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

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Florence

I am back in my favourite city and Mrs Paine II is enjoying its delights for the first time. After yesterday's stress, we had only a two hour run to Florence, so took a leisurely breakfast and sauntered automotively to the autostrada. South of Modena a convoy of three Ferraris overtook us at speed and we made a fourth for a few exciting kilometres until they decided to comply more narrowly with the speed limits and we left them behind. 

The first of two challenges was exiting the toll road. Our ticket was rejected for some reason the help desk lacked the English to explain. In the end the machine issued a "pay later" ticket and the barrier lifted. We still don't know what the problem was (and the "pay later" toll seems high) but no matter. The second was finding our quaint city B&B in an old apartment building on a roundabout outside the city's southern gate. After circling the block a couple of times we eventually found it. We parked in the careless Italian style we'd seen others adopt, and unloaded. Our hostess directed me to a quaint little garage nearby where Speranza was given a place of honour for the next two days. 

Then we headed out to find some lunch and begin our exploration. This is my third visit and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my wife’s reaction to catching sight of the Piazza della Signoria for the first time. There’s a known psychological phenomenon that makes us want to share a great movie or book with our loved ones and it probably accounts for the pleasure I felt in seeing a familiar favourite place through her eyes. 

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As always our travels are recorded on the "Track my Tour" app and the map can be found here


A mad rush to Mantua

We set ourselves too hard a task today. This is meant to be fun and relaxing. Mostly it was, but a couple of delays in leaving Switzerland due to accidents ahead of us meant that we fell behind. As much of our journey was on Swiss roads, we couldn't make it up with a bit of judicious speeding or as I call it "broad compliance" with local laws. A French friend who lived many years in Geneva told me years ago never to speed there as "every Swiss is a policeman" paid or not!

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We had hoped to stop for a relaxing lunch near Lake Como but pressed on instead, pausing only for fuel, using the time to keep our appointment with Silvia of the Automobile Club Mantova. She holds the keys to the Museo Tazio Nuvolari and had kindly agreed to open it up at 3pm for our visit. Mrs P2 enjoyed the beautiful Swiss scenery through the car windows, apart from during one spell of rain so heavy it removed the screen kill! We encountered more traffic while circumventing Milan, but that was to be expected. Eventually we were out on the autostrada, where speed limits are similar to Switzerland, but more loosely observed. We arrived with time to spare and, having parked near the museum, found a cafe to rest and recover.

Silvia was on time and I was soon enjoying all the great man's trophies and mementoes. News that the museum was open spread and soon Silvia was taking money from Italians who sat and watched the few rare films of "the flying Mantuan" in action. 

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We then explored the charming, undeveloped little town. Artificial lakes were constructed on three sides of it in the 12th Century to defend the stronghold of the Gonzaga family, later Dukes of Mantua. This constrained its expansion and made it a modern backwater. Its inhabitants economic loss is to some extent our gain — if we like old buildings. Its historical centre is a UNESCO world heritage site and it has been both Italy’s capital of culture and Europe’s capital of gastronomy. My interest in motorsports — indulged my my lovely wife — has brought us to a little gem of a place.

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Tomorrow we make a more leisurely journey to my favourite Italian city, Florence, where we stay for two nights before heading on to our borrowed holiday home (the use of which is a wedding gift from kindly friends) in the South of France. 


To Lucerne via Saarschleife and Strasbourg

A Ferrari factory tour and the Tazio Nuvolari Museum in Mantua seem romantic enough destinations to me but one of our friends last night suggested a nature ramble might be a more appropriate honeymoon activity. So after breakfast this morning we set off to the BaumWipfelPfad or "Treetop Walk" at Saarschleife. We had a short, pleasant walk from the visitor centre on a high level wooden walkway in the canopy of a forest to a spiral overlook structure above the banks of the River Saar at a point where it makes a horseshoe-shaped meander. It was "wunderschön”

The photograph of the viewing platform will give you some idea of the amount of serious engineering Germans are prepared to put into improving their view of a beauty spot!

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One of our friends, now a naturalised Luxembourgoise, was born in Strasbourg. On her advice we abandoned our previous plan to visit the European Parliament building in her home city. Instead she recommended a restaurant where they specialise in a healthy, fish-based version of the usual, meaty Choucroute Strasbourgoise. So we headed off through Germany (where we got Speranza up to 225kph on a short stretch of unrestricted autobahn) and then France to sample that. It was excellent.

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We then walked around the outside of the amazing Gothic cathedral in the blistering heat (32 degrees C) before heading back to the car and driving to Lucerne.

It was a great drive, though mostly through France so lacking in high speed opportunities. We found our way through the pedestrianised old town (as advised by the hotel and assisted by a police woman who gave us directions) under the disapproving gaze of hundreds of passing Swiss. It's a beautiful country but the locals love their rules so much that I never quite feel comfortable around them. I always feel they are looking for an opportunity to call the police!

After unloading our bags in the narrow alley outside the hotel, I left Mrs P2 to check us in and arrange for the luggage to be taken to our room, while I drove Speranza away to a modern car park across the river where vehicles are allowed.

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On my return we took a short walk around Lucerne, photographed the famous bridge and forewent dinner to have ice cream instead. This cooled me down to my optimum operating temperature and was a rare treat under my new dietary regime.

Tomorrow we head for Mantua and the museum of my hero Nuvolari, the great racing driver. 


On the road again — on honeymoon

After only four months, Mrs Paine II (an Indian citizen) has finally obtained her Schengen visa and this morning we set out in Speranza on our European road trip honeymoon. We crossed the Channel on the Eurotunnel train this morning and were in Bruges in time to take a boat tour of its canals before lunch. 

Mrs PII has never been to Continental Europe before and, with her detached perspective, offered an observation that — for all its evident truth — had never occurred to me before. “If it weren’t for the road signs and driving on the other side of the road” she said “I wouldn’t know we weren’t in England.”  We near-neighbours focus on our differences to such an extent that we fail to notice that in most everyday respects we’re just the same!

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After lunch we explored this beautiful little town in the pleasant sunshine before retiring to our hotel and resting before dinner. We found a delightful little restaurant on a side street near our hotel and passed our first evening on the road chatting happily with each other and our Belgian neighbours at the next table. 

Tomorrow we’re heading to Luxembourg where an old friend will show us around before he and his lady join us at our hotel across the border in Germany for dinner. Speranza and I are  hoping for some unrestricted autobahn en route

As usual, I’m using the excellent Track My Tour app to create an online map of the tour using geodata from uploaded progress photos. If you’re interested, you can follow along here


A road trip to Northern Ireland

I returned yesterday from an impulsively-organised road trip to Northern Ireland. For those of us who grew up during the Troubles, it's not an obvious tourist destination. The names of its towns and villages meant nothing to me but violence and – Giant's Causeway apart – I had never seen a reason to go. However, the future Mrs P the Second's sister was visiting Ireland and is a fan of "Game of Thrones."  The series was mostly filmed in a studio on the Belfast Docks and on location around Northern Ireland so we decided to meet her there and visit some of those locations.

It was a frivolous idea but it led to some good fun. Mrs P2-elect and I crossed from Birkenhead to Belfast on the 1030 sailing on Friday. I wasn't too happy that Speranza travelled on an outside deck, exposed to weather and spray, but the passage was calm and agreeable enough, if a little boring. We landed on Friday evening at 1830 and were safely at our modern hotel near the docks by 1900. Within minutes we were changed and in a taxi to a splendid restaurant recommended by my cousin in the catering trade. She had told me that the chef was on the cusp of his first Michelin "macaron" and after our experience there, I can believe it.

We met my fiancee's sister's train from Dublin at the railway station on Saturday morning and set off on our (as it proved) over-ambitious tour. Our first stop was Cairncastle, where the scene in which Ned Stark lived up to his motto that "the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword" was filmed. The photo below shows Speranza near the place.
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A nearby hotel features one of the "Doors of Thrones". These are made from wood from trees at the Dark Hedges (itself a GoT location – see below) felled by Storm Gertrude in 2016. Local tourism promoters turned damage to one tourist attraction into ten new ones – all at pubs or hotels near to a location used in series six. All the locations can be found here

From there we drove to the Cushenden Caves at Ballymena. They are open to the public but the locals didn't seem keen for us to find them. There are no signs until you have actually arrived. We persisted however and duly saw where the Red Priestess gave birth to the shadow creature. We lunched at a pub across the road before striking out, this time with the roof down, for Murlough Bay

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This location stands in for the region of Westeros (the fictional continent where most of Game of Thrones is set) known as Pyke. Inevitably, as GoT is set in an alternate medieval reality, there's little to see but windswept hills and ocean but our tour was getting us out into some beautiful scenery and involving us in lots of healthy outdoor exercise. The roads to this remote spot were not (unlike the winding B roads we enjoyed for most of the trip) ideally suited to Speranza but she coped.

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From here we drove to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which features in GoT as the scene of the killing of Balon Greyjoy. 

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We arrived too late to buy a ticket to cross the bridge, which was a disappointment, but made the walk there and back anyway to take a look and make some pictures. By this time night was falling and it was too late to go to our main destination for the day the famous Giant's Causeway. As we drove back to our hotel in Belfast however, we came up with a plan to return the next day.

We also had the chance on our way back from the rope bridge to park up near the Dark Hedges. My camera can shoot at very high ISO and so I was able to get one of my favourite shots of the weekend in near-darkness. Had we arrived in daylight it would have been crammed with tourists spilling off the coaches that were leaving as we arrived. As it was, it took me seconds to Photoshop away the few stragglers that remained.

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After breakfast on Sunday morning, we drove directly to the Giant's Causeway. On well-maintained and (by English standards) lightly-used motorways and A roads it was a different experience from Saturday. The miles ticked away quickly and we arrived within 50 minutes or so despite a refuelling pit stop. The attraction is natural and free, but the National Trust is in charge and determined to rake in the cash. Essentially it charges £11.50 per person to park and kindly allow access to their gift shop and cafe where its polite and helpful staff can relieve you of more cash. The "visitor centre" is modern and magnificent and we did plan to spend some time there so as the NT is a charity and mostly (despite its political correctness and priggishness) does a useful job we decided to pay up with a smile. If you were minded to be more frugal you could drop your passengers at the entrance to the car park and they could walk for free to the Causeway. If you wanted to be really frugal, you could park the car down the road and walk in. There's nothing in the gift shop or cafe that you couldn't get online or nearby from some private business or other.

After exploiting the NT facilities we had paid so handsomely to use,  we set off for nearby Dunluce Castle, a ruin that stands in for Castle Greyjoy in GoT, but is an interesting enough attraction in its own right. The owners clearly think so as, despite the constant GoT chatter of their visitors, they make nothing of the connection to the show. 

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We then had a late lunch in the nearby town of Portrush, before heading south again towards Belfast. We had hoped to visit another GoT location, Shane's Castle, on the way back but it is part of a working agricultural estate and is only open to the public for special events. So we called an end to our GoT tour and returned to town to visit the famous Crown Bar and then the cafe of the Europa Hotel (bombed 36 times during the Troubles but a pleasant enough place to pass an hour these days).

From there we dropped our guest at the station to return to Dublin and we set off to wait for our ferry home and a good night's rest at sea before a pleasant drive home to London. Given our early start – disembarking at 0630 – and a single pit stop to refuel at a motorway service station, we were home  before 11am.


Home again

After a simple but decent breakfast at my Holiday Inn Express in Dijon, I set off in relatively cool air. I decided to try to do the whole journey with the roof down. At 24º Celsius that made sense but by 11.17 am when I stopped for fuel it was 29º and I was feeling sleepy in such heat. I normally try to combine Speranza's refreshment with my own to minimise pit stops but that made no sense at that hour. So I bought a picnic lunch (including Red Bull to deal with the sleepiness), put the roof up and turned on the air-conditioning to keep me alert and my food fresh.

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I was well North by the time I stopped for lunch at one of those charming French "aires" that make one ashamed of the squalor of our Motorway service stations. I took my lunch bag up a hill to a bench under a tree and spent a pleasant hour in the shade reading from my phone. One of the blog posts I read was about motoring in France and persuaded me to try harder to keep within shouting distance of the speed limits for the final run to Calais. Irritated as they are by our cavalier attitude to their speed cameras, the French police apparently like to lay traps for Brits in a hurry to catch ferries and Eurotunnel trains on that stretch.

The temperature had cooled as I headed north so I put the roof down and set out for a more law-respecting leg of my journey. This was an excercise in itself. It's all too easy to let Speranza get to jail-time speeds. She lacks the cruise control I used a lot in my days with Vittoria. Hitting "resume" after an overtake was a good way to rein in one's thoroughbred, I found. So instead I resorted to finding local drivers keeping to a speed that suited me (10-15 kph over the limit - a €135 spot fine at worst) and using them as my pace men. With the aid of three such French gentlemen, I completed my 560km run to Calais entirely without incident. I shall never know if any of them noticed or, if they did, found it odd that they were being shadowed. Along the way I also provided a lot of pleasure to French boy racers who got to overtake a Ferrari on the autoroute.

I arrived at the Eurotunnel a good two hours ahead of my planned departure but had an expensive "Flexiplus" ticket that allowed me to use any train I pleased. I had an afternoon tea in the Flexiplus lounge before catching the next train. The worst part of any such Continental road trip is returning to the chaos of roads in Britain's south-east. It's shocking how much government has neglected the infrastructure in the most productive wealth-creating parts of the country; preferring to tax them to subsidise other parts that have not been  net contributors since before World War II! A couple of accidents brought traffic to a near standstill in both directions on the M25 at different times on my short journey back to London. There was also a serious assault in a service area that led to a petrol station being closed while the police investigated. Fortunately I had refuelled immediately after leaving the Eurotunnel train so that was not an issue for me.

I arrived home tired but happy and put Speranza to bed and back on her "battery conditioner" until the next trip. I shall now put myself to bed too as I have a busy day of pleasure tomorrow. Normal blogging service will resume shortly, though I hope first to post a link to the slideshow our tutors made of our best photos in Florence and Tuscany.


Wine and song

The final critique session yesterday was a revelation. I have been on many photo workshops but have never seen such progress in a week. Valeria, an Italian lady (and an authentic character who has raised smiles all week) had brought her new DSLR camera – her very first. She began with the kind of work one might expect from a novice but under the guidance of Sensei and the rest of the faculty she submitted assured, intelligent photographs for the final review. Others did just as well and there were many photographs of which I was more than a little envious. The best of the week, in my humble opinion, was by Irene, a Scottish photographer who has been on all three of the courses with Joe McNally that I have attended. Her picture of Suzie the pasta chef's hands was stunning.

I was reasonably happy with my work but the law of diminishing returns applies in artistic as much as economic endeavours. My inability to cope with temperatures between 35ºC and 40ºC also meant that I did not – to be honest – put in a full shift. I will post a link to the final slideshow when our teachers have shared it with us and you can judge the quality of our group's work for yourselves. All the photos in the show are by students. There are none by the distinguished teachers.

Tammie, one of our group, has also been blogging if you'd like to read more. If you are at all interested in photography you should visit the websites of Joe "Sensei" McNally, Liza "the Chief" Politi and Ari - mi amigo - Espay, our faculty for the week. You can also find Joe and Ari on Instagram. You might also check out the Instagram feed of Italian photographer Fiorella Baldisserri who was with us.

Our work done we adjourned to a hostelry on the other side of the river. Bread was broken, wine was quaffed, laughter rang out and, yes, some songs were sung. Your humble blogger's rendition of "That's amore" went down quite well and the Chief surprised all with a moving rendition of a blues song. The group's diplomat Ashley went to apologise to neighbouring diners for our raucousness and ended up making such friends with them that several of us joined them at their table.

After sleeping it off, the last valiant few breakfasted together at our highly-recommended hotel. If you're going to Florence (and you should) it is by far the coolest place to stay. It's an ultra modern, achingly hip hotel staffed by friendly and courteous young Italians. It's comfortable, it's elegant and it's located on the most fashionable shopping street. It's also in the shell of a splendid old palazzo that is itself a part of Florence's history. Equally magnificent in a far more rustic way was our hotel in the Tuscan countryside, the Castello di Gargonza. The staff there really couldn't do enough for us and the food was as great as the historic surroundings. No commercial consideration was given for either of these endorsements.

After breakfast Speranza was retrieved from valet parking, duly washed and valeted. We set off cheerfully to Modena, to visit the Museo Enzo Ferrari, which is located at the great man's birthplace over his father Alfredo's workshop. There's an impressive new building opposite the old family home and a spectacular collection of cars, engines and trophies. It was a little sad to think that Speranza's sister California – or indeed the €1 million Ferrari LaFerrari – on display will never command the open road or the track as they should. So many of these magnificent machines sit unused in private and public collections, when they should be driven often and hard. I like to think that Speranza, if sentient, would be happy to be one of the few Ferraris to fulfil her destiny. I passed 65,000 miles of driving her on this trip and will pass 66,000 before we get home.

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Then it was on to Milan for an overnight stay in a rather up itself suburban hotel before heading for France tomorrow.

 

 


Pasta and Wine

Considering how selectively I shot in the previous day's blazing heat, I was happy with my "selects" for the critique yesterday. After class we adjourned to a restaurant where "Suzie" the chef had agreed to a pasta making demo / photoshoot. The area set up for the purpose was ablaze with natural sunlight from a large French window, so sensei hung a bedsheet over that to form a huge "lightbox." He then set up a studio flash outside to mimic the sunshine he'd tamed in controllable form. Another flash inside the room was slaved to provide "fill". The objective was that the lighting set up would not be apparent to the viewer, who would think we had just been blessed with perfect natural light. You can judge if we succeeded from my shot of Suzie (a patient, charming lady who rolled and chopped contentedly for over an hour).

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The unusual heat (over 30℃) was already getting to me. Even more so in the box of frogs formed by my fellow photographers writhing and dancing around our subject. I didn't serve my full stint in command of the lighting set up. I got my shots quickly and adjourned to a cooler spot. After lunching on the pasta we'd watched made (I was too hot to eat and skipped that) we were due to head off for a wine tasting and photo shoot at a vineyard, Felsina. Wine and olive oil have been made there since the days of the Etruscans.

We spent an interesting and pleasantly cool hour or so among the barrels of maturing Chianti, Spumante, dessert wine and their "Super Tuscan" brand Fontalloro. I can't show you any of the pictures alas, as the company made prior approval of published pictures a condition of allowing us such free access. I have been promised an email address of someone who can approve my shots, but immediacy is in the nature of a travel blog so by the time that happens it will be too late. You can see their pictures at their website. The most interesting part of the day was watching sensei make a portrait of the vineyard's owner and management team. I love to watch any expert at work. 

The wine tasting was fun and I particularly liked the Super Tuscan. I was enjoying it so much that I offered to buy wine for everyone on condition that we cancelled our excursion to photograph the raw ingredients while being grilled by the Tuscan sunshine. Such enthusiasts are my colleagues that this (I thought) compelling offer was emphatically rejected. I was by now operating well outside my design parameters for temperature management. I stayed on the air conditioned bus while they frolicked among grapes that will be of no interest to any sensible person for years yet!

Then it was back to our Tuscan home at Castello de Gargonza for our last night there. We had a splendid buffet dinner in a garden. The night sky was of such a rich dark blue that several of my visually-acute photographer pals could scarcely digest for their artistic glee. While they got their jollies their way, I gave the good Tuscan wine the full respect it deserved.  I sat at the same table as the Italian contingent of photographer/interpreters. Much international goodwill was generated over toasts. We exchanged idioms that foreign language speakers would never normally learn. I now know how to respond if insulted by an Italian. If an Italian photographer in London tells you it's "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey", you will be detecting my influence!

Hands were raised before bedtime to indicate who was up for a dawn photoshoot at 0515 today. Mine was not among them. I rose at a sensible hour and packed for our return to Florence. This was meant to be via Siena. I had been looking forward for months to that. I have been to Tuscany before but never to that city. Sadly that visit is still on my bucket list as I decided I would not be able to cope with hauling my camera kit around a city centre in these temperatures. Leaving Leslie,  a charming artist from New York who is my usual companion on these runs, to ride with the main group on the bus, I headed directly to Florence. My plan was to relax and decide whether I could cope with tonight's planned event. We are all invited to a garden party at the home of a Florentine "aristocrat" (an odd pretension in a Republic). The jury is still out on that one as I write this.

Tomorrow is our final day. We shoot the Duomo in the morning and then meet for a final class over a working lunch. There's then a break while the faculty create a slideshow of our best work to be viewed before our farewell dinner. As I have done in past years, I shall host the slideshow here and link to it for anyone who may be interested. There is a good range of photographic styles in this year's group, so I think you may enjoy it.


Flagging in Tuscany

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We hit the road on Monday morning. We hit it slowly because the bus driver's lean and hungry look did not signal, like Cassius, that he thought too much, or perhaps at all. He was taken by surprise by road works that had been going on for days, by Monday morning traffic that must be routine and by the location of the hotel in a building that had stood there for centuries. In consequence the group waited outside in the heat with their bags for an hour and then had to carry them down the street to the nearest spot where he would deign to park.

None of this should have been my concern but Speranza and I waited for yon Cassius's input on where to meet in San Gimignano. His knowledge of that delightful town proved however not to extend beyond the coach park as to which his only information was that we would not be permitted anywhere near it.

The roadworks and an earlier accident on the autostrada made for a slow, tormented exit from the city. A colleague came along for the ride and we began with the roof down in anticipation of a boulevard cruise. After half an hour of near stationary baking while marinating in diesel fumes we put it back up for air conditioned relief.

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Eventually we reached the winding Tuscan roads for which Speranza is designed and had a little automotive fun before a mad dog / Englishman climb up a steep dirt path from the car park. I love San Gimignano but a combination of sweaty exhaustion and happy memories of a family trip long ago tinged it with melancholy this time. I got one shot I liked of a stone head on a parapet before retreating to a dark cool interior for beer and ice cream.

The run from San Gimignano to our home in Castello de Gargonza was much more like it. The way was clear and winding, the scenery was scenic and as a Brit I had no cause to fear the controllo elettronica della velocita. Our hotel is a medieval village on a hill and is beautiful. I was too exhausted to join the introductory tour and may regret that later. At the time a cold shower and a clean shirt was a more enticing prospect. 

After a lighting demonstration in a garden washed with golden Tuscan light, we ended the day at an elegant table on a lawn and refreshed our artistic souls with local food and wine.


Dijon to Alessandria

Tuscany  - 1Today was bliss. The sun shone. I drove with the roof down on France's great roads to the Mont Blanc tunnel, stopping to drink in the scenery a couple of times. Rising up to the tunnel entrance cooled me down, as did the tunnel itself. Then it was out into brilliant sunshine and less brilliant roads populated by two of the three categories of Italian motorists; the ones who like to express their appreciation of my car and the ones who see her as a challenge. I didn't meet the third category — the ones in police cars.

There was a brief hold up — the first of the trip — on the Italian side of the tunnel. I don't know whether there had been an accident or breakdown but we waited for a while — long enough for me to get hot and put the roof up so as to enjoy the air conditioning. Then a kindly category #1 Italian directed me out of the line of stationary trucks and onto to a back route.

There followed a lot of "tunnelling" noisily in low gears for musical effect. This was much appreciated by category #1s but set off a couple of category #2s in (would you believe it) a SEAT and a Skoda! I was happy to provide entertainment for both categories as long as I could steer clear of #3. I can give a young man no better gift than to tell his girlfriend how he passed a Ferrari in his Skoda today. I was that young man once (though it was a Wolseley not a Skoda) and it makes me smile to think of it.

Then we reached the plains between the Alps and my destination - Alessandria. It was cool and pleasant on the autostradas and I stopped briefly to put the roof down again. Italy looked gorgeous as I sped along and having skipped lunch I began to look forward to a better meal tonight than I had last night in Dijon. That was my fault. I didn't feel like getting dressed up to eat out alone and so cheaped out on French fast food. What a waste of a day in the food capital of the world! I shall make no such error here as the hotel has a highly recommended restaurant. My progress map is updated here. Tomorrow I have a shorter run to Florence and have two choices. I can drive Speranza past her birthplace or take the coastal route. What do you think? 

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