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

La Bastide Saint-Antoine

Bastide means either a fortified village from the Middle Ages (a small bastion, I guess) or a small country house - a Manor House perhaps. This particular Bastide may once have been the latter but is now a cathedral of French cuisine. We had planned for the dinner last night in Cap d'Antibes to be our grand culinary farewell to the Côte d'Azur but, having extended our stay to compensate for the time taken by our overnight excursion to Italy, we needed another.

I have eaten here before and knew what to expect. For my wife, new to this scene, the ceremonious approach in such a great restaurant was at first mildly amusing. In such surroundings in London one would still make an effort to dress up, but in the relaxed South of France "smart casual" was enough. Jacques Chibois is the chef-proprietor, which actually means something in France. Here they don't go in for the aggressive branding of the anglosphere mega-chefs, with chains lightly bearing (and sometimes debasing) their names.

He is no occasional visitor here but wields his own knives. Formerly head chef at the Gray d'Albion Hotel in Cannes, he worked in London and New York having first served his time (among other greats) with the area's culinary hero – the late Roger Vergé. Vergé now has a square named after him in Mougins, where his restaurants were and I imagine Chibois hopes to be remembered in the same way by his adopted home town of Grasse. He spent years searching for a suitable country house in an olive grove "in the style of the Colombe d’Or in St Paul" to establish his own restaurant.

We checked out the a la carte menu, mainly for the delectation of Mrs P II, but opted for the "menu Dimanche en Fȇte", as chosen by the great man himself. Each course was matched with wine selected by his sommelier. Gentle reader, any eloquence on my part would only torment you. It was superb. All I can say is – if you ever get chance to do so – go and try it yourself. Even if it means cutting your stay in the area by a couple of nights to save on hotel costs to pay for it, just do it. You will never spend a better €400+ with aperitifs and (as we did) with cheese.

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The heat was excessive today so the short drive there and back required the roof up and air-conditioning on full blast. It was so hot that the restaurant called us before we set off to say that the famous terrace was unbearable and to ask if we minded eating indoors! I imagine we might have coped with some shade, but it would hardly have been fair to the staff, who were – unlike their guests today – very properly dressed indeed!

Our plan today is to pack for an early departure tomorrow, then cool down in the pool shared with our neighbours. Tomorrow we say a fond farewell to our Mougins home. I am authorised by my friend the owner to say that if any of you would like to stay here yourselves, it's available to rent and you can contact him through me. It's a two bedroom villa in a gated development adjoining (and with direct access to) the Royal Mougins Golf Club. His paying guests can make use of his membership there. Even if you're not into golf, there's an excellent restaurant and spa facilities.

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I am not seeking to become an "internet influencer" on the backs of my small group of readers. I hope this small promotion – made entirely from the heart and not for gain – does not increase the number of irritating emails I receive from people wishing to use my blog for their own commercial purposes. It is and always has been a not-for-profit personal venture and I have no desire to change that. Besides, my political blogging is often provocative enough to drive customers away, rather than draw them in!


Heaven

I have still not found my lost faith but if I do and make it to Heaven, it will be like the place I took Mrs P II tonight. The one fixed point in this trip to the Côte d'Azur was, as it has been for me on every such trip for over twenty-five years, the Restaurant de Bacon at Cap d'Antibes.

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If it's not a cheap place, that's partly my fault. When a kind client took me there to Sunday lunch for my first visit, it was a local institution; too far from Cannes to pick up trade from the various festivals and trade fairs held there. It was even further from Nice. The local bourgeoisie in Antibes and the wealthy types with villas on the Cap knew it well enough but that was it.

Over the following years I took many clients and contacts there from all over the world. As I returned each year with a new batch of guests, I would see my former guests hosting other tables. On one such occasion, every table was hosted by someone I had introduced. Except, that is, for one presided over by the bemused gentleman who had first taken me there. He was mildly irritated, I think, that I had spread his secret local knowledge so widely.

One family vacation we met a Russian client there who had brought his family to Antibes for their holidays so he could take them to "the Bacon". One Christmas in Chester I was telling my family that "the best restaurant in the world" was in Cap d'Antibes. Our waiter asked me if I was talking about the Bacon and when I replied "yes" he said that he had trained there and would call the owner to tell him what I had said.

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The strange thing is that I loved it before I learned (on my recent diet) to love fish. I never willingly chose to eat it anywhere else. As we drove there in the evening heat, with Speranza's roof open to the moist air, I began to worry that I had built it up so much that Mrs P II might be disappointed. When I realised that, the old gentleman who took care of me so assiduously on that long-ago first visit having sadly passed away, the family had sold it to a new owner, I was even more worried. I need not have been. His spirit lives on. The food is as good as ever. The wine list is as spectacular as always. The service is just as impeccable.

Our waiter spoke such good English that we did not at first believe he was French. In all my years abroad working with speakers of the world's most widespread language – ESL – I have known lots of people who have achieved commendable fluency. I worked with lawyers for whom English was a second or third language and yet they functioned in it at a level most natives could not hope to reach. Yet I never met one like this young man, who could pass for a native. French cuisine's gain is French espionage's loss!

Sated and happy, we drove the long way home along the coast, rather than taking the autoroute. This allowed Mrs P II to get a sense of the South of France. It's not all Russian billionaires, bling and super yachts. There were also ordinary French families walking together through Juan-les-Pins and young people from all over Europe partying vigorously on the dark beaches as we passed. I played "Where do you go to my lovely?" by Peter Sarstedt to explain to her how a young me had first heard of a glamorous lifestyle unknown to my happy but modest childhood. He sang of Juan-les-Pins as we drove through it and I smiled. 

Tomorrow is our last full day on the Côte d'Azur. On Monday we are back on the road, heading first to Beaune.


Driving the corniche

We had two objectives today. The first was to visit Cannes; a town where I have spent a lot of happy times – mostly during an annual real estate fair called "MIPIM", which I have attended almost every year since it was established more than thirty years ago. Visiting Cannes each year for that, and enjoying wonderful food and drink with colleagues, clients and friends, led me to fall in love with the Côte d'Azur.

In turn that led me to bring the late Mrs P and our daughters here for family holidays. Mrs P II has therefore heard many stories and seen many photographs of Cannes, Mougins and the surrounding area and I was keen to show her the town.

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Our second objective was to drive the coastal road - or corniche - from Cannes to Frejus via Saint-Raphael. It's the perfect road for a top-down drive in a sports car, with lots of winding turns and stunning views over the Mediterranean.

This afternoon it was almost as hot as yesterday, but more humid. I had tried to dress reasonably smartly for an anticipated dinner in town, but once out of Speranza's air conditioning, I was soon bedraggled. Shorts and a T-shirt would have been a wiser, more sensible bet. After a short orientation walk, we retired to a cafe for cold drinks and decided that Mrs P II should go about her business while I sought somewhere cool to pass the hours. I found a seat near a fan in Caffe Roma, a favourite meeting spot during MIPIM; today less crowded than I had ever seen it.

When she returned, we found a nearby restaurant to have our dinner and set out on our scenic drive. This got off to a bad start as we sat in a traffic jam trying to leave Cannes. As more of the day's tourists turned off at each junction however, it eased and we were on our way. It was as exhilarating as I remembered. We stopped at a parking spot to take a photo or two before pressing on to the end.

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Then we returned more quickly and directly by the autoroute, pausing only to get some supplies from a supermarket.


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.