Postcards from a Peugeot: Part 2

[singlepic id=3181 w=720 float=] Considering how the day before had ended up, we both slept surprisingly well. Severe tiredness had probably contributed to our success in finding slumber, but looking at our surroundings this morning, and hearing the trucks as trundle past our parked Peugeot, we would almost certainly have struggled to kip under any other circumstances. Now properly installed in the South of France, the nights were warmer and the sun shone for longer. There was a different quality of light on offer as well. Everything somehow looked more colourful (through these rose-tinted holidaymakers contact-lenses), no matter how familiar they were. The turquoise of Nicolas car seemed almost iridescent in the morning sun. Our breakfast was usually a basic affair, and today was no different. The butter we had been keeping in the coolbox was doing surprisingly well, it still smelt and tasted as it should do. The bread, too, had remained fresh and tasty, and I finished it off today. The apples we had picked up after hitting France had been the real success story, though, particularly succulent, and providing a distinct whiff of healthy eating to take the edge off our Roasted Nut Tracker bars. Actually, we were eating like royalty on this trip. After fresh coffee from the cafetiere (oh yes, we had one of those too!) we set sail for our next port of call, St Tropez. Last year I had stopped there only long enough to see the lights of the bay, and had passed through the town centre with its restaurants and pavement cafés only briefly and at night time. More frequent visitors would probably give St Tropez a wide berth and leave it to the tourists, but we wanted to make our own minds up. We would take the coastal route and try and make as much of our time on the Mediterranean seafront as we could. Yesterday, as we approached Marseilles we had been reminded that, location aside, it was just another town and had all the usual problems associated with urban degeneration and overcrowding. Of course, it was in Marseilles where renown architect Le Corbusier had built his Unit d’habitation, which served as a prototype for modern high density living. The legacy was still there for all to see, with monolithic apartment blocks festooned with graffiti lining the approaches to the city. [singlepic id=3178 w=720 float=] But, once outside the city limits we were seeing exactly what we held as our perfect vision of the south of France. Yes, the tourist element had had a considerable impact and ugly  bars and hotels were in ready supply, but aside from that the look of the place was still as it should be. Rocky shorelines give way to sandy beaches; palm trees sway on lazy seaside promenades. It felt a little peculiar knowing that the little 1995 Peugeot 306 that we were threading through this exotic scenery, would be used again for the everyday commute to work in Essex in just a weeks time. Cars are amazing. We found our paradise just outside Cavallier-Sur-Mer, after musing on what it might be like to live here, and the possibility of returning for a hotel based vacation. We had lost sight of the water and the road was a fair way above sea level. It had broad shoulders to allow space for parking, and it seemed that several motorists had the same idea as us, probably because there was access to a nearby beach and a cliff-top walk. So we walked it, and it led to us having big, broad smiles on our faces. The pathway, shared between us and a few ex-pat looking, retired, wealthy, sunkissed pensioners, branched off towards the sea, leading downhill under the shade of some gloriously healthy looking trees, to a rocky peninsular and a sheltered beach. There was a family enjoying the little beach so we thought better of intruding, but we found our own space on rocks overhanging the endless, aquamarine sea. The rocks were desert hues, yellows and reds, with tiny crystals of quartz lending a permanent glow to the landscape. Every surface had a thin sheen of natural glitter, and the cloudless sky bathed us with gentle, airy sunshine. [singlepic id=3179 w=720 float=] We sat, arms entwined, gazing at this new vista, and time stood still for a moment. We all keep a subconscious log of our favourite places, and this one suddenly found itself in our top five. I secreted a small piece of loose rock into the folds of my jacket pocket for prosperity, to quell some strange desire to not just have visited a place, but also to own some small part of it. Maybe it’s something I’ll grow out of. I also cursed my lack of camera skill to properly record the scenery we had become a part of. I tried manual and automatic modes, too much and too little of each exposure and aperture, all in the hope that I’d get a few half decent photos among the several gigabytes I’d take home. I maintain that it really isn’t an easy landscape to photograph with limited equipment, the constant sunshine and subtle colours lead to some washing out and the inevitability of ending up with nowhere near as spellbinding as an image as how you remember the real thing. [singlepic id=3177 w=720 float=] St Tropez was a little easier to capture. In place of terracotta rockscapes and rampant cactus was white fibreglass and glass smooth marina waters. Of course, thousands bemoan how the magic has gone and mutter about the rot setting in, but if you’ve never been before it remains a fabulous place to visit. As we parked there were dozens of teams packing up after competing in an International Dragon class sailing championship, the sleek traditional keelboats seeming quite at home in this most genteel community. A stroll through the marina pretty much damned my chance of affording anything; boats less than thirty feet in length were rarities, and most of these were probably tenders to much bigger vessels. Indeed, in the most prestigious area of the harbour there sat quite the biggest private sailing yacht I’ve ever laid eyes on, all muscular and black in carbon fibre and white leather. [singlepic id=3176 w=720 float=] The harbour did display some signs of the tourists having the upper hand, with T-Shirt mongers rubbing shoulders with vodka bars and an exquisite looking ice-cream parlour, which, price aside, rather appealed to us. And then, once you’ve got past the parade of shops you suddenly find yourself on a rocky shoreline and nothing matters any more. There was very little that could spoil my day as I sat with my toes in warm Mediterranean water, watching the billionaires frolicking on the waves. Needing refreshment on the road out of St Tropez, we guiltily sank our first McDonalds of the trip, in a shopping complex in Cassis, where we restocked on bread and posted our hastily written postcards. Well, five of them as I had mistakenly asked for one too few stamps in my appalling Franglais. We then proceeded through the affluent looking town of Frejus and took the very pretty scenic route towards the Autoroutes, and eventually Italy. [singlepic id=3184 w=720 float=] There were three kinds of driving today, slow and gentle as we took in the sights of the Mediterranean, slow and precarious as we negotiated hillside passes out of Frejus, with its vertical drops and no provision for crash barriers. And now, for the first time on the trip, fast and mesmerizing. The Autoroute from Cannes, along the coast towards Genoa, marks another entry in my favourite roads list. It is, for the most part, several hundred feet off the ground, and it is made up almost entirely of bridges and tunnels, often carrying it over entire towns. As an engineering feat it is pretty staggering, and to drive on it, especially after dark, is a very special driving experience. I’m not alone in my thinking, we witnessed countless Maseratis and a Ferrari Testarossa having serious fun on the Autoroute, which became the Autostrada once we penetrated Italy. In the dark it felt like a hyper-realistic video game, made more so with the surprisingly tight radii of several corners. We were driving in rain for a period and concentration was required (even at Peugeot 306 speeds) to avoid having a Playstation style wipeout, but the roads became a lot more ordinary as we slipped deeper into Italy, and gradually adrenaline gave way to fatigue. It was a relaxing end to a fantastic day of driving. [singlepic id=3183 w=720 float=] Eventually, about 30 miles from Milan, after shelling out yet more Euros at toll booths, and now really, properly tired, we pulled off the Autostrada and to our home for the night. It was the car park of an Autogrill service area, which was a real period piece, spanning the entire road on an overbridge. It must have dated from the ‘60s and you could imagine the car park bristling with baby Fiats. Today it is slightly faded but still gave excellent service, as a squadron of parked lorries testified. What we found astonishing, as we sat there at eleven at night, was how quiet the road was. This was a motorway close to Milan, and there were only one or two cars per minute in either direction. Sleep, it seemed, wouldn’t be a problem. In fact counting lorries would serve me well as unconsciousness gathered me up in its warm hands. Next day. Sleeping in service stations, while not especially glamorous, has with it certain advantages. There is usually some sort of shop, in which you can buy crap to eat or drink, there may well be a restaurant so you need not live, as we intended, on tinned ravioli and apples, and the toilets are usually several steps up from doing the necessary in a bush or a plastic bottle. The Autogrill near Milan helped us to remain civilised this morning. We woke up to increased traffic and a sun trying to battle its way through thick grey cloud. The building itself stood as a great 1960s cathedral to a golden age of Italian motoring, and exploring it offered us somewhere to pee and a shop full of tat. There was also a grill, of course, and we had to work hard to avoid the temptation to eat hot meat this morning. It wasn’t easy, but we decided that a Tracker bar and Cherry Coke would save us time and money, and we could get moving. We were aiming to get to Lake Como this morning and it was Nicolas stint behind the wheel. This meant she had to deal with Milan traffic in the rush hour, and she coped with it rather better than I did. Navigating, while tricky, was the easy part. The challenge came from the Milanese drivers who have the shortest tempers and worst manners I have ever encountered while driving. This was especially true of van drivers or anyone in a Mercedes, and at one point, after a spectacular piece of queue barging Nicola had to swat my hand away from the horn button. And quite rightly too, for all the good it would have done us. From what we saw of it, Milan was a lot like Birmingham. A ring-road is never the most flattering perspective to view a town from, and the buildings surrounding the city were not the best possible advertisement for the town. There is a mix of light industrial and high-volume retail, identikit warehouses and low-rise blocks from the seventies, all presented in varying states of repair. I can honestly say that London’s North Circular road is a more attractive place to be. The centre of Milan is probably lovely. The Tangenziale Ovest di Milano isn’t. There was amusement on offer from the Garmin, which had been allowed back on duty after disgracing itself in Marseilles. It made a right dogs dinner of the Milanese street names. Some of them took it around five seconds to pronounce and we were pissing ourselves with laughter at the bizarre Latino-Germanic accent it would put on. By the time we had got through all the traffic and the roadworks Nicola would have had the right to be reduced to a gibbering wreck. But no, while a little shaken by the experience she emerged emotionally unscathed, and we were able to continue to Lake Como. But when we got there we were set upon by the Lecco Mafia! Pretty soon after we arrived in the lakefront town of Lecco in became apparent that Nigerian immigrants were operating some sort of cartel on car parking. Every pay ‘n display machine had a Nigerian ‘attendant’ by it, who would stroll over to you after you had parked and escort you to the machine. After ‘assisting’ you to remove the ticket from the machine, you are then expected to buy something (of literally no value) from them. In our case we gave them two Euros for a pair of woven bracelets. They would use intimidation tactics to get your money, and who’s to know what would happen if you refused. [singlepic id=3182 w=720 float=] None of this particularly warmed us to Lecco. We had chosen to visit as it is probably the least famous of the big towns on Como, and thus probably the most unspoiled, but today, as we looked over the lake towards the mountains, without sunshine to lift our spirits we lacked a little inspiration. We walked through the town in search of something that would wow us. Lecco seemed pleasant enough, the old townhouses typically Italianate and the expected profusion of town square Ristorantes. Nicola laughed at me when ordering a coffee, I asked if they speak English, they said yes, and I asked for a grande cappuccino. Silly bastard. We had entertained the notion spending the night on the lakefront, but we were increasingly of the mood to get moving. We were still a little uneasy about the security of where we had parked and the sun seemed like it could break through a little in the direction of the mountains, so it seemed like a good time to make a run for our next objective. Last year, in my own car, I had tackled the San Bernadino pass, and made quite a big thing about it with Nicola on my return. This time, of course we had to do a pass of some sort, and what better than the biggie, the Passo Del Stelvio. [singlepic id=3174 w=720 float=] The Stelvio Pass is world renown. Voted Europe’s Finest Driving road by The Three Comedians on Top Gear, people worldwide are familiar with images of the hairpin bends coursing their way up the steep valley sides. And here was our chance to experience it first hand in a proper car. What better vehicle to tackle Europe’s Finest Driving Road than a ’95 Peugeot 306 1.4? It was a surprisingly long drive from Lecco to Stelvio, taking in loads of fairly remote villages and farms, and we were never short of interesting scenery. We could see the architecture turning gradually more Alpine as we drove, soon the roads started to get more and more demanding and there comes a moment when, suddenly, you know you’re on the pass. We paused at the shell of a long abandoned building at the base of the pass, drew a big deep breath and went for it. With me at the helm the poor little Peugeot was being asked to do things it had probably never faced before and the stresses soon started to show. We noticed a knocking from the CV joint that we hadn’t heard before, on full right lock when negotiating a tight bend. There was nothing we could do about it other than pressing on. I soon settled into a rhythm, the bends are pretty evenly spaced and second gear was fine for most of the inclines. If you take a corner fairly wide, you are set up quite well for the next and you needn’t twirl the wheel quite so elaborately. The little car was coping admirably, but as the altitude increased it became obvious that some of the 82 horsepower were beginning to bolt from the stable. First gear was becoming necessary for an increasing number of corners, and a slight element of fear started to materialise whenever a standing start was required. But after about half an hour of ascent we came to a parking area and were instantly rewarded for our efforts. [singlepic id=3180 w=720 float=] Spread out below us was the Technicolor, real-time version of the view we had seen so many times. You could almost see tripod footprints for the thousands of people who had sampled this vantage point, but that made it no less worthwhile. The line of the road we had been following was so complex it was virtually impossible to trace by eye, yet for all its height the drops were surprisingly tame. There were fewer of the Italian Job style vertical drops than I had expected, and the mild October meant no snow. But still, the appreciable drop in temperature and lack of vegetation at this altitude reminds you of your achievement. The driveable limit was a few minutes drive away, and when we reached it the Peugeot breathed a sigh of relief and was bought a Stelvio Pass Sticker as a reward, which it would wear with pride from now on. It was getting on for 5 o’clock, and the souvenir shops were closing for the day. So we took photos, drank in the silence and readied ourselves for the descent. [singlepic id=3185 w=720 float=] I would hazard a guess that we put several thousand miles of wear and tear on the car on our way off the pass. My driving technique had to be altered to try and reduce the strain on the brakes, and the method I settled on was to let gravity do its stuff and then scrub off the gathered momentum into the bends, this or constantly drag on the brakes which I’m sure would have reduced the disks and pads to a nasty treacly mess. Even so, pretty soon the air was thick with the richest essence of Ferodo, and the clutch was starting to do the same as the engine carried out braking duties as well. I needed three heads, one to judge clearances on the vicious, dry stone walls, another to look forward and judge braking distances, and the third to keep an eye on the engine temperature gauge. I marvelled as an appropriately driven Ferrari F430 Spider went rapidly the other way, driver (bedecked in Ferrari overalls and cap, probably famous) and female passenger grinning insanely. The right car for the job, and presumably the right driver too. There is no sudden end to the pass, the roads just gradually calm down until you’re in a beautifully framed valley passing through cuckoo clock villages. The Architecture was properly Austrian now, and, if anything, the roads had become even more drivable. I question Top Gears wisdom in crowning the Stelvio Pass as Europes Finest Driving Road. There is far too much danger, too much traffic, and far too low an average speed to hold that rank, in my opinion. To me, fast driving is about flowing from apex to apex, judging cambers and surprise road features to perfection. The topography of Stelvio just doesn’t accommodate this, it’s just accelerate, brake, corner, accelerate, brake, corner ad infinitum. A lot of fun, and I enjoyed it immensely. But you wouldn’t design a grand prix circuit that way. [singlepic id=3175 w=720 float=] The roads which flow through this part of Austria, however, are amazing. Creamy smooth tarmac, wide, meandering turns and some genuinely astonishing scenery. This was my new favourite driving road; in the world. And without getting too dewy eyed about things, I was absolutely stoked about driving it in the company of my girlfriend, who, it seemed, was enjoying it as much as me. All too soon we passed by the bright lights of Innsbruck and into Germany. We were in such a euphoric mood after all this enjoyment that we probably gave the scenery more credit than it was realistically due, Innsbruck looked delightful at night, and the hills which welcomed us into Southern Germany seemed to cup us in a warm, safe embrace. By this point we were counting down to stopping for the night, but, such was our enjoyment, we kept extending our drive and passed countless rest opportunities, until finally giving in at a service area not far from Munich. And we dined richly at Burger King, a guilty pleasure but oh so welcome. Sleep came extremely easily that night. [singlepic id=3186 w=720 float=] Roadwork also goes by the handle of Rust-MyEnemy, but his driving license says Chris Haining. He writes far too many words, often about subjects that can only possibly be of interest to him. He has a dusty cramped little blog of his own but we at Hooniverse occasionally let him post here. If he behaves.  

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