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

To France via Monte Carlo

We returned from Maranello today without incident. We rose late and would have missed breakfast by five minutes were it not for a kindly Italian waitress who gave us an extension. Before we left I photographed my favourite artwork at our Ferrari themed hotel - a painting of a Ferrari California like Speranza in the same colour, together with the 60s California to which it was a tribute.

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We covered over half the distance to Monaco before stopping at a motorway services for lunch and a rest. We then made our way to Monte Carlo and blagged entry to the Casino car park where Speranza was valet-parked in pride of place among her sisters. 

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We had a drink at the Café de Paris before entering the casino for Mrs P II to see what the fuss is all about. I made her play the slots for a while to see if they did anything for her but she's no more a gambler than I am. We then wandered round to the back so that she could see the billions-worth of yachts at anchor before returning to the road and driving to Nice. We stuck to the coastal highway – avoiding the autoroute and arrived with a couple of hours to spare before our dinner engagement. 

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I haven't mentioned the heat. It was 41℃ in Maranello today and 35-37℃ along our route. I would have liked to spend longer wandering around Nice but it was too damned hot. Having parked Speranza safely, we sauntered along the Promenade des Anglais for a few hundred yards to get to our rendezvous. We settled into a shady, cool spot in a cafe I knew from my photo workshop here last year. A couple of cold drinks later our friend — a French photographer I met at that workshop — joined us. We walked through the relative cool of the evening to an Indian restaurant he recommended – and wanted Mrs P II to evaluate. We spent an agreeable time in his company before retrieving Speranza and heading for "home" in Mougins.

Some young men of dubious aspect attempted some kind of a scam at an automated petrol station we stopped at to refuel. They claimed to have cash for petrol but no credit card to operate the unmanned machines. They wanted to give me €5 and "borrow" my credit card to put fuel in their "stranded" car. Thinking at first they wanted cash I was ready to give them €5 to be left alone, but they eventually made their request clear. I was not parting with my credit card to a stranger and they were miffed enough for Mrs P II to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t realise she had been alarmed until she told me as we drove away. I had evaluated them as an annoyance, not a threat. If French employment law was not so draconian, perhaps there could have been some workers there to shoo the rascals away?

Then we found ourselves on the autoroute in a queue that (two out of three lanes being closed for repairs) stretched for many kilometres and more than an hour. It was the least pleasant part of what had been a very agreeable day but eventually the traffic moved and we made our way safely home. We can now settle back into our lovely villa and perhaps cool off in the pool. 


Here’s what I was forbidden to photograph yesterday

I understood Ferrari’s concern about photography inside its factory on my tour yesterday and cheerfully signed a non-disclosure agreement. However Bradley, another Ferrarista on our tour, later sent me a link to this video. Judging by the quality I imagine it was authorised so the company could edit it to remove anything that might help a competitor. It’s also a little dated as it’s from the era of Speranza, who is ten years old next month. Still it gives a good idea of what we saw (apart from the holy of Ferrari holies; the F1 department). 

 


Back to Italy

We have enjoyed restful days at our temporary home in Mougins; former home of Pablo Picasso and my favourite village anywhere. On Monday we dined with friends who are lucky enough to live there permanently. On Tuesday we visited my second favourite village, St Paul de Vence; formerly the home of Marc Chagall. But today we are back in Italy for an overnight stay,

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We were originally meant to make this tour some weeks ago and had it neatly planned so that we passed through Maranello – home of Ferrari – to take the factory tour. We had to delay the trip because Mrs P II had visa problems, but could not reschedule the factory visit to fit in so neatly with our journey. So we rose early and set off at 0700 this morning to be here for our appointment at 1430. Google Maps told us the trip would take five and a half hours, but by broadly complying with the speed limits we were able to shave enough from that to have a leisurely lunch at a nice local restaurant as well as a tour of the Ferrari Museum.

The Ferrari factory is impressive. The pace is slow. Each work station on the V12 line in the vehicle assembly building has 55 minutes to finish its tasks. There are some robots to handle tasks too dangerous for humans (e.g. immersing valves in liquid nitrogen before seating them in a hot engine head to ensure a snug fit when the temperatures match) but mostly it's artisan work. The aluminium for the engines is forged on site. The forge is the original one installed by Enzo in the 1940s but most of the rest of the factory is ultra-modern. I can show you no pictures alas, as we had to sign a non-disclosure agreement before proceeding with the tour and photos are strictly forbidden. As a keen photographer I generally won't go where my camera is not permitted but as a keener Ferrarista I broke that rule today. The photo here is from the museum.

The other guests were Ferraristi too. The only non-owners allowed on the tour are Formula One sponsors. Our guide, Giulia, took us to the engine production and assembly departments, the V12 vehicle assembly line, the Racing Team department (comprising almost one-third of Ferrari's staff) and the FXX workshop.

The FXX programme involves the production of racing versions of the road-going models. They are not street-legal and live at the factory for their first two years. The lucky owners (by invitation only) have their cars delivered to their chosen tracks by Ferrari. They arrive with a team of mechanics and all the necessary kit. You show up, drive and the car is then taken home again. I witnessed one such race at Silverstone a few years ago and one owner was not so lucky that day. He roared out of the pits and hit the opposing wall to ironic cheers from the spectators. His race-day experience was over in seconds and his car returned to the FXX workshop for expensive repairs!

I learned today that there’s an even more exclusive such hobby. The Scuderia’s non-championship-winning F1 cars are auctioned after two years to pre-qualified clients who must have bought a minimum number of other Ferraris (of certain specifications) in order to bid. If they have the engine removed, the winning bidder can take his car home. If not, it remains at Maranello, is maintained by the F1 team mechanics and brought to suitable events at the owner’s request and expense  

For me the highlights were firstly seeing the place Speranza and her engine were first united and secondly being in the holy of holies, the F1 building. No recognisable fragments of this year's three cars were on show. It was more like a laboratory than a workshop. The technicians were analysing every component before the cars are reassembled for the next race. They are dismantled and rebuilt every time, with whatever refinements the team devises (and F1 rules permit). It was also special just to park Speranza at her birthplace and be told by a kindly young receptionist that she is “a pretty one”. I’m sure she says that to all the visitors. It may even be a requirement of her employment contract. I don’t care. It made my day. 

Our tour over we were taken to the Ferrari Store and presented with a book as a gift. The other tourists went to the museum but I did not presume on the patience of my new wife (it’s our five monthiversary today) by dragging her around it a second time!

Tomorrow we will take our time returning to Mougins. We will dine with a friend at Nice (a French photographer I met on a workshop in the South of France a couple of years ago) on the way back so we’re in no rush. 


At home in France

We drove for five and a half hours today, as planned, despite having an excellent run in brilliant weather on fine roads. We could have shaved an hour off but our lunch plans went awry. We’d aimed to find a nice restaurant en route and take a long break but we hadn’t accounted for it being a Summer Sunday on the Mediterranean coast. We came off the autostrada at a suitable place full of attractive restaurants with sea views, but the town was seething with happy weekenders and there was not a parking place to be found. After driving around for a while until Speranza’s computer decided we lacked the fuel for such stop/start low-speed stuff, we realised the restaurants were now closing anyway and returned to our route. 

A sandwich from an Autogrill was better than its British equivalent (no great praise, I know) so we didn’t starve but I didn’t get the break I’d hoped for. Refuelling over, for car and occupants, we resumed our rapid progress and reached our Mougins home at 4pm or so. 

We settled in. I did some laundry and then we headed to the “vieux village” which is my favourite town (if not quite my favourite place - Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye still holds that title) in the world. I could not wait to show it to my new wife. 

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After a pleasant bistro meal under the setting sun on the village square, we returned home by moonlight with Speranza‘s roof down. And so to bed. 

The tour to date is mapped here. 


Another day in Florence

Our B&B is agreeably like staying in someone's home. We had a simple breakfast on the terrace in the morning sunshine before setting out, dressed in our lightest clothes, to face another 30℃ day. The queues at the Uffizi Gallery were an hour long, so we bought tickets in advance for the afternoon and headed to the Duomo. The queue there was around the block too, but seemed to be moving quickly so we took our place at the back. Forty-five minutes later we were by the door when a German guide leading a group of tourists barged them all in ahead of us. There is no hope for a united Europe if we cannot even harmonise basic politeness! 

It was a minor frustration and soon we were inside. Given the magnificence of the exterior, the inside of the cathedral is surprisingly plain - at least by the standards of Catholicism. It's elegant and beautiful though and we paid the fee to enter the museum in the crypts too, where excavations have revealed parts of the foundations from different periods. Our museum ticket also entitled us to climb to the viewing platform around the Dome but, rather to my relief, that was fully booked until next week. We contented ourselves by visiting the Baptistery instead  

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What can I tell you about the Uffizi? Just as Hamlet is, to moderns, a play full of familiar quotes, so the Uffizi Gallery is full of paintings and sculptures you know on sight. For Europeans, they are a part of our cultural subconscious, even if we may only have seen them on book or album covers rather than in the flesh, It was an exhausting exercise, in our enthusiasm, to try to stand in front of every one - even so briefly as to rather insult the master who made it.

I was so tired as we headed for our hotel that we decided to eat early and head back to our rest rather than change and come back out again for dinner.

Tomorrow we have a longish drive (more than five hours) to our home for the week in the South of France. We have no deeds to do when we get there however so can take our time and look out for a pleasant place to break the journey for a long lunch!


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. 


Luxembourg

Perhaps it’s not an obvious destination for a European road trip but we have friends living in the Grand Duchy and wanted to visit them. So after breakfasting on Belgian waffles in the main square in Bruges we hit the road south. Our first problem was that an inconsiderate hotel guest  had parked his SUV next to Speranza at a jaunty angle, blocking access to the driver’s door. Mrs P came up with the solution of lowering the roof from the passenger side so I could climb in and we were soon on our way. Apart from some traffic jams on the Brussels ring road, we had a splendid journey south in beautiful sunshine.

Belgium has good infrastructure but you can tell when you’ve arrived in Luxembourg by the quality of the roads on the approaches. The charm of the eponymous small city is only marred for the moment by enormous construction works to install new tramways to provide eco transport for a population planned to double.

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The Grand Duchy was an industrial economy when it joined the European Coal and Steel Community that was the precursor of the EU. It has since exploited its membership to provide a corporate haven to allow its neighbours’ citizens to mitigate the costs of business in their highly-taxed homelands. It has a smug sheen of wealth but has not become a nowhere place like Monaco because it’s not a tax haven for individuals. The wealthy keep their corporate vehicles and some of their money there (and visit them) but otherwise leave the country to the locals. They have opportunities to work alongside the foreign bankers, lawyers and other professionals servicing the foreign money or join the highly-paid and lavishly-housed civil service. It works well for them.

Our local friend, a former client of mine when he was with a German bank doing business in my old stamping grounds of Eastern Europe, gave us the guided tour of the city after hosting us to lunch at his club. Then he picked up his lady friend and led us out to the German border for a wine tasting. The modern winery had a terrace from which we could see Germany and France on the other bank of the Mosel, separated by a bridge. The Schengen accords that removed most  internal EU border controls were signed nearby and the winery celebrates this with one special wine made from the grapes of the three countries.

We then drove through France (for a few yards) into Germany and to our nearby hotel where we hosted our friends to dinner on another terrace with leafy views of wine country. Over an agreeable meal we inadvertently gave Mrs P II insights into the dynamics of the relationships (and the inaccuracies - or otherwise - of the stereotypes) between the European nations represented at table! Now onward to Switzerland.


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