Thursday 25 February 2016

The hills are alive with the sound of *shrieks*...

You know when you wake and you immediately know roughly where you are? That.

I was definitely in the South of France, there is something deliciously familiar to the soft air, a feeling of nascent warmth, a promise of a contrary day.

After the now inevitable looking out of the window madam trotted off to scare the natives by doing yoga on the lawn in a bid to stave of backache from endless hours sitting in the Contrary Clio excitedly watching the world go by. Which part of the world for today was still largely undecided but this particular detail would be made over breakfast.

Mmm, breakfast…

You may recall that yesterday I said about how we’d landed on our feet in what is one of the most impressive guesthouses I’ve ever seen, well, breakfast didn’t disappoint. The hosts Marianne and Frédéric really do know how to present and their breakfast room was testament to this, decorated with posters of previous Cannes film festivals, beautifully arranged tables and an elegantly finished decor. With food. A disgracefully interesting arrangement of wonderful food and hot water for tea.

What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing. It was perfect. Though we *might* have eaten too much, but as it turns out this was good as it meant we could skip lunch as we scampered across the French countryside en route to invading Italy… Once we’d decided on a route.

You may recall from the original - and as it turns out wrong number of days - blog that day 5 (tomorrow) would have a first stop of Acqui Terme, well, as we’re ahead by a day having skipped day 2 we would end this day there. And would book a hotel in advance.

Ooooh, a real plan!

Now missy had this idea that she’d like to stay in a place of faded grandeur and with a quick search on Trip Advisor she found what looked suitable and close to the centre of town. Perfect. All we needed to do was choose a route. Fast via the peagé or interesting.

Interesting sounds good…

But first we’d promised Monty the Bear some time by the sea so we set sail to Nice and the promise of warm sun and a brisk breeze. I should point out at this point that on the promise of said warm sun and brisk breeze I was dressed in a suitable summer dress. This might not seem that crazy now but keep the image in your head for later.

Where was I?

Je suis un rock chick
Oh yes. La Mer. We tottled off having said our goodbyes and took the slightly less mental route out of St Jacques de Grasse as my nerves really wouldn’t take much more of narrow twisting roads with lunatic Frenchmen haring round corners. Hmm. Okay, keep that image in your head for later too. After a trip down memory lane - namely parts of Mougin and Cannes - and 56 minutes later we rolled in to Cagnes-sur-Mer and saw the sea. THE SEA. Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. The plan had been for us to drive to Nice which was why within 30 seconds of being on the promenade we were parked up and heading off to promenade. After Monty had his time on the beach.

It was perfect, the sun, the breeze, the blue rinse brigade. All conspired to give the perfect image of what happens in the South of France when a) out of season and b) not in one of the cool places. But none of this mattered. After months of leaving home in the dark and returning in the dark I was waltzing down the promenade wearing, well, not enough to keep a bear warm. But it was 17C.

So we walked, nattered, took pictures and generally enjoyed the sunshine - did I mention it was sunny? - and enjoyed all that was to be had. We even had an idle wander through a market. Sadly though we did have to eventually head back to the Contrary Clio and prepare for the next part of our trip over the border and in to Italy.

You might recall that we’d decided to avoid the peagé. Interesting decision that, especially given our next destination would be Acqui Terme in northern Italy. So the satnav decided on the fastest route. It’s clear now that satnavs don’t know what all those closely packed roads that bounce back and forth mean in terms of progress.

All was well at first, fascinating village after fascinating village as we climbed slowly, the first inkling of a problem came when Clare asked whether it was bad that the road on the satnav was doubling back on itself. And some friends. Many, many friends.

*gulp* we drove that...
Oh. My. God.

Twisty. No, twisty is what an old plastic ruler is like after being abused in maths class for too many years. No this was beyond merely twisty. It wasn’t even slightly mental. It was full on I-have-to-keep-going-forward-as-really-don’t-like-the-idea-of-going-back mental.

You know when Top Gear do their road trips and inevitably one of the presenters, usually Hammond, witters on about having fallen in love with this plucky little car? Well that was our moment, somewhere at nearly 1000miles in to the road trip I realised what a really good car the Contrary Clio was as she picked up her skirts and leapt to the next corner before pirouetting around and doing the same again. Time after time after time. Safe, assured, well balanced.

Crikey, what a fab little car.

At no point did she miss a beat. Even when we stopped at rare safe times to take pictures she sat quietly waiting to do it all again. It’s a cliché but this was turning into an epic journey and we couldn’t have done it without the car.

Well obvs.

Eventually we reached Col de Braus, an altitude of a mere 1002m where we stopped to look at goats. Yes. Oh and I really needed to spend a penny so had to disappear behind some derelict building to resolve a problem. That cold mountain air is quite interesting on ones nether regions, just saying.

Of course what goes up must come down. In second gear, engine screaming as we battled to keep the speed under control. It was a little steep. Fortunately we soon rolled in to the relative safety of Sospel and vaguely hoped we could go to the border now. Ha! Not a bit of it, we had to climb once more. And the road hadn’t improved.

The funny thing is how quickly you get used to things like this, we never become blasé as there lays the route to accidents involving plunging ravines, nor did we stop appreciating the scariness of some of the hairpins with said plunging depths as a punchline, but we did at least start to accept that maybe we could around the endless rising - and falling - hairpins.

As we rolled in to Tende it became clear that the French, Italian and Alpine housing styles were blurring and it seemed like a good time to stop and have a poke around, after all it was quite a ride. Now remember that summer dress I was wearing? Right. Google Tende, it’s quite high. And it’s February, a detail my tiny little mind had managed to forget in the cosy embrace of the Côte d’Azur.


Clare didn’t find this funny at all. Oh no.
Nor did she constantly remind me about how sensibly she’d dressed. Fortunately far too many people know she’s with me so she can’t disappear in to the EDF power station in the vallée de la Roya. Well, not until I get a cast iron alibi. And a good lawyer.

We moved on. After much more twisting and turning and a few less “turn left in 100 yards” we reached… Stationary traffic. At 6000ft. Errr. It turned out the 3182m long Col de Tende road tunnel, first opened in 1882, was one way. I guess they had fewer cars in 1882.

Mind you, after waiting for 10 minutes before it was our turn to go it became clear that the last maintenance of the road surface was in 1883. I’ve never been in a tunnel like it and frankly, rough road aside it was simply stunning that anyone would think it a good idea to drill a 3182m tunnel through a mountain. At 6135ft. Amazing.

But not as amazing as what we saw as we entered Italy. Snow. Lots of it. And we weren’t on winter tyres. Just 3km away - on the other side of a mountain - there was a tiny amount of snow, but this side it was a little scary. But not as scary as the first sight of Italian drivers as they entered their home ground and demonstrated a complete disregard for safety.

Mama mia.

Talking of which. Italian roads. Possibly last maintained just before the tunnel was. How do they manage to get them in such a bad state?

But I digress. We probably passed the 1000 mile mark around the tunnel, we’re not sure where exactly but I do know that at 1003.4 miles, just inside Italy I heard the immortal phrase…

Are we nearly there yet

Thin. Ice. Treading. But also in that first 1000 miles we’d not seen any actual accidents but once in Italy we found our first one and saw many that didn’t happen simply because of good luck and/or miracles. It was still interesting to watch the changes in the countryside and as we left the clearly industrial areas, interspersed with working girls hovering on the sides of roads, and moved in to the grape producing regions everything changed again until finally, with the last few miles to go Tom decided it was time to have a little fun. And took us over another hill. With twisty roads. And little traffic…

Oh yes.

One last blast before pulling on a posh frock and going for a much needed martini.

Which would have happened if we had actually gone for a martini. Instead we arrived in a hotel of faded grandeur and after a blast around the streets of Acqui Terme in a bid to get from one side of the hotel to the other, we pulled on our glad rags, ridiculous shoes and headed off in search of a restaurant.

Now this would have been straightforward except that some local boys took too much interest. I didn’t learn until later that they were doing the whole kissy thing, all I heard was them calling just at the point where we’d found one of the few open places. Thank goodness. It turns out that being deaf from pressure changes due to altitude is not always a bad thing!

It’s always a little unnerving going in to an empty restaurant, but I wasn’t going back out for a while, and yet I’m glad we stayed, the food and service was astonishingly good. It was one of those places where there was a very limited menu, but what was there looked sublime and coupled with the presentation of the restaurant we knew we were on to something either spectacularly bad or spectacularly good. Fortunately it was the latter. And then some.

My goodness, the starter, calamaretti with what looked like riced potatoes, tomatoes and green stuff. Don’t ask, I didn’t. It was simply sublime, a starter that leaves you wanting more. Coupled with this we had a red wine that was recommended by, as we now knew, the patron and chef, he claimed it was his favourite and it certainly wasn’t at the top price so I suspect he was quite honest. Whichever way you look at it he had an incredible cellar.

As we waited between courses we discussed the road trip so far. Again comparison was made with the hushed conversations you’d get in the Top Gear specials where they would discuss what an epic journey it had been and the effect it has had on them. It always seems a cliché but trust me, it’s quite real and unless you’ve done a trip like this you can’t understand quite how life changing it can be and trust me I understand life changing. But enough of the philosophy, back to the food…

Next up was gnocchi with pear and flowers. Not what it said on the menu but essentially what it actually was. I don’t think I’ve ever had better gnocchi, they we small and simply perfect with the seasonal pear giving a twist that was delicate and oh so right.

Being bad we had to have pudding. And also because we had the place all to ourselves having wandered in just before closing time, which wasn’t that early. We did ask him about this and he was suitably sanguine “It’s a quiet night at a quiet time of the year”. He was lovely. So yes, the pudding, chocolate soufflé with a perfect sorbet, that I did recognise but as we were now at the bottom of the 2012 Nebbiolo Riva I really can’t remember.

So we had grappa. Two different kinds, smooth, delicate and a kick like a mule on Clare’s happy juice. Perfect. Eventually we felt we had to leave, I could have stayed all night but I suspect the husband and wife team would have tired of our cackling eventually. So we trotted out in to the chill of the
Red dress, no... sense
evening and scampered in search of a bar avoiding the local youths. We might have stood out, my in the red dress and heels I wore for the second Contrary party, Clare in a vision of froth dressed down with boots. We were clearly insane (or Northern. Oh.) as we simply had wraps.

We tried our hotel first, but it was too late for drinks as everything closed early. Everything that is except for Bar Haiti just over the road. That’ll do.

And it did. The bar was quiet and yet chaotic, the well worn and incredibly welcoming barman and presumably patron give just the right image of the raffish to compliment our primped first-night-out look. The other two customers were a local, who wasn’t quite sure what to make of us and a swiss gentleman who was very friendly. But then people usually are with missy ;-)

As we sipped Baileys, which we didn’t order but didn’t like to complain that it was the wrong drink, in a very convivial atmosphere it seemed the perfect end to what had been an astonishing if not tiring day of contrasts and the unexpected. But there was to be one last unexpected as a Romanian lady came in. Initially I presumed wrongly she was with one of the gentlemen as she stood next to them looking long suffering, but no, as she identified herself and asked if we’d like a beer the quiet scared looking one was wildly gesticulating that we should say no. We said no. See, we *can* be responsible.

Sadly the night came to an end as a second drink would have been foolhardy as we did have another trek the next day so with a smile on our faces we tripped back across the road to the faded grandeur of the Grand Hotel and a pleasant night dreaming of terrifying corners leading to mind stunningly beautiful vistas.

It’s been quite a journey…

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