Knox and Miko’s Road trip Tour de France and Italia (Summer 2019)
If you owned a mansion, would you choose to stay in a single room all the time and leave the rest of the place unexplored? Maybe you would visit an adjoining area every now and then for a slight change of scenery. Would you rely on others to link you to life and events beyond the walls of your self-confined space? Turn on your TV and watch a colourful festival report from the attic, follow heat rising in the kitchen on the web with its “Hubble, Bubble, Toil and trouble”, read books and magazines about others’ adventures in the wilds of the garden as described by botanists and travellers, Check the glamorous photos of instagrammers soaking up the sun on the patio and balconies all from the safety of your self-imposed prison. Outside the grounds of the mansion the world stretches away into streets, cities, forests, coasts………….
We are born into a place and generally have the choice of whether we stay put and take our understanding of the world beyond us from 3rd party reports or go ourselves to see, smell, taste, touch and hear the vibrant cultures that surround us. I realised a long time ago that I’m not a homebird that enjoys being cooped up, but I’m a freebird that spreads wings with a sense of necessity to feel the breath of travel catch me up and soar me through vivid experiences.
Miko and I have travelled extensively together, yet there is still so much to see. To this end, we have planned another round the world (RTW) excursion that builds on our experiences in “Worldwide Vagabonds”, our Irish homeland adventures, many years of Indian tours, and escapades to develop our sense of being European. Today we are on the road again, hungry for our senses to be tingled and aroused for our passion to be true world citizens. This is the delectable appetizer to our second RTW main course . A relatively expensive European venture, done closer to our country of origin before we fly to distant continents, was enacted while still being able to save while we jaunt. Indeed, France and Italy were always high on the list and the electrifying excitement as we set off was tangible.
Day 1 (19th June) – Paris landing:
A delay on the tarmac is a bit of a frustration as it holds us up on our tight schedule. We have to pick up the car, drive across Ile-de-France and Champagne for a couple of hours to arrive before 8pm, get some shopping and food for our evening meal. All hopefully done without a hitch. Oops, we are tripped at the first hurdle!
The flight attendants invite the bored kids up to check out the flight deck. After a while, once the children have pretended to be a pilot, I join the last of the orderly queue as the big child in me looks for some distraction. Miko rolls her eyes and shakes her head with a smile. I have a few quips with the cockpit crew once my turn arrives followed by a quick selfie before returning to my seat to twiddle my thumbs. We sit idle on the ground for another half hour or so. Finally, the safety procedure is demonstrated and the plane starts to taxi. My writing becomes a scribble with slashing strokes across the bumpy page so I stop. With full thrusters, we are go as the plane rises steeply and we jet off with minds racing about the adventure ahead.
Unusually for us, we had paid extra for seats right near the front. This was for 2 main reasons. Firstly, we were travelling light for our 3 and a bit week tour and just had cabin baggage so we needed to ensure we maximised this with two pieces. Secondly, we choose seats near the front to get the quickest getaway possible off the plane. The pressure was now on as we touched down 1hr 15 mins late and then taxi towards our terminal at Charles de Gaulle at around 6pm. We zipped through security, made a quick comfort stop (noting the Marzipan scented hand soap), and rushed to find the Budget rental desk.
We prepared for the second hurdle as we queued. The clerk, Yassin, flirted with the girl who he was replacing at the desk. She eagerly flirted back, stroking his hair and fixing his collar before they both disappeared behind the screens for a few minutes. Not the type of business customers expect at a rental counter. I gritted my teeth at the unprofessional and inappropriate behaviour while I took deep breaths to remain calm at the delays in serving. Miko was more stressed and went to wait over on the benches. Finally some progress was made when he came back. I gave him the booking details and he started to process the rental. Yassin pointed out the amount taken on the card as a deposit, which appeared to include the rental fee that hadn’t been paid up front due to an issue when booking.The figures didn’t appear to add up and I challenged him about it. He agreed with me what the rental fee was as I showed him my booking e-mail and assured me that the correct money would be refunded at the end of the rental. I had an uneasy feeling in my gut but accepted the keys.
I headed over to Miko at the benches but my gut was nagging at me. I said to Miko and looked at the form again. We were in a rush and now quite a bit behind schedule. I did though go back and query the figures shown on the rental agreement. Again, I was assured all was okay. The agreed rental amount was confirmed by Yassin and the extra was the deposit that would be refunded after the car was returned. I accepted this and suppressed the uneasy gut I had about it. It was time to get out to the car and hit the road.
Our stuttering start spluttered on as we viewed the car. Pictures captured a dirty car as I made my inspection around it. The inside was no better as the stained seats and fusty smell made me enquire if the car had even been cleaned. Of course the agent on duty at the outside stand was none other than Yassin’s girlfriend and she was disinterested to even come over to see the car. I had been waiting for the email of the rental from Yassin but it hadn’t arrived yet. This would have had the damage report included. I asked the girl if she had a copy but she just gave me a separate damage report card;
“note any marks on here and I’ll sign it”
I took the card and triple checked the car for scratches and dents, of which there were many, as these hadn’t been noted previously when the email finally arrived. The humid Parisian air was raising the temperature as time ticked. My agitated feeling about the figures was buried as the big uneasy feeling about the car itself was splashing all over the surface. I called the agent over, much to her irritation; that she expressed in huffs and tuts, and showed her the dents. Her pores oozed a FFS attitude.
“Give me the card” as she snatched it from my hand and angrily flashed pen marks all around the car diagram in a blasé fashion.
She signed it and shoved it back at me. Was she having a laugh! The expression on our faces was incredulous and I think Miko was ready to deck her one (a Belfast colloquialism for thumping lol). There was no point trying to interact with this imbecile so we marched back inside to where the desk was. We were sweating and the aggravation was at high levels. I took deep breaths and made sure I was calm. I was glad to see Yassin wasn’t there anymore. I spoke with another member of the team, Kylian, and explained the situation. He was a tall, lithe man that, at least, gave off a more professional aura. In a calm and collected way, he sprung into action. “I’ll sort this out” he said apologetically as he initially made his way to come out and see the shambles of a car I was assigned. He got just out the door and spoke with a colleague who was parking a clean car in the first lot before making a u-turn and took an executive decision to change the rental vehicle. I ensured there was no extra cost to this and he clarified that there was not. New set of keys in hand, my mind was in a bit of a swirl. I hadn’t even heard what type of vehicle it was, only that it was in the different parking lot just near the doors.
I greeted Miko with the news of a change of vehicle. She and I reserved judgement until we saw what it was. Miko wasn’t impressed when I couldn’t tell her what car it was so I pressed the button on the keys to see what lights flashed. Our Renault Captur presented itself. Thankfully it was a clean both inside and out with no damage. Obviously, a newer vehicle on Budget’s books with only 2577 km on the clock. I had to assure Miko that there was no extra charge. I still took my photos.
It was now 7.20pm. Our schedule had been decimated but we were on the road. Big deep breaths had been required as we focused our minds on the journey ahead. We messaged our Airbnb hosts to advise of the delays so that they could plan their evening better. We made our escape from Paris relatively quickly, as we were on the right side of the city to head east, and I did what I could to make up some time. Soon we were motoring through Northern France’s flat tree lined fields as we distanced ourselves from the outskirts of Paris. Poppies pebble dashed the hedgerows, birds played in darting dives, while quaint villages gave habitation to the openness.
Miko was bored as her cheap SIM quickly ran out of data while my phone, with plenty of gig free, was tied up with keeping us travelling in the right direction. Progress increased as we hit the A4 / E50 motorway and before long a more undulated landscape developed as we pushed further into the Champagne Region. Turning off the motorway was the real eye opener to our expectations of rural France. Deciduous trees, heavy with early summer leaves, closed around the road, in parts, that led from around Anthenay and loosely followed the Marne through narrow streeted villages with stonework cottages that exuded a deep rooted history of tradition and a simpler way of life that was both trusting of locals and somewhat suspicious of outsiders.
It was hard to fully take in as we had tunnel vision in our attempt to get to Epernay in a reasonable time. A diversion for roadworks in one village led to a missed turn but I realised soon enough as the road was blocked further along. Travelling through our destination town, one could see it was winding down for the evening. It was about nine as we crossed the concrete bridge with iron railings that spanned the meandering, green Marne before turning right into Quai de La Ville. We followed the charming tree lined street that ran parallel with the river for the 100 meters to our home for the next two nights. Jean Louis was there waiting patiently. A quick, pleasant greeting filled us in with the necessary information and deposited us the key. No fuss and he was away.
We grabbed our bags and inserted the key, unusually horizontally, into the lock. I felt transported back in time to the 1930s as we made our way into the early 20th Century building with its exterior of Cream painted plaster and red brick window and door surrounds. We climbed the creaking staircase to the 3rd floor attic studio apartment. We were happy with our choice. As well as our usual 3 Cs (Cheap, clean and convenient), our lodgings were a typically French Je ne sais quoi 3 Cs – Cute, Chic and Classique. The place had been tastefully modernised while holding on to its historic feel. Our hosts had also given an old school virtual embrace with petals on the bed, homemade raspberry and mint cakes, and delicately spiralled roses on the counter. The personal touches had made us feel most welcome.
By now, though, our lateness had meant we missed the planned supermarket visit. A race to the pizza kiosk that we had checked out online also proved fruitless as the guy was closing the shutters as I pulled up. Luckily I had spied a pizza kitchen just round the corner from our home and it looked like one of the very few places still open after 9.30. It had to do and, unsurprisingly, it did. I felt exhausted but satisfied as we munched away and washed the much appreciated meal down with cold beer.
I took in the day and felt it had been 80% successful and we had achieved our main objective. I would sleep well in preparation for tomorrow.
Day 2: Champagne darling!
Life always throws up challenges to keep us on our toes no matter what walk of life one is from. Travelling doesn’t change this. In fact it often brings the hurdles thick and fast at a rate regularly more rapid than during a humdrum week in Belfast. These trials are all part of the natural law of life and give substance to our days on top of the daily routine. The delays of the day before meant that we would have to set ourselves with “normal” everyday considerations.
Cloud dominated a muggy atmosphere when we woke much earlier than expected. From 5.25am, I only managed fitful dozing for the next couple of hours. Miko struggled to get anymore shut eye. For us, with our Airbnb back in Belfast, being on holiday still required taking care of business as the night delivered 3 future bookings. Miko dutifully responded to them with thanks for booking and arrival information. Taking a vacation seems to raise a big virtual sign to potential customers that now is the perfect time to make their booking 😂. We always take it as a positive as it eases our minds that finances will be in order on our return even though it reminds us of the work we will return to.
For me, it was time to catch up. With a drawn up list in hand, I was off to the supermarket that we missed out on with our late arrival yesterday. It is easily recognisable that France isn’t hugely vegetarian friendly. On a previous trip to Paris we dined at some wonderful vegetarian and vegan restaurants but outside of major cities things were looking more challenging. The lack of labels on packaging highlights this, even for multinational brands that tag suitability widely in other countries, and slows down the whole browse and choose process. Ingredients have to be read and translated through my own limited knowledge of the language or electronically using my phone. Goods that probably are suitable are set aside due to the general distrust of the food industry and the unwarranted, and unexpected, ingredients needlessly used in the making of what one would otherwise assume was vegetarian produce. I would have loved a local Brie or Camembert but had to settle, enjoyably so, for an English made Mature cheddar that, as it does in the UK/Ireland, had a clear “V” marked on the package. A simple mark but so helpful. Indeed, of the very little pre-packaged goods I did buy, only one local product was marked “Convenient aux Vegetarian”. I would encourage France to become a little more convenient for dietary requirements.
Alas, we will survive. A very handy purchase that I did make was that of a cool bag and a couple of small ice packs. This would enable us to keep our fresh produce and our cheese relatively cool and in edible condition. The morning was coming together nicely if not just as quickly as I would have wished. Back to our bijou apartment much later than anticipated, I stored the spoils of my excursion before setting about the task of organising breakfast. This entailed a trip to the boulangerie to inflict more suffering on the local shop keeps with my dodgy French linguistic skills.
“Bonjour, un baguette et deux croissant s’il vous plait.” with a “Merci” when the deliciously fresh bread was wrapped and handed over.
I lacked a bit of confidence when speaking but, as I dredged up words and grammar from the depths of my GCSE brain, the communication was generally well received with smiles and appreciation. I always tried to improve my fumbled attempts, enjoying the challenge and learning, to integrate into the local society.
With our simple yet tasty breakfast munched we were ready to explore. Miko’s lack of data meant an assignment had to be completed first and led to a jaunt to Epernay centre ville. Our Google search sent us on a bum steer to a location that didn’t appear to have ever been occupied by a telecommunications shop. I parked up and double checked on foot as Miko waited in the car but still to no avail. While searching for the mysteriously misplaced store, I had spied with my little eye something particularly Orange so I navigated back to it. I was perturbed to find the doors locked and discovered that, at least some of, the town goes into lock down for lunch. A practice that is years out of date in Belfast and mistily reminded me of a simpler time when people mattered more than sales and lunch was an important break to restore the mind and soul for the afternoon. How dare they lol! The nostalgia didn’t fecking help me now as we needed to get this sorted to get our day back on track. I was hoping to avoid having to come back.
I turned to luckily find two other options directly across the cobbled pedestrianised street. At least they were still open but closing fast. The first I checked didn’t really have what I was looking for so I just about got into the second shop, Bouygues Telecom, before the doors were locked behind me. I was in a small queue that took an age to get to the head of. I did though get what I came for even if the SIM was a tad more expensive than I had wished. Miko now had big data that would travel across the border into Italy and would also be useful back in Ireland. With a bit of a sweat, I was back at the car and we hastily set up prior to setting course for Avize in the Côte des Blancs. A choice made after a bit of research of the local region. We wanted to see the vineyards where the grapes were grown to get an understanding of the lay of the land before our planned cellar tour of an Epernay Champagne House.
The weather behaved as the sun shone through the broken clouds to give the fields of North East France a real lush feel. Avize had just jumped out at me from the map while I gleaned tidbits of information on prominent departments and communes within this district. I was determined to check out a smaller champagne producing house while in the Marne Department and Miko wanted some lovely landscape photos. The Côte des Blancs and Avize turned out to be the perfect choice. At the bottom of the village we pulled off the road and took in the sight. Vines, illuminated by the early summer sun, stood shoulder to shoulder in regimented lines as far as the eye could see. New and old methods being used in tandem. This was Chardonnay country whose colour lends itself to the area’s name and the renowned “Blanc de Blancs” Champagnes. The vines were heavily endowed with big leaves but was yet to display the fruit laden picture that one would get pre harvest. I took in big fresh breaths as I ambled up the grass centred tracks that separated the lines. Crouching, I got right down to their level to be amongst them while photographing the climbing plants. I loved being close to the nature of this delicious drink. Miko loved being closer to the taste of Champagne.
I rumbled at a snail’s pace through the sleepy village and crept up on what looked like a good place to investigate. A townhouse chateau, built of sandstone and red brick, had big wooden gates inviting me into its courtyard. Loose stones crunched underfoot as I made for the door and was delighted to find it unlocked. I entered into the silence of the modernly styled hall. This was obviously a later addition to the 19th century original house. A wooden table, with a small array of product literature, stood to my left while a glass door lay ahead, up a few steps, to a gloomy room beyond. To my right was the main office staircase that led up to the administrative centre of the operation. This was the Frank Bonville Champagne house and it was all a bit hushed.
I was considering my options when a scraping chair in the open planned office above was succeeded by footsteps, alerted by the door closing behind me, and came to the top of the stairs. A woman descended. She was a pleasant lady in her 50s that smiled a greeting. I didn’t catch her name. I apologised for interrupting and explained the reason for my visit. I kinda expected that she would ruefully make her excuses and explain that they were closed. I was pleasantly surprised when she invited me to follow her. We entered through the door that led to the gloomy room that ended up being a packing area. It was devoid of activity. An austere concrete floor and shelves of folded boxes, Labels, along with practical wooden workstations, gave light to its potential industry that reminded me, on a much smaller scale, of the bulb factories of Noordwijkerhout in North West Holland that we had worked in years before.
From here, she led me to the tasting room with a large round table in front of a bar area that would normally be taken up by larger groups of buyers intent on substantial purchases. I only really needed one bottle so, rather than going through the rigmarole of parking up properly and getting Miko in too, I was content to follow the tasting process myself and then choose. A champagne flute was produced along with a spittoon. As I rolled the bubbles of four different champagnes around my tongue, my host explained about the local Chardonnay grapes, their complexities of flavour, the villages in the local region, and the length of maturity that could easily go in for the vintage (advised to set down for at least 10 years). This all added to the brief experience. I chose a single bottle of a Prestige Grand Cru for its creamy palate of fresh flavours. I have to admit that I would have loved to have bought a number of bottles to set down for a few years but, apart from the fact we only had carry on luggage, let’s just say that I don’t have the cellar space in our apartment.
I think my host was tinged with disappointment at my meagre solitary purchase. Miko was also disappointed and castigated me for not coming to get her so that she could participate in the delicious tasting. When I described the use of the spittoon, she was aghast at the waste. I did explain that I still had to drive 🤷🥂. Anyway, Miko was happy with the purchase and would just have to wait a bit longer for her tasting. With no time to waste, we headed back through Epernay and out the other side to visit Hautvillers.
This little old village has an importance for the whole region that is synonymous with the high end stature of the sparkling wine. Even though this monk’s influence on the production of champagne have been cork poppingly exaggerated by myths that bubbled up from his home, Dom Perignon was a not to be missed draw to Hautvillers and the Abbey Saint Pierre.
A medieval atmosphere enveloped the hillside commune as we ambled through its tight, winding streets of cobble stones that opened up to stunning views across a valley obsessed with grapes of a “Grand Cru” quality. Even in this technology advanced era, some horse drawn methods are still preferred for a region steeped in historical secrets and brand protection so as to keep up tradition and enable commercial strength. On the edge of the village a look out spot afforded wonderful, picturesque vistas of the meandering parakeet coloured Marne, it’s banks hugged by voluptuous trees and varied green fields of vineyards and a small amount of crop land. Villages, coexisting and entwined with the region’s raison d’etre, nestled in the vivid undulating landscape, enriched by the sun breaking through the cloud, brush stroked to complete the idyllic nature of our scenery.
We strolled past the walls of the abbey grounds on our road towards the heart of the Village. A serenity in the air gave a peaceful ambience that was assisted by an unexpected lack of tourists. In two weeks the schools would begin to close across Europe and no doubt the march of holiday makers would stomp through. A stepped, cobbled, passageway led up to the Abbey Saint Pierre church and past the guarded entrance to the ancient monastery grounds with a Dom Perignon plaque on the wall. We had a quick peak in before circling round to the entrance of the church gardens. It was a quaint sandstone structure with a high pitched roof for the main body of the building. The rustic wooden door entered via the wings that ran along the length of the building and met newer add ons that had been developed to give more space. A solitary tree, possibly oak, stood peacefully opposite the door on a patch of manicured lawn. The silence inside gave a sense of simple spiritual space under the watchful gaze of typical narrow stained glass windows that ran the length of the nave. A mix of modern and old artworks exhibited a willingness to embrace the new within its compelling history. The altar area was well lit, down to earth and uncomplicated. A real modest sanctuary to be able to reflect in. With tranquility already in abundance outside there was no need to use this as a breather. I could certainly appreciate how Hautvillers and it’s Abbey was a bubbly place that Dom Perignon loved even if he didn’t quite invent champagne. We moved on.
In the late afternoon, the centrepiece of our trip to the region lay part way along the famous Avenue De Champagne in the Boizel House and a pre-arranged cellar tour. While still a smaller, family owned Champagne house, the industrial Château was still a grand spectacle when one entered through the black wrought iron winery gates into the large courtyard before it. The Boizel family cars parked to the left as they worked hard within. In front, two vintage black and white Renault vans flanked the heavy set black doors that were emblazoned with “Boizel 1834” in bold gold lettering. The cream walls were edged with a red brick mix that also surrounded the black window frames. Traditional French château architecture in a business setting that was impressive yet warm and welcoming too. To the right, little bistro tables allowed people to sit and sip on the local produce. A colourful shop was where we introduced ourselves.
After an hospitable reception, our Spanish host acquainted us with the wonderful world of champagne making. Our small group of six entered reverently through those hallowed black doors. After being encouraged to stand on the glass covered hole that dropped down to the cellar, we were first shown a map of the Champagne region to assist in giving us some base knowledge of the intrinsic ingredient used in the process. Various departments and communes were highlighted to explain the types of grapes used and where they were most common, for instance; the Cote Des Blancs growing 95% Chardonnay variety. It also noted the quality of the grapes grown with “Grand Cru” being the finest quality followed by “Premier Cru” etc. We were being enlightened in the labelling that we see every time one buys a bottle.
To the right and left of the entrance hall were the large vats, both stainless steel and French oak in structure, where early fermentation took place. These were clearly labelled with the grape year, quality and areas that they came from. Choices would be made for the desired mix in larger floor to ceiling steel vats before the bottling stage.
Our enthusiastic guide zipped us off to begin our descent. Steep terracotta steps brought us down a cold stone tunnel to the warm orange glow underground. We were informed that the specific lighting was no coincidence as it was created to give the correct type of illumination required to aid the development of the exquisite concoction brewing before us. All around us were thousands of dark bottles, carefully angled down, in rows of wooden triangular tent-like prism racks as they steadily matured to the desired effect. The cellar was a warren of chalked walled, curved ceiling, corridors that ended in arched coves neatly stacked with thousands of levelled bottles. The chalk stones also told the story of the land of the region as this mineral rich and naturally acidic soil gave itself beautifully to the grape growing fundamentals required. The walls also kept a naturally cool environment needed for the process. Humans worked with nature to assist the rest of the development. The Traditional practice of riddling, regular quarter twists and gradual adjustments to the inclination of the bottles, gathered the sediments at the neck of the bottle. Some of this is still delicately done by hand but most is now carefully altered by machine right up to and including the eventual pressured release of the collected sediment.
We were tantalisingly shown round the Boizel family stash of vintages from years back to the 1940s and before. Dusty bottles brought out for special family occasions or to share with employees during celebrations. One particularly special nook was closed off by iron bars and had been hidden as best as possible from invading forces during WW2. In it were priceless heirlooms from the late 1800s. Champagne that probably would have lost its lustre and taste due to air infiltrating the old corks but very special memories for the family business.
And then we ascended through a similar tunnel with our appetites well and truly whetted and our taste buds tingling with anticipation. I think Miko led the way as we all bounded up the steps 🍾😂. We quickly filed into an elegant dining room with a crisp white cloth covered banquet table as its centre. Places were set for Boizel’s 6 guests and we took our seats to await the arrival of our pre-arranged tasting choices. Interestingly, the glasses weren’t straight and narrow flutes as expected but rather tapered at the sten then more bulbous around the centre before narrowing to the lip. The reason? To allow the champagne to breath and for the aromas and flavour to remain in the glass. We were both delighted with our selections: A 2008 Grand Vintage for me and a Blanc de Blancs for Miko with both of us also having a Brut reserve. All were Grand Cru and all deliciously rich and full of character. We chatted with the other couples as our bubbles rose inside and a delightful afternoon reached its glamorous peak in a smooth finish. It had been a very special day with a flavour that will linger long in the memory.
Day 3: Time Machine Whirlwind
The next evening, as we approached our staging post stay at the ibis Mont Saint-Michel, Miko’s rhetorical question rang true with the feeling of a packed agenda that felt must have lasted a lot longer than a day.
“Did we leave Epernay this morning?”
We certainly had!
In the morning, I raised the shutter to our floor level window 3 stories high. Warmth was already filling the delicate blue sky as a Black Redstart, with its startling fiery tail feathers, darted and flitted across the compact garden courtyards below. The scene out the front was also strikingly charming as the tree lined boulevard flanked the Marne following its course past our doorstep. It really felt as little had changed since the apartments were built in the 1920s or 30s.
We had a full plan for the day mapped out in front and stretching onto the distance. It felt good to be on the road again in an adventure that we dreamed. The conception to reality moment is great inspiration to lift the soul and propel one forward in the quest to gain understanding of the world we live in. Like investigating different sediment levels in the earth, I travel to contrasting cultures, at various development stages, to see how we all mix together to create the rich, nutrient filled, planet we share. I’ve learnt to see the need for diversity amongst ourselves but also amongst the many species that coexist. I believe humans need to relearn humility and their actual position within the whole biosphere. We need to stop the war on the world and it’s other inhabitants before mother earth stops us and gives us such a telling off! My morning walk to the boulangerie allowed me plenty of meditation time.
We bid adieu to Epernay after our breakfast and rolled back across the countryside from whence we came. A stop by a field brimming with red poppies dancing in the breeze was a poignant moment considering the sights that lay ahead. Amongst fields of grain the sight filled the mind of joy, beauty and peace rather than being considered a stain that once ravaged this plain. We moved on to slingshot around Paris, a city that we had visited before, and landed near the beaches of Normandy a few hours later.
We staged a refreshment break by the battlements of Caen castle to relieve the miles in our Captur and thankful that the congestion of Paris was long gone. The sun shone like a charging port as we solidified our agenda against the backdrop of available time. We had made good progress but needed to crack on.
The rustic seaside villages of Normandy reminded me somewhat of antiquated Ireland and the coastal roads, ushering one through small hamlets, that led down to dunes and golden sand. The air was filled with a saltiness that carried along the breeze. The sun smiled this day like it did for so many happy pre school memories around cottage holidays in Bettystown. Beautiful open countryside, with narrow roads, leading to sandy beaches interspersed with rugged shores. It felt close to home. Yet there are so many memorials here, so many points of interest, remnants, museums, plaques and discarded machinations of darkness scattered across a terrain of wafting wild flowers and grasses, of golden crop fields, of young and ancient leaf filled trees bursting with colour and life, that regularly remind us of the huge sacrifice laid down by all those involved. The cruel frivolous nature of the few controlling masters dragging millions of souls to be slaughtered in a vortex of misery. War is not new and humans show little sign of appeasement. It was important for us to pay our respects and we chose a few markers to hold our thoughts in remembrance.
My grandfather had been in the RAF and had served his country further away in the parched lands of North Africa that then led to advancements into Sicily and southern mainland Italy. His friends and neighbours had been part of the advancement on the coast of Normandy during the D day landings. Gold beach, a landing zone for a large British contingent, was peaceful today. The blue skies above lit the sandy shore in a heavenly glow as we crossed to the waters via a small dune system knitted with grasses. The water, thick with a heavy seaweed this summer, washed up pebbles and driftwood like it has for millennia with the beaching of troops being but a vivid speck in its ancient history.
7 or 8 meters from the sea, pebbles had been marked with names and messages of gratitude and love by family members then placed by the rocks at the base of the dunes. Amongst these were little wooden remembrance crosses marking the 75th anniversary of the landings, which had passed only a couple of weeks before. All across Normandy, the last few remaining veterans, families and dignitaries had gathered from around the world to signal the milestone of the push for France and Europe’s liberation. Back across the dunes, on the road side, a few plaques and a wreath hung on a small brick hut. It told the story of the landings at Gold beach of all the brave men. It particularly enlightened all those that read it about Stanley Hollis, the company major who had cleared an enemy pillbox and trenches and later had rescued comrades under fire at the village of crepon. He was the only soldier awarded the Victoria Cross for valour on D day. And now, the sea air filled our nostrils, carried inland by a gentle air, and enveloping our private thoughts in a peaceful moment. Life meandered easily under a bright idyllic sky punctuated with fluffy white clouds.
The defenses of the “Atlantic Wall” had been built strong and fast, along the French coast, using standardised concrete bunker designs as the occupying forces were determined to hold what they had conquered. Anything that came at them, from an embattled but free British people, would take an absolute pasting. The Longues Sur Mer battery was a well preserved example of these defenses that showed the dug in strength as the 150mm naval guns still surveyed the English Channel in the rusted and time frozen state. Built into self camouflaging grassy mounds, the highly advanced bunkers, with electrical firing systems communicating from a command station, were reinforced with tons of concrete and steel and were built to last. Strategically placed on top of 60meter high cliffs, they were able to fire on both Gold and Omaha beaches. Their lethal destructive power made them an early target mission to be removed from action as soon as possible. This was achieved on the second day, 7th June 1944, of the D Day landings. 75 years after the shells and bullets have ceased they are preserved for all to see. The setting is calm and laid back now. The disarmed monstrosities are backed by a car park and cafe hut selling ice-cream to the many people that visit.
The narrow roads connecting the charming hamlets and villages of Normandy’s coast had signposts to many a museum or memorial across its twists and turns. Discarded engineering pieces, mainly from the allied landing forces, at Arromanche drew large crowds while poster placards, tied to lampposts and electrical poles for this special anniversary, were dedicated to individual allied heroes that risked and often gave their lives in the push for liberation. At times, I lament that soon the survivors, with a direct link, will fade and be gone. I wonder if the lessons will be remembered or forgotten. History seems to point to the latter unfortunately.
The reminders are so many here, not least the cemeteries across this land. I Stood on a neatly manicured lawn in Bayeux, amongst the lovelingly trimmed hedge rows, gently swaying flowers and trees, and listened to the birdsong carried by the light breeze as the sun warmed my body. It’s hard to believe that only a few generations ago this countryside was a raging storm, a living hell scorching a destructive path. Now, in the tranquility, thousands of granite slabs and crosses mark the memory of a life lost. It is a somber place, a garden to realise how fortunate a life we lead, a garden so cared for to keep us from growing complacent.
Bayeux is also synonymous as the keeper and protector of a story told in stitched fabric by the victors of a battle from nearly a thousand years ago. The tapestry is a superb artifact that gripped my consciousness when I was in primary school. I reminisced of the competition I won by tracing and drawing Norman soldiers sitting proud and menacing upon their horses and ready for battle. I was delighted to be in a position to actually get to see it up close and personal. Miko decided a recharge was needed for her as she took a breather in the car. I was back to being an inquisitive school kid. Marking the eventual ascension to the English throne in 1066 of the Norman, William the Conqueror, this is an age old tale of underhand dealings, greed, revenge and a new direction for the British Isles. The needle work is so alive and colours so vibrant even after so much time as the history jumps out at the audience from behind its protective glass during our shuffle along the ancient story board to tune of medieval lutes and drum soundtrack. Did Harold get what he deserved or just a victor’s yarn weaved into myth to ensure the retelling sticks as desired? Thankfully this wasn’t one of the museum’s busiest days but it was still a strain at times to clearly see parts of tapestry as I listened to the commentary on my device. I was as happy as a pig in muck to actually get to see this wonderful piece of history.
We had packed a huge amount into the day and the finale was yet to come as we headed west to Mont St Michel. Tiring minds struggled to comprehend the complex parking lots but we got over our spot of confusion. We then had a choice walk or free bus? The late afternoon weather was fine so we walked the 40 mins along the boardwalk and bridge over the estuary beach grasses, sand and marsh.
Each step taking us closer to the peaked medieval abbey and the protectorate of the surrounding town’s ramparts. The clear sky enhanced the vista of the solitary, looming, construct set just beyond the wide open space of flat mainland wild grasses and thistles. The tide was out so the granite island was on full view surrounded by sandy flats. The distant stonework stood bold and defiant with the sun glinting off the tip of the spire. As we drew closer, colours became discernable amongst the stone work. Greens and reds of the garden’s flora gave life to the rock.
A vibrant little garrison town revealed itself as we walked through the portcullis, albeit dominated by tourists and providers to the same, that helped transport one back through the ages. The narrow cobbled streets were tightened by the tall buildings, rising on the rock on one side, and the outer battlements connecting with each other by way of overhead rooms and passageways. The fortifications, big and strong up front, were still made to look insignificant by the imposing ecclesiastical structure built in the rock to stretch upward towards the heavens. A haven and a prison over the centuries. The slumbering cats weren’t bothered by the new invaders that climbed the stairs past the gardens to get great camera shots of the dominion below and views that went on for miles. There would be little chance to creep up on this rock.
570 km later we arrived at our simple abode for the night and our springboard for the next morning. Thankfully the long summer evenings meant it was still light so navigation had been easy after an action packed day. Our plan to fend for ourselves, as much as possible, over mealtimes was hitting the spot effectively. We were getting used to these relaxing evenings when I’d toss up a fresh modest dinner of salad baguettes while Miko prepared us for the next day. A couple of beers were enjoyed as I took stock of the day. The adventure enthralled me and emotions washed over me like a rinsing tide, each wave clearing the way for a new sight, a new sense, a new grasp of life past, present and for what the future may hold. I was delighted to be alive and appreciative of the opportunity to be travelling through foreign lands. The early-ish nights led to an eagerness to see the morning and it’s fresh sun. A rise to start the plans for the new day
Day 4: from the sublime to the horrific.
Another 500 km lay ahead for today’s stage in our French tour that would send us south towards the unremarkable town of Limoges. We had revised our itinerary with the aim of a quicker get away tomorrow morning and now had 2 stops on the way that would focus on opposing ends of the emotional spectrum.
While F1 is my main focus on the motor sport world, the 24 hour endurance sector, specifically the famous race at the Le Mans track, certainly draws some of my attention. My dad had enthused about the vintage Bentleys, Jags and Bugattis that had conquered Le Mans and I had to see it.
We had missed the actual race by a week, which was a shame, but I’m not sure Miko would have lasted Race Weekend. There was certainly a relaxed vibe at the track this Saturday with a wisp of last week’s race ghosting the venue as a small work force continued to deconstruct some temporary stands and corporate tents. The air was still, hot, and balmy as a heat wave started to grip Europe. The distinct growl of a V8 roared into life, hidden somewhere in the depths of the pits, to momentarily break the tranquility but the scene lacked the heady smell of petrol and oil and the expectant buzz of an enthralled crowd. I took deep breaths and drew on the track’s collective memory to paint the picture around the blank canvas of the Start/Finish straight. The grandstands filled, the track announcer chattered excitedly over the tannoy, and racers from the ages sped their cars along the tarmac, past the pits, and up the long curved hill to pass under the Dunlop arch and off around the circuit. I could almost touch the thrill and drama of it all before the moment passed and I was back to standing alone looking out over an empty track. Most certainly, I was still chuffed to be here and it was well worth the slight detour.
Inside, we visited the museum and delved further for Le Mans history to be told. Famous names and iconic cars tell the story from the circuit’s beginnings in the early 1920s to the present day. Nostalgia permeates the atmosphere as the shape of the classic automobiles slowly evolve to the slick monsters of the modern era. Always at the pinnacle of motor engineering of their time, manufacturers of open top cars played with rudimentary aerodynamics and fine tuned their 4 cylinder engines. The race for perfection was on and the competition fierce. Some makers; Marcos, Chenard and Walcker, Lorraine-Dietrich, Delahaye, etc had explosive bursts of glory before vanishing into the annals of history, in a wispy puff of ethereal smoke, to be forgotten by all but a few. Others….., well Bugatti, Bentley, Ferrari, Jaguar, Porsche, Ford, Aston Martin et al are still thriving in today’s consciousness at the top of the car food chain.
Through time, the vehicles have gradually lowered to hug the smoothing tarmac. Their bodies are smoother, slicker, curved for maximum airflow and now covered cockpits encapsulate the driver. The engines have transformed from small beginnings to be high capacity monstrous V8, V10, or V12 machines; tuned like a concert piano, and on into the modern Hybrid era of today’s racer cars. They are beautiful beasts machined to the max to create an optimum racing experience. Give us a go my dreams scream.
And sure enough, I was behind the wheel and soon eating up the tarmac but sadly it was only with my dreams in my decidedly less exotic Renault hire car. The second leg of our day’s trip continued our southern direction towards our overnight staging post. The remaining via was a stop at Oradour Sur Glane, a timeless memorial to the victims of human cruelty perpetrated on their fellow beings. The rabid destruction of this village and their inhabitants, men, women and children, was a portal into the dark depths human spirits can plunge to.
Raging war encourages any monsters and demons, buried deep within the soul, to be drawn to the surface to writhe, uncontrollably for some, with such force and glee so as to commit unspeakable atrocities. It can happen on all sides, whether perceived Machiavellian right or wrong, and is symbolised by tragic events such as the deathly shadow that befell here.
As D-Day approached, the allies encouraged local resistance to intensify their efforts against the occupying Nazis. Fighting for the freedom of their land, many locals wanted to do what they could and were prepared to sacrifice themselves. The successful campaign poked the beast and the “Der Fuhrer” 4th Panzer Grenadier Regiment retaliated with cold, callous and calculated fury. These were soldiers steeped in the ideology of their leader, their Führer, Adolf Hitler. The orchestration of hate created a symphony of total annihilation.
On the 10th of June 1944, Oradour-Sur-Glane was caught in the tornado. Commander Diekmann’s 1st Battalion of “Der Führer” blocked all escape routes from the village. Rounded up in the square, the men were marched into barns and machine gunned. The women and children were locked in the village church that was then set alight by incendiary devices. Anyone trying to escape were met with hailing bullets from MG 42s placed around the building. 205 Children, 247 Women and 190 men were murdered on that early summer morning. 6 people survived.
We walked the well kept grounds of the scar of Oradour Sur Glane in a silent and contemplative frame of mind. Machines rusted where they were left, buildings skeletal, the cemetery tranquil and remembered well by descendants and familial friends. The terror gone and the blood washed away. The breeze gentle on this early summer afternoon 75 years later breathed hope through this heavy air. A hefty price was paid for freedom. Rest in peace.
Day 5: Red Alert
The blaring shrieked through our consciousness and we were rudely awakened from our slumbers. In the darkness, I got up and banged my head on the overhead bunk as I struggled out of bed to find a reason for the disturbance. I grappled with my shorts before opening the door to the bright lights of the reception and a gathering melee of blinkingly perturbed and indignant guests. Then the perpetrator sheepishly appeared. A smoker who thought a wee puff in his room in a non smoking hotel would do no harm! A semi flustered desk clerk apologised profusely. At the restoration of quiet, a group glare proceeded a collective heel about turn. A disgruntled sleep ensued.
The 1am fire alarm was the icing on a pretty unsavoury overnight stay. Grey tatty sheets, questionable hygiene, a discarded beach ball under the bed, and an intermittent light in the bathroom all led to a hasty early exit from our budget chain accommodation. The road was clear and the air still. I developed a better understanding throughout our trip of the geography of France. Places I’d heard of but knew little of where they could be pinned on the map became lightbulbed in my mind. Some of these names had been earmarked as stop points while others piqued an interest as we drove through.
On this peaceful Sunday morning one such region came to light. Our highway trail traversed a path across the Dordogne. A magical aura shone from its miles of dense, ancient forests that were interspersed with openings revealing small farm holdings. Secluded mists hung in isolated patches amongst the mystical valleys and wooded hills. This was a mere bypass, though, but I made a mental note to revisit the region to investigate its enchanted landscapes and paleolithic cave paintings created by our early ancestors.
The countryside gave it away that we had entered the famed wine producing region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine. All around vines grew in abundance on plots small and large. We would visit its hub, Bordeaux, later in the day but first we thirsted for an amble through medieval St Emilion. Historically impressive yet very quaint, the commune’s buildings were predominantly constructed with yellow limestone blocks that seemed prevalent in the area. The golden village oozed significance. Visitors were drawn in for its monolithic church, hewn directly from the stone, that sat atop the village as well as for it’s Roman and Gothic architecture all packed tightly into narrow cobbled thoroughfares lined with Art houses, Macaroon retailers, crêpe cafes, and bars. A thriving place that is, of course, famous for its red wine.
I have to admit that I knew little of the area before this trip but the vino was a huge draw. As Miko had chosen Champagne, I had wanted to visit a region steeped in red wine culture. I happily learnt a bit more and picked up a couple of bottles at a price, while not hugely expensive, was a level above what I would normally spend. The history runs deep across the appellation and has strong wine growing roots from Roman times. Not to be outdone, the village takes its name from the Benedictine monk known as Emilion. These clergymen certainly like their plonk. Again, the rich limestone soil on its hillsides and plateaus allows for Grand and premier Cru grape quality that produces a product in high demand. Indeed, the wine has been important as an export to the local economy since at least the 14th century. As we digested the information given, our stomachs developed a hunger. We popped into a small boulangerie/patisserie and delighted in the refreshing smell of home baking. We purchased a collection of tartlets, both savoury veg and sweet tangy lemon, for our lunch. It’s not always easy for the vegetarian as, away from the big cities, the French seemed averse to our particular diet. To be fair, it’s an issue across the globe, bar India, including our own little Ireland. We climbed back to where our car was parked at the top of the village. Our early start meant we were happy to leave as the hordes were descending by the bus load in the late morning heat.
It was always going to be a flash in the pan visit to Bordeaux city as our hectic schedule continued unabated. The sun was high in a clear sky and it beat down something fierce. Bordeaux pretty much equalled the heat wave temperatures of Paris at nearly 40° centigrade. The quayside was alive with revellers enjoying a maritime festival in full swing. Tall ships docked along the river as races up and down the Garonne absorbed the attention of the thronged crowd. The downside was that the renowned “water mirror” art installation, designed to show off the classical 18th century French architecture of the Place De La Bourse, had been drained. I stood on the granite slabs, that hold the water, and normally created visually alluring images of the vast structures opposite. A gave a hands out and up, confused look pose for a photo before we left.
Before long we were on the road towards our overnight stay in a simple hotel in Toulouse. Thankfully our choice ticked the 3 Cs boxes this time, Cheap, Clean and Convenient. Our mantra for many years, taught to us in a time of stress by a good, spirited, and wise Singaporeon taxi driver. I’m sorry Toulouse but we didn’t have time to visit and tour your sites properly.
Day 6 & 7: It rolls off the tongue in a thick accented way.
The longest of the drives were now behind us and a shorter jaunt would bypass us past Montpellier to the south coast seaside resort of Le Grau de Roi. The name is etched in my mind as the sound just rolls off the tongue in a thick accented way. Enunciated in a particular way to remind me of the French accents in Hollywood or British movies. It gave me a giggle. Le Grau de Roi marked the beginning of the evocative Cote d’Azur stage of our journey. A stage filled with aspirational dreams, drawn from years of cultural attention, conjuring a decadent hedonistic lifestyle in such charming locations. For the first time since Epernay we would have 2 days to chill and catch up with ourselves.
For us, a little of the mundane had to be done on our arrival, keeping our feet close to the ground. We had packed well and tightly so that we would only have cabin baggage even though our trip was 3 and half weeks long. It did take proper planning, some seam stretching, and a bit of ingenuity to fit all needed clothes and liquids in. It did mean a spot of laundry along the way would be required. We had hoped to check in an hour or so early to our hotel by the sea but the owner was non committal in the email exchange so our hand was dealt. We understood and accepted this as a positive to offer us the opportunity to wash our clothes first upon arrival in Le Grau du Roi. We found a little self service launderette and enjoyed a beer next door at a wee pizza joint while our clothes took a spin.
It was only when we were sat down in the shade after getting our beers that we realised Pizza Camargue wasn’t actually really open for service yet. The owner had been pottering around doing odd jobs and, without any fuss, had graciously allowed us to sit and enjoy a drink. He had a nice unassuming character and a generous smile. Lack of understanding each other’s Language was no barrier as we made a bit of small talk before he went back inside. I glimpsed him preparing a couple of pizzas and sticking them in the oven. I didn’t think much of it as I thought he was cooking himself a spot of lunch. As he was taking the pizzas out, one of them accidentally slid off the pizza peel, much to his disgust and dismay, before landing splat, face down, on the floor. I felt annoyed for him as he picked it up and put it in the bin. He saw me look and apologised. He had made it for us, he explained as we empathised with his disappointment and frustration. We thanked him so much for the generosity of his kind gesture and explained, as he was determined to make another, that we were vegetarian and a Margherita would be great. The pizza was delicious and made with such benevolence. We were delighted we had made the stop here.
With clean clothes and food in our bellies we headed to our seafront hotel in good spirits. Even though we arrived at the correct, advertised, check in time, we were greeted with an abrupt and humourless “you’re late” that put us on the back foot with a jolt. It was with reference to our early check in request that she had neglected to guarantee. We refused to rise to the bait of her rudeness and smiled as we pointed out the ambiguous nature of her email, where she had deferred an absolute positive that an early check in was permitted. The antagonism wasn’t worth the worry as her discord would be ignored. The time was ripe to relax and chill.
It was great to be able to settle this afternoon and do nothing but lounge and enjoy the captivating lazy bustle of the beach vista from our balcony. The scene was drenched by a high sun that blazed a pace slowing heat onto proceedings and encouraged people to reduce life to a chill. We took the time to take stock of the trip thus far and to prep ourselves for the next few tantalising stops as we embarked on the delectable French Riviera. The cork was popped on a bottle of Franck Bonville Prestige as I gripped my pen to retrieve the memories in scribbled notes so as to remain au courant. I browsed through a myriad of photos documenting the wonderfully breathtaking journey so far and enthused at what had been achieved both in distance covered and points of interest travelled as well as from dream to being revealed in the flesh. Each day offered up a new sightseeing menu to feast from. Our mouth watered at the impending rich tastes of Cannes and Monaco.
I practiced saying Le Grau de Roi as I sat on the balcony. I loved the depth of accent needed to articulate the name correctly, thickening my accent to resemble the cheesy voice of one of the baddies in Liam Neeson’s Taken. All aided by a couple of glasses of Chateau Malineau, a lovely red from Saint Emilion. The afternoon slipped into evening and we were rewarded with an air show as the sun set. Two vintage sea planes flew along the coast and circled out over the water. They took a course towards land and then banked over the beach to head back out over the shimmering Mediterranean to ease down and take a dip in the water, scooping some up as they did, before lifting off again and dumping the gathered contents as altitude was gained. A few oohs and aahs were heard from onlookers at the display. It was most likely an exercise for firefighting planes to keep themselves ready during this summer’s heatwave.
While I would still struggle to converse fully in French, I did use my limited language skills to order in shops or ask simple questions. With practise, if I lived in France, I would get the hang of the grammar and increase my vocabulary to improve my communication with the locals. I guess it would have shocked Don Collins, my old French master in school, who had written me off as linguistically useless 😂. I could also read some, taking my time to work it out and I was always delighted to see the phrase “Convenient aux Vegetarian” on a (very) few labels in supermarkets. Trust me, it continued to lead to consternation as appropriate labelling was not the norm in a lot of continental Europe we have been to. While there has been a vast improvement in the UK in labelling for Vegetarians and Vegans, the memo seems to have been missed elsewhere. There appeared to be a lot of items that we could have eaten but were left unsure and unwilling to risk. It feels as if the meat eating society around us feels threatened by vegetarians.
The “Ne convenient Pas aux Vegetarian” theme continued in restaurants too and is very frustrating. All we wanted was a nice meal when we called into several waterside cafes / restaurants down by the harbour. While some UK and Ireland eateries still ply us with the lazy options of Pasta or risotto, which lacks creativity and imagination, what we had found in France outside of the big cities was deplorable for a country steeped in such a culinary history renowned worldwide. Offerings of Salads or waiters saying they can cook up some vegetables exasperated my senses. I had to chuckle at the hypocrisy of it as we chatted with the Cafe de Paris manager, Tibo. I explained that food / cooking is an art that involves most of the senses, especially taste, smell and sight. Chefs like to design their creative menus so as to excite, titillate and entice their audience to salivate at the thought of what was being sold to them. “Bon appetit” is the phrase used on diners to wish them enjoyment for what has been prepared and set in front of them as described when their appetite was whetted by a carefully designed menu.
Carnivores are rarely disappointed in this dance from the cuisine enticement, to the kitchen symphony, and then onto the plate that is produced at the appreciative art lovers table to be devoured with calls of bravo. The palate of the vegetarian is often ignored. A forgotten caste of eaters deemed unpalatable for restaurants and chefs as if designing mere vegetables in a dish worth eating is beneath them. Tibo appeared to understand as I waxed lyrical of our desire for a similar whetting of the appetite bestowed upon carnivores. We want to be enchanted by the chef’s heart and soul being poured into their accomplished dishes, where carefully chosen herbs and spices aromate the ensembled vegetable concoction. He seemed to understand but alas I feel it will be many years still before Tibo et al really move to change their thinking and produce a worthwhile menu for all diets.
I afforded myself a lie in, until 9.30am, the next morning. I have to say I felt a bit groggy after our indulgence the evening before as I sauntered through the shops to gather our breakfast. Croissants and strawberries made for a simple and delicious meal on our balcony. A cheeky gull enjoyed a right few morsels that came it’s way. Life drifted by along the grassy lawn promenade and beach that extended into the town on the right and the dunes and manicured gardens on the left. Some people picnicked among the mix of squat Marge Simpson hair do style trees and tall thinly trunked trees with a bushy mop top that adorned the public gardens. I reflected on the impromptu air display from the night before and delighted in nature’s own follow up show as birds, big and small, had danced and dived through the air, silhouetted by the setting sun as they soared high and low.
We had caught great photo shots from the balcony and through the porthole window in our room, capturing the flight against a backdrop of glinting lapping waves and stubby palms. The warm glow of the days dying embers enveloped the scene. These are the moments we crave and love to share with our friends via social media.
We love days and evenings by the seaside and the beach in front of us was so enticing. It didn’t take us long to join in the frolicking on the sand and in the sea with that feeling of being carefree. A dander along the promenade was followed by a quick drive to another beach, Plage de l’Espiguette, that had a desert-like walk to the shore from the car park with the sun beating down mercilessly from a clear blue sky. We also spied the Pink flamingos, celebrated in the local area, on our way back to our room as they majestically balanced on a solitary leg while preening and fishing.
We enjoyed the rest and the beginning of the coastline was a delectable appetizer for the grand days to come along the Cote D’Azur.
Day 8: St Tropez dreams
Today one of Miko’s dreams became reality. She was giddy like an excited kid as her imagination had been flowing with scenes from the jet set of the 60s and Bridgette Bardot’s iconic St Tropez. This wealthy playground, an artistic coastal town filled with romanticism, had painted a vivid watercolour in her heart that made San Trop a must see, top of the list, destination during our odyssey. Miko wasn’t disappointed. She revelled in the vista of multi million pound yachts in the marina, the sun glinting off their dazzling hulls, and pastel coloured quayside apartments that bustled with cafe bars and restaurants below.
Personally, while I could sense the allure under a scratched surface, the old harbour felt bloated as its charming characteristics were distorted and hidden from the heaving carpark down to the central plaza. One had to take a step back from eye level, being careful not to fall in between the impressively grandiose and ostentatious boats, to catch a glimpse of the stylish apartments that rose from its base of expensive plebeian bistros and vulgar souvenir shops filled with cheap tat. People sat from their shady positions looking out longingly at the colossal pleasure ships that postured under the gleaming blue sky in all their reflective glory. “Look at me, want me” these monsters showboated. Behind the marina, along the pale pristine streets, the owner/occupiers of these seaborne titans shop in the garish and extravagant boutiques of renowned fashion houses.
Miko’s fauvian view saw past the crass, exorbitant, flamboyance and into the vibrant glamorous soul of this French Riviera jewel. We delved further back into the town and it’s history as we climbed the hill to the imposing fort. Miko wafted through the open portcullis gateway and along the path as I followed snapping away. A funny peacock, so enamoured by the courtyard bins, provided entertainment in the sleepy environment beside the Bougainvillea decorated villa. The guardian of the keep was a resident Tom cat that lay sprawled on the reception counter just inside the entrance. He was enjoying the shaded cool away from clear Azul that contrasted the brightness only a few metres away. He purred as I stroked him under the chin, happy in his castle. Up here, the views delighted over the green bush that trailed down by the Mediterranean architecture to the port and bay below and revealing St Tropez’s alluring beauty. The green copper cannons watched silently over the peaceful ramparts and we breathed in the rich air. The town’s fantastic heart still thrives.
And so, au revoir St Tropez our journey must go on. To Cannes we point our vessel and motor forth to the bright lights and the action. We arrived in the late afternoon and our room needed some running repairs to the Aircon but that was quickly fixed. We had a relaxing hour before dinner to freshen up and planned for some evening sightseeing.
All in all, Cannes was just a brief encounter as our batteries were running low for all the excitement earlier. We tucked into a lovely Indian curry, one way to get good vegetarian food, before wandering to the Boulevard de la Croisette and following the promenade past the groups and couples relaxing on the beach in the fading light. We snapped some photos of actors’ palm prints outside the famous seaside cinema that attracts the paperazzi for the famous film festival. The red carpet was rolled away and the building was sleepy as tourists milled about taking pictures, imagining the buzz from only a few weeks before.
Tiredness enveloped as we climbed up the winding steps of the old town to the vantage point from Le Sequet at the Eglise Notre-Dame de l’Espérance. The sparkling night time views lit up this, one of many, jewels in the Cote D’Azur crown. Alas, we succumbed to our sleepy heads and followed a trail to bed rather than a crawl to a pub or 2. A decision that was made with a special day planned tomorrow in mind. My head very much needed to be screwed on.
Day 9: V8s and tossing chips.
There is something incredible about living your dreams. Discussions and planning go on for months in advance of the journey as we chose routes and accommodation etc. On top of that, in relaxing times or as we work, we imagine scenarios and events. We smiled as we had a couple of drinks and pictured how the trip would go and envisaged little snippets as favourite songs drew on the creative thoughts to visualize a moment in time. We concoct a situation, sometimes without a full understanding of what the surroundings will be, and live it ahead of time. We dream it into reality. All the hard work around it is for these special events and occasions. Some will be a few moments while others will last longer and often bump into one another like a frame in a movie that joins to the next to create a whole picture.
Peter Sarstedt sang “Where do you go to my lovely?”, waltzed by his gailic accordion, as we sailed along the coast roads and through the now busy Juan Les Pins. Refreshed and filled with excitement, we had been on the go early. The sun shone in a perfectly blue sky and glistened like sparkling diamonds on the calm Mediterranean sea. Today we would reach the highest peak of our tour de France with a tantalising driving experience before descending to a high rolling extravaganza in Monte Carlo. The principality would be our playground for a couple of nights.
We hadn’t planned for everything and Nice was a side note that we hadn’t paid much attention to prior to our trip. It was really just a drive through as our schedule was tight. While the promenade was set up for some sort of running event we got a great view of the city from atop the vantage point along the west side of the strand. Our Google maps lady seemed to send us on a bit of a bum steer around the old town, directing us to an elevator that we couldn’t find or really needed, as we sought to get up for views. I got my bearings in the end. The photo ops had to be taken smartly to avoid the unintentional bombing by thick tourists. The city beach was crowded like most of the med is but the city as a whole looked swell and had a “nice” vibe. With the panorama enticing us we vowed to return to develop Nice. For now we had to make tracks past the expensive overhanging coastal properties, with their private jetties, on the edge of town.
We headed to the hills and specifically the village of Eze that lies halfway between Nice and Monaco with its fabulous views of the shoreline and the splendid azure water. I was delighted in the winter when Miko suggested a birthday present of a driving experience that we could do during this trip. Eze lay in our path and was the perfect checkpoint for my experience. Miko was delighted as I chose a vehicle that she could join in too.
In trademark red, the Ferrari California T gleamed in the sweltering heat in the blistering sunshine. The continuing heat wave, unfortunately, meant that the soft top had to stay up due to the health and safety working conditions of the instructor. Understandable, but slightly annoying as it was such a gorgeous day for the breeze to flow over my shaven head. The roof up also made it a bit more of a squeeze, especially for headroom, even for the petite Miko, in the 2 + (small) 2 cabin. With my heart and mind racing, I climbed into the driving seat and realised I had my flip flops still on but the instructor assured me all was fine, and indeed should afford me a better and more authentic driving experience, to operate the pedals with my bare feet. I gripped the sporty steering wheel, flattened top and bottom and rounded sides, and listened to the info about its odd buttons.
My body rumbled at the ignition of the growling V8 engine. I felt nervous but invigorated as I eased the accelerator into action to bring us up the hill and out of the craft works car park. I turned onto the busy thoroughfare that dissected the village and ambled along the narrow coastal highway. It was pretty much 30/40 mph along here and I could feel the horses under the hood straining at the leash to be let loose
in a powerful flood of release. I had to keep my control and caress the car around the lazy bends.
We turned off the main road to climb further on a smaller but quieter road. A slow driver ahead was going to be a hindrance as there was no way to overtake. I hung back, slowing right down, to create some space. After a few corners a decent straight lay ahead and I watched the now distant car ahead approach the following bend. My right foot pushed the accelerator to the floor and opened up the throttle to roar the engine into action. My wee red machine, propelled by its 552hp, shot forward and thundered to 100mph in a matter of seconds before I reigned it in as I approached the turn. A simple touch of the pedal squealed the €30,000 carbon ceramic brakes to swiftly slow the Ferrari down in order to beautifully control the cornering. My exhilarating ride was over all too quickly but the encounter will live long in the memory. The afternoon’s drive was rounded off by a few clicks of me behind the wheel of this smooth curved and sharp lined wee cracker jack of a car.
I was absolutely buzzing as we drove out of Eze for the short cliff top jaunt to Monaco. Miko was made up for me too even though her ride had been a bit more uncomfortable squashed in the half seat in the back. My broad smile increased as the adventure just high rollered towards our glitzy destination for the next couple of nights. From the bright sunshine we entered the tunnels that descended and twisted us, like Alice, to a wonderland by the sea. At the bottom we were thrust into a different, magical kingdom that sang to the tunes of V shaped engines.
Bentleys, Lamborghinis and Ferraris populated the streets like Fords, Renaults and Audis would in the normal world. Billionaire yachts adorned the marinas, although that had become a regular sight along the Cote D’Azur, showing up their millionaire cousins. The mind boggled and my head was turned this way and that by the sheer decadence of the place. I had to keep my head in gear as I followed the road to our hotel by the coastal heliport. We parked our trusty, but decidedly ordinary, steed at the Stade Louis II, home to the principalities football team, and walked the 5 mins to our hotel. It would have been a nice little dander but for the fact that I noticed one of the cases dragging on the path in the sweltering 35° heat. A wheel was banjaxed! Of all places for this to happen 🤦♂️. I patched it up as best I could and held my sweaty face in the air as we entered the lobby. Being super cool under pressure is all part of the Monaco experience lol 😎.
Sometimes you expect hotels to just step their product up a wee bit. The room was nice. It was clean and we were happy. Yet the decent sized balcony could have been decorated so much better. It was bland and charmless, occupied by a cheap plastic table and chairs. It just lacked a bit of thought that would have married it with the panoramic views from the coast, through the gardens and the light terracotta apartment blocks, to the backdrop rugged hills that enclosed the principality. This slight deficiency was also seen in the mini standoff in order to receive the promised bottle of wine stated in our booking. Of course these were minor flaws and we eased into the comfort of our surroundings. I set to investigating the trucks of the case and there was certainly a greater issue than I had hoped for. The head of the metal stud holding the wheel housing had sheared off and the stud had popped out. There was no way of popping the same stud back in and I was dubious as to whether I would find an alternative to fix it. It looked like a replacement case was needed before we left, especially as we would be without the car as we crossed the border. Miko was organising our next couple of days clothes and our departure while I studied my case. Dinner was easy to organise too as we opted for a takeaway pizza from Mikey’s and then we were set to put the feet up.
The late afternoon sun was nicely trapped for a quick bath as we supped on our wine. Helicopters came and went from their Mediterranean base. After all the miles it felt good to kick back and relax. Our 2 nights here would end the French leg of our trip. It had been a fantastic journey so far.
Boizel were delighted to see Miko’s Instagram post of our “Rock and Roll dinner” beside a picture of pizza and a bottle of their champagne. A rock and roll, bluesy mix played out from our MP3 as we donned our chic finery ready for our night out on the town. Snaps were taken from the set up tripod angle and were ready to party.
The taxi brought us to the Monte Carlo casino with its usual selection of expensive cars in front. The square bustled with café bar life and the excitement was welling up when I remembered, we needed ID to get into the actual gaming room of the casino 🤦♂️. After Miko berated me, I found her a table in one of the bars in Casino Square and organised her drink. I then hailed a cab and was off on my way around the Grand Prix circuit back to the hotel to retrieve our passports from the safe. The engine didn’t roar and the brakes didn’t have to screech as we had a leisurely drive along large parts of the instantly recognisable street circuit. It was something I wanted to do anyway so it just ticked another box.
Once back, I retrieved Miko and we started our night again. Standing, surrounded by Lamborghinis, Porsches, Rolls, Bentleys, Ferraris et al, we looked up at the famous steps of the Casino De Monte Carlo. I contemplated the stately building modelled from the style of the spa and casino of Bad Homburg in Germany. It was grand and oozed sophistication and wealth in its Beaux-arts architectural style. Classical, decorative, sculptures stood either side of a trio of windows that watched from above the wrought iron and smoked glass canopy. Barroc, turret-like, attic windows guarded the top floor central clock face, along with a pair of oversized nymphs that, together with the blue hue backlighting, rounded off the decadent scene. Altogether sumptuous and magnificent in its historical glory and a dream come true. We climbed the steps arm in arm as Butterflies fluttered in my tummy with wild anticipation.
Miko playfully flirted with the suited doorman as I entered the marble pillared hallway, with its ornate freizes, classical ceilings, opulent chandeliers, and grand landscape murals. Unlike Las Vegas’ gaudy attempts at palatial style, this was a pure extravagance designed for the old school rich that was topped off with a more modern giant sculpture of a roulette wheel and table, complete with chips and dealer rake, as it’s centre floor piece. We paid our dues, showed our IDs and entered the main gaming room.
It was a large room but nothing on the scale of its American cousins. The expected plush surroundings continued but only a few tables were open, playing blackjack or roulette. We grabbed a drink and I had a look around. Miko was happy to soak up the atmosphere as casino games aren’t really her thing. It certainly was the play area of the wealthy. Of the few tables that were live only one, a roulette table, was within the zone of what I wanted to put down as a minimum bet. It was no surprise that it was packed while the others were sparsely populated. I waited and waited to be able to squeeze in. I really wanted to play a bit of poker, at least the variation played here in Monte Carlo called Ultimate Poker, but no tables were playing. We chatted for a while with one of the friendly security guys while we finished our drinks. Miko was in form and read his palm. He was all into the psychic exploration and regaled to us stories of his gran who appreciated the fortune of seeing beyond. I was able to play a few spins of the wheel at the table. That was enough here and it was time to move onto the Sun Casino just off the square past a lively nightclub where posing appeared to be the order of the day
It was more like a Vegas Casino but still on a smaller scale and no charge at the door. Probably due to it being a Thursday rather than the weekend, the live tables were a bit lacking here too. I also found out that the World Series of Poker (WSP) event had been in town the week before and I was a bit gutted to have missed it because playing in a big tournament like that is something of a dream too. It will come. As always I had a limit to the total that I was prepared to spend. We got a drink at the bar, where Miko was more than happy to watch from afar, and I changed my chips at the kiosk. I dabbled with a bit of Ultimate Poker, Texas holdem against the dealer rather than the other players, and came away even. I then sat at the blackjack table and played away. I was comfortable with this game as it’s a fairly easy format. I went a decent amount up and changed my original stake back to cash so I could pocket it out of harm’s way. I then played with my winnings so far. There wasn’t a lot of action for Miko and she was getting a bit bored and it was late so I was happy to come away from the table and cashed in my winnings. Time flies when you’re having fun.
We had a chat as we finished our drinks and then hailed a cab. The night had been enjoyable. It was an eye opening experience in the gentrified world of high society. Life was a bit more relaxed than the formal pomp that I anticipated and I was glad of that. If I was in Monaco again I might play at the tables but I wouldn’t encompass a night around it. For variety, choice of entry level and pure gaming experience, Vegas is the winner. The surroundings of Monaco are beautiful and add that touch of class to the experience.
Day 10: Prep and chill.
Life was easy and there was no rush up the next morning. I trailed myself out of bed in time to go down to get breakfast as I’m rarely one to let a meal I’ve already paid for go to waste. Miko was waited on hand and foot as I did my normal breakfast routine of eating mine and then stacking a tray for the queen of sumptuous fruits and croissants and revitalising juices. We were ready for the return of our Renault and then a dander along the marina and coastline back to our hotel.
First though we needed a shop and to look for a new bag. We parked up at a mall. Getting the small amounts of groceries was the easy part but finding a suitable bag, with a reasonable price tag, was proving more difficult. I backed my ideas up and chose a different route to solve the problem. A hardware store had a decent array of nuts and bolts to allow me to consider a patch job to sort the issue. A few Euros spent did indeed fix the problem enough for the case to survive to the end of the journey. I’m not the greatest handyman but I can do some small running repairs.
A couple of wrong turns had us and Mrs Google in a tis as we went up and down and twisted around to find the right street where Avis/Budget shop lived. I managed to get there with a bit of logical guess work and figured, as there was nowhere to park outside or around, that I had to duck the car into the underground car park that entranced just past the office. Proof Photos taken and car emptied, we went to the office for an easy key drop. No fuss and that was it. Much easier than the pick up had been.
We then stepped out into the sweltering heat. Our route took us past La Piscine and the yacht club, with plenty of floating palaces, where a horse show was setting up. The scent was very agricultural as the pristine horses were groomed to perfection. We passed below the royal castle and along the coast to our hotel.
Yes, the day had been pretty sedate and we enjoyed the easy way of Monaco. A simple vegan salad meal with a glass of 2011 St Emilion was a splendid way to not only finish our last night in the principality but also to close the chapter on what had been an incredible jaunt through France. We had covered over 2500 miles and visited so many emotive places. Now we would sleep with an Italian dream front and centre. It would be an early start as the big wheel would Keep on turning.
Day 11: Time trial.
The buzzer went, or in my case the cockerel’s chuckle (my phone alarm), and we were off. Time was early but not too ungodly. Today, though, was one of the few times on our trip when we had to be on schedule and one always feels a bit of a sweat on. Our prep was fine and we arrived at the station with plenty to spare. We boarded the train bound for Genoa and waved au revoir to Monaco and subsequently France as we crossed the border into our Italian adventure.
The train ride was coastal scenes zipping past and tunnels. An issue arose with Miko’s all Europe SIM as it stopped working as soon as we were in Italy. The loss of signal, as we dipped regularly into darkness, made life very difficult trying to rectify the issue. It would have to wait. At least mine worked in case we needed it.
Surprisingly, we arrived in Genoa pretty much on schedule just after 11am. We then could have ran around a bit swapping modes of transport to get to the airport but settled for the easy way and grabbed a cab. At the airport we picked up our rental, a tiny, tinny Fiat Panda, compared to the Captur, that was adequate for our needs. While waiting for the car, I tried to call Miko’s French network again but kinda expectedly only got French speakers who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. The conversation was way beyond my French capabilities. It was frustrating getting the “Computer says ‘Non'” attitude. Again, it would have to be left until later as we had to be on the road. Finally we were back under our own steam again and heading south.
The delightfully colourful villages of Portofino and the Cinque Terre lay ahead. Vehicle access to Portofino is extremely limited so we parked up at Santa Margherita Ligure to catch a ferry that would dock at the heart of the romantic village. We had made good time but still had a short wait for the next sailing. We decided to have a refreshment at a marina cafe and I tried Bouygues again. After a few attempts, I got someone who spoke a bit of English and was prepared to converse with me. She talked me through some settings changes and tried some changes on her system but all to no avail. She said she would get someone to call me back.
Our boat sailed out into the blue past the small yachts and pleasure craft and along the lush green coastline. Large cliff top villas and a few super yachts overlooked the approach to the colourful harbour. The decorative houses in hues of yellows, pinks and rich terracotta made this a photographer’s paradise. It really is a stunningly beautiful village enhanced by the popular mode of arrival as people’s faces are illuminated by its charm. Yes, the ferry is a bit crowded but one can fade them out and imagine arriving on an expensive craft.
Once landed, we left the crowds behind and climbed the steep steps that would lead to the cliff top path. This would bring us to the lighthouse that protected sailors rounding the peninsula. A small café allowed for light refreshments on our walk before we returned to the harbour. The raised position, here and along the way, allowed for some gorgeous shots of fishing port and surrounding coastal paths. It was another small dream ticked off the list as we breathed in our idyllic setting.
The rush for the return ferry was a bit more frantic as we realised we could catch an earlier one than expected. We made a dash down the last bit of the path and the steep steps and ended up getting there with time to spare. We were satisfied with this side trip and our decision not to stay a night here but head further down the coast into the “Five Towns”. The Cinque Terre is a string of renowned fishing villages that lie along the same stretch of coast. Their colourfully decorated buildings set into the steep rugged background and connected to each other by clifftop paths.
We chose the one furthest south, Manarola, as our stop off point but we still had to get there. It was 6pm by the time we were off the ferry and heading on our way. Hunger was gripping after a long day with an hour and a half drive still to go. We decided to stop to get takeaway pizza on the way with the best option being to stop at La Spezia, about 15-20 mins away from Manarola. At the time we didn’t realise how “Best” the option was until we arrived at our room for the night. The atmosphere in Pizzeria Capolinea was very authentic Italian. The open kitchen, with its brick ovens to the left as you enter, gave a heat and bustle to the place while the charming simplistic interior stretched back so people could dine in. It was busy with locals. There were no airs and graces. It was just uncomplicated and passionately done well. Even with that, it was just take away pizza and my mind was on getting to our abode for the night. We managed to find a parking spot at the closest car park to the village, gathered our stuff, and walked down to the church square at the top of the village. My prep work, looking on Google maps, meant I had a good mental picture of where to go to find our apartment. We climbed the stairs and happily entered. Time was getting on and now we were so ready to eat. I cracked open a tinny and took a bite of pizza. Mama Mia, it was delicious. Actually, it was beyond delicious. It just happened to hit number one spot in an instant. It was, and still is, the BEST pizza I have ever tasted and I’ve eaten plenty in my life.
The evening was drawing in and the light fading fast as I looked out the window. Lemon and orange trees grew in the plot below while the picture from our room was a beautiful vista down the valley, through the village’s main Street, to the sea. The old apartments and houses, with traditional shuttered windows, were all painted in yellows, pinks, reds, lilacs, and oranges contrasting delightfully with the deep greens of the steep hills that came down to meet their backs and the blue summer evening sky. A mixture of subsistence farming was evident as vines, veg, fruit and olive trees, and all sorts grew in what difficult available space they had. The noise of water falls could be heard tracing a path to the Mediterranean. The place was idyllic yet this was normal for the residents. I watched over the rooftops, noting little glints off the silver revolving chimney top fans that caught the last rays of the setting sun. As the tourists traipsed through the streets matriarchs expertly hung and folded sheets over the balcony clothes rail.
After dinner we took an evening stroll. Firstly, we wanted to make our way up to get some panoramic photos. We climbed the stairs cut into the terraces and it was easy to see that the vines and other produce was hand worked as no machinery would be able to access the hillside’s stepped terraces. I could envisage the hard manual labour that must go into producing a crop here and the extra satisfaction it brings when sipping on the local wine. Going up was certainly a good workout for our soft tourist calves and thighs. We joined the upper path in darkness and I was wowed and dazzled by the firefly display literally a couple of feet in front of me. The wonder of nature never ceases to amaze. Our path brought us along across the top edge of the village and afforded us warm views of the lit up buildings that we would then descend back down to. We followed the main Street down past the tight, twisting, alleys that led off to the inner workings of the village. The place was alive with restaurants and cafes all the way down to the cramped little harbour and the small fishing vessels that were moored in it. A group of teenage boys boisterously passed us, slightly drunk, ecstatic that school was finished for the summer and in some cases, it seemed, for good. A group of four village elders gathered on a bench near the church and chortled with each other in expected animated Italian fashion. The charm of the place enchanted me and, even though our stay was brief, I was glad that I heard the village calling us.
Day 12: Classical leanings
Once more the dazzling sun warmed our morning and delivered vibrant colours to intoxicate our minds. After our frenetic pace yesterday, it was enjoyable to have a more leisurely start today. I nearly started a riot at the Carrefour supermarket by unintentionally bunking the considerable queue at the self service desk. It was all a bit more chaotic as opposed to across the border in France. I was fooled by the local system and what looked like a sporadically used self service station in a central position being free most of the time. It turned out, in fact, to be a central payment kiosk for those wishing to pay cash. They would go to one self service machine, put through their items, and then receive a receipt. This receipt would then bizarrely be brought to the central kiosk to scan in and make payment. The receipt was then required to be scanned in to open the exit gate of the self service area. Much ado about nothing and we were glad to get out of there alive.
It was only a 100km drive to Pisa and we made good time. I was delighted to get a great parking spot in a central location near a little vegan eatery that we had scouted online. The heatwave was still washing across Europe and the temperature here was sweltering as it hit the high 30s centigrade. Our lunch was delicious and we felt refreshed as we went out to see the main local attraction. It was actually great to see this iconic tower up close and enjoy its stonework and architecture. I was surprised to see just how much it had leaning tendencies and was happy to let others queue to go up inside of it. We did take some of the obligatory photos of holding up / pushing it back poses that took an age to get right without the crowded interference. It was hilarious the shapes people got into to get their photo just right. Maybe we were tourist barbarians but we were happy with what we had seen in Pisa and decided to get back under way towards our base for the next 3 days in Florence.
Like with all our accommodation, we had studied and searched for something that would really suit us and the need for that night. We had spied this villa and fell in love with it and it’s surroundings as it gave a real reflection of expectations of what a classical Tuscany location and stay should be about. Even with all that in mind, we were still blown away on arrival by what we saw. The old monastic villa and gardens sat secluded on the hill overlooking Florence’s centre and were stunningly beautiful. The entrance hall was cool and calm yet the welcome was warm and inviting. A smiling Matteo quickly checked us in and showed us to our room. I went with him and the bags up the antiquated lift that looked like it was installed over a hundred years ago. Miko took one look at it and said “No, I’ll take the stairs” and was directed up the stone staircase to meet us there. The lift worked as it should but I have to say it was the first and only time that I used it myself.
While delighted upon entering our exquisite high ceilinged, spacious room designed with subdued grandeur in mind, with its baroque furniture and gilded edges, it was the spectacular view from the shuttered windows that really stole the show. The sun shone on a large patio courtyard that led down from the back stairs of the villa. Beautifully manicured, Renaissance style, gardens of trimmed hedges, bright flowers, ponds, fountains, walled paths adorned with decorative urns and shaded verandas developed out along a walkway of cypress trees and surrounded by acres of olive and other fruit trees. The elegant gardens and stylish villa were magnificent and alluring in its peacefulness. We eagerly grabbed a glass of Tuscan red for me and sparkling prosecco for Miko as we lounged the late afternoon away in our enchanting environs. Such a romantic setting and a joy for us to behold as we plotted our next couple of days.
As often has been the case, our food options were limited. We had a few ideas for dinner but accepted the advice of our driver into town. For us it was a poor choice. Even after stressing heavily about being vegetarian and being assured that the dishes would be delivered as such, we were served a vegetarian gnocchi laced with chunks of ham. It was very disappointing and frustrating. An expected delectable Italian meal, on a par with one we had in Milan previously, fell flat and we left the restaurant to traipse around this part of the city. It was late and our options were limited and we settled for an edible but average pizza and salad. We headed back towards the hotel and stopped in a Scottish bar and a little wine bar on the way. There were a few drunken chats with randomers as we made our hill walk through the ancient streets. As usual on such occasions, a 20 min walk took about an hour and eventually we flopped into bed after another long day.
Day 13: Life is Fine.
I’m shocked I didn’t remember before the trip and sod’s law enforcement meant the realisation came in, not once but twice, when it was too late. Let me backup and explain.
We had a lazy, hungover morning, as we lounged in grandeur. The reality was that we had some chores to catch up with. When we eventually got ourselves together we packed up the car with laundry and headed for Florence centre where Google had noted a handy launderette. Of course we could have taken the hotel’s free shuttle but thought it was easier to drive ourselves. I dutifully followed the Sat Nav, concentrating on good driving in a strange city, through the narrow streets of the old town and found our destination okay. Parking was more difficult, but after a couple of Laps around the block, I nabbed a spot within the free white lines right close to the launderette. All was good until a nagging thought chipped away at my happiness. All the cars around me had permits in the windscreen indicating residents. The nag became an alarm bell that rang in my distant memory as the parking signs displayed notice of parking for residents only.
In fairly recent previous years, I have been in Milan and Rome and it is this fact, with the reading done in preparation for these trips and deciding on driving or not, that left me surprised that I didn’t remember. I had been trapped by the dreaded ZTL ZONE! Feck, I could have screamed because, not only was I sat right in the middle of Florence’s traffic reduction zone with little way to escape the error and consequently a Fine of somewhere between €50-80 plus the rental administration fee, I had also driven into the centre of Pisa to get my great parking spot round the corner from the Tower. Drat and double drat 🤦♂️😱
At least our clothes were clean! 😂
We deposited the car back at the hotel after our harsh lesson learnt. After, we shuttled ourselves back to the centre and spent our afternoon swimming through the crowds of the medieval Ponte Vecchio and the rest of Florence’s wide and narrow streets.
The city really is an eye-catching, historical treat with its classical style and large open piazzas adorned with Roman statues alongside modern sculpture and centuries old turreted official government buildings. The fabulous cathedral, with its various stylish influences from Gothic to Renaissance, was decorated in rust and green colours amongst the stone work, geometric shapes, friezes, frescos and towered towards the clear blue heavens. The 40° heat was sweltering and pit stops were required for ice-cream and a beer or 2.
Last night’s food fiasco meant we planned better and had a couple of options. We plumbed for a takeaway from an actual vegetarian restaurant. So much less stress than having to ask about ingredients, cooking methods, and then praying the truth has been told. The delicious salads, quiche, pie, and a dessert of tangy lemon tart would make a sumptuous meal in the surroundings of our palatial abode. We looked forward to an early night and had the delight of finally getting Miko’s Europe wide SIM to fecking work in Italy. APN settings and APN protocol was where the issue lay. I was able to work it out myself as I’m still waiting to hear from the head office of the network provider.
Day 14: Prancing Horses and Raging Bulls.
We rose early. A sparrow joined breakfast in the patio and garden off the main dining room. A regular occurrence, me thinks. The scene, the food, the ambience, and the sparrow were all delightful. Life felt so exclusive.
From our Florence base, I revved up the engine of my Panda for a day trip to Maranello. I was a tad excited, especially after having driven a Ferrari a few days ago. The couple of hour jaunt brought us into the pretty sleepy Italian town, which was decorated all around in homage to it’s illustrious focal industry. We did the drive past the famous factory gates before heading to the museum.
Comparing the ambience between here and the visit to Le Mans and the museum there, Ferrari seemed full of its own self-importance. Indeed, including the needless paid parking, it engendered a kind of air of desperation for people to notice how special it was. A bit of a shame really as the cars were gorgeous and well worth the visit. If they had just followed Le Mans lead and been a bit more cool about it then the atmosphere would have benefited from it.
The wow factor was there as I dived into the sea of red. Hugely recognisable machines like the GTO, which is similar to Magnum’s 308 GTS, and the F40 brought me back to my youth while newer monsters like the La Ferrari and the P80 left jaws open and delivered excitable oohs from the onlookers. The F1 room brought a circle of successful racing models, through the eras, together in one splendid exhibit. There was, though, always the sell; ‘get your photo taken in a Ferrari’ and a gift shop with merchandise all for prices that you would nearly have to mortgage your home for. It kinda lacked the friendly feel.
We took ourselves off to the Lamborghini factory, which was only a few miles away at the other side of Modena, for a quick look outside. Not an awful lot to see really as we weren’t for doing the museum tour. We did stop at a local café, across the road, where a few sleek Huracans were parked outside. The sharp edges and raw, raucous, animalistic style appealed to a different type of person than the smoother, more refined Ferrari ideal. They were cracking looking jaw droppers.
Satisfied, we headed back to base. Our large gardens, sunshine and a glass or two were calling as it was time to down tools in the late afternoon. The weather was scorching and we loved it. A pool would have been lovely but we coped. We basically had the gardens to ourselves so I lounged in shorts and not much else, while Miko remained somewhat more modest, and enjoyed a glass or two of wine from the quirky self pour machine that offered a decent choice of local Italian wines. Miko worked with the tripod and phones, or managed me doing the donkey work, to take some together snaps to showcase round the world to our friends at a click.
Florence definitely rose up to the vegetarian challenge in the end. We got ready after our afternoon drinks and shuttled into the city centre. Our homework brought us to Brac, a lovely earthly bistro that was compact and charming. It was certainly popular as the buzz of chat flowed in harmony with the background music. We had managed to get a booking, not at all easy at late notice, and clambered onto the counter seats. The friendly staff were on song as they whisked themselves about the restaurant, blending a relaxed informal vibe, as they served and conversed with their clientele. We chatted to a young Indian couple, sat next to us, and we regaled each other with tales of their homeland, one of our favourite destinations, and travels across the world. The drinks flowed as we washed down the simply delicious food and the time flew.
Florence was soon to be behind us and we needed to catch the 10pm, and last, shuttle back to the hotel. Once there, we had a nightcap in the bar where we chatted with an English couple, Mark and Julie, while Frederico, the bar man, kept us entertained. He was such a nice guy and we really took to Florence and Tuscany as a whole. It made our hearts warm with joy and wonderment and that wasn’t just about the drink. Frederico chatted about his home and how beautiful it was even through its many problems. You could see he missed it but work was hard to come by on the island. Younger people migrated to the wealthier parts of Italy to get work and for better pay. It left Sicily with a social imbalance that was difficult to see being rectified anytime soon. Out of the neglect and political corruption across the whole country, the south and particularly Sicily bore the brunt of it. I loved the openness and sincerity of conversation like this. It brought realism to our travels. It was more than a holiday to us as we wanted to understand some of the issues facing individuals in the places we drove through. The midnight hour struck and the ball was over. Time for bed as we had a flight to catch the next day. After three days of letting it all hang out, the bags would have to be squeezed shut again.
Day 15-20: The Godfather of Island life.
With great drinking comes banging heads and crawling out of our foetal positions in bed. We scrambled around our room in the morning, downing as much rehydrating water as possible, as we struggled to finalize our packing. It was a different show today as we had got used to not having to shut the bags properly while the car lugged them around. Precision squeezing and maximum use of space meant for stretched stitching on our rotund bags. Breakfast was hard to swallow but our stomachs managed to hold. I felt much more like myself by the late morning when we had to leave. Our tyres scrunched over the loose stones as we bade goodbye to Villa Agape.
Mis-directions, either down to fuzzy thinking on the part of the Satnav, the Italian road authorities, or my brain (I’ll settle with a mix of all three) caused a few wrong turns on our journey to the airport but we still got there in good time. A multitude of proof photos and the car was dropped off without a fuss. A run of the mill flight was followed by more photos and a much larger car to pick up in Palermo. We were going to travel in comparative luxury compared to our trusty we nipper of a Fiat Panda. There was certainly more solidity to the body and punch to it’s motor.
So after a couple of weeks on the road, Sicily would be our base for the next 6 nights. Time to down tools and relax a bit around the refreshing pool of our boutique hotel as we settled into the chilled out pace of our small town surroundings in Castellammare del Golfo. Beyond the pool, the sea view was easy on the eye. Quiet enough as we lapped up the rays but still too busy for Miko’s liking lol. Only a private pool would satisfy the Queen. Still it was great to just lounge for a while. The road trip had been fantastic and this was a planned charging port to refill and set for the final stages.
I’m glad to say, we didn’t just anchor and not explore at all. Sicily is a bigger island than I realised when we first decided to venture there all those months ago in the planning. It takes a few hours to drive from our North Western base over towards the tiny village of Savoca in the East. Most long journeys, within developed countries, consist of mile after mile on the motorway. This was no different until we took a wee detour into a town to use an ATM before heading inland and up the hills to Savoca. The seaside town was a bit shabby but looked after itself in a workmanlike fashion. Unremarkable and distant in style and ambience to the tight, well kept streets of Castellammare with its lively shops, restaurants and bars in an affluent and ambient setting. Castellammare, with its old town and new, was more carefree and, while not pristine, was generally neat and tidy for the outsiders who would visit for the season. There was a rugged edge to the town where I stopped to get cash. The buildings were a tad dusty and grubby with faded paint work to tie in with the battered pickup trucks that ventured to the town’s petrol stations and bigger shops before retreating back up the hills to their country setting.
That rural setting was where we were headed now. Savoca is a small village set in the hills and one would expect it to be a bit rustic, sleepy and faded as if part dream. Not Savoca though, with Bar Vitelli at its centre, being a magnet for the movie buff and wealthy beyond its neighbours due to the influx of tourist dollars delivered by Hollywood and Coppola’s romanticisation of the local mafia in the Godfather trilogy.
Zipping tours in classic fiat 500s encouraged visitors to spend, spend, spend on the Italian idle. The impact of the actual mafia can be seen in villages and towns across the island. Rundown buildings; dilapidated plaster on the walls with bedraggled colours worn by years of financial neglect, rickety balconies; with rusty wrought iron balustrades, potholed roads, and corrupt local councils that syphoned money away from the needs of the community. Yet family and community can be strong. Each sleepy village we trundled through had a quaint homely atmosphere to it. Potted plants proffered cascading leaves from apartment balconies to show life and care for their small piece of territory. The cosmetic exterior may have needed a touch up but the nutrition was delivered within the home. I liked it. It reminded me of rural communities in Ireland in the 1980s when life was more of a struggle but pride remained beneath the surface. People are tough and the spirit can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to break.
There is less of a mafioso influence now, although it is still there, as the central Italian government cracked down on the main protagonists towards the end of the 20th century but years of systematic abuse in Sicily, and indeed the whole of Italy, will take a while to recover from. The town of Corleone, a recognisable name no less, was the hotbed of mafia activity back in the 70s, 80s and 90s and, as the name suggests, an inspiration for Puzo, and therefore Coppola, and his tale. The museum there, very difficult to actually get access to, tells the real story of murder, brutality and heartache for the communities affected by the local gangsters who went international. In-between Savoca and Corleone, a distant drive by the impressive and volatile Mount Etna, haloed by a plume of white cloud in its menacing, regal glory, reminded me of the futile nature of humans fighting for dominance over each other and our insignificance in the universal scheme of things. The power we use to build is the same power that we lord over things in our destructive path and there is no equality in how we arrogantly distribute it.
Lengths of the pool quietened my mind and refreshed my soul after the long drive. The day had been fascinating and the evening would show us great local hospitality in a party atmosphere. The town’s folk were out in force, and in a festival mood. Mama Cocha, at the top of Corso Bernardo Mattarrella, was a great place to enjoy our pizza and drinks, and put us right in the heart of the action. A stage had been rigged in the small square outside the Chiesa Maria. Our interest was piqued, even more so when the sound check reverberated around us. We were delighted to have stumbled upon a free, open air, gig, featuring local artists and an internationally renowned Nirvana tribute band (Nirvanna); the next best thing to the impossibility of seeing Kurt back from the dead. We were both delighted, but I was especially over the moon with Nirvana being one of my favourite bands. I rocked out in true grunge style, dancing with the locals, as the electric riffs and drum beats blasted their way out of the sound system to blow the minds of the gathered throng. The atmosphere was fantastic and jovial, with the beer and wine flowing in copious amounts.
“Where did you sleep last night” grabbed Miko’s soul, as it is one of her favourite songs, while I bounced about, with plenty of the locals, as Nirvanna banged out “Territorial Pissings” as the finale of the encore. I was sweating and exhausted, yet exhilarated and alive. When the gig finally died down, we sat and chatted with Gianclaudio di Pasquale and his friends. The band members joined in and the craic was great. As usual, a lot of rubbish was talked, but all in good humour, as we touched subjects like football, family, and very lightly on politics and the influence of the Mafia. We crashed into bed well past 3am after stumbling back to our rooms in a very merry state. The whole evening, and show, had been a brilliant insight to Sicilian life. We were made to feel so welcome by our hosts. It was definitely the highlight of our island visit.
Lazy days were punctuated with lie ins, simple breakfasts, mornings lounging by the pool; although one morning was disturbed by some photo shoot – with an eejit posing and prancing about for the camera, afternoon walks, drinks outside Grains; our local across the road serving lovely Sicilian ales and beers, and quiet dinners; especially the deliciously upmarket, yet relaxed vibe, vegetarian cuisine that we ate in L’Antica Granerio. The island life was cool and easy going. These days were needed to recharge, and we appreciated the forethought to put them into our itinerary, but we did look forward to getting on the road again. Further adventures lay on the horizon, with long thought of dreams, images, and aspirations formulating into a reality. We were super excited.
All journeys, though, have hurdles and challenges. Avis/Budget, our France car hire company, threw a big whammy up on our day of departure from Castellammare. Due to some queries, being answered when I rang, I ended up booking (months ago) the hire over the phone for the agreed, published, price of £176.65. my bank charge showed that Avis had taken £560 from my account. WTF screamed my mind. I processed the information and my thoughts raced to the issues at pick up. (See day 1)
I then spent the morning trying to connect with the company. Finally I got through and spoke with someone. I explained the issue and seemed to be getting somewhere. He stated that I had been charged for an upgrade and I explained that I hadn’t had one or any extras etc. I explained that they had scammed me and about the car they initially tried to give me etc. He went to speak to his supervisor for advice and authorisation. He came back a few minutes later and said that a refund was due. This was a quick admission of guilt and I thought that it would all be rectified within a few mins. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The guy started to calculate the refund and came up with €230 or something of the ilk. I stopped him in his tracks and explained that Avis took £560 from me when the hire total should have been £176.65. That left £383.35 to be refunded, approximately €430. It was quite a difference.
He tried to refute this a bit so I emphasised my point. He said all he could do was note it in the case and someone would get back to me. I asked could he not speak to his supervisor, like he had before, and organise the correct refund. No was the answer. I asked could I speak to the supervisor. Again, no was the answer as he said he had opened a case and someone else would contact me. I asked him his name and he hung up on me! Anyway, I contacted my bank and spoke with Claire, Dispute team, and started the cogs for a dispute resolution through my bank. Unfortunately, instead of getting to sit in the sun on our balcony before checkout, I had just used up an hour on the phone and frustratingly didn’t seem to have gotten very far.
Palermo reminded us a bit like a small Indian city. It was hot, dusty, a bit run down and dilapidated in quarters, and was full of crazy drivers paying little heed to traffic laws. It was no wonder that the majority of vehicles were inexpensive, aged, and generally a bit beat up. There was definitely an edge to the place. Life was chaotically busy while incorporating a heat induced laze to its character. As summer gripped, inhabitants definitely sought the shade on the dusty sidewalks.
Sometimes to understand a culture’s way of life you have to see how they deal with death. We nervously parked up our hire car in a tight space, praying that those closest to us would take care not to neglectfully prang the new bodywork, and headed underground into the Catacombe dei Cappuccini. Certainly a cool way to spend the next hour. Miko was a bit freaked out by how open death was on display here, although we have visited other catacombs in Paris and Rome before. Skeletons and mummies, some dressed in finery; befitting their wealthy stature, others covered in sackcloth; I can only assume due to passing while closer to the bread line. The corpses were situated in various poses. Generally, either lying down or strung up vertically, akin to a ventriloquist’s dummy preparing for action. Some of the faces looked peaceful while others struck a chord with Munch’s scream. There was a certain peace to the place and I found the experience fascinating. I would maybe draw the line at spending the night with this silent population, though, as I’m sure my conscious psyche would develop the shadowy scene into a spook fest 😱.
Back walking with the living, we checked into our disappointing hotel. The initial allocation of a dingy, dull, and depressing room was quickly switched to another that was at least brighter. It certainly wasn’t the best of our choices on this trip. We settled before heading out for a stroll and an early dinner. Flower Burger delighted us with a simple multi coloured vegan feast to finish our Sicilian adventure. An early night would hopefully revive us for the final stages of what had been a wonderful road trip.
Day 21: Choosing blind
Unless one has been to a destination before, then it’s difficult to fully appreciate the lay of the land. Little things can get missed during the planning stage when picking accommodation, and where that place is situated. We are pretty meticulous when surfing through web pages to look at rooms and styles to suit our ideals. Wipeouts can happen on arrival but we try and keep them to a minimum. There are a few more of the times, when things are good and close to what one thought one was choosing, but something is askew to various degrees. Definitely acceptable rather than being any type of disaster. It’s just a case that things would be done differently if there was a next time.
I enjoyed half an hour of sun introspection before checking out. The mundane of a hassle free car drop and security check-in in a terminal building that lacked any sort of coolness was completed. We then encountered the flyers, non disastrous, dread. The flight was delayed. It was only an hour and a half, but the significance would mean a later than anticipated arrival. We would deal with it.
As the late afternoon turned to evening, we drove south from Naples. We were back in a tiny car, which would prove to be a godsend. Our little hotel was close to Sorrento, or so we thought, and we would now arrive as the light was fading. I followed the directions given through my phone map. The route climbed and then climbed some more. Nestled in the hills, way above Sorrento, we finally arrived shrouded in mist. I have to admit, the view was delightful as lights in the bay started to twinkle on. The room was lovely, with a wee private veranda, as expected. It was just a bit further from Sorrento than we imagined. We knew there was a shuttle bus, mentioned in the listing, but didn’t realise how limited the timings were. New learnings and all that.
I love reasons to go out and survey my new surroundings. It was too late to get a shuttle into town. I was too tired to be annoyed to drive there and back. A web search showed me the closest pizza joint, only 5 mins drive down the road. That’ll do, after we checked some reviews. My expectations were exceeded by the style when I arrived. Zipping into a tight parking spot on the main road by a crossroads village. A simple, family run, eatery provided a real rural Italian feel. It’s authenticity undiluted by movie moguls. Papa sat behind the cash desk, smiling at me: intimating his lack of English (I was ashamed to know no Italian), and animatedly calling for the attention of his, I assume, granddaughter. They couldn’t have been more helpful and gratefully took my pizza order, with all my questioning about being vegetarian lol. I must exasperate some people😂. Even the friendly dog loped over for attention, flopping on his back for a good tummy rub. For the whole experience, and tasty food, “that’ll do” was an understatement.
Day 22: Capri
In the morning the mist had lifted. The hazy sun illuminated a beautiful green, bushy vista down the hillside towards a mix of pastel coloured walls and terracotta roof tiles of the buildings crowding together at the coast. This was the distant Sorrento, which would be our ferry’s cast off point on its short voyage. First we had to get there. Mild frustration arose as we were rushed onto our shuttle bus at the allotted time just to be trundled down the road to the sister hotel and a pickup there. No rush for these guys it would seem. Nonetheless, we made the ferry in good time after the 25 minute drive down the winding roads.
As we chugged out into the bay, the mind wandered and dreamed at the sight of passing super yachts. This was not on the scale of Monaco but the wealth was dripping in exuberance. Anyway, Miko brought the style to our water taxi tub, looking resplendent in her backless, white playsuit and colour coordinated classic fedora on top her ribbon tied tresses. Capri was a long anticipated desire for Miko to visit and she was elated to finally step onto the island’s hallowed, exclusive shores.
Crowd’s rushed for the taxis and the funicular used to transport the excursionists up the hill from Marina Grande to the piazzetta of Capri town. I directed Miko away from this, armed with the mobile map, and made for a self propelled ascent. I hadn’t done my homework! I knew how Miko detested public transport and being squeezed in like sardines on smelly buses. We continued to climb. Even in the mid morning sun, partly shrouded by clouds, the early summer heat and humidity became a dripping factor. Step after step had the sweat lashing from us. Miko wasn’t amused. We were sweltered. I tried to take solace in the wonderful views that we were being afforded but, when I extolled this point, Miko was only getting more wound up. At the top she was ready to burst, feeling spoilt in her finery. Indeed, I was a bit flustered too. Sitting under the aircon in a smart cafe brought the temperature down. A couple of drinks later, a few laughs, and balance was restored. We were good to go again.
We ventured on another walk, this time a downhill stroll, to Piccolo Marina. We chilled on a small beach, even amongst the sunbedded throng, I changed into my swim shorts for a quick dip. A cheeky gull youngster sidled close and got some morsels from our leftover breakfast croissants. With a bit of bravado, it hopped onto the orange and white striped bed directly in front of us and pressed for more. I was surprised at how close it let us come, even to the point of basically taking food from our hands. This wee critter wasn’t fazed and seemed to enjoy the photos we managed to capture. I left Miko and the gull to it and stealthily traversed the large, smooth pebbles of the beach to climb on the concrete jetty. This was an easier route to the water, avoiding the continued trials of a rocky underfoot, as I was able to plunge right into a level that was already a couple of meters deep at the jetty’s end.
The clear water was refreshing and washed away any remnants of the earlier hill climb fiasco. As I was drying off in the sun, a jumped up, polo shirted, beach club guy approached to say we were on a private beach, owned by the restaurants, and that we needed to buy a ticket. We’d had our fun anyway, so declined the offer, then upped and left. A cool, stretched, open top taxi whisked us back to the port. The white body work contrasting garishly with the lipstick red interior. No sweat this time. I’d learnt a valuable lesson as we travelled in style. To catch the 2pm ferry.
The annoyance of the restrictive hotel shuttle became further apparent when we docked back in Sorrento around 2.30pm. I called to see if we could get picked up. Unfortunately, I was told that the next shuttle wasn’t until 5.30pm and no flexibility in that. We’d had an early start so wanted to get back to the villa to relax and get ready for dinner. Our options were to wait for the next local bus at €2 each or a €60 taxi ride. The bus came within 20 mins or so and we got back up the hill. We had to get off at the hotel down the road that left a precarious walk along a tight, pathless, road to our Villa. Not the safest of returns.
We had a chat with Rosa, part of the management, about the situation and the dangerous walk between the hotel and the Villa. She stated that they don’t advise guests to walk between the two. She had little answer when I pointed out the restrictive nature of the shuttle left no option. Indeed we wouldn’t be ready for the 6.20pm shuttle to bring us to town for dinner so we had to settle for the next one, 2 hours later, and a return at 11pm. This gave us 2 hours for a rushed dinner, a quick drink, and a stressful run to catch the shuttle at the allotted place and time. Different from the relaxing stay we had envisaged. Oh well, life goes on.
Day 23: Limoncello chilling.
Life was good as I sat in the sun on our veranda. Yesterday, we came to the conclusion that staying in or closer to Sorrento town would have been a better move. Today, we changed that altogether as we explored the Amalfi coast and were absorbed by its charm.
Our tiny car fitted perfectly as we clung to the tight, twisting, clifftop road that had fabulous vantage points at every corner, and in between. The quaint villages, rugged little fisherman’s jetties; accessed by steps gouged into the rockface, houses glued to slightly more acceptable inclines to get the best views out over the sea, sailing and other activities giving life to the shimmering Med….. The list of beautiful sights, sounds and smells could go on. The coastal route was stunning.
The parked cars, cramped head to toe against the side barriers, announced our arrival at the first scheduled stop, Positano. The vivid, kaleidoscopic town spread below us, embracing the hillside; elegantly relaxed, as we descended towards its vibrant hub. In the blazing sun, we chose to pay to avoid trekking down. Lesson learnt from Capri 😂. Still we had reservations as we pulled into the covered Garage Mandara. We were directed to stop, get out, and hand over the keys by the “irked with tourists who don’t comprehend my job” attendant. The mild exasperation showed as I took a few photos of our little runaround before acquiesenting to his request.
“It’ll be okay?” I asked.
“Yes, yes yes” came the rankled riposte as the attendant had a glint in his eye and a cheeky grin.
The whole valet parking at a garage was new to me in the tight spaces of Italy’s underground car parks. I went with the flow and allayed Miko’s worries as I pocketed the receipt.
Filled with chic boutiques, local collective art galleries; one tastefully set in a villa with manicured gardens, nicnac sales, tasty bakeries, cafe bars, and lots of Limoncello 🍋. The stone paved streets were a maze meandering through the town, a joy to amble along, as we browsed, peeked, and explored the local wares. The chapel bells rang as newlyweds flowed out, surrounded by a jubilant entourage. Trestle work, supporting ample Bougainvillea trees, created a natural tunnel, along with the walls of a shop on one side and voluptuous bushes on the other, to shape wonderful photo ops for the delighted party. I was hot in my shorts and t-shirt so I can only imagine what the fully suited and dressed couple must have felt like. I think their joy probably overrided any thoughts of the heat for now. The warren was animated with the business of living.
As the town met the sea, the beach was packed with beds, umbrellas, rules, tackiness and lots of revellers. It wasn’t the place for a relaxing chill but I wasn’t concerned. I had come for the view above as I turned and faced what was akin to a bustling theatre, rows of viewing galleries heaped on top of each other in a steep incline, all focused on the stage below and it’s daily shenanigans. Buildings in lemon and orange, whites and pink, created an impressive charm that would draw one into its dramatic allure. Our show would go on to Amalfi and I was thankful that the car had been well directed in and out of its parking space 😂.
Lemons as big as rugby balls, well mini ones anyway, were creatively stacked outside small stores in medieval Amalfi. The square’s fountain depicted a female generously supplying water through her nipples as the town’s imposing church viewed imperiously from atop a grand set of steps throned with happy snappers and their poses. We ambled by, heading up the hill, passing souvenir and trinket shops; all showing as many of their wares as possible. With only hand luggage for the flight back to Ireland, we were restricted to what we could buy. As lemons were so important to the area, we purchased a few gifts of lemon soap and of course small, bottled, quantities of Limoncello.
Through the narrow, twisting, sometimes covered, wizened passages we came across Donna Stella’s terraced restaurant, decorated with intertwined lemon trees; enticed to grow across the overhead trellis to create a pretty unique dining experience. Donna, the engaging and shrewd matriarch of the business, managed to fit us into the busy schedule. The hum of conversation and relaxed music drifted among the tables as the enchanted patrons ate and drank the atmosphere as much as the delicious food. Our gnocchi in pesto with cherry tomatoes, caprese salad and delectable pizza was washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice. Our last leg loomed as we discussed our exciting next couple of days. We were unanimous that, if we were to return to the area, the Amalfi coast would be our choice ahead of our Sorrento base. Living and learning this had been pretty enjoyable.
Day 24: Explosive history and red carpet Naples.
The sun shines bright, with a temperature heading towards 30°+, and we are ready to depart by 9am. I’m excited. I was denied studying history in school when GCSE topics were chosen. I was pushed, by a head teacher, to follow an advanced mathematical path instead. That worked out well as I failed miserably. History gripped my mind and I should have pushed back. I loved geography too, not so much the socioeconomic side, but more the explosive side of plate tectonics, earthquakes, and VOLCANOES. There was history to be had here also. We’d study and watch videos about famous eruptions such as Krakatoa or reasons for island group design like Hawaii. My mind would wander, delving into the horror with fascination while understanding the draw of fertile lands that would have anybody living so close to these volatile monsters. They give life yet take it away in a ferocious instant, wiping the slate clean, and leaving little trace of the prior existence of those caught in the destructive path.
Today I would flesh out the pictures and imaginings from the classroom, and through the years of documentaries, at one of the most famous eruptions of them all. Vesuvius, and one of its victims – Pompeii. A fiery capsule of history, ironically, frozen in time. As much as i was thrilled at the day ahead, I was also mindful of the tragedy that afforded us the opportunity to experience a large slice of Roman life so fantastically preserved. Respect for the thousands that perished, buried under millions of tons of volcanic ash belched from the angry Vesuvius, was an imperative part of our wanderings through this ancient landscape. By all accounts, it would be near impossible to see everything at Pompeii in one visit. This had as much to do with the baking sun, beating down mercilessly on the crowds that lacked shelter, as it did with the sheer size of the town. We did our homework and sketched out a plan of what was top of the list to see. This would give us a good personal tour with the aim to avoid the large assemblies led by guides with their coloured flags, umbrellas, or whatever they chose as a group identifier. We garnered enough facts, insight and tales online to satisfy our curiosity. My mind is like a sieve so I’d likely forget most of the facts proffered anyway.
We motored through the masses at the bottlenecked entrance before making our way to the main square. We’d been to Rome and ancient sites in Greece and have both been very impressed how new life has been built on top of the ancient way. I think the difference here is the volume, all in one place, of superbly preserved streets, buildings; covering normal ways of life such as retail, restaurants, takeaways etc akin to ours now, as well as an array of artifacts, and of course casts of citizens’ and their pets final moments paused forever at the point of suffocating submission to the ferocious precipitation of scorching fallout and pyroclastic surges from the blasting inferno that engulfed their too late attempts at escape. I was astounded and enthralled at the chance to walk in ancient footsteps and almost step through a gateway to a reality thousands of years old. It was an easy crossover for the imagination.
Walls still stood tall, gardens were well manicured, murals maintained colour, and passers by were still reminded that a particular house was well guarded by large black dogs as alluded to by a dramatically fierce and delicately brutish mosaic inlaid at the entrance hall of the “House of the Tragic Poet”. A popular tabby cat lounged in the shade of the mystical “Villa of the Mysteries”, sat on the outskirts of town, that would have been quite a palatial mansion for hedonistic parties. Even the throng of people visiting Pompeii gave the city that lived in air of hustle and bustle. At night the ghosts would quietly slip in through the shadows and resume their eerie residence. 3 hours flew by but it was exhausting and thirsty work. We had more to do through the day so we bid the experience a respectful farewell and headed to the source of the tragedy. It was time to climb a volcano.
Okay, there’s a cheat. We drive up most of it to a staging post. Here you can walk up to the next staging post, and entrance shack, but most pay a euro or so for a minibus ride. I blame time constraints for taking the easy way up to here lol. Miko was zonked from the earlier exertions, as well as being nervous about parking on an active volcano that had been sleeping for 75 years, and dozed in the car 😂. To make up for my laziness to this point, I quick marched as I climbed the last 800 meters, feeling the burn but exhilarated at the same time. Vesuvius dominates the skyline from all around incorporating Pompeii, Herculaneum, coastal towns, hillside villages and a distant Naples. This protagonist is an ominous reminder, to the 3 million local residents, of the devastation that can be wrought from nature, being completely out of the control of the people of this world. The peace will not last, and the longer the dormant duration, the greater the fear that when the eruption finally explodes the more cataclysmic it will be. For now, the ancient god sleeps, and gives life through the provision of such a nutritional soil so as to encourage folk to encroach on its fertile surrounds. A perfect trap.
With the happy crowds you wouldn’t have thought this quiet mountain, with its gravelly volcanic rock path and a scenic mixture of rocky faces, dried and withered trees; like scraggly fingers poking from the earth to reach for the sky in a dying pose, to lush green foliage with wild mountain flowers was a death trap waiting to happen. I had assured Miko that the scientists would be all over the data and ready to alert locals and tourists alike if there was any sign of pressurised life bubbling and cooking towards the surface. Evacuations would be well in progress long before anyone got near the bottom, nevermind being able to peer over the rim and into the moonscaped cone where the magma firework stew continued to be contained within the plugged caldera. My passion to visit such geological monstrosities satisfied, on this occasion, I made good my escape from the jaws of this sleeping giant.
As stated before, planning for such a trip is extensive. We have to put in place so much from flights, route, destinations, sightseeing, car hire, and accommodation. Little nuances in timings and interpretations arise while hurdles have to be overcome. Our flight back to the UK was in the early evening so we scoured the internet for suitable accommodation that would allow for a late check out. We weren’t keen on waiting around all day with stuffed bags in tow. We were happy to pay for the privilege of staying comfy in our room. We chose the Mercure in central Napoli as they seemed to offer this. We emailed the query to them first to ensure that this would be suitable and got a guaranteed confirmation that it would be so. I booked the hotel and noted our intentions in the instructions. All good, or so I thought, until a response came from the hotel that said our late checkout was subject to availability. I hit a brick wall when trying to say that it had been guaranteed. This is where we don’t take things lying down. When you’re particular in wants and needs, and ask the correct questions while waiting for agreeable responses, then it is right to pursue when the plan gets sideswiped. A bit of to and fro and a message to the manager cleared things up. She confirmed what had already been confirmed and, as a gesture of goodwill, she would now wave the late checkout fee. This was more than we expected and we really appreciated it. To our mind that was the end of the matter.
Making sure I checked to avoid any possible ZTL 🤦♂️, I pulled up to the hotel. Parking was pretty non existent but I managed to pull into a layby off the main road and dashed in as Miko waited in the car. There was a couple sat at the baroc style check in desk being looked after by two reception staff. I stood back, looking dishevelled, and patiently waited for my turn. One of the reception team smiled and asked if I was okay. I explained that I was here to check-in so she asked my name. When I gave it, I thought she had been struck by lightning as she burst into excited action.
“Oh, Mr Moore, so great to see you. Let me get you checked in.” Allasandra, the duty manager, flapped and fussed. She dropped what she was doing with the other guests, who looked bemused, and came directly to me. I was astounded.
“Great to be here” I smiled beatifically. “I have my car parked awkwardly, is there any better place to park so we can get checked in and then I can return the car to the hire company?”
“Come on out and let me see if I can help” she rushed out to help.
The car was parked on an illegal space outside an attended garage but Allasandra had a word with the attendant and we were quickly sorted and ready for check in. The smiles continued as our tousled selves wheeled our ragged cases into the hotel. We enthused about our fantastic yet draining day as a way of explanation for our unkempt appearance. The welcome was warm as she revealed an upgrade to one of their privileged rooms. Miko and I looked at each other with silent, unexpected, delight. With the pleasantries and documentation done, Allasandra personally showed us to our balconied room looking out over the wide thoroughfare of Via Agostino Depretis. The room had plenty of charm and was well stocked with an overflowing fruit bowl containing fresh strawberries, grapes, nectarines, apricots, bananas, etc while regional cookies were also on show. The bed was complemented with robes and slippers. All stuff we’ve had in other hotels but this was such a surprise here. It felt like anything was possible and that our hosts would do anything in their power to ensure we had a lusciously pleasing stay. The intoxicating hospitality invigorated us to get our glad rags on and go out to dinner.
After I had returned the car, I showered and we took photos in our robes with glasses of prosecco before heading to the marina. We indulged in a delicious vegan menu at
Cavoli Nostri before dandering back along the promenade and through the streets gearing up for a marathon event. Our journey had certainly been a marathon and today was a fitting finale to what had been a wondrous trip.
Day 25: Ciao Naples and Italia.
After late night chatting in our plush bed, we slept well. The positive atmosphere softened the blow of our departure day. I got up, none too early, and proceeded with the “Breakfast Routine”
* The Breakfast Routine: Miko likes having breakfast on occasions but dislikes sharing this experience with strangers of the general public, besides it would mean getting up so much earlier to rush to be ready, and that is not the done thing for a lady. I love breakfast, especially when it’s paid for, and have no scruples about dining with mere mortals. Where breakfast isn’t served in the room, as Villa prestige did, then I will go down and organise a food tray to bring to the queen first and then return for mine (or vice versa). When there is no breakfast with our bed, then I usually stroll out and check the local shops and bakeries to purchase a wee spread for us to devour. The boulangeries in France were particularly good for this 🥐🥖😎.*
Today’s feast was a fortuitous, complimentary, consequence of our VIP treatment. It was a delight to enjoy mine on the breakfast room veranda in the glorious sun. All too soon I’d be stuck again with the mood swinging climate of Belfast 😭. For now, I would enjoy the view of the Castel Nuovo area getting a facelift and the docked cruise ships.
The rest of the morning and afternoon was a full on laze of a day. I ventured out to Trattoria Castel Nuovo, a real Napoli joint serving delectable pizza. The old school Italian gent owner spoke with a husky voice and, with mannerly ways, directed operations to ensure his clientele were being looked after to the highest degree. The goodbyes at the hotel were filled with a heartfelt sincerity that we had become accustomed to in Naples. We were now returning to the post apocalyptic scenes of Belfast after the 12th July marches. The place would be hungover 😂 and hopefully peaceful. For us, this trip was in the bag. Long Live the next Very Long and Adventurous Journey. 👌😎🌞🍾✈️