looked just like a family in Italy and that it was “lovely to see” — for the first time in all the years he'd played at The Savoy. I still think it's a mistake for parents (and society in general) to assume young children are too barbaric for polite society. They don't have to be. 

I adjourned to a nearby park to take photos, catch up on messaging and read the Sunday Telegraph and my usual blogs on my iPad. I sighed to see there was a children’s playground. In London a lone elderly man (especially one with a camera) would trigger suspicious gazes. The French families today were stereotypically insouciant as I sat on a bench nearby.

French privacy laws make street photography (ironically pioneered by their greatest photographer, Cartier-Bresson; whose most famous photos would now be forbidden) illegal. I was careful to respect a law I despise by ensuring any human subjects were unidentifiable figures in the frame.

I think my desire to obey laws is one of the reasons I’m a libertarian. People with looser attitudes to compliance may worry less about 3,000+ crimes per Parliament being created (as happened under New Labour).

I used to ask people how many of those new crimes they could name. No one ever knew more than one; hunting with hounds. Others included entering a nursery school without prior appointment, which must be broken regularly by grandparents stepping in when a parent is delayed. However well intended those new crimes were (and most were just pointless propaganda to make the government seem "active" and “caring”), it’s not good to make the perfect knowledge of law assumed by our courts even more of a legal fiction.

Not least because it undermines respect for Law itself. A few laws based on commonly-accepted moral principles and rigorously and reliably enforced are the way to build respect for Law. The alternative makes lawyers rich but I can see no other benefit.

That said, I note the current British election campaign turns once again on the stupidest question of all — "what can government do for me?" The answer, if you’re not an apparatchik or on benefits, is “***k you and take most of your earnings.” That, however, is a lesson not yet learned.

Keir Starmer is keen to add 1.5 million new voters aged 16 and 17 to the electorate, precisely because they'll have learned no economic lessons at all. One wonders why anyone ever thought it a good idea to put our children's education in the hands of parasites who profit from voter ignorance. It would certainly account for why Starmer is also keen to drive more future voters into state education.

Not one party in this election proposes less government and fewer laws. Not one. Unless something changes (I hope it does because both my grandads volunteered to defend my right to do so) I shall for the first time in my life not vote. Even when I lived abroad I voted every time by proxy until I lost the right to do so. The Conservatives are authoritarian statist socialists with no respect for individual freedom. So of course are Labour, but at least they're honest about it. Given a choice between thieves and lying thieves, I'm not inclined to express an opinion.

After being brought down by such political reflections while reading my newspaper and blogs, I set off again in holiday mood to take photographs. I headed to the plan d'eau de Metz, a kind of leisure-boating marina. I'd forgotten about my intermittent fasting regime and found myself not having lunched with minutes to go. The few restaurants that were open on a Sunday had closed by 2.30pm, so I grabbed a beer and an ice-cream at a place which – it transpired – sadly lacked a loo. Like many gents of my age, this is now a matter of more concern than it used to be. I swiftly followed the directions given by the ice-cream vendeuse and found myself in a queue. A clever automated public WC performed an impressive cleansing so thorough each time that it took longer than the typical visitor! Fortunately, I was spared embarrassment and continued my waterside walk in happier mood.

I'd planned to call an Uber to return as I did yesterday. When I checked the distance however, I realised I'd walked in something of a circle and was less than half a mile from my hotel. In consequence, though I'd planned to walk a little less than yesterday, I ended up covering the same modest distance. I enjoyed the walk more today. Partly because I'd left my tripod and lighting gear in the hotel to lighten my load. Mainly because I was more confident I could handle it. 

My album of photos has been updated if you’re interested.


Metzing about

I put the automotive issues to the back of my mind today. It's the weekend in a country that still celebrates it and there was no chance of any update on Speranza anyway.

I had some online duties to perform first thing and then headed down to breakfast - slightly too late. A charming young employee told me just to take what I want and eat it in the lobby so her colleague could clean up the breakfast room – again with an elaborate politeness that made me feel like a visitor from a backward place. 

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Determined to make the most of my holiday, I set out in bright, warm sunshine with my photography backpack. I decided to take all my kit and see what I actually used. Partly I was assessing my own fitness. If I am to enjoy the Autumn of my years, I know I need to get back the condition I lost during my prolonged post-Wexit tent-sulk. I wanted to set an index mark on my health from which to work upwards.

I can't say I enjoyed my walk as I once would have done. I was pleasantly surprised that I could manage the backpack well enough, though I was painfully conscious I was soon a sweaty mess. It wouldn't bother me so much in England, but the French always look so damn soigné! No-one else seemed to feel the heat as I did. I took things slowly and was probably the only person in town to take pleasure in a little cooling rain, which didn't last long. 

I remembered what an RPS tutor had once said on a creativity course I attended.

"Keep your camera in your case. Find a location then settle down and assess your surroundings, rather than snapping off shots immediately. Picture the image you want in your mind before you raise the viewfinder to your eye."

I find this is generally pretty good photographic advice. In my present state of fitness, it was also a reason to take regular breathers.

I can't remember on what social media a kindly reader suggested I check out the Germanic-style railway station of Metz, but I thank him for the suggestion. I made that my target for the day. The walk there took me past the cathedral (pictured above) and through the Old Town. I stopped on the cathedral square to visit the Tourist Office and pick up a map of the centre. I was reminded why it was impossible for us to remain in the EU when a group of Germans queue-jumped me. I have no deeds to do, nor promises to keep so it didn't really matter, but really! I know I'm not at home (and queuing is pretty much dead in London too these days if I am honest) but if nations can't harmonise common courtesies, what makes them think they can aspire to legal unity?

I reached my goal. I was embarrassed how tired I was, but it was a beginning. If I keep up this modest pace during my trip I should return to England in better shape. I think anxiety about how well I would manage was the main reason I didn't enjoy the walk as I should. That should reduce as I rebuild my confidence. 

I had a very pleasant lunch of local delicacies at a restaurant near the station and then called an Uber to bring me back to my hotel to process the photos. If you're interested in seeing more of them, they are here.


Verdun to Labry and then Metz

I awoke this morning in the most dilapidated surroundings I have seen since I foolishly booked my family into a Communist-era holiday cabin in Mazuria in 1993. I shall spare you the details, gentle reader, and simply remember how grateful I was to have somewhere to be last night after a stressful day. My room was, in hotel industry jargon, "tired" (I might say exhausted). It was a third floor (US fourth floor) walk up, but had a magnificent view of a town hall far too grand for a little town with no taxis. 

The AA was scheduled to call me by 1030 to report what the workshop had to say about Speranza. After coffee and croissants, I spoke to Babička in Prague to let her know my situation then waited as patiently as my natural disposition permits for a call I did not expect to receive. I called them when they didn't call me and after holding for 15 minutes eventually spoke to a nice young Frenchman who said he would call the garage.

It's as well I didn't manage to get there yesterday to pick up my bags as it turned out the car was not even there yet. It's expected by 3pm and then they will look at it. Realistically this means there's no chance of a fix until Monday, so I asked them to book me an hotel near the garage to be at hand to pick her up when she's ready. I was clearly in for a weekend in rural France. Worse things have happened to a chap. All this was eating into my planned week in Prague but I could still hope to rendezvous with Babička and continue with the tour from there  

The issue with taxis remained the same this morning. Uber failed. A local taxi with online reservations said its site was undergoing maintenance and referred me to Uber. So I resorted to asking my hotel to call a cab the old-fashioned way. Finally this worked and by noon I was en route to the village of Labry, which made sleepy Verdun seem a metropolis.

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The garage was closed for lunch and there was no sign of Speranza. I adjourned to a nearby bar-tabac to wait. This was real old school. No food and lots of tobacco smoke to mask my dressed-yesterday scent. It might almost be 1970 where I sat and waited, were it not for the price of the biere! To be honest, I don't remember what I was paying for beer in 1970, but by London standards the two I had were cheap at €5 the pair! 

As I nursed my beers, a nice French lady called from the AA. She said there were no hotels in Labry and was worried about me being isolated all weekend. She proposed an hotel in Metz, where at least I could explore on foot. This would take me, if not my car, closer to Germany and provide me with a weekend in a town I’ve never visited. I could recover my camera with the rest of my baggage and do some photography as planned — just not in the intended city. She then texted confirmation of my reservation at the Hotel du Théatre, eight hundred yards from the famous cathedral.

I also heard from friends in Prague proposing lunch on Wednesday. I updated them on my situation and proposed Friday instead. 

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When the garage opened the car had still not arrived. I explained my plan to recover my bags and settled down with a sandwich jambon I’d bought from the boulangerie across the road. In buying it, I’d had one of those ultra-polite French conversations that makes one wonder where the English reputation for good manners ever came from. The nice lady’s sincere good wishes for my enjoyment of my simple lunch  contributed a lot to said enjoyment. As did the concern of the lady receptionist at the workshop who plied me with coffee and water while I waited, reading “Les reves de tractor girl” in a 2012 edition of Gazoline magazine.

If you think I’m nuts driving an old Ferrari to Prague, her epic drive on a 1970s tractor from Holland to the South Pole via Eastern Europe and Africa should bring me back into the ranks of the (relatively) sane. At the time of the article she was still en route but I checked her out on Wikipedia and she made it! Inspiring. She did it as "performance art" and to raise money for a charity. IMG_5977

Speranza duly arrived in the care of the charming rascal who'd recovered us yesterday and then dropped me off in Verdun knowing full well I should have brought my bags. I bade him a cheery au revoir and then corrected myself to "adieu". This was a reasonably successful joke in French apparently as everyone laughed.

The problem is not as serious as it might have been. Three bearings on the alternator had fused and seized throwing off the drive belt. It was a fix they could easily manage. I found it difficult to discuss timing with them. As always difficult questions required better French! I called the AA and after waiting 20 minutes got them to translate. For an extra €50 I could accelerate the parts delivery from two weeks to two days. She could then be fixed and back on the road by Thursday, allowing me to make it to Prague by Friday evening - just in time to pick up Babička and set off on the second phase of the tour together on Saturday. So instead of a week photographing Prague, which I have done before, I shall have a week photographing Metz, which I haven't. Not so bad really.

This plan agreed and the extra €50 authorised, I summoned an Uber to take me to Metz. By 5pm, I was in my room with all my luggage. Once this blog post is done, I shall be taking advantage of the rather nice bathroom in my hotel to freshen up.

The TrackMyTour update is here if you're interested. 


Alternator update

It was a mistake to leave my bags with the car. The AA did not call as promised to report on next actions. When I called for an update they reported the car had been moved to a garage 32 miles away that had agreed to evaluate the issue and report tomorrow. I asked them to book an hotel near that garage and tried (with the help of a friendly French barman/hotel clerk) to get a taxi there to pick up my bags. 

No such luck. Verdun has few taxis and none of them fancied the job. I tried Uber and they took my money but had to return it when no driver was willing. 

So the AA has booked me an hotel in Verdun and I shall have to wear today’s clothes tomorrow. I’m not happy but hey. If their budget Ibis has a complimentary toothbrush I shall call it The Savoy. 

The AA says a taxi is on the way and I should get a text from the driver to tell me when to expect him. It’s a 40 minute walk from where I am so fingers crossed on that one!

The optimist in me says a new alternator is no biggie and that it may only be a drive belt. The life-experienced person in me says no garagiste ever let a Ferrarista off lightly.

Time will tell. In the meantime I’m drinking a beer and trying to stay cool knowing any sweat today will still be with me when I dress in the morning. A town with 3 taxis sure as hell doesn’t have clothes for a guy of my stature. 

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It speaks to my seriousness about blogging etc. that the one bag I did grab from the car has all my tech in it! So you may count on updates from me more reliably than I can count on them from the AA. 

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The taxi driver called me as promised after an hour. His estimated arrival time was never. So I booked a (3rd floor walk-up) room in the very tired hotel where I’d been hanging around waiting for the AA all afternoon. I called the AA to ask them to cancel the room they’d booked at an hotel I couldn’t get to. I’m truly curious to see how they perform tomorrow. So far it strikes me they couldn’t organise a party in a brothel with its own brewery, but who knows?


First drama

Ok I didn’t even make it to the autobahn this time! Pulling away from the Aire de Verdun St Nicolas Sud on the A4 in France I got an alternator failure warning light and a dramatic burst of smoke from the engine compartment. Not good. Not good at all. The battery doesn't get charged now (and may have been damaged). Key  systems like power steering don't work. She was incredibly hard to steer as I did a U-turn to get back to the service area, but I managed,

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I’m covered by the AA but they told me they can’t come onto the private French motorways so I must call 112 and be recovered by Sanef, the road owner, to a garage where I can call them again. Sanef said they’d be with me in 30 minutes. I called my guys in Wandsworth while I waited to get an idea of how much trouble I was in. It might just be a drive belt or the unit might need replacing. Not fun, but clearly not in the league of last year's disaster and – once more  – I was lucky to be somewhere safe while it's dealt with,

The recovery truck was actually quicker than promised.  I drove Speranza up the ramp and rode in her as we were carried to a depannage place off the motorway – pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Amusingly my telepeage gizmo triggered the barrier for the tow truck to leave the autoroute. 

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From there, it all started to go less well. The guys with the truck had no repair facilities and the AA (when they finally answered the call) were unable to contact anyone else to evaluate the problem as by then it was the extended French lunchtime. Also, it's a "special" car so while they're not insisting on a Ferrari dealer (the nearest, hilariously, is the one in Luxembourg who had Speranza for six weeks of last year) they will have to find someone local prepared to look at it. The AA lady said it would be "a few hours" before they called me back. 

I suggested they simply recover the car to my guys in the UK. I could then continue my trip in a hire car. While my policy covers such repatriation, that couldn't be agreed until the problem was evaluated as being beyond local help. Fair enough. So I said I would sit tight with the car and await said evaluation. That was clearly unexpected and caused consternation. The recovery guys didn't want me hanging around. They came up with a cock and bull story about having to close up and leave me outside if they were all out on calls and suggested to the AA that they drive me to a nearby restaurant. "Nearby", turned out to be 20km away in Verdun. I sensed I was once again through the roadside assistance looking-glass.

Nothing in the demeanour of the AA lady on the phone inspired any confidence she was better able to deal with this than I am. If I didn't have the AA policy I would have called a truck by now to take Speranza to the Ferrari dealer in Strasbourg, which is along my route. If the fix was going to take longer than 48 hours, I'd hire a car from there and be on my way.

I am now installed in a bar in Verdun with power for my devices and wifi. I begin to wonder if I was wise to leave my baggage with the car. I have put my reservation in Ansbach back by one day as I am clearly not going to escape Verdun today.  Updates will follow. In the meantime, wish me luck! 


Day One - to Épernay

I woke an hour before my 5am alarm and decided I’d had enough sleep. The weather was bad so I thought I’d make an early start. The drive to Folkestone was uneventful and the heavy rain promised didn’t show up. I had never visited the main Eurotunnel terminal before as I had always bought the Flexiplus+ ticket to have more options on return dates and times. As this is a one way ticket, it didn’t seem worth the money just to have breakfast in the (admittedly much nicer) Flexiplus+ lounge.

The quality of a full English breakfast varies inversely with the quantity of alien elements introduced. Sure enough mine had hash browns and baked beans and was disgusting. It was almost as if the British Council had set out to please French tourists by reinforcing their prejudices about our food. Screenshot 2024-05-22 at 16.40.39.jpeg

I am intermittent fasting on a 16/8 cycle so no dinner for me today. That’s sad as I’m staying at my favourite hotel in Champagne, which has a superb restaurant. I may in due course need to adjust my cycle to allow for dinners, but I hate setting off on an empty stomach so will try to stick to the plan for a while. 

I arrived too late for lunch but they took pity on me (I’ve been staying here since before the young man who showed me to my room was born) and rustled up a chicken club sandwich to accompany my Ricards in the afternoon sun.

Absent a woman in my life to remind me, of course I set off without sunblock and — having driven with the roof down for a couple of hundred miles — am a good visual answer to the question “why do Australians call Brits ‘pommies’ (short for pomegranates)?” This won’t be an issue when I get to the warmer parts of this trip, as once my companion - let’s code name her “Babička” as the founding mission of this trip is to drive her to meet her new granddaughter in France – is on board with her luggage it will be no longer possible to drive with the roof down.

Babička will be on board from Prague to Provence. I may resume my pomegranating on my solo run from Provence to Spain for the ferry home. Meanwhile, here’s the route so far.

Tomorrow — on to Ansbach. 


Travel mode ON

Not that there’s been much of non-travel mode recently. If you follow me on X (formerly Twitter) then you’ll know why. It’s an election year and there is no one to vote for who represents my views. The nearest politician who appeals to me is presently President of Argentina — a country I’ve never visited and probably never will. 

IMG_5920On Wednesday morning I set out on a road trip to celebrate the milestone of Speranza passing 100,000 miles — all but 7,000 of them with me at the wheel. The plan is to drive 2,500 miles to Santander in Spain, via France, Germany, Czechia, Austria, Italy and France again. Then we’ll take the 30 hour ferry ride to Portsmouth and home  

I shall be tracking the trip using the software I first used for my Great American Road Trip of 2013 — Track My Tour — which creates a map recording the tour from photos taken with my phone along the route. 

My first planned stop is Épernay at the heart of the Champagne region. I shall check in from there. Here’s hoping for a less eventful (and expensive) journey than last year!