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

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All good things do have to come to an end. Safely back in London our honeymoon is already a happy memory. Any nervousness about attempting such a trip in a ten year old car — it’s Speranza‘s birthday this month — seems silly now. She acquitted herself magnificently.

It’s not the years but the mileage of course and after this tour hers now stands, as she cools off downstairs in her home paddock, at 83,055. I’m proud and happy to have driven all but 7,000 of those myself. I bought her because I feared death bed regrets if I didn’t take my chance to be a Ferrarista. I imagined selling her after a couple of years, having checked that off my bucket list. I little imagined she would loom in my life as she does. I love the marque but — having been through so much together — I am now mainly an enthusiast for this particular example  

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Mrs P II has been there for many of those miles and amusedly accepts Speranza’s rôle in our life together. This was her first such major road trip in “Spezza” as she calls her and I worried if she would like it. She says she’ll pack even less luggage for the next one to reduce the constant repacking and hauling of bags but enjoyed our life on the road. I love a good road trip so that’s great news. I already knew she was a keeper — reader I married her — but this just confirms it!

On her first visit to Continental Europe she got to visit six countries, experienced a high speed German autobahn run, ate Belgian waffles, drank Italy and France’s best wines, was received into a beautiful French home, drove a Côte d’Azur corniche in a convertible, shopped at two French hyper markets, listened to dinner table banter between Brits, Germans, French and Dutch and received the VIP treatment at the casino in Monte Carlo. She heard the proud Italian account of that country’s sporting, design and engineering prowess in the Ferrari factory (“Italy’s beating heart” as it describes itself) and ate at the tables of two Michelin-macaroned chefs as well as several humbler but more representative establishments 

It was a broad, quick introduction to our historic continent — home of all the imperialists who ever showed up on hers — but I think she now has a better sense of who we Europeans are (and how we interact) than many of us do ourselves.

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This morning we had our last French breakfast for a while and found a car wash to remove two and a half thousand miles worth of dead insects from Speranza before a leisurely run to the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais. I worked towards reacclimatising to Britain’s damnably low speed limits by strict compliance with France’s more generous ones. I was helped in this endeavour by the knowledge that the French government likes to top up its coffers by trapping speeding Brits on the Autoroute des Anglais as they rush to their train or ferry. 

We arrived in good time after a beautiful run and took five minutes to grab a packed lunch from the Flexiplus Lounge before catching the next train. We reset the computers and clocks as we rode and then ate our food. We refuelled on the English side, topped up with screen-wash and headed for home. As always, British roads seemed awful after the French experience. The M25 provided its usual frustrations but we arrived in time to meet our grocery delivery so that we could eat at home and rest. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed accompanying us virtually on our tour. This blog will return to political rant mode in due course. Right now I’m too mellow for that so don’t hold your breath. 


Underground in Épernay

We took our time over a shorter drive from Beaune to Épernay. French autoroutes somehow sit more lightly on the landscape than British motorways. They lack the embankments to screen them from their neighbours, the gantries to monitor and nag their users and the ugly safety infrastructure that makes a British motorist feel part of some dark industrial process. In consequence one can get a sense of terroir as one passes through it. I enjoy driving in France more than anywhere I’ve been — except the United States. Swiss roads are more beautiful perhaps, but too aggressively policed to provide enjoyment!

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Higher speed limits help too. On this run I made a conscious effort to slow down in order to break the habits I’ve acquired on this road trip before returning to the UK. The French limit of 130kph is 11mph over the UK’s maximum. I need our home limit to feel fast again when I return or I’ll be picking up points between Folkestone and London. 

At one stage of our run, we found ourselves stuck in a convoy, driving precisely at the French limit, behind a gendarmerie van. Time after time we were overtaken by motorists surprised to find themselves faster than a Ferrari, a Porsche 911 and a nifty little Abarth 500 only to watch their brake lights come on as they spotted the gendarmes’ waspish paint job and see them join our snake of frustration.

They played with our heads a little to amuse themselves. They slowed by 5kph at one point, tempting a Citroën to overtake them — very slowly — only to return to the limit and hold him there, uncomfortable in their gaze. They tried that again after a few kilometres but no-one took the bait. We never did find a boundary to their jurisdiction. We took the exit for the road to Lille and Calais while they carried on — for all I know or care — all the way to Paris  

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Our goal was to arrive at Moët et Chandon’s headquarters on the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay in time to take a tour. We arrived at 3.15pm. Having posed for a photo with the statue of humanity’s benefactor Dom Perignon and bought our tickets, we rested in the elegant exhibition area for thirty minutes before joining the last tour of the day with Belarusian guide, Marina. 

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I’d been before so knew that Mrs P II would enjoy it. Épernay has 110 kilometres of champagne cellars beneath its streets. 28 of those kilometres belong to Moët et Chandon, the biggest if not necessarily the greatest of the famous houses. Marina told us it produces enough of its fizzy joy juice for one bottle to be opened every second. That’s almost true. The house produces 28 million bottles a year (taking seven years per vintage bottle). There are 31.5 million seconds in a year. Near enough for elastic marketing arithmetic.

I enjoyed the tour as much the second time as I did the first though I’d forgotten how much Napoleon featured in the story. M. Moët was so excited at the prospect of his enthusiastic imperial customer's first of several visits that he built a palatial Versailles-style home opposite his workplace to receive him. We viewed that from a domed pavilion built to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Moët Impérial — the House’s iconic product — created in 1869. The dome is made from bottles of it! 

Boney is of course the Emperor referenced in the cuvée’s name. Marina’s constant warm references to that old tyrant jarred a little, but he’s long dead and deserves some credit for his excellent taste in booze, watches and bonbons. Sadly his influence lives on in his legal code, which has done more damage (in the view of this proud Common Lawyer) than his cannons ever did. 

Our tour rounded off with a tasting of the white and rosé expressions of the latest vintage — 2012 — we bought some to take home and headed for our hotel. 

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We are spending our last night of our honeymoon in one of my favourite hotels in the world. Many years ago I was journeying south in Claudia — my beloved Mercedes cabriolet — with my family. I asked the satnav to suggest a lunch spot on our route. It guided us to a converted brickworks on a champagne estate where we enjoyed ourselves so much that it became our regular overnight stop on road trips from our then UK home in Chester to the Côte d’Azur.

Since I was widowed and moved to London it’s been too far north to be a half way point and I’ve tended to break my journeys at Dijon instead, but I wanted Mrs P II to experience its charms. I knew its splendid restaurant would provide a superb last supper of our honeymoon.

After an aperitif in the sunny garden outside, It duly did. 


Beaune, idle

Today was one of the more ambitious in terms of driving. Our South of France idyll over, we reluctantly locked the door of our friend's villa and headed to the autoroutes. Our destination today was Beaune, which is 370 miles from Mougins.

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We decided to make the trip slightly longer by diverting to Abbaye Nôtre Dame de Sénanque. Our goals were not devotional – our researches suggested it would be a good place to photograph the lavender fields of Provence.

A couple of hours into our drive we found the place. After some excitement entering the car park (two Italians in motorhomes insisted on our backing up all the way to the entrance so they could exit – even though they need only have waited a few seconds for us to get out of their way) we set out for the short walk to the Abbaye. It's a functioning Cistercian monastery and growing lavender is indeed one of the ways the monks sustain themselves. Our internet researches suggested the guided tour (for which the monks will break their silence) is not worth the time or money so we contented ourselves with viewing the exterior and smiling at the antics of photographers trying to make the early and rather unimpressive displays of lavender look more dramatic than they were. Instagrammers had come dressed to pose in the lavender and the monks had thoughtfully provided a small patch with wide spaces between the plants so that their quest for the ‘grammable moment did not damage the crops.

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We then headed back to the road and were soon heading north on the Autoroute du Soleil. I was trying to rein Speranza in. We had left our last Euros as a tip for the cleaner at our villa so a speeding fine would have involved a slow drive in police convoy to an ATM. I have experienced this before and it's best avoided!

The speed limits had been reduced by 20kph because of a "pollution alert". I think one reason I became a libertarian is that I take laws so seriously they inconvenience me more than those who adopt the Jack Sparrow approach ("more like guidelines really"). So I wanted to comply. The locals seemed unconcerned however, except when the presence of radar controls was signalled, so I went mostly with the flow and complied in the broadest of senses. Two youngsters in a VW Golf amused Mrs P II by giving her the thumbs-down sign as they overtook us – indicating their contempt for Speranza, or more likely the unworthy chap driving her so sedately, 

We took breaks for lunch and petrol and bowled along enjoying the sights of Provence, Beaujolais and Burgundy while listening to our music. The day passed pleasantly enough for all the blistering heat. The roof stayed firmly up. Driving with it down is not much fun at high speed on motorways anyway and we wanted the comfort of the air-conditioning. Besides, the boot/trunk is fuller than when we set out as we have both received gifts and bought some of our own. The space required for the roof to be stowed is full of those acquisitions so the option is not available. 

Our hotel in Beaune is another old Abbaye, but no longer in monastic use. It's an impossibly cute hotel now, right in the city centre. We are idling in our air-conditioned room to recover a little before heading out to see the sights and find somewhere informal to eat. Much as Beaune may have restaurants to compete with those we've recently visited, I want somewhere I can go in the denim shorts and Fulham training shirt I am wearing in this  heat!

Apparently this is our last day of it as the weather forecast suggests Epernay – our destination tomorrow – will be a full ten degrees cooler and that it may even rain!


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.