I have always loved traveling, thanks to my parents who often managed to get us away both in the UK and abroad. My Dad was the master of finding that cheap, last minute deal.
Once I started to travel by myself and found my own ways of traveling and exploring new places.
Back in the early nineties, I know an age ago, I took a road trip with a friend of mine. Here is the story of that trip.
Quick disclaimer – it was a long time ago and I didn’t write any of this down. A few of the place names are fuzzy, I think they are right but only because the name jumped out on me when I looked on Google Maps.
Let’s start at the very beginning
We were both working long hours, two jobs as well as spending hours taking part in sport.
Then one day Dave asked if I fancied taking a road trip.
I quickly agreed and asked where to?
“We’ll go in my car” said Dave, “more room than in yours”.
All we needed to do then was find some time. The early summer would be busy for both of us, so it was an early trip, at the start of April, just before Easter.
Dave booked a return ferry crossing. We got some French Francs (it was long before the Euro).
That was it. Our planning was done
An early start and my chariot awaits.
Well Dave arrived in his car to pick me up.
We set off from Wolverhampton, onto the M6 and headed for Dover and our ferry.
Ferry crossing done and we arrived in France. Calais has never been the most picturesque of places with the ferry port, supermarkets and road junctions. So we picked up the first road heading south, remembered to drive on the right-hand side of the road and off we went.
As we drove south, Dave realised that we were passing close to a number of World War 1 memorials.
Our first stop was in Peronne, situated in the castle and close to the Somme. We pretty much had the place to ourselves as we wandered around the grounds taking in the horrors of the Great War and the sheer numbers of soldiers, from both sides, who perished in the area.
We continued south and near Reims we stopped at Le Caverne du Dragon. An old stone quarry that was used as an underground barracks during the war. Held by the Germans from 1915, they installed electricity and gun stations. Walking around the tunnels was an eerie experience.
We continued on our way, preferring to take the local roads through the countryside, passing through small villages and through miles and miles of fields.
The road style was very different to back home with wide, deep ditches either side. We soon discovered why as we passed a car that had left the road and been caught in the ditch. The car was badly damaged but I suspect it would have been worse if it had ended in the field, trees or rebounded back onto the road from a barrier.
Our leisurely journey south kept the miles rolling until we found ourselves in a rush hour traffic jam, on the road overlooking Lyon. We figured we would need to stop and find somewhere to stay sooner than later.
The traffic cleared but there were no obvious candidates for a hotel until we passed a sign for the next big town, Valence. We pulled off the main road and into town and stopped at the first place we saw, a small, pleasant looking motel, near to the centre and surrounded by roads.
We booked in and ventured out to explore the town and find food. We made it as far as the motel restaurant, looked at the menu and grabbed a table alongside a couple of other occupied tables.
We ordered our food and a beer each and relaxed. It had been a long day and the miles were catching up with us.
Starters came l’escargot (snails) for Dave and Duck for me.
I took a taste of my duck. OMG. I had never tasted anything like it. Every morsel was stunning. Then horror, my heart sank. We had just agreed that we would share starters, so that we got to sample as much as possible. I didn’t want to share but we had agreed. Reluctantly I let him take some of my duck as I grabbed a snail. The snail was yummy, but it wasn’t a patch on the duck.
I bored people for many years with my tale of “The duck I had in France”.
We ate our fill and drank a couple of beers.
Our explorations would have to wait, we both needed sleep.
The next day we headed south again.
Through Orange and Aix-en-Provence as we made our way to the sea.
We skirted Les Arcs and headed to Frejus where we stopped for a drink and some lunch.
Then it was time for the coast road. Wow.
Saint Raphael was the beginning of a stunning drive through incredible scenery and picturesque towns and villages. We stopped at a couple of points along the way to take it all in and stroll around the shops, mostly preparing for the upcoming season.
We avoided Cannes and headed to Antibes where we had decided we could stay the night.
What an excellent choice it was.
We stumbled onto a wonderful little hotel, close to the harbour and went to explore.
Home to Pablo Picasso for many years Grimaldi Castle was turned into the Picasso Museum in 1966 and overlooks the town.
Not being art fans we admired the castle from afar, preferring to walk around Old Antibes, exploring the hidden gems around the town.
The sea has always been a draw to both of us so the harbour was a real focus. Admiring the yachts, watching the fish and strolling along the beach all made for a more relaxing day than yesterday.
The next morning we explored Antibes some more until we headed back to the car to explore more.
We stopped at a number of places along the coast including Cannes, Saint-Maxime and Saint Tropez.
They were all wonderful apart from Saint Tropez.
Full of people who thought they were someone trying to spot, or catch, a millionaire or celebrity it just felt stale and old-fashioned.
It is easy to see that 30 years before it would have been stunning but just felt like it was hanging on to past glories.
It was time to move on and we decided to head down the Riviera and see where that took us. It was to be an eventful day.
First stop was Nice, I heard a fair amount about the city and its welcoming people.
As always we seemed to find ourselves walking near the marina, admiring the yachts and motor yachts of various sizes. Small day yachts to monsters worth millions of pounds were everywhere.
It was only mid-morning and was quiet as we strolled down the Promenade des Anglais, the wide boulevard overlooking the beach and sea.
It was a pleasantly warm day as we wandered along, taking in the sights when we saw two members of the local Police walking towards us.
Dressed in their paramilitary style uniforms and carrying both machine guns and pistols, they already had an intimidating air about them. You could tell that they knew it to as they both projected macho intimidating vibes.
Once we had seen them we pretty much ignored them, we were doing nothing wrong and there was plenty of room to pass by.
They had other thoughts. The altered their paths to make sure that we were on a collision course. We had a decision to make, stand our ground and risk winding them up or moving out of their way.
We were both relaxed about the situation so moved for them to pass by. Receiving sneers and waves of arrogance in return.
With Nice slightly spoiled for us we soon got back to the car and headed to our next port of call, Monaco.
How many times I had watched the Grand Prix on television and seen the glamorous principality. Soon I was driving on some of those same roads, although I didn’t always realise it at the time. We even drove through the famous tunnel.
Somehow we found a parking space that would not require a loan and started to explore the famous home to stars and multi-millionaires.
To be honest it was all a bit underwhelming. High-rise apartments crammed together, over-priced, high-end shops.
There were wonderful views over the Mediterranean but nothing we hadn’t seen elsewhere that week. The harbour housed palaces of the sea to match the expensive accommodation on land.
We grabbed an ice cream each, how much????? We wandered past the heliport as helicopters transported the rich into and out of the area.
Time to go. But where next? “Italy is just down the road” “Ok let’s go”
So we crossed back into France, through Menton and headed towards another border, this time into Italy.
We drove for a while until we reached Sanremo. We needed something to eat and drink and directions for a route back into France – we didn’t want to backtrack and wanted some different scenery. I headed into a shop with my credit card and Dave went in search of someone who spoke some English.
I was back at the car when an excited Dave returned. “You have got to come with me. I have just met the most beautiful woman in the world and when she smiles…”
So off we went to this small hotel in a side street. We walked into reception as Dave made sure I had the camera, he needed a picture with this woman.
The woman behind reception and I looked around for someone else. There was no-one else in sight.
I looked at Dave. He was smiling and talking to the woman behind the counter.
Hmmm. I took their picture, they talked for another minute and we headed back to the car.
“Didn’t you want a picture as well?” Dave asked.
“Mate she was ok, but the most beautiful woman in the world? That is a big stretch isn’t it?” We didn’t really see eye-to-eye on that subject.
Anyway he had some, very basic, directions.
Off we headed into the foothills of the Alps. We climbed and climbed, the road got narrower and narrower, shrouded by sheer cliffs. Every now and then we would have to hug the cliff as a vehicle passed in the other direction.
Finally we arrived at a small village, with a barrier across the road, this must be the border we thought.
The guard came out of his hut and lifted the barrier for the car in front of us, and waved them through. We inched forward as he closed the barrier. We smiled at him. He scowled at us. We indicated we wanted to go through, he indicted we were not going to be let through, waved us off dismissively and went back to his hut.
Maybe the road was blocked by snow, we already had to turn around once due to snow covering the high passes. Maybe only locals were allowed through. Maybe he just didn’t like the look of us. Whatever the reason we did a many point turn and headed back the way we came.
New plan needed, if you could call anything we were doing a plan.
As we headed back down the mountain we seemed to decide, without any real discussion, to head further into Italy for the rest of the day. So we headed further in, saw the signs for Turin and took the turning. We would head to Turin then see where that took us.
We arrived in Turin during rush hour. It was chaos. cars everywhere, all battling for space. For once I was glad I was not driving at that point, it wasn’t my car and didn’t really want to be driving when we had a coming together with some Italian.
We arrived at a set of traffic lights, three lanes across, and stopped at the line. Cars started sounding their horns all around us. A few cars passed us and stopped well in front of the junction close to the crossing traffic. More cars passed us. Soon, instead of being at the front of the line, there were at least six or seven cars directly in front of us. The three lanes had about six cars packed into them.
Suddenly the cars in the front were off. The lights were still red, having said that there was no way that they could see the lights anyway. As traffic cleared in front all the cars started moving, lights still red. No we were back at the front. “I’ve got to go” said Dave “if I don’t I will be causing even more chaos”. We set off with the lights still red.
We safely headed into the middle of a giant junction, with lanes of traffic in front and behind us. Another set of lights on red.
Suddenly a car appeared from the main flow of traffic and headed toward us. He was going the wrong way down a one way street and the road was packed with cars. He bumped his car onto the footpath and sped past us. We looked behind us and watched him drive, without slowing, into the free flowing and busy traffic behind us.
We battled our way through the traffic. Suddenly we realised why Italian cars had so many dents on them. They would happily sound their horn and move into a non-existent space in front of other cars no matter what the speed. Indicators were redundant and caused confusion when we tried to drive using them.
Finally we were on a road heading out of Turin, we just didn’t have any idea where it was going. We would just stop at the first town with a hotel but we needed fuel soon.
When you need a petrol (gas) station there are never any about and that was certainly the case here. We watched the needle get deeper and deeper into the red. We needed fuel and it was getting late.
Finally there it was, we pulled in. The shop was all locked up but we could see other people filling up their cars. We parked and tried to figure out what to do. We watched other drivers, they all had fuel cards. We tried to ask them where we could buy the card. They pointed to the, closed, shop. Was there somewhere else we could get fuel, yes but they all needed the same card at night.
We were stuck. Very little fuel. No Italian cash. Now what?
We drove a short distance further and we saw a police station. “Maybe they can help” said Dave.
We parked and walked to the gate. Locked. There was an intercom so we pressed the button and waited. A gruff Italian voice greeted us and we did the usual thing that the English did when abroad “Do you speak English?”
Luckily he did, a little. We explained the situation as best we could. He asked us to come to the front door and buzzed us through the gate.
We walked to the door and the Italian policeman appeared. he looked around and then at us. How much money do you need he said. We told him we had either British pounds or French Francs and we needed money for a hotel, food and petrol. He told us how much he wanted, we gave him the money and he gave us a wad of Italian Lira. We thanked him and went back to the car.
“We have just been done haven’t we?” I said as we walked back through the gate. “At least we have some money now” replied Dave. We also knew there was a hotel around the corner.
We booked into the hotel and, they offered currency exchange for residents. We looked at each other. We looked at the rates. We realised we had got a much better deal from the policeman than we would have at the hotel.
We ate at the hotel, we weren’t really sure that there were any other options around.
I’m not a fan of Italian food. It was not my favourite meal of the trip, Dave really enjoyed his.
End of Part 1
I hope you enjoyed the first 4 days of our trip. Things are about to get even more interesting with more encounters with the police, car and money issues, all in part 2.
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