Saturday 27 February 2016

Darkness at the end of the tunnel

Thursday night I completely failed to write. This normally happens when I’m exhausted, experiencing raw panic or utterly overloaded with information and ideas. In this case it was pretty much all of the above. So much happened journey-wise that it is hard to digest it all. We had done the longest amount of driving, over the highest mountains, on the worst roads, and experienced the most contrasts in weather, light, culture and driving abilities. And so for me it epitomised exactly what travelling across Europe should be like.

We had opted for the more interesting route for the journey from St Jacques in the south of Grasse to the Italian spa town of Acqui Terme. After a morning of yoga, private accommodation in the posh part of town and general luxury, we departed for a stroll by the seaside. We had studiously avoided the sea up to this point mainly because it is going to be a big part of the next week or so, but this is the Côte d'Azur*. So we set the satnav for ‘Nice’ and hoped for the best.

We never made it as far as Nice – in the end it just wasn’t that important. We pulled into a rare parking spot on the front at Cagnes-sur-Mer, and straight on to the stony beach. Her in the wrong shoes again. The haze was clearing just enough for the sky to be interesting, but the sea was definitely more English Channel than South of France. We decided that a walk was desirable and set off towards town.

The locals had their own transport; runners bounced along in lycra, and the elderly had their motor chairs, one of them complete with parasol and French flag. Everyone was out enjoying what was clearly one of the first spring-like days. By the time we got to the centre, a market was in full swing and we were definitely on holiday. She was looking at bags, and I really wish I’d bought some of the interesting tights on sale.

Still, could have been worse, I was all for stinking out the car with cheese and sausage.

By the time we got back I was regretting the lack of sun cream and she had pretty much stripped to a light summer frock. The gentleman in the truck opposite had definitely perked up. We set off with satnav set for Acqui’s Grand Hotel and blithely set off up the coast. I can add that the traffic and roadworks around Nice airport were completely horrible and I am really glad we didn’t venture further into the city.

The roads very quickly became narrower and the clouds more dramatic as we turned inland. Once again the subtle changes apparent in the style of housing had clumped together over a few miles and had become quite stark – we were clearly in a between-land of Fra-taly, where the colours were pure Italy but the materials and signage utterly French.

The car dropped down several gears and the road got steeper.

The ears popped for the first time.

The temperature had dropped 10 degrees.

Something told us that we were not in Nice any more. The satnav told us to turn left. Then turn right. Then left again. In chorus we told her to shut up and we had started to turn into the Top Gear team, there was talk of plucky little Clios, traction control, and epic voyages. As a nervous first time skipper, I’d seen the sky behind, the mountain ahead and had some qualms.

What the hell were we doing crossing mountains?? Our whole route was designed to be safe; the point of heading down the French coast was to avoid a small unimportant range of molehills. Or, the Alps, as we call them. So to be heading into this national park where cyclists run organically free, without snow boots and chains, seemed a little fool hardy.

Anyway. My fear was expressed in a suitably impressive way. I opened a fresh bag of sweeties, sucked them frantically, and turned the music up. We bopped along to some 90’s cheese as the plucky little Clio™ in first gear yanked us up some serious hairpins. And then some more. The going was vertiginous but utterly breathtaking. And that was just the bundle of pixel ribbons on the satnav. The sun was behind us and we could see the clouds were possibly going to make life thrilling later on. The altitude markings were going up and up as we reached the top.

Sadly what goes up, must come down. And this includes the clouds, which greeted us as we started our descent into Sobel. If there is one town that I want to revisit on this trip, it is this one. I’ve never seen anywhere so perfect. A river running through the centre of a tidy ancient town on a plateau between mountain ranges. Incredible.

This remained the story for a number of hours. We lost count of hairpins and earpopping, whilst the border seemed to move away from us all the time. It was like the mountain was sucking time from the journey, a kind of neverworld of endless swirls around stuck on continuous loop. Until we hit some extraordinary road signs.

Beware tailbacks.

You know, the ones that you see just up from motorway junctions? How on earth could there be tailbacks? We’d seen cars, mostly locals heading back to work from lunch, but nothing major enough to warrant a sign like this.

We rounded the corner and joined a tailback. There were some traffic lights which said to wait 10 minutes. The entire place was alive with diggers, heavy plant, and construction equipment. There is clearly something going on up that mountain. We were in a queue for a one way tunnel which runs for many kilometres under the French/Italian border.

Sandwiched between a car and a huge lorry we started forward as the lights changed. We climbed up and up still to reach the entrance, and saw on the screen the old pass road. I swear if we’d taken that path, we would still be going around the bend. An astonishing piece of road. The tunnel was basically a dirt track through a mountain and the kilometres crawled by in a noisy smelly scary yellow haze, dust kicked up from the lorry in front covering us. Sitting forward in my seat I tried to capture a sign that said France so many kilometres one way, and Italy so many in front. I failed.

Emerging from the tunnel was like entering an evil Narnia. This side of the mountain was colder, darker, snowier, and more chaotic. I honestly wanted to turn round and go back to France – everything felt unfriendly and alien. As we headed down the mountain road, the heavy industry was apparent. Even the sleaze of the first sex shop sign was cold and businesslike. Mess and chaos and dirt had replaced the orderly family life of the villages on the other side.

I sucked another sweet.

As we rounded towards our first wine growing region the landscape started to rearrange itself into something more orderly. But still the sex was selling like hot toddies, this time with ladies stood on the side of the road. Forgive me, I have the greatest respect for the oldest profession but it is something that I associate with the relative safety of towns and particular areas of towns, not exposed ladies on the sides of cold busy main roads. I hope the two women I saw had a good day and got home safely to their families that evening; and indeed every evening.

Barolo, Asti, Alba, Barbaresco were just some of the names I saw on the wine list later on…and they were all impressively sweeping areas of endless well-tended vines. Frankly they were all better kept than the SS (seriously shitty) or SP (seriously pants) roads we were on.

Yes I know, we had asked the satnav to avoid all tolls so we could have fun with the mountain roads but it was now clearly getting revenge for all the times we’d told it to shut up. Every time we approached anything about 50 miles an hour, it would take us off a road and cut across country. The quickest route possible, apparently. The next time it did that, it was going to get a nav in the sat.

So the final bit of trolling was apparently a lot of fun for the driver. The road to Acqui was approaching normality – well, with the usual kamikaze Italian drivers, dirt track surface, and non-existent road markings – so the computer decided to liven things up. We turned off to cut off a corner and ended up on the most incredible route through more vineyards. The misty twilight offered the perfect mysterious backdrop and we bounced through the area, defying tiredness. It was as if the echo of the mountain was still in the tyres and it needed to be burnt off.

Not yet content with its torture of the humans, the satnav, then directed us through the centre of town. Both of us were shrieking at one point as pedestrians, junctions, crossings, mopeds and cars were coming at us in all directions. We arrived at our destination in need of wine. So when the hotel directed us to the parking which was at the end of the one way system, we may have had hysterics. Needless to say, my exceptionally calm driver managed it in one go…unlike the Italian couple who we followed round and they still hadn’t managed to park even when we had retrieved luggage and wandered into the hotel. He may still be driving around, for all we know…

The evening was quite incredible. From the seclusion of Grasse and the rustic French food, we were now in the faded grandeur of the 1920’s hotel and the dinner in the tiny restaurant of Piazza della Bollente was Italian haute cuisine. We had discovered purely by chance a husband and wife team who could give any London restaurants a run for their money – their passion for interesting fresh ingredients, the local wine, and food heritage shone through every mouthful.

We left the place on a high, enhanced by the steam and sulphur of the natural springs in the square. Not willing to break the spell of the evening, we went back hoping to giggle with a hot barman over martinis. As is the best way in such matters, the hotel bar was shut, so we went to the smoky dive opposite. Apparently the gentleman behind the bar had a certain rakish charm but I remain unconvinced as he served us ladies Bailey’s rather than whisky. Still, perhaps he knew best. A natter with a swiss gentleman rounded off the evening, and we chortled our way back to the room – to collapse!

This day has left me with a raft of themes to think about; food, wine, roads, houses, smells, textures, people… everything about the day confounded expectations. This trip was perhaps undertaken too lightly, but then if I’d have known how big it was going to be, I would have thought twice about it. And that would have been a pity.

I’ll keep sucking the sweets.

*Amended, mistake spotted by a local. Sorry.

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