Archive for May, 2002

Well, the time for another little trip has come around again. The insurance papers for the car arrived. The insurance papers for the car arrived again. Correct insurance papers arrived for the car. Thanks very much AA & Norwich Union, it only took 3 ½ months. My travel insurance company reluctantly agreed that perhaps they it was reasonable to expect scuba diving insurance to cover scuba gear, and so added it to my cover gratis. Very good of you Club Direct. The car was tuned up and gassed up and ready to go. All I needed to do was wait for my bank account to catch up. Like that was going to happen in a hurry, so roadways we headed.

Sarah had arrived from Perth to experience the joys of ten weeks of my driving in countries where rather than simply ignoring the road rules, I didn’t know them, and had only a very slight chance of meeting someone who was going to be able to explain them to me. I figured that giving her more than a day to ponder her decision wasn’t a good idea, so we headed off on Monday evening, and now you have a country by country review. Aren’t you lucky?

20 May

I had decided to take the Channel Tunnel to France for the simple reason that cars on ferries were no novelty, but cars on trains, hey, that was good enough to keep me amused for a while. As it turned out, the whole journey. Possibly even enough to decide to go back that way. But given that I bought a cheap (£20) day return ticket and didn’t, rather than a £150 single ticket, I may be avoiding them for a while. I wonder how good their data matching is.

Now that I have piqued your curiosity, I will have to explain a little about the train. If I haven’t, skip this bit. Basically, it is a really big train, with two levels, and you drive up a ramp, and then along the carriages until you get to the end. And then just sit in your car till the end of the trip, when you drive off. Sounds odd, and this photo explains it a little, but I will admit, not much. You had better look at it, there might not be too many more, you know me & photos.

Anyway, having successfully accomplished the my first navigation of the channel with car, our next task was the simple one of finding somewhere to stay for the night. More specifically somewhere to pitch the tent, on or near the beach, so I could watch the sun go down over the sea with a drink & a cigar. That sort of thing just can’t be done in London, & it sucks. It sucks bigtime. But it was ok, I had done some research. There were plenty of campgrounds & beaches south, so all we had to do was come out of the train & turn right & drive for a while.

Having given these instructions we headed off. And found a variety of small coastal villages. And eventually found a suitable campground. With the office closed. Odd, so we wandered around some more and found another. Again with a closed office, but someone inside. This time as we wandered around looked for the way in, the owner came out to see what these stupid foreigners wanted. When we said “a camp site please”, she launched into a small spiel about the time. I did my best look stupid but harmless look, and Sarah did her best apologies in French. It seems that the French she remembers best from school were apologies, I am not sure what that means about her efforts at school. But it was effective, and suitably chastised, we got ourselves a spot and headed beachward. Where objective 1 of the holiday was achieved. Things were looking good. Now we figured we should do some of the cultural & gastronomic stuff.

Heading into Bayeux, we had a squiz at their cathedral. As all European cathedrals are, it was big, old, had famous dead people in it and was generally impressive. And for extras it came with big cracks in the walls and scaffolding. Also in Bayeux were a curious number of embroidery shops. Not sure why though. And the museum with the longest & most circuitous route to get to its main (& only) exhibit. The tapestry was good sprint training though, if you wanted to keep up with the audioguide which you couldn’t pause or rewind.

Near Bayeux are the D-Day beaches, so we headed up to them & had a look at the Mullberry’s which actually made it across the channel. They are big concrete bathtubs, which were floated across the channel with the aim of pulling the plug to created a breakwater & with enough of them, a harbour. A number didn’t make it across and now make nice dive sites in the channel. One didn’t leave Portland harbour, and now makes a big concrete box in the middle, but a lot did, and still make a big harbour.

Needing to be fed, we headed to a nearby restaurant, where I was enticed by the lure of a regional speciality, tripe with vegetables in Calvados. I had never had tripe, and now I can see why. I am also a little more suspicious of the whole “local speciality” thing. It could easily be a ruse by unscrupulous restaurateurs to con gullible tourists & get rid of any old tripe. And it could even fool thoughtful and considering travellers such as myself.

Still, the next day was better. Here we were in the heart of a place called Calvados. I had once been told there was drink called Calvados, an apple brandy. And had even tried some, and it was judged to be not bad. I wondered if there could be a link. So we set out to determine if this was the case. This required Sarah’s first little lesson in the art of driving my car. This went fine. I managed to avoid throwing my toys out of the cot, and Sarah managed to avoid hitting anything.

But things were to improve, we found a place that made apple cider, pear cider, and even Calvados. I graciously allowed Sarah a small try of the pear cider, & I had a slightly larger try of the pear cider & a couple of different varieties of Calvados. We left much happier, with a couple of bottles of each. Sarahs driving had even improved with the practice.

And on a similar note, I must say that French supermarkets are great. Not only do they have a vast array of ludicrously priced alcohol, and cheeses of all variety (ordered by the tried & tested, smile, point “we”, “merci” approach), they have some great chocolate. I managed to buy one which had a safety warning. What the safety warning said, I have no idea, as it was in French, and my French is largely limited to menus, but I suspect that it may have something to do with the fact that eating 99% cacao chocolate is like being hit over the head with a chocolate brick.

After the warnings I had had, largely from my few English workmates, appeared to be false, I was beginning to like France. This place has promise. Now I hear that there is a town called Cognac…

And we found it. Wasn’t that clever of us. On the way we had a look at a couple of castles and some Chateux down some river valley or another and a few other things, but hey, that is not why you come to France now is it? Food & booze, people. Other than the principle of separation of powers of government, the only things I can think that the French have contributed to society. And they borrowed the idea of separation of powers. I did pay too much attention in those law lectures didn’t I?

Anyway, Cognac is a small town with eight or so major Cognac houses in the town itself. And then a pile of smaller producers in the surrounding areas. We started off the day by going & finding one of the smaller producers by the standard approach of driving around in circles until we found some signs. This was harder than it may seem, but paid off. Despite our lack of French & the distillery ladies lack of English, we communicated on a level that mere words cannot. BTW, for anyone touring this place, degustations means tastings. Good word to know.

Unfortunately we did break some social taboos in our attempts. We shocked the lady from the distillery by telling her that Sarah could not try anything cause she was driving (yes I did bring her for a reason), and she insisted it was ok, it would only be a little. So we tried Pineau, an aperitif made from Cognac & grape juice, and it was judged not bad. Then I moved onto the Cognac, & it was judged damned good. Damned good. After a couple of glasses to decide which was best, we left with a few bottles to add to the collection in the boot. But don’t tell any customs agents.

Having sampled the wares at one of the smaller producers, we headed back into town, ditched the car & headed off to the majors. The tour at Otard was very interesting, telling us a great deal about the history of the firm & the castle it was based in. Apparently just after the revolution, castles were going cheap in France, so a Scottish dude decide that this one would do nicely for him & set himself up a cognac house. Economies of course did have to be made, so the chapel was converted into a cellar where cognac could be aged. Our guide did not say if the angels share was higher in this room. And after a nice tour of the castle, was the main event, the tastings. Here they produced a bar full of glasses of their VSOP & said that if you wanted any of the others, just say. We did, and they were good. Good place Otard, much more generous than a number of the other houses. Though Larssons, while they do not do tours & such, were very friendly, and the woman on reception was eager to help.

Suitably stocked up we headed south in search of some history to go with the culture. This we found at Nimes, which has a great roman ampitheatre, which they still use today, or at least they still use part of it. It appears that the health & safety weenies have been at them a bit, because all of the high bits with no barrier fences between them and the hard low bits are not used, but this still lets them sit 7000 people. While you would think that the inside of an ampitheatre would be a simple thing, this was a veritable labyrinth, designed to get 27,000 people who know where their seat is in and out quickly and easily, and tourists who want to wander around looking at it all, hopelessly lost. But once you figure the layout out, it is a damned good ampitheatre to look at if you want to see how they got all of those people in and out. Very trick.

But there is more to France than just food, booze & old stuff. The Med called. I had some diving I wanted to do. Here I was disappointed. The hospitality which had been present so far through the trip ran out. I found myself a dive shop & cruised in & asked about doing some dives the next day. The guy there asked to see my certification & said that “…in France…” as I was had only the open water certification, I could only go on their bunny dive in the afternoon. But first I would need to get a medical certificate. The little details that I am legitimately qualified to dive to 39m, and that a medical certificate is unlikely to show up any fatal problems that the past 150 dives have not did not appear to be relevant. We were in France now, and we would do it the French way, or not at all. Anybody would think they invented the sport. Figuring that getting a French medical certificate for one dive was a bit of a waste of time, we headed off with dark clouds over the car.

These dark clouds were not really dissipated by the next stop, St Tropez. It appears that this playground of the rich and famous, is in real life the shopping mall of middle aged American tourists who are looking to experience the rich and famous lifestyle by proxy. That and there seemed to be a perpetual traffic jam both into and out of town. Mind you, there are worse cars to be stuck in traffic in on a fine & sunny afternoon.

A word of advice though, if you don’t like attention, don’t sail your motor yacht to St Tropez. Here even the act of a medium sized boat backing into the mooring attracted a sizeable crowd. Do these people watch people parallel park their Ferarris? Although, these yachts did provide yet more confirmation that loads of money does not confer good taste. The owner of Golden Cat, not content with having the largest boat in the harbour, had decided that he needed a personalised welcome mat. Very understated. The boat beside him had seen this, and decided that his 50 foot boat was obviously deficient for its lack of a welcome mat, and had rushed out to buy one. Unfortunately it appears that the only store open at the time was the warehouse, and so he returned with probably the cheesiest door (gangplank?) mat ever seen.

The next day in Monaco (yes, life is tough), it was more of the same boats. And a curious detail emerged. Common with St Tropez, none of the boats were registered in France. They were registered in the British Virgin Islands, Isle of Man, Jersey, Luxembourg & Cayman Islands. What do all of these countries have in common? Not a coastline, that is for sure. Still, if you own a boat that big, I am sure you have your reasons for registering your boat in small countries with an excess of accountants.

As might be expected, the average money density in Monaco was significantly higher than the surrounding countryside. Actually significantly understates the point. Sarah thought that she had seen more Ferraris, Bentleys & Lambourghinis in one morning than she had in the rest of her life. Mind you a fair number of them were just doing bogan laps. Still, if you can afford a Lambourghini & don’t have to do any of that inconvenient work stuff, why the hell not drive it around in circles all day. To me the summary of the place was one hotel which had two yellow Ferraris & a Bentley parked outside. In most places in the world, owning a Ferrari is something special. In almost all of the other places, owning a yellow one will ensure that you never just blend into the crowd. In Monaco, something more is required. Perhaps painting it matt black with flames down the side would do it.

So for a change the Benz just blended into the background of ordinary cars. This was quite useful at times though, as Monaco is a maze of one way streets, two way streets which look like one way streets, and inadequate signposting. When attempting to find the way out of town, when faced with an intersection where I didn’t know who had right of way, I decided to take the simple approach of following some locals. Unfortunately this was something of a miscalculation, for the locals I followed were driving motor scooters, which have their own road rules. In the ensuing Jag with local driver v. Benz with dumb tourist driver, the Benz won, without even any horn honking and excitable hand waving. Very restrained this lot. Maybe they should go to Italy for lessons, cause we were about to…