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The Big Holiday
Wife Number One and I could never afford holidays after a rather strange belated honeymoon sharing a small caravan in Cornwall with another couple, and a slightly nervous tour around Suffolk and Norfolk, while we still lived in London. Mind you, we moved to Cornwall - into the cottage in whose garden the ’honeymoon’ caravan was not so much parked as bogged down (having been there for countless years and been covered all over with roofing felt) - so city folks might think we were permanently on holiday.
Wife Number Two and I got into the groove of visiting her homeland, Scotland, for all our holidays. We were able to do family visits in Dumfries and Dundee (which provided us with free stopovers), dump the kids in Dundee if we wished (they were at that age when they found mountains - and most other things we liked, come to think of it - really boring, so this wasn’t as callous as it sounds) and then vanish with our tent (and later our Ford Transit Dormobile) into the Highlands.
When the kids got bored enough with everything we did to stop coming with us altogether, we began going farther afield, and for longer. We fell in love with the empty wilderness of Sutherland - that magical patchwork of heather and bare rock, lochs, lochans (wee lochs), rivers and burns (wee rivers) that begins once you get past Ullapool (which for most tourists is the last place God made and therefore not to be passed at all). We stayed loyal to Sutherland, and particularly to Angus Mackenzie’s wonderful beachside camping site at Scourie (which very nearly is the last place God made - there’s only Kinlochbervie before you fall off Cape Wrath into the North Atlantic) for several summers.
At least, the calendar told us they were summers. Each year they seemed to get windier and wetter, which - while it did keep the fearsome Highland midge at bay - made our holidays increasingly depressing. After our final three-week stay in Cathy MacLeod’s old caravan (which we’d started renting for less than the site fees the year after our frame tent, its improvised secondary guys lashed to the roof-rack of our old Ford Granada, had been almost wrecked in the wee small hours by yet another Atlantic gale) we finally - and rather guiltily - gave up on God’s Own Country, for holidays, anyway.
How about ’Abroad’?
We’d never really thought seriously about ’Abroad’ - partly because we were permanently penniless, what with me paying maintenance for my two kids and Wife Number Two not getting any for her one, partly because the kind of packages that make travel abroad easy didn’t appeal to us much, and partly because I was terrified by the mere idea of flying. (I was so terrified that when I hit some milestone or other - 45, I think - and we were a little less impoverished, and Wife Number Two had the well-intentioned but misguided idea of buying me a return ticket from East Midlands Airport to Heathrow, I’m told I literally turned ashen grey and broke out into a cold sweat as I slipped it out of the envelope. Bizarrely, when my main client asked me at short notice to fly to Shetland late in 1995 and I finally bit the bullet, I seemed to be less scared than half the other people on the plane. I’ve since flown to Belfast a couple of times, Tenerife twice and Malaga once, and I really enjoy the experience. Silly man.)
Anyway, my stepson and his wife had been abroad a couple of times - once to Switzerland and once to Kenya - and we decided, in January 1990, that we had to go somewhere where we would find some sunshine. Loving mountains as we did, and aiming to benefit from their experience, we chose the Swiss Alps. (We were lucky that time. Subsequent alpine jaunts have shown us that summer weather there can be almost as unpredictable as in the Highlands, if less cold.)
The decision made, we put our coats on, walked into Derby, entered the first travel agent we found (Lunn Poly, I think), sat down and booked a very ordinary two-week hotel-based holiday in Interlaken. That had been one of Steve and Sue’s two centres, the one they preferred, and their photographs looked wonderful. Like them, we booked a Kuoni package.
Unlike them, we didn’t choose to fly - because, I insisted, we would need the car (quite true, but a far lower priority for me than postponing yet again my maiden flight). So our Kuoni package consisted of a return crossing by P&O European Ferries between Felixstowe and Zeebrügge in Belgium, and a fortnight in a chalet hotel in Interlaken.
We filled in the forms and obtained our first passports.
Then it began...
...and, like Topsy, it growed! Once we had made the initial commitment and bought a Europe road atlas and the Fodor Guide to Switzerland, the holiday seemed to take on a sort of organic life of its own. We could have driven to Switzerland through Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, avoiding expensive toll motorways (my friends Alan and Lynn, who have an eye for a bargain, always do), but instead we opted to go through France.
The Alsace component
Of course, we could hardly visit France without letting mon petit frère Français, Philippe, know. He had lodged with me for a year just after Wife Number One and I had separated, probably saving my sanity and giving me a lifelong love of everything edible and French.
He’d been living and teaching English on the paradise island of La Réunion, which basks in the tropical sun of the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mauritius, for some years. The delights of island life had been too much for his marriage, and his wife had brought his two sons back to Metropolitan France (France is a far bigger country than many of us realise - Réunion is just another département, which just happens to be detached from the rest of the nation by a few thousand miles of the Mediterranean, Africa and the Indian Ocean).
At the age of 35, he had suffered two detached retinas and needed laser surgery, which was only available back home. The remarkable flexibility of the French education system (French teachers are Government rather than local government employees) had allowed him to obtain a temporary transfer to Colmar, in Alsace, so that he could be near his sons while he had and recovered from the surgery. This, I’m delighted to record, was 100% successful, allowing him to continue his reign of terror as a middle-aged, middle-class motorcyclist - he is now Monsieur le Président of the Harley-Davidson Owners’ Club, Auvergne Chapter (he was born among the volcanoes of the Auvergne and now lives there, teaching English in Volvic, where the mineral water comes from).
Yes, of course we must visit him in the beautiful city of Colmar - but there was one minor complication. The lease on his flat terminated at the end of July, and he would be staying in nearby Munster with his sons and his estranged wife. Pas de problèmes, though (I could almost feel the classic Gallic shrug down the telephone). His wife would be delighted to welcome us into her home. He suggested five nights - enough time to get the feel of Alsace (and its famous wines).
So we added the Fodor Guide to France to our growing travel library and, after much poring over the Europe road atlas, came up with a modified itinerary that would take us over the Vosges mountains to Munster (as will become clear, I can never bring myself to drive anywhere near mountains without taking the opportunity to drive over them).
The Paris bit
Again, if we were going to France, it would be barmy not to go to Paris. On the other hand, as a first-time driver on the wrong side of the road, I didn’t fancy Paris traffic at all. So I booked us a room in the Hôtel Ibis at Senlis, about 30 miles north of the capital (I think this must have been done through the travel agent - I certainly don’t remember going through what would then have been the trauma of booking it in French by ’phone). Three nights would allow us two full days in Paris. Then we would go on to Alsace, and from there to Switzerland.
Fodor’s Guide to Paris made three.
The beautiful South
Our Michelin road atlas of Europe which, at a scale of 1:1,000,000, made the sort of distances I was planning to cover look quite modest. So, when Jeff, who was to become my mentor in the delightful business of tasting, buying, importing, bottling and drinking French wine, said, with a typically dismissive gesture, ’Provence is no distance at all from Interlaken’, I believed him and added his favourite bit of France to the itinerary.
When I plotted the route, I did what I always did in Scotland - followed the most exciting looking mountain roads.
I measured the mileages meticulously and decided that Briançon, in the French Alps between Grenoble and Turin, looked about right for an overnight stop. I found a recommended hotel in my by-now well-thumbed Fodor guide to France and carefully word-processed a letter with the aid of my French dictionary and my A-level French (failed, 1961). In a few days, a letter came back confirming the booking. I was beginning to feel like a real veteran - and we hadn’t even crossed the Channel yet.
Then my eye was caught by the big blue bit only about five inches below Briançon on the atlas page. The Med - that close? We must go there. Nice? Cannes? No - too obvious and a bit too far, even at a scale of 1:1,000,000. The Camargue - black bulls, wild white horses, flamingos and echoes of Alistair McLean. Perfect.
Back to Fodor to find the Hôtel Mas de la Chapelle just outside Arles. Arles! Van Gogh and all that. The hotel (and particularly its restaurant) had a frighteningly good write-up, and I think I was half hoping they wouldn’t have a room when I wrote my second letter. But back came the confirmation, with a glossy brochure showing a typical Provençal mas - a manor house, if you like - with its swimming pool glittering blue in glorious southern sunshine. Two nights there and then north a little to visit Jeff and Anne. After 20 years of hunting and fantasising, they had finally chosen and bought their dream house - not the derelict traditional one of their dreams, with 20 years of DiY ahead, but an almost-new bungalow.
From that point, I felt brave enough to leave things open: depending on how long we stayed with Jeff and Anne, we would have three or four days to get back to Zeebrügge for our ferry reservation...
The real thing
After all the planning there was a long, tense wait before the time arrived when we were actually going to do it.
I had my very first brand-new car at that time, thanks to Derbyshire County Council’s low-interest long-term loan scheme for those of its employees who drive round the Peak District all day and call it work (my excuse was to stop off in a school now and again and help the teachers with their classroom computers). Not only that: I had my dream car - an aggressively red Peugeot 205 GTI - the 1.9 litre top-of-the-range one with leather trim, an obscene power-surplus and the handling (and ride-comfort) of a real racer. At that time, this was considered the very best of the hot hatchbacks.
One thing it didn’t have was a useful boot, so the holiday-of-a-lifetime started with luggage lashed to roof-bars and piled on the back seat. It ended with the back seats down and goodies piled to the roof. The other thing it didn’t have was much of a ventilation system, but that didn’t bother us for a while.
Now that I’m a casual commuter on the Dover-Calais ferries (one every 45 minutes) and Eurotunnel (one every half-hour), accustomed to missing crossings or getting on earlier ones, it seems amazing that P&O’s Felixstowe-Zeebrügge route only has two sailings a day in each direction, at around 11am and 11pm. But it does - or at least it did then. Knowing this, we allowed an enormous amount of time to get from Derby to Felixstowe and ended up eating sticky buns on the promenade of this rather quaint Victorian resort rather than spending hours in the port car park. The ferry was tiny compared with the superferries that ply the short Channel routes, but we as new Continental travellers found plenty to explore on board. The weather was hot and sunny, so we spent much of the crossing on deck. The 4½-hour ’voyage’ really made us feel as if we were going somewhere remote and exotic - rather than Belgium. (On the way home, we found it very tedious and swore never to use a long crossing again.)
Driving on the wrong side of the road
I am actually a pretty good driver, though I say it myself, but I have to admit that I was terrified at the prospect of driving on the right. My mate Ian, who’s the odd decade or so younger than me, was having his first continental motoring holiday - only in Brittany, though - at about the same time. He’s actually an Advanced Driver, and he was just as anxious. ’It’s a piece of cake,’ our mega-experienced friend Jeff had insisted. ’It’s actually easier than driving here, because you can see how close you are to the kerb.’
This had done nothing whatever for my confidence. The map had shown me that as soon as you get off the ferry in Zeebrügge you have a roundabout to negotiate. A roundabout, for God’s sake! The foreigners go round roundabouts the wrong way. And on some of them the traffic going round the roundabout has to give way to the traffic coming onto it. Gulp!
It got worse. I managed to get the GTI off the ship without mishap, but it turned out that the dreaded roundabout had road-works on it. Dry-mouthed, white-knuckled, talking too fast and too loud, I followed the car in front up to the roundabout, onto the roundabout, round the roundabout - and off the roundabout. Done it! No bumps. No dents. No angrily shaken foreign fists. No problem. That was the trick, of course: follow the car in front. As long as there is plenty of traffic about, driving on the wrong side of the road is dead easy. Mostly.
It got even easier, because we were soon on a dual carriageway. Then, past Bruges, we were on a motorway. There aren’t too many opportunities to get onto the wrong side of roads with concrete crash barriers down the middle.
Later, there were a few serious lessons to be learned. For instance, one of the most dangerous things for a British driver to do in Europe is to come out of a petrol station on the left-hand side of a single carriageway when there’s no traffic about. Years of deeply-embedded habit take over and you automatically stay on the left - until some deranged foreigner comes screaming towards you on a collision course. Then you have to wrench the wheel violently to the right and pray that there isn’t another equally deranged foreigner screaming towards you from behind.
Then there’s a real corker on the way into Beaune (much more about this beautiful little Burgundian city anon...). Beaune has a ring road. It’s one-way and about four lanes wide. Coming from the autoroute, you join it from the right at a traffic light. I always cross immediately to the left-hand lane and take the first left into town. Note: I cross to the left-hand lane. I’m driving on the ’proper’ side of the road again. Then I turn left into a street that isn’t one-way - and of course all those years of deeply-embedded habit take over and I stay on the left. Over the years, both Wife Number Two and I drove that route many times, and it became the duty of the non-driving partner always to warn the driver just before we got to that lethal junction.
Then there’s turning left on dual carriageways. It took several years of visiting Europe before I stopped looking over my shoulder instead of ahead when crossing the opposite carriageway.
Despite these little traps, Jeff was right. Once you’ve done a few thousand miles over there, it really is a piece of cake. I now seem to have a switch in my brain that trips automatically as I drive off the ferry or the shuttle, and there are only very occasional lapses - none of which, fortunately, has yet resulted in even a minor dent.
Our first French meal
As first-time visitors to the foodie’s Mecca, we should have been eager to drop off the autoroute into some typical French provincial town and find a typical French provincial restaurant where we could linger over a typical French provincial dinner. In fact, we were totally knackered by our early start, and the succession of new experiences which had filled our day had been more than enough for me.
For example, I had actually managed to fill up with petrol at a motorway service station all by myself. Wow! Thanks to self-service pumps and credit cards, this had actually proved to be an identical experience to its UK counterpart - apart from the language. Since I only had to say ’’Bonjour. Numéro trois, s’il vous plaît,’ and ’Merci. Au revoir,’ this aspect had not been a major problem - except in anticipation.
More exotically, we had watched to a rather bizarre sequence of events through the windscreen while parked in the picnic area of a service station. A minibus had pulled up ahead of us and a number of young people had got out. They were standing around drinking from cans and bottles when one of them suddenly bent over and vomited a few yards in front of us. These foreigners - really! Seconds later, a police car tore past us and braked violently to a standstill. Three officers - one a woman - leaped out and proceeded to search the youngsters at gunpoint. We had noticed one or two holstered automatics on police since leaving the ferry, but this was high drama. In fact, only a few moments later the guns were holstered and the police departed, and in dozens of subsequent visits to France, Switzerland and Italy I have never seen another pistol out of its holster. The Italian Carabinieri sub-machine-guns are a bit scary, but these days you see British coppers in flak jackets carrying Heckler and Koch machine guns all over the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone.
So, when hunger dictated a stop, we just went into a motorway service-area restaurant. I had Toulouse sausages and chips. Wife Number Two had some sort of chicken casserole. It was unexciting, but far better than anything either of us had ever eaten in a British service area - at least an indication that we were in a country where food is taken rather more seriously than it is at home.
Senlis was a dot on the road atlas just off the A1 autoroute a couple of inches above Paris. It was also an entry in the Ibis hotel list, which thoughtfully provided little maps to help you find each hotel. The Ibis was so close to the motorway exit that I hardly had time to worry about driving on the wrong side of a single carriageway before I was safely in the hotel car-park.
In those days Ibis and Campanile were about the cheapest hotels whose rooms had en-suite facilities. Anything cheaper, such as Formule-1, meant you had to share the shower. I was impressed with the light, airy feel of the place, the cleanliness and the informality.
The following morning I was less impressed with my first real French breakfast. The coffee, on the hotplate for too long, was bitter but flavourless. The croissants were slightly soggy, and the baguettes had lost their crispness. I now know that most of the chain hotels have the same problem, so I never have breakfast in them now unless it’s unavoidable, trying instead to eat in a local bar or café - or, best of all, a salon de thé (tea room) attached to a boulangerie (bakery) or patisserie (sticky-bun shop). To be fair, though, I’ve had some excellent breakfasts in individual, family-run hotels.
Despite this disappointment, I was deeply offended by the grumpy old Brit who walked past us with a jar of Chivers’ marmalade in his hand, saying ’It’s amazing - the French invented marmalade but they can’t make a decent pot themselves!’ He should try getting apricot jam of any quality in the UK, I thought, unless it’s imported from France. Then he added as an afterthought: ’And you have to bring your own pillow, too.’ I had to go with him on this: the thin foam sausages that pass for bolsters in chain hotels are a bit challenging.
We were in Senlis because it was near Paris, so straight after breakfast we drove to nearby Chantilly, home of lace, flavoured whipped cream and, we discovered, lots of very attractive tableware. On this occasion, though, our target was the railway station, where we got a suburban train to the Gare du Nord. Buying tickets was my first real linguistic challenge, and I must admit that I bottled out. Wife Number Two, whose French was virtually non-existent, eventually barged past me to the ticket window and bought the tickets.
The language problem
I’m basically an insecure kind of guy, and I’d got it into my head that I ought to be able to speak French fluently before assaulting any native’s ears with my halting attempts at communication. I’d already discovered that, even if I managed to make myself understood, the reply was likely to come back in machine-gun-fast colloquial French which I wouldn’t understand. It took me a while to realise that, provided you make the effort to speak the language, however badly (rather than shouting in English), most French people would reply slowly and clearly - or even, if you’re very lucky, in English. It still amazes me when our dearest French friends switch from the simple, precisely-pronounced French they use to us into the staccato, slangy, Norman-accented fusilade which is their normal mode of communication en famille.
This is not a guide book. Paris benefits from hundreds of those, all written by people who know vastly more about this marvellous city than I do. My abiding memories? Sore feet - this was a clear, hot August day, and we walked...and walked...and walked - and dehydration, partly due to the heat and exertion, and partly to the salty salade de charcuterie washed down with strong Alsace beer on which I foolishly lunched.
It amazes me how many of my acquaintances find beer refreshing: a high-alcohol beer takes more water out of your body than it puts in. I now drink large quantities of slighhtly fizzy mineral water (two of my favourites are Badoit and San Pellegrino) at lunchtime when sightseeing or driving long distances. That afternoon I seemed to go from one boissons fraîches (cool drinks) sign to the next, paying too little attention to everything in between as I tried to rehydrate myself.
This is not quite fair. Notre Dame was beautiful - and the pissoir outside made its own impression: as I stood unloading some of the bodily fluid liberated by my lunch, I was clearly visible from the chest up to the elegant Parisiennes (note the feminine gender) who walked by and they knew what I was doing; however, being Parisiennes, they weren’t remotely interested. The ride up the Eiffel Tower and the views from the top were unforgettable. The glass pyramids at the Louvre are impressive, and - once you understand that the museum itself is an architectural hotch-potch rather than something to be revered and protected against incursions of modernism - they are not at all offensive. It is an art gallery, after all. The Louvre itself - well, I felt that, unless you were a devoted student of French art (and history), or there was an exhibition of special merit, it was enough to pay homage to the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa and then enjoy a drink in the air-conditioned bliss of the concourse below the main pyramid. (Again, not quite fair. There is a lot of other excellent art in this huge museum, but it needs several short visits rather than one long trudge to do it justice. One day I intend to rent a flat in Paris for a couple of weeks so that I can payit, the Musée d’Orsay and the Pompidou Centre that kind of respect.)
The real abiding memory of those first two days in Paris (we went back the following day for more of the same) was a long, slow dinner on a restaurant terrace on the Left Bank of the Seine, just across from Notre Dame. As the sun set down the river, somewhere over Normandy, the floodlights came on round the great cathedral to create a vista so spellbinding to newcomers that I’m amazed I can even remember what we ate. The meal is, however, forever etched on my memory. We later realised that if we ate different things we could taste twice as many dishes, but on this occasion, exhausted by our first day in Paris, we both had exactly the same meal. My bodily equilibrium was finally restored by the salade fraîcheur - a cool mixture that included fresh grapefruit segments and a light, creamy dressing. That set me up to enjoy magret de canard - a whole duck-breast cooked pink and sliced onto my plate on a dark, rich, fragrant, sauce (no, I can’t remember what the sauce was). As on a number of subsequent occasions, I had to relieve Wife Number Two of some of the gorier middle slices of duck - an obligation I always fulfilled with characteristic generosity; she shares the British view that limits the eating of rare meat to beef, whereas the French treat lamb and duck the same way. The meal finished with tarte tâtin - the simplest, most rustic and possibly most delicious of the many French apple tarts (there’ll be a recipe in The Online Cookbook when I get round to it) - and good coffee.
This, of course, was our first real French meal. The bangers and chips on the motorway don’t count. Afterwards we strolled through the romantic Paris darkness until we were too tired to go on, and finally surrendered, letting the Métro whisk us quietly (it has rubber tyres, unlike the London Underground) back to the Gare du Nord. Late in the evening, the terminus was as grubby and squalid as Kings Cross or Paddington, and we were very glad to get back to Chantilly and the car.
We had a second day in Paris, doing more sights, but by tea-time we were so exhausted that we went back to Senlis, had a shower at the Ibis, and then went to look at the town. It seemed classically provincial-French to us after the more cosmopolitan joys of the capital. We looked round the ancient cathedral and found a little Moroccan or Algerian shop (the French equivalent of the British corner shop run by Indians or Pakistanis) where we bought a carton of marinated olives from one of a dozen different barrels. Truly exotic, that. Fools that we were, I think we then went back to eat at the Ibis - slightly Frenchified steak and chips, as I recall (they called it Bavette aux échalottes and it appears on every Ibis and Campanile menu I’ve ever seen). That way we could at least have a big aperitif and a whole bottle of wine.
On a subsequent stopover in Senlis we discovered an extraordinary restaurant staffed entirely by young men of several races who had two things in common: they were all elegantly dressed in shorts and they were all unashamedly gay. I ordered cuisses de grenouille (frogs’ legs) - because sooner or later you have to try them, don’t you? When the legs arrived still joined at the hip, preserving that bow-legged charm so characteristic of frogs, Wife Number Two almost banished me to another table. The garlic butter was good, but the legs were less than exciting. I’ve never bothered with this, which - along with snails - is every Englishman’s idea of a typical French meal, since. (I had actually had some a few years previously in the Derby Playhouse restaurant - they had been bigger and plumper, and came as separate legs, and could easily have been amputated from undernourished chickens). I do eat snails quite often, though - partly for the sheer cussedness of enjoying something most Brits run a mile from and partly - again - because of the delicious garlic-and-parsley butter that goes with them.
From Senlis, we took the N330 to Meaux (which has given its name to the very finest Brie - fortunately available in superb condition from the St James’s Delicatessen in Derby, a mere ten minutes’ walk from home, in those days, though sadly no longer, and therefore something I was rarely without) and then picked up the A4 autoroute to Reims.
Reims is the home of one of France’s more famous Gothic cathedrals, and was therefore a compulsory stop. Huge and intimidating from the motorway, the city proved amazingly easy to deal with, even for this novice euro-driver. The A4 becomes part of the Reims périphérique (ring road), which has numerous exits to different parts of the city. I simply took the one marked Cathédrale, followed the signs and soon found myself on a wide boulevard with the familiar shape of the cathedral clearly visible at the top and vast amounts of meter parking on both sides. There were plenty of vacant spaces.
The cathedral is awesome. My A-level art course included the history of architecture, from which I had retained some understanding and a deep love of Gothic churches. For me, the most beautiful view of this mighty church is from the east - the back, if you like - with a complex web of flying buttresses round the apse. To my delight we found a café terrace where we could sit and drink excellent coffee while soaking up this view.
Reims is, of course, the capital of Champagne and the home of Veuve Clicquot, one of my favourite bubblies, named after the clever widow who turned the venerable Dom Pérignon’s inspired invention - or was it a discovery? - into a civilised (indeed, perhaps the most civilised) drink by working out a way to get the yeast which puts the fizz in the bottle out of the bottle without losing the fizz itself. Countless Frenchmen have developed repetitive stress injury performing the monotonous but highly-skilled routine of remuage - twisting and tilting the bottles to work the sediment gradually into the necks of the bottles - up to 50,000 bottles a day - ready for the other half of The Widow’s technique, dégorgement, in which the cap is flipped off the frozen neck of the bottle so that the sediment blows out, leaving crystal-clear sparkling wine behind.
Reims is full of Champagne houses and shops, and opportunities to visit the many miles of cellars beneath its streets. Another year, we stayed overnight in Reims and discovered that it also has a bewildering choice of superb-looking restaurants. We found one excellent one, but at the cost of having to reject many others that looked just as good. It was here that we first realised that you could have a glass of bubbly - une coupe de Champagne - as an aperitif, rather than having to buy a whole bottle of this wonderful but expensive wine.
I had no idea then that the country around Reims is full of small independent Champagne producers who sell their wines direct to the public at quite silly prices. More on this in How to drink good Champagne on a tight budget...
The long road to Alsace
This time it was Wife Number Two’s turn to suffer from the heat. The A4 from Reims to Metz seemed to pass through endless sun-baked fields of wheat and maize. Even with the 205 howling along at 100 mph with the sunroof and windows open and two silly little auxiliary fans plugged into the cigar-lighter - a deafening and horrendously uncomfortable way to travel - it was hot. Very hot. It was probably during that journey that we first started talking about air-conditioning, and it was certainly during that holiday that Wife Number Two made her announcement that she would never come to France again in a car without air-conditioning. (She never did, and I have never had another car without this expensive but essential feature. Nor should you if you intend to take summer motoring holidays abroad.)
My first serious navigational error was in coming off the A33 and driving through the centre of Nancy. I remember sitting in traffic jams alongside huge lorries radiating vast amounts of additional heat (as if the weather wasn’t doing fine without their assistance) and belching diesel fumes, listening to Wife Number Two’s groans. Eventually, we were climbing into the green-forested Vosges mountains, and at last we found a large rest-area shaded by trees and cooled by an evening breeze. We just stood and basked in the freshness, quaffing vast amounts of cool water from the cold-box. Even so, by the time we had negotiated the Col de la Schlucht - the first really Germanic name we encountered on our way into this strange hybrid area which has changed its nationality many times over the centuries - Wife Number Two was feeling unwell again.
We dropped into the little town of Munster and followed Phillippe’s sketch-map to his wife’s almost Swiss-looking house, to be greeted by a whistle from the man himself leaning out of an upstairs window. We were introduced to Phillippe’s wife and received the first of many dutiful kisses on both cheeks from his sons, Xavier (the sportsman) and Pierre-Eméric (the rascal). I will never forget the delight of collapsing into a plastic garden chair in the shade of the garden and being handed an ice-cold bottle of Fischer beer (from Alsace, not Germany), dripping with dew from the humidity, and the first long pull at what is a very classy lager indeed. As a former home-brewer of moderate distinction (I actually brewed from grain malt rather than extract when I lived in Cornwall and won prizes at local agricultural shows), I could recognise the clean bitterness and subtle aroma of fine Rhineland hops and the full body and rounded flavour that came from top-quality malt. And I managed all that while laying the dust of a long, hot drive which had brought us most of the way across France.
Later, when Wife Number Two had had a nap and rehydrated, we ate a Raclette under the stars - creamy cheese melted on little Teflon-coated aluminium shovels under an electric grill and poured onto floury potatoes boiled in their jackets, while Strasbourg sausages sizzled on the hotplate above and charcuterie - slices of dry, salty saucisson and jambon cru - sat among the gherkins on a large platter.
Our time in Alsace was memorable. Partly because Phillippe had cheerfully invited us to stay with him in his estranged wife’s house, which got a little uncomfortable towards the end of the week in spite of her typical French courtesy. But mostly because Alsace is a quite extraordinary place. We visited the essential tourist sites and had two close encounters with Alsatian food.
The places you mustn’t miss are the cities of Strasbourg and Colmar, the town of Riquewihr and the villages of Obernai, Turckheim and - above all - Eguisheim. This last really is like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, full of tiny half-timbered houses crammed together in impossibly narrow streets. One, on the apex of a hairpin junction, has such an impossibly tall, narrow roof and has become so twisted, like an old man, as its timbers have warped, that we named it the ’Higgledy-Piggledy House’.
The food you ought to try and then very probably avoid for the rest of your life is choucroute - the left bank of the Rhine’s version of the right bank’s sauerkraut, which I remember enjoying at Frau Maurer’s restaurant in Soho with my Dad as a young man. This delicacy is fermented white cabbage, salty and acidic, and is served in huge steaming mounds studded with Strasbourg sausages (a form of frankfurter, though naturally superior since it’s French) and slabs of smoked ham. Phillippe and I finally got round to our choucroute garnie when he took us to see Strasbourg on a fiercely hot Sunday (another thing to avoid in Alsace is August). We went to a restaurant where the terrace hangs out over one of that beautiful city’s many canals, and like a pair of idiots we downed great steins of strong Alsace beer and ploughed our way through one of the aforementioned steaming mounds (the lesson of our first day in Paris had clearly not been learned). Wife Number Two had the good sense to order a delicate fricassée of wild mushrooms, which she thoroughly enjoyed. In a perverse kind of way, I enjoyed the choucroute but I can remember on our second visit to Alsace trying to find a restaurant table as far away as possible from anyone eating the stuff, because the mere smell was enough to destroy my appetite.
Another severe attack of dehydration set in for me, and I remember dozing fitfully and nauseously in Phillippe’s noisy Volkswagen Polo as we ambled south down the autoroute, stopping to visit the vast Rhine locks and then turning left to cross the bridge into Germany, only for Phillippe to yell suddenly ’Sheet! I ’aven’t got my passport!’ and execute a screaming U-turn around the deserted German customs post.
The other never-to-be-repeated meal was in a ferme auberge (farm inn) high in the Vosges mountains. It was hot again, and the food was crazy. I remember something called tourte - a deep, hot, dry pie filled with a much tastier version of British sausage meat. For the rest - well, it was all too hot and too much. Gastronomically, Alsace is traditionally more German than French, though there is plenty of good French food to be had.
Another culinary delight was a huge kitchen shop on the outskirts of Turckheim. We bought a number of useful and attractive things there, including a large, very fine gauze chinois sieve which is brilliant for producing smooth sauces. This is well worth a visit.
It was in Alsace that we saw our first vineyards. Alsace wines are mostly white and dry, and are all amazingly strong (13% alcohol and above - 14.5% is not unusual). This is because the vines on the Rhine’s left bank are grown much further south than those on its right - the ones that produce the sweetish, fruity, lightweight hocks we had been drinking with great relish until quite recently. The Riesling grape that produces hocks in cooler climates here produces serious high-alcohol dry wines. But the grape most typical of Alsace is Gewürtztraminer, full of fruit and spice.
During our visit with Phillippe to Eguisheim we went to the cave de dégustation of one of the many Beyer houses (Emil Beyer, I think). We bought wines to drink, a bottle of Gewürtztraminer to put in a fondue savoyarde and a few bottles to take home, including a vendange tardive (late-picked) Gewürtztraminer with about 15% alcohol and a quite beautiful flavour. This was my first visit to a cave de dégustation - the real beginning of what is now one of my most absorbing pastimes and will, I hope, become on of yours after you’ve read this - click now if you can’t wait.
I’m sure Phillippe’s wife was relieved when we left after five nights under her roof. I know we were, because the tension was becoming palpable.
I drove the 205 down the autoroute to Mulhouse, and on the outskirts of Basel we left the European Community and, with minimal bureaucracy, entered Switzerland. I had bought my vignette (annual Swiss motorway permit) from the Embassy in London by mail-order, so after picking our way through Basel we were able to join the autobahn (as it was called in this German-speaking region of Switzerland) to Interlaken.
I could go on about this beautiful country with its grand scenery and weird politics for a whole book. Maybe I will one day, but I have said that this is not a travel site, and Switzerland really isn’t what it’s about because the food, while delicious and wholesome, lacks any real national character and Swiss wines, while clean and wholesome again, are unexciting. Let it suffice, then, to say that our Kuoni package was beyond reproach... that our hotel, the Chalet Swiss, was delightful... that my nervous ’Guten tag. Sprechen sie Englisch, bitte?’ to the proprietress when I finally found her on arrival was greeted with a contemptuous ’Of course!’... that the monster parade and fireworks for the National Day over which we tripped as soon as we left the hotel for the first time gave us a totally wonderful welcome... that the mighty Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger (when they emerged from the mist to catch the early morning sun the day after our arrival) were awesomely beautiful... that...
No. I must stay on task - except to say that we returned for holidays in Switzerland three times more before the poor old pound, which had bought 2.5 Swiss Francs on our first visit, fell to a miserable 1.75 and the place became seriously unaffordable.
Out of Switzerland (and how not to get there)
I learned to love driving mountain roads during many holidays in the Scottish Highlands, and when I planned our route from Interlaken to Provence I took advantage of every opportunity to drive Alpine roads.
Well, nearly every opportunity. For speed, I omitted the Grimsel pass, which climbs from Meiringen (home of the Reichenbach falls where Sherlock Holmes fought his final battle with the villain Moriarty) to the tail of the Rhône glacier, source of the river we were to follow all the way to the Mediterrannean, and drops in a dizzy series of hairpins into the valley of the Rhône itself. We had driven this during the holiday anyway.
So we drove via Gstaad, home of almost everyone famous (Elizabeth Taylor, Yehudi Menuhin, Peter Ustinov), to Martigny, and then over the Great St Bernard Pass (yes, that’s the chap - he of the big brown-and-white dogs with the brandy barrels on their collars: we visited them at his monastery on the way over) into Italy. This is A Big Pass, with a summit at almost 2500 metres above sea-level. That’s about twice the height of Ben Nevis, and this is a major trunk road!
At the summit, where we entered Italy, we saw our first representative of the Carabinieri - the paramilitary national police, equivalent to the French Gendarmerie - with the peak of his cap pulled down over his mirror sunglasses, his sub-machine-gun and his macho sneer at our shiny new passports.
On a subsequent holiday we met Giorgio and spent an evening listening to Carabinierijokes. How many Carabinieri does it take to change a light bulb? Eight - one to hold the bulb and seven to turn him round. Why do Carabinieri cars have ’Carabinieri’ painted on the doors? So that the Carabinieri know where to get in. Etc. It seems that most Carabinieri are poor boys from Calabria in the far south of Italy (the bit the loony Lombard League want to chop off) who join up to get a decent standard of living. They may not be very sophisticated, and they may get carried away with the uniform and the gun, but they should not be mocked.
Once this national hero had welcomed us to Italy with a dismissive wave of his immaculate leather glove (it was frosty at the summit, despite the fierce sun), we began the long descent to Aosta, where we intended to have an authentic Italian lunch. Unfortunately, on this summer Saturday afternoon, Aosta appeared to be closed. We didn’t see a single restaurant open, and in the end we dealt with lunch by buying a huge load of grapes, peaches, nectarines and melons from some roadside cowboys who would accept lire, francs, pounds - and probably dollars, yen and any other hard currency. We paid in left-over Swiss Francs - easier than hundreds of thousands of lire. We drove past the road to Courmayeur and the Mont Blanc Tunnel and then, through the most magnificent vistas, up the Little St Bernard Pass (a mere 2200 metres, slightly less than twice the height of Scotland’s finest). Partway up, we washed our fruit in a mountain stream and had lunch.
At the summit we found ourselves back in France for the first time since Alsace. From Bourg St-Maurice we climbed to that most exquisitely-named of French ski resorts, Val d’Isère (it actually only means Valley of the River Isère, but it always sounds and looks wonderful on Ski Sunday). In the middle of August, with a major international motor show taking place, it was dirty, noisy, smelly, grey and dusty. From this benighted village, one of the highest ski resorts in Europe and therefore mercifully covered in snow for much of the year, we climbed to the Col de l’Iseran, at 2770 metres the high-point of our journey. No sooner were we down off this pass than we were climbing over the 2100-metre Col du Mont Cenis.
Halfway down the pass, we found ourselves in Italy for the second time in one day, being overtaken by what seemd an endless procession of Fiat Unos with Torino (Turin) number-plates and arms, legs and dogs hanging out of the windows. Susa, the town at the bottom of the pass, was having some kind of festival and the inhabitants of every mountain farm for miles around, it seemed, were racing to get there. We battled our way through Susa and crossed into France for the second time today over the relatively insignificant Col de Montgenèvre, a measly 1850 metres high.
A few miles further on we found ourselves at our destination, Briançon. We pulled up outside our hotel on the stroke of 8pm, almost exactly twelve hours after leaving Interlaken. I have to admit that my enthusiasm for driving mountain roads was somewhat diminished by the consequences of my route planning. It has never quite recovered.
Briançon to Arles
Our hotel turned out to be quite odd. I had booked by letter and had asked for a table to be reserved for dinner. We had got there just in time - they stopped serving dinner at 8:30pm. The place was old and strange, as were the couple who ran it. The room was full of dictatorial signs, including one which told us that it was ’définitivement interdit’ (absolutely forbidden) to connect electrical apparatuses of any kind to the hotel’s power supply. This made our travel kettle redundant, depriving us of our customary early morning cup of Earl Grey. In the morning we discovered that the hotel was in the middle of a building site. At 7:30am the cranes and pile-drivers began work on the foundations of a new hotel. All hope of further sleep - much needed after yesterday’s mammoth single-handed drive over the Alps - was shattered.
The long descent out of the Alps into Provence was memorable for the gradual unfolding of an alien sunbaked landscape characterised by red Roman-tiled roofs with very low pitches - clearly designed for a climate that doesn’t include snow. It had been hot between Paris and Metz, and in Alsace, and in Switzerland. But this was different - a fierce, dry, baking heat. It smelled different - southern and exotic. And later on we heard cicadas instead of crickets.
When we eventually found the Hôtel Mas de la Chapelle, just north of Arles among huge fields of sunflowers, I learned to spell( and then pronounce) my surname the French way.
’Mozz-den?’ the proprietor asked, puzzled, as he ran down his list of reservations. ’Non. Je regrette, monsieur...’
’Non,’ I replied. ’Emm. Ah. Airrr. Ess. Day.Er. Enn.’
’Ah! Marrrrzdenn!’ he exclaimed, pointing and sounding as if he was correcting my pronunciation. Not a good start, but the hotel was beautiful, and in the afternoon heat its pool was even more beautiful. We drank iced tea and orange juice, soaked up the fearsome southern sun and cooled off in the lukewarm water, feeling a little awkward as the only non-French guests and, we were sure, the only non-rich ones.
When the sun had dropped below the trees and the air began to feel relatively cool on our damp skins, I suggested a trip into Arles. What should have been an awesome experience turned out to be a grave mistake. The ancient Roman masonry had been soaking up the sun’s heat since dawn. Now it was giving it back with interest. This time I was the one to give in to dehydration, and even copious drinks of water and a cool shower back at the hotel didn’t give me a real appetite for dinner in the 16th century chapel which was therestaurant. A huge pitcher of iced water and a cold bottle of Cassis, (not blackcurrant cordial, but one of the local white wines), got me through, though I had to stick to the less challenging items on the menu.
Wife Number Two, meanwhile, had amazed me by opting for Carpaccio de saumon et cocquilles St-Jacques - an exotic and elegant construction of raw salmon cured only by marinating in lemon juice (like the Norwegian gravadlax) and raw scallops. Normally she could be reduced to instant nausea by a piece of fish whose texture merely hinted that it was undercooked. She also habitually dismissed smoked salmon as tasting ’like raw bacon’. Yet here she was, eating this dish of virtually raw fish and totally raw shellfish with relish. It’s funny what being abroad can do for you...
The following evening, after a more careful day of sightseeing that included a visit to the Camargue and a look at the Med, I joined her for the same starter. It was amazing, the raw scallops with a flavour that teetered dangerously between the sublime and the slightly corrupt.
I vividly remember sitting over this second magnificent dinner in the chapel as a cordless telephone was brought to the table. Trying to look as if this sort of thing happened to us all the time in posh restaurants, I took a call from Jeff and wrote down the directions to his and Anne’s new house in the little village of Caromb on a napkin. Then we went back to our meal. The whole experience, with Beethoven wafting softly round the ancient vaulting, after a day ofheat the like of which we had never experienced before, was truly exotic and totally sensational.
The following day we picked our way to Nîmes and then, via what was my first and almost my last mistake with France’s barely visible 15-watt traffic lights under the ancient walls of Avignon, to Caromb. Jeff’s and Anne’s new house was just that - a modern pink-washed bungalow with a red-clay tiled roof blending inconspicuously into the sunbaked landscape. But Caromb was the archetypal Provençal village, built on a little hill - a small island in an endless ocean of vineyards - with its mediaeval churchand belfry on the summit. This has since become a familiar view - and the subject of far too many photographs - because in summer you can sit on the terrace after dinner and watch the orange sun sink slowly right behind the village, changing the lighting from minute to minute and looking different every evening.
We were only there for a couple of days and - because the water and drains had not yet been connected, Jeff and Anne were sleeping in their caravan at the campsite in the nearby village of Aubignan while working on the house during the day - we stayed in a rather eccentric Logis de France hotel called after the old belfry across the alley - Le Beffroi.
But the high spot of this visit to the Vaucluse for me was my second experience of dégustation et vente - that wonderful facility offered by all the local wine-growers, who welcome you into the cool of their caves de dégustation and are happy to spend an hour with you, dispensing dangerously generous tastes of their many wines and discussing their respective qualitiesto the limits of your French, for the sake of selling you half a dozen modestly-priced bottles. (The first experience, you will recall, had been in Alsace three weeks before.)
The long road north
By now we were into the last few days of our month-long first European holiday. Surprisingly, I was beginning to look forward to being home - mainly because coping entirely in a foreign language is quite tiring. I still find this now, although my French is far morefluent than it was back in 1990.
From Caromb we drove north-west to pick up the A7, the famous Autoroute du Soleil that brings millions of French, Dutch, Belgians, Brits and Scandinavians to the sea every summer. It was a Monday morning, and the experience of driving in three lanes full of traffic, all racing north, was far from relaxing - these were the husbands and fathers who left their wives and children on the Riviera campsites while they went back to work in the north.
More-or-less by chance we had picked out Chartres as our penultimate destination, partly because of its own charm and partly because it would allow us one more day in Paris. We dropped off the A7 and headed for St-Etienne, Clermont-Ferrand (Phillippe’shome-town), Orléans and, after a long day’s drive, Chartres.Three nights in the Ibis hotel gave us a day for local sightseeing and our trip to Paris, which was made memorable by our abject failure to find a decent dinner. We had menu-hopped our way round St-Germain, finding dozens of seductive restaurants - none of which we could find again - and were eventually coaxed into an establishment where we foolishly ordered a medium-priced menu that included a kir - the univeral aperitif of white wine and crème de cassis - and, basically, steak and chips. Too late, we realised that the four old gentlemen at the next table were tucking into a magnificent couscous royale - we had come to a Moroccan restaurant and ordered a boring international meal. A hard lesson, but one never to be forgotten.
Chartres itself is a charming town with a wonderful cathedral, well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
On the way down, we had bypassed Bruges. Now it was time to do the place justice. We had booked into the Ibis hotel (the Belgian version was a lot more expensive than the French, but also more of a hotel than a motel - quite smart really), which was in the very centre of this fine old city but conveniently built above a multi-storeycar-park.
Apart from the sheer glory of the mediaeval buildings, a few memories stand out.
First, a canal trip. The young guide who drove the boat and gave the commentary must have been a languages student, because he did a poll of the nationalities on board and then did everything in no less than seven. He sounded very fluent in all of them, and if his English was anything to go by this was a virtuoso performance.
Second, a cup of coffee. It looked like a cappucino, but the froth on top turned out to be vanilla-scented whipped cream, and in place of the usual sprinkling of drinking chocolate there was a generous topping of roughly-flaked dark Belgian chocolate.
Third, beer. I was persuaded to try Belgian beer instead of wine with one meal, and fell in love with Bruggse Trippel, an awesomely strong but crisp, clean brew.
Fourth, the feeling of sophistication I got at dinner on the last night, when we were casually mopping up sauce with our bread - something we always did at home but hadn’t felt confident about doing in public before our first long visit to France.
And, finally, sheer blind panic when we woke up on the last day to discover that yesterday had been the last day. Having planned this monster holiday down to the last detail, I had finally lost my grip. We should have been on the ferry yesterday morning. And our holiday insurance and green card had both expired twelve hours ago. I got on the phone to P&O European Ferries atZeebrügge straight away and was told that there should be space on today’s boat. Phew! Nowadays I would have said ’Not to worry -I’ll go back down to Calais ’ because you can always get on a ferry there.
I have never driven so cautiously. If I so much as bump a Belgian with no insurance, no breakdown cover...GULP!
But I didn’t. And there was space on the boat. And we did get back to Felixstowe safely.
And since then I’ve never looked back. Between April 1997 and December 1998 Pat and I crossed to France no less than thirteen times.
All of which is really only here as an introduction to the serious stuff about buying wine in France. So...
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.