Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Roadwork Vacation:- Trans Europe Express Part One.

The following has already been hosted at Hooniverse where I'm eternally grateful to Tim Odell for all his support. I thought it about time I gave it a permanent home here, as it concerns one of the greatest weeks of my driving career.

I may have been drunk when we came up with the idea. I admit it.

It was Hogmannay, 2007. Scottish New Year. I was in Edinburgh, having been invited by Izzy and Jade, two long term friends and lovers of fine cheeses. Izzy was in bed, leaving Jade and I in the living room of their waterfront apartment, amusing ourselves with cheese and wine. I don’t recall how it happened, but by sunrise we had both agreed to bugger off around Europe in a car. The WHOLE of Europe.

New year came and went, I returned to the daily grind of being a bloody car salesman and Jade went back to being a nurse. Our verbal contract to go on an epic road trip was cast in stone. If our circumstances changed, if we moved continents, started families, contracted terminal diseases, it didn’t matter. Nothing could prevent us from going on The Road Trip.

Fast forward to Thursday the 2nd of October, 2008. Two days before our “organised” departure date I dived head first into the task of trip preparation. I had one day at work remaining before departure, and one free day to prepare literally everything that could possibly be needed for a serious voyage. Using various credit cards, mine and otherwise, I had to achieve ferry tickets, insurances, documentation, car safety kit, supplies, notwithstanding the myriad items I missed or forgot.

Our transportation for this adventure was my 1998 Audi A4 1.8T Sport, Resplendent in Santorin Blue Pearl, and with a magnificently trimmed cabin in Tungsten Leather with just fifty-one thousand miles on the clock. I had bought the car for a thousand quid as it needed a new air-con compressor, and the airbag fault warning light was on. Altogether, an unproven car with electrical faults seemed ideal for a pan-European trip.

Being an optimistic kind of guy, pre-trip car preparation and servicing was brief. I peered in the engine compartment to look for anything loose, checked there were no suspicious looking puddles under the car, listened to see if there were any scary noises and checked the sump for the presence of oil. There was some.

With a spare bulb kit and a fire extinguisher in the boot and enough CDs to last the duration of the trip, by the end of Thursday we were ready to go. Although the route was undecided I had committed to ferry tickets from and back into the UK from mainland Europe, the car and its occupants were all legal and official for the journey that lay ahead, and the car would “probably be OK”.

My travelling partner Jade arrived at my place on the Essex Riviera near midnight on Friday the 3rd. She had just driven from Edinburgh in a borrowed Hyundai Getz, which ought really have put her off any further driving. Into the boot of the Audi she added her small tent, her small clothes, a camping stove without any gas and a small box containing various CDs and “Cassettes.” I had told her that the Audi contained that most nineties of combinations, the Cassette and 6-disc combo. Being a gallant, polite, after-you sort of chap, I said she could play DJ across Europe, so our playlist, and my ears, were almost entirely at her mercy.

So. To recap on our situation before imminent departure, we had a car, some tickets, our passports and a soundtrack, of sorts. I had bid a temporary and emotional farewell to Nicola, who at that time had been my Girlfriend for all of two months (and who must have been immensely trusting to let me disappear across Europe with another woman), and told my parents I was going “away for a bit.”

We had a smattering of European maps, half a tank of unleaded, and a strong urge to hit the road. And at half-past four on the morning of the 4th October, we did.

October 4th, 2008. Calais, France to Millau, France.

The 8:30AM ferry had been a hive of activity. Full to the bulwarks with greasy truckers and foreign-smelling tourists, the obvious highlight had been my grossly overpriced fried breakfast. I clogged my arteries with fried bread, bacon and sausages which had had the fuck fried out of them and something which purported to be tea. It was grim and bad for me and I absolutely lapped it up.

On landing in Calais we had to learn about European driving very quickly. The most disorganised place I had ever driven, the roads had no markings, right of way is at best indiscriminate, and to cap it all I had to contend with traffic merging from all sides. Learning to drive on the right involved re learning everything. The left hand door mirror, previously just an obstacle to walk round in the garage, was to become my closest friend.

We recalled that on the periphery of Calais there stood the Citie-Europe, a large out-of-town shopping mall we could use to buy nourishment for the journey ahead. At its core is a vast Carrefour hypermarket, stocked to the gills with divine comestibles. Despite this we still ended up with a motley collection of packet soups, instant pastas and various foods that magically transform when drenched with hot water. My expectations for the quality of grub on this adventure had started at a realistic low and were falling further.

Brimmed with dubious supplies we escaped Citie-Europe and made it onto Frances’ sprawling motorway network. Disappointingly briefly into the
journey our world was rocked by three painful realisations.
a) France is full of bloody toll-roads.
b) France is full of bloody speed cameras.
c) Somehow, what a Frenchman means with a gentle toot of his horn, is that he would like to remove your teeth with a mole grip and stub out Gitanes in your eyes. Nothing in motoring can prepare you for the venom of the French Car horn. I am absolutely sure that the horns fitted to French market Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots, also Fiats, Fords, Porsches and probably Monteverdi’s are ruder than those fitted on their UK market equivalents.

Our goal for France was to get to Millau, for reasons which will be revealed tomorrow. The journey through France was basically eventless, apart from getting hysterically confused in Orleans and shelling out copious Euros at Peages. The French scenery north of Clermont is, in truth, a little samey, and Jade took over driving duties so I could sleep through it.

This was, I believe, the first time Jade had spent any time behind the wheel of anything with much power. Having owned the car for only a two months prior, I had no idea how it would be on a three-thousand-plus miles adventure. Being the 1.8T, with the same engine as a TT but in 150bhp tune it is actually reasonably zingy, with the turbocharger providing a noticeable step in thrust beyond 80 in top. After the Hyundai she drove down from Edinburgh in, which needed several downchanges to cope with highway gradients, it seems she was enjoying herself behind the wheel. She has a more aggressive driving style than me. Not faster, just more aggressive. The thought of finding a replacement clutch for a ‘98 A4 in rural France, flickered in my mind momentarily.

At about 11pm, and about 10 miles short of Millau, we stopped. It had been raining, we were both knackered and had broken the back of France. We felt pretty smug, so we made harbour in a lay-by which just conveniently appeared. We abandoned plans to erect the tent, tonight we would sleep on Tungsten Leather. Tomorrow, we would see Mediterranean Europe, in daylight.

Sunday 5th October, 2008. Millau, France to Lake Como, Italy.

I woke to the sound of mild panic. Having eschewed the night-under-canvas option in favour of night-in-Audi, we awoke, crumpled, in the already untidy cabin of the car. It seems that two people in a car, wrapped up in sleeping bags, with extra blankets and nice thick jackets, can cause the insides of the windows to go all steamy.

The panic was inspired by the fact that there was a worryingly official looking Iveco van parked two bays away from our suspiciously steamed up A4. It could easily be of the “You have parked illegally overnight, you are now going to be strung up by les testicles by les Gendarmes” persuasion. It lingered, suspiciously.

The man who dwelled within the Big Scary Van got out of his cab, wandered around a bit, casting glances in the direction of our car. He spoke into a cell phone in mystifyingly rapid-fire French, looking pretty animated. Jade and I hunkered down in the car, whose interior had started to drip with condensation in the French morning heat. It was about 10 o’clock. Not the usual time to be in an Audi with steamed up windows, in a lay-by in the south of France. We needed to get up and be human beings again, but Angry Official Frenchman was too menacing to let us feel at ease.

With another disapproving look in our direction, he suddenly lurched back into his van and drove off in a clatter of diesel. Could have been innocuous, worrying over nothing. But we just don’t know. How big an offence (to the easily offended French) is staying overnight, illegally, in one of their roadside lay-bys?

Adjacent to where we had parked was a smallish building, new-looking, and housing basic washing amenities. When I say basic, I mean basic as in French.

The French try to spin themselves a reputation of being sophisticated. Great and creative lovers, they live on the sharpest point of the cutting edge in food and sophistication. Why, then, do they deem it acceptable to shit by hovering your anus twelve inches off the ground, crapping onto a tray? At the press of a button water cascades to float your nicely displayed turd into a hole, before it presumably rejoins some sort of conventional sewage system. I can only assume that the toilet we all know and love, with a seat and everything, has some major flaw that prevents the French from liking it too..

I washed my hands thoroughly.

One objective of the French portion of the trip had been, we had decided yesterday, to see the Millau Bridge. Once featured in Top Gear being crossed by a Ford GT, Lamborghini Gallardo and Ferrari 430. And now, with its crossing by a 1998 Audi A4, its life mission was now complete.

We drove to the bridge, paid the extremely reasonable 12 Euro toll, and drove over it. The views were good, but not as good as the very sensation of having just crossed such a monumental monument. It is a shame the proportions of the bridge are as they are, like an Iceberg, you can’t begin to appreciate the sheer scale of what stands beneath you. The whole structure ought to have had a glazed deck, or be made from a mesh which allows you views through the floor.

Photos taken, the afternoon journey took us through Montpellier and onto the cote d’Azure and Marseilles. We didn’t even get out of the car, our only contact being via the open windows. Today was the only day I regretted having not shelled out another £300 to get the air-con fixed.

We took the more scenic coastal route, saving money on tolls. By the time we reached St Tropez it was dark, but we were able to drink in the atmosphere of it’s many outdoor restaurants and bars, the subdued lighting, expensive suntans and flow of exotic automotive machinery. We stopped at a beach on the outskirts where we ate bread rolls, cheese and pate, and made a mental note that we really should get some gas for that stove. I took many atmospheric photos, noticing only too late that I had my trusty Nikon set up all wrong, and all the photos came out wonky and unintentional.

Back in the car, the coastal route became ever more twisty through Genoa and into Italy. By the time we got into San Remo the bendiness of the route was getting a bit silly and we decided to resort to bigger roads. This meant Autostradas, which meant a whole new adventure, and I insisted on doing the driving.

We set course via San Remo to Milan and beyond, a good couple of hundred miles, all of which were despatched with indecent pace. The Italians have an amazing knack of getting incredible speeds out of the most humdrum vehicles, I tried my best but there was just no way I could keep up as a Lancia Delta 1.5 pulled away in front of me, such was his do or die approach to cornering. Driving on these roads is akin to playing Wipeout on a Playstation; tight, winding tunnels, all with amazingly groovy animated warnings for the many sharp corners. My heart was boogying at high BPM, and I remember saying to Jade that I had never felt so alive. Granted, the Red Bull and several pro-plus tablets may have distorted my view.

No time to stop for rest in Milan so we pressed on, having finally found the appropriate road, to Lake Como. We figured that finding somewhere to stop overnight with magnificent lakeside views and tranquillity enough to get away with it should have been easy, but strangely no. We ended up at in a cliff top car park at the summit of the hillside town of Bellagio. It was 2:30 AM by the time we turned the ignition off, we slept where we stopped, my mind still playing back high-speed video clips from my autostrada initiation.

To be continued in Trans Europe Express; Part Two (Click Here).