THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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Toscana 551
Done, dusted
Toscana 551 (1)
Damp start in Epernay this morning

I had two martinis and a bottle - not of Gevrey Chambertin - but a very fine Cote Rotie last night to wash down a superb meal.

A couple of miserable old Welsh people at the next table gave the staff a hard time about speed of service while - behind their backs - sniggering about how many of them there were and how they needed a manager to watch them all and "keep them on their toes". I guess the grumpy old ***s were more accustomed to Golden Arches than Relais et Chateaux. They were at it again at breakfast this morning, complaining about the saltiness of the I can't believe it but it actually *is* butter.

What made it more annoying was that they clearly didn't appreciate their luck in having made it to old age together to have the chance to bitch and moan so ignorantly in the face of good fortune. I would guess they were public sector pensioners, judging by their militaristic thoughts about management and general lack of respect for honest labour.

This did not detract from a splendid evening. It was tempered only by a slight sadness at dining in such splendour alone while recalling my previous visits with the late Mrs P. It was one of our favourite places and I have lots of memories that will be happy, given time.

The run home to London was uneventful.  I spotted the French police in ambush and sailed serenely by beneath the limit. I could smell the sweet aroma of their frustration. I was an hour early at the Channel Tunnel terminal in Calais so caught the 1320 instead of the 1420. Given the time difference I was on English soil by 1300 and home (despite strict compliance with speed limits) before 1500.

It was a great trip, but stupidly short. There was really no reason to rush back. I should have spent some time in Italy, having made such an effort to be there. I need to learn to pace myself better in my new and more leisurely circumstances.

Speranza is due in for her annual service, MOT and warranty renewal later this month and my next planned trip is - prosaically - to Pwllheli in August for some bank holiday family time with sister, nephews and parents. Before then, I have to submit to my "speed awareness" course. I am trying to stay positive in anticipation. It is possible that the AA on behalf of Thames Valley Police may teach me something that forty years of safe driving and courses from both Maserati and Ferrari have not. 

Here is my route map and my trip photo album.

In Champagne

In the old days, my late wife and I used to fly home from Poland or Russia, pick up her mum and drive to the South of France for a holiday. Our daughters were not keen on road trips with music selected by 'the elderly' so would fly down and meet us there. The ladies liked the Cote d'Azur. I liked the drive. Everyone was happy. The half-way point between Chester (where our house in England used to be) and Cannes was roughly in Epernay and so that was where we broke our journey.

On the second such trip we discovered my hotel for tonight by accident. Since then it has become more popular with British motorists. This is good for the owners, but a bit irritating for me. Still at least one of my countrymen tonight has both the good taste to own an Aston Martin and the good sense to drive it places and get it dirty. Maybe he's not an aparatchik?

I made it here from Turin in just over seven hours. That did not leave much time for sightseeing or photography en route. Indeed, it rained heavily most of the way. The Alps looked better (I convinced myself) with mist on them, but I could have done without spray thrown up into my face by the mommy-vans and Chelsea Tractors that that French now all seem to drive.

I took a brief break for a picnic of artigianale chocolate at an aire. Feeling the sun on my face again I decided to risk putting the roof down. This was not my best move. Within 10km the rain had returned and I discovered that the windscreen wipers deliver heavy rain directly onto my shirt. I preferred this to it reaching Speranza's fine Italian leatherwork of course.

Once I was able to pull over and raise the roof, I drove for 100km with the heater on and all vents directed at me. This worked surprisingly well and I arrived in good enough shape that a splash of water on my face, a quick brush of my teeth and the donning of a jacket over said shirt has me ready for what I know from long experience will be a splendid dinner.

My companions in Tuscany were all enthusiasts (as am I for everyday purposes) of Italian food. I defer to no-one however in my enthusiasm for French cuisine. I hope just as sincerely that my last meal will be French haute cuisine washed down with Gevrey Chambertin as that tonight's (though it will meet the specification) is not that meal.

My trip photos are here and here's my updated map of the tour.

There was nothing sinister about my radio silence

The trip is going rather well so far. I have not posted only because the wifi in our "villa" (a small word for a rather splendid 13th Century fortified house) was as medieval as the building. I don't want to quibble though. The house was wonderful and my friends and I enjoyed our time there.

I had a splendid run from the French Departement of Jura, where last I filed a report. Lots of "tunnelling" a la Top Gear and beautiful mountain scenery including a long approach to Mont Blanc. I enjoyed almost every minute of my nine hours of driving that day. Speranza was on such top form that it was easy to think she knew she was heading to her birthplace.

I entered Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel, something of an experience in itself. It's not big, it's not modern (attempts to upgrade it having been blocked by local nimbyism) and it's a simple two way road. They despatch you at intervals as if on a time trial and you are supposed to maintain a set distance apart. Only I seemed to worry about that. It was the first time I had to stop to pay a toll on this trip. I acquired a French "telepeage" device last year but once in Italy, it was back to having to stop, hop out of the car and run around to pick up my ticket or pay the toll. Most people I delayed were gracious about it; acknowledging my pantomimed apology with a smile and wave. Many gave Speranza a thumbs up in the process.

Driving her in Italy for the first time has been a special experience. Italians are proud of their automotive heritage and seem impressed that anyone would drive a Ferrari so far. I have had the usual experiences with boy racers showing off for their girlfriends, but I have also had people wave me in at junctions and even on roundabouts; giving an automotive aristocrat unasked-for priority. This year's Italians almost matched the enthusiasm of last year's black Americans for my bad ass bella macchina.

I loved listening to the Italians at the cookery school talking about their car histories. The owner had bent his Dad's Ferrari as a young man and was able to tell me all about the little-known sporting marque of Bizzarini from Livorno. One of the chef-tutors drove an old Alfa-Romeo, but he was more interested in displaying his professional skills and his charm with the ladies. Both were impressive and less spontaneous than they appeared; a lot of practice clearly having been involved.

The cookery classes were more fun on Sunday morning than Saturday afternoon. I was less tired and the heat in the kitchen was not so severe. Sunday's tutor, Chef Luciano, clearly enjoyed teaching and was remarkably funny in English; a language of which he had the very slightest grasp. We laughed all day, which was great. I particularly enjoyed the stereotypical inversion of watching an Italian chef bellowing at a German student about the importance of being well-organised!

Today I drove a mere five hours and twenty minutes from Lastra a Signa to Turin via Maranello. When I saw the signs for Modena on the autostrada it just seemed silly not to take Speranza to visit her birthplace. We drove past the works buildings (not open for tours on Mondays). They are very impressive in terms of scale, modernity and an impeccable standard of presentation. They look more like a showroom than a factory. I spent an hour or so in the Museo Ferrari which houses the company's own collection of historic models as well as F1 simulators and other attractions.

The Patek Phillipe Museum in Geneva refused to let me pay for entry because I was wearing my grande complication, but Speranza and I didn't get quite that welcome today. Ferrari still maintains the same attitude to owners as Enzo had. He saw the production of cars for sale as an irritating necessity to fund the racing team. He would not give the "show offs" and "men in their fifties" a moment of his time, even to pose for a photograph when they came to pick up their purchases. He only liked the "sportsmen" who bought his cars to race them. For the first time today I was made to feel like a tiny part of the Ferrari family when I was graciously granted an "owners' discount" of 20% in the museum shop.

The drive from Maranello to Turin came close to being boring because the traffic was dense and there were major roadworks. However I found my quaint family-run hotel in the historic centre quite easily and the owners rearranged their cars - as agreed in advance - to make space for Speranza. 

I took a photographic walk around the city - this being my first visit - and made an odd evening meal of artigianale ice cream, chocolate and beer before returning to my hotel room to write and publish this post.

The map showing my progress to date is here and my photos so far are here. Tomorrow it's back to France where I plan to overnight in Epernay, in the heart of champagne country, at one of my favourite hotels in the world.


The romance of the Alps

I am booked onto an indoctrination course in lieu of penalty points at present, so I drove very carefully to the Eurotunnel Terminal at Folkestone. I am, as they say in football, "on a six pointer." If I pick up another ticket before attending my course I will get back the previous three points as well as the new ones. So I experimented with the odd notion of total compliance. I left home before five am.

At that time of day you would think it would make little difference and indeed I did arrive on time. However it was like driving in a different world. As the drivers of mommy vans passed me with puzzled expressions I found myself stuck with the trucks in the inside lane. At one point one threatened to pull in and crush me (so far was I below his line of sight) and I had to accelerate briefly to escape. Because of that I did not comply completely. To do so, I would have had to choose to die.

It was awful and would have been worse during the day. I don't want to drive stupidly and am happy to stay within 20% or so of the limit, but not being able to keep up with traffic is just ridiculous.

I can't imagine what hypocrisy the tutors will offer at the police-mandated course. If they claim to comply themselves, I will have to suppress a snort of derision. No-one complies. No-one. I stuck out like a sore thumb - all the more for being in a frustrated Ferrari.

Mis 397
I boarded the 0720 shuttle to Calais arriving in time to be on the road at 0900 French time as planned. The trip computer readings tell the story of the day. For most of it I was on a well-worn route to the South of France, passing places I have seen many times before. Then I turned off towards first Geneva and Turin to reach my home for the night in the shabbiest hotel I have ever encountered in France. It's like a gypsy encampment without the romance - and it doesn't have air conditioning. I know. First world problems. I am tired enough to sleep in it - despite the odd whiff - even if I have to sleep in a cold bath.

I am in a good mood though. I had a brilliant run and thoroughly enjoyed the driving. I saw a part of France I didn't know before and it was prettier than I expected. I drove through alps ('tunnelling' V8 roar, lovely!) and over alpine valleys on high viaducts.

Tomorrow I will rise early again because, entirely by coincidence, old friends from New York are flying in for a holiday at Forte dei Marmi, which is directly on my route. My blog post yesterday alerted them and we have arranged to meet for lunch. Then I hope to have coffee with cuffleyburgers of this parish in Lucca before heading on to my friends and our villa near the cookery school in the early evening.

Touch wood, Speranza's electronic issues appear to have gone away. The satnav played up briefly, but I knew my way out of Calais well enough and it then settled down. Essentially she performed impeccably and - driving with the roof down in glorious sunshine all day - it was hard not to feel like a very lucky man indeed. Although looking at my burned self in the mirror, I may prefer air conditioned comfort tomorrow.

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Tomorrow's more "leisurely" programme

Tuscany and back

In the early hours of tomorrow morning I set off to drive to Tuscany. My planned route is below.

As so often, I am in too much of a hurry and will be whizzing by interesting places rather than exploring them. I need to break the habits of a lifetime of time management and take time to smell the proverbial blooms/beverages. I have messed up my planning so that I need to get there in two days. This involves eleven hours of driving on Thursday in order to have a more reasonable six - seven hours on Friday and arrive in reasonable shape to be suitably active and convivial. I am taking three days to drive back, so that I can take some time for photography in Turin; a city I have never visited before.

I am taking such pains to avoid Switzerland because the superb, scenic roads of that beautiful country are policed by an entire nation of amateur traffic cops. I know from long experience that there is no way to avoid tedious compliance with no allowance for even minor error. On a cost/benefit analysis, Switzerland (now that my last friend living there has moved away) is simply not beautiful enough to justify the stress and irritation. I only wish I had the time to go the long way round through Germany, with its civilised attitude to its greatest invention.

There's also the matter of those damned "vignettes" required to drive on Swiss motorways. They are a sensible approach to infrastructure funding if you live in Switzerland, but are inconvenient for an occasional user. You have to pay for a year even if you are only passing through for a few hours and they are incredibly difficult to remove. I have no desire to waste another hour of my dwindling life scraping one off. I have only just achieved a pristine windscreen after patiently peeling off the less viciously adhesive Austrian and Czech versions from my last trip.

As for French motorways, I have an electronic tag linked to my bank account and don't have to stop at the toll booths any more. It can be mounted on the same bracket as my M6 toll tag and lives in the glove compartment when not in use.

I am hoping to stop en route for a coffee with cuffleyburgers, a regular commenter here over the years. If you are also in in my path, I would be happy to have a beverage with you too. If you have suggestions as to places to break the journey for a photo op or other edification, please offer them as soon as possible

The contrived purpose of the drive is a cookery course in Tuscany on Saturday and Sunday. The true purpose is of course "the road".  Thirty-two hours of driving and only four of them on England's congested, under-invested and over-policed roads, is - for me - very heaven. Wish me luck with those roadworks - and the traffic cops. My progress will be tracked - as usual - here

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