With the summer drawing to a close we were fortunate to enjoy a late spell of really good weather for our recent jaunt to Brittany with a small (and select) team from Gloucester TSSC (otherwise known as the Tufty Club). The idea of an late summer trip to France was mooted about a year ago and as I had somehow managed to stumble upon a group of ex-pat petrol-heads enthusiasts in central Brittany it seemed like a good idea to meet up with them for a ‘cultural exchange’.
Early on the Thursday morning fourteen intrepid adventurers in seven cars (The Magnificent Seven?) met up at Portsmouth for the short cruise to Caen followed by a 200 mile drive on the excellent and relatively empty French roads to Gouarec, which lies about 80 miles due west of Rennes. Our campsite, which Denise and I had recced earlier in the year on our way to Le Mans, sits on the bank of the Nantes/Brest Canal and is an excellent base for touring the region, albeit its a bit rough around the edges.
On Friday morning a number of members of The Interesting Car Club arrived at the campsite in their eclectic range of cars to take us on a short drive around the surrounding area before we settled down to a typically Breton lunch at a local restaurant. It was good to have an opportunity to chat with our hosts and to establish a strong connection which may well form the basis for future visits. Saturday was given over to a visit to the Manoir De L’Automobile at Lohéac which is about a two hour drive from Gouarec. With an excellent collection of more than 300 vehicles of all ages and types its probably one of the best such museums in Europe and well worth a visit. On Sunday some us gave our cars a rest and stayed local whilst others went north to explore the Granite Coast. A few of us went back to the Abbaye Do Bon Repos where a stroll around a local market and a short walk down the canal bank were followed by a couple of beers and a bite to eat in a local café whilst taking in a little more French sunshine. Marvellous! We broke our drive back to the ferry on Monday with a short visit to Pegasus Bridge between Caen and Ouistreham . Not having enough time to visit the local museum we opted for refreshments at the small café that sits alongside the bridge – which would have been fine had they not charged €7.80 for a pot of tea! Am I bitter about the ruthless financial exploitation of an historical site where large numbers of British soldiers died in the liberation of France? You bet!
Rather than subjecting the van and ourselves to the slow and probably stressful task of climbing over the Alps we decided to make a large investment in the Frejus Tunnel Company which by Wednesday evening brought us to the lovely little mountain town of Aiguebelle just to the south of Albertville. The market square, which should have been our overnight stop, was full of the lorries, vans and enormous caravans belonging to a visiting funfair so, rather than trying to slip in unnoticed, and risking having no wheels on the van when we woke in the morning, we parked on the edge of a small park and passed a peaceful night with just the occasional rumble of passing freight trains to disturb our slumbers.
Our destination the following morning was Annecy and, after a brief ‘Lyon moment’ when the road signs said to go in one direction, Denise said another and Kate suggested a third we eventually arrived without the discussion having descended into excessive violence. We knew we’d arrived when we joined the lengthy traffic queue to enter the busy tourist town and it quickly became clear that there was little prospect of finding parking. Tant pis! We moved on and
stopped briefly at Nantua, which I’m told is a very pretty, little, lakeside town, but by this stage my cold had the better of me so I stayed in the van frightening passing children with a cough that sounded a bit like a Klaxon. Fortunately the Nantua Tourist Office recommended an excellent campsite at L’Ile Chambod which sits on the banks of the lovely River Ain and provided an excellent location for a couple of days of much-needed R&R – this holidaying lark is hard work!
On Saturday we’d planned to visit a local ‘vide grenier’ but for once the weather let us down and we actually had rain – the first proper downpour we’d experienced since before leaving home. So we decided to get a few miles under our belt and drove for most of the day – through Bourg-en-Bresse, Macon, Moulins and Bourges, finally ending up at Amboise which, by spooky coincidence, just happens to be the last resting place of Leonardo. We spent a morning visiting the Clos de Luce where the great man spent the last three years of his life under the patronage of Francis 1st; lots of interesting stuff, and in some ways better than the Leonardo Museum in Vinci, but I got the impression that the chateau and its contents were more of a re-creation than a restoration.
We’d already decided to avoid returning via Genoa at all costs, so leaving Pistoia we headed north towards Modena. By the way, did I mention Pistoia seems to be the garden nursery capital of the world? Forget Dobbies, not a tearoom or soft furnishings area in sight, just field after field after field of shrubs and trees under cultivation all waiting to be shipped around the world to a posh garden somewhere near you. Fantastic!
Anyway, our route took us through the fabulous wooded and mountainous backroads of Emelia Romagna towards Modena. One of the problems with driving in Italy is that if you want to get anywhere in a hurry there’s really no alternative to the autostradas. In France if you opt to stay off the toll roads the regional RN roads are an excellent alternative, but in Italy anything you don’t pay for is likely to be slow, crowded and with a road surface that even British highway authorities would be ashamed of. Unfortunately our problem was made worse by Kate who, for the past thousand miles, has been rather too silent for our liking. Now this may be just a girly phase she’s going through, but to be honest a non-speaking satnav with a 12 year old database probably isn’t the most reliable means of navigation currently available. I know that the British Empire was largely founded by intrepid young men clutching copies of their Phillips Modern School Atlas, but there are limits – even for tight-fisted Yorkshiremen. Now just next door to Modena is Maranello which, as the cognoscenti among you will know, is the home of Ferrari; so it would have been rude to pass through without paying homage at the Ferrari Museum. In all honesty I was a little disappointed. Rather too strong on hyperbole and a little short on good ‘man-facts’. You wouldn’t get that sort of show at Aston Martin or Jaguar ………………… much.
Next stop was a slightly disappointing and overpriced campsite at Salsomaggiore Terme just to the west of Parma – where the ham reputedly comes from. One interesting fact is that in all our travels since leaving Brittany I don’t believe that we’ve seen any livestock enjoying the benefits of outdoor grazing. Lots of straw being cut and baled, presumably for bedding, but not a single cow, sheep or pig to be seen.
It was now Tuesday night and by this stage I was suffering from a bit of a monster summer cold, courtesy of our lovely granddaughter, so was largely taking the role of ‘pathetic passenger’ rather than that of ’ dynamic group leader’. Looking for a campsite in San Damiano d’Asti we found what would have been the perfect location had it not been for the clouds of hungry looking bugs that surrounded the van as we arrived, so we ended up in the carpark of the local cemetery – which we reasoned had been provided for visitors, such as ourselves, rather than residents.
Months ago, when we first decided to have a family holiday in Italy, Jennifer announced that our visit would coincide with the Lucca Summer Festival and that James Taylor, probably the soundtrack of our adult lives, would be playing on the last night of our stay in Vinci. Sometimes in life something comes along that is simply too good an opportunity to miss.
Lucca is an ancient walled city that merits another visit when/if we next come to Tuscany. Set in a large piazza in the heart of the city, the concert opened with a lively set by Bonnie Raitt (of whom I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard) before JT spent the best part of two hours singing songs to which even I can remember the words. When dementia finally sets in and you can’t get through to me any other way just stick on a James Taylor CD and I’ll probably be quite content.
Having vacated Casa Eden on Saturday morning we drove for about an hour up to Pestoia where, after a stooge around the market, we said farewell to Jennie and Nathan who then returned to Pisa for their last night – their flight having been cancelled and their holiday extended by a day. Tom and Emily had returned to London on the Wednesday and Richard, Collette and Gretel drove back to Nuremberg on the Friday afternoon/night so once again we were on our own after a wonderful and unforgettable week with the family.
For Sunday we’d booked a visit to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery which is the permanent home to many of the great works of art of the Renaissance period – including some of the very few paintings that Leonardo actually completed and several that he never quite got around to polishing off. It’s a wonderful collection but one could be forgiven (I was) for finding so many similar works from the same period in such close proximity to one another just a bit overwhelming. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Florence … make a point of revisiting the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and some of the other famous landmarks that make this city such a great destination for tourists, touts, pickpockets, beggars ….. did I hear someone say ‘bah humbug’? Not me!
We spent a couple of nights at a nice little campsite at San Giusto, just a few kilometres from our destination at Vinci. Being early season the site was almost empty and we had a whole section, including a block with four large shower/loo cubicles, virtually to ourselves. The only other occupant was a friendly little cat which sat diligently outside the ‘van’ for hours on end in the hope and expectation, ultimately fulfilled, of being fed – our first Italian friend.
Casa Eden is exactly what we hoped it would be. The villa is a large, six or seven bedroomed house about three or four kilometres outside Vinci, sitting about 300 metres up among the olive groves with great views over the Arno valley. Plenty of room for eight of us, nine including Gretel, with space to rattle around in if needed. The weather continues to be fantastic – temperatures on the early 30s, clear blue skies and the occasional light evening breeze to make the daytime heat bearable. Last night we walked a few hundred metres to the local restaurant – great pizzas at crazy low prices and views to die for – and today we walked down to Vinci to spend a couple of hours in the Leonardo Museum for an insight into the Master’s genius.
No, the title’s not a prediction, but it just so happens that the second stop in our journey from Le Mans en-route to Italy was near to the town of Die (we still don’t know how to pronounce it) which sits in the Drôme region of France, between the Ardèche and the Hautes Alpes.
Our first stop, however, was at the lovely village of Montpeyroux just to the south of Clermont Ferrand. Picked out of our book of free overnight stops we were fortunate to stumble on ‘one of the most beautiful villages of France’ (their words, not mine, but not much of an exaggeration) which, in addition to offering free overnight parking, provided us with a picturesque location with the bonus of free toilets. What more could any weary travellers want?
The next day (Tuesday), sticking to the routes national, we headed south-east through the Haut Loire region and across the Rhone, ending the day at the campsite at Die next to the River Drôme. A quick swim before supper and then an hour or so sat in the bar watching France beat Belgium in the company of a partisan audience who didn’t seem to care that their team spent most of the match falling over at every opportunity and then rolling over in feigned agony. Concrete pills needed all round.
Knowing how warm and sunny England can be in late March we had absolutely no hesitation in accepting Richard and Collette’s invitation to join them and Gretel for a few days in delightful Devon over the Easter break. No doubt we had visions of sitting out under the van’s awning playing with Gretel whilst enjoying a quiet drink and listening to the gentle sound of the sea lapping against the sun drenched beach. Right! Unfortunately reality set in as we drove across Exmoor on our way to Croyde with snow beating against the windscreen and the temperature hovering around freezing; although things improved a little when we reached the coast and our rather soggy campsite I’m sure it can’t have stopped raining for more than a few hours over the entire long weekend.
Had it not been for having to lend our electric heater to the ‘young ones’ to warm up their ‘glamping pod’, and the van’s central heating system chose that moment to throw a hissy fit, we would probably have been quite smug snug as the wind whistled and the rain beat down on our roof! Fortunately we’re British and won’t be defeated by a little ‘inclement’ weather – and in fact we remained (mostly) dry and thoroughly enjoyed the entire long weekend. Gretel was her usual amenable self and ‘Granny Denise’ revelled in the opportunity to do a little babysitting.
No, I’ve not taken to using profanities in my blog, but when you’ve had the privilege of visiting The Bloody Tower its important to say so. In point of fact not only did we see The Bloody Tower but we also saw The White Tower, St Thomas’s Tower and most of the other 16 towers that make up The Tower of London.
Friday evening was a very special event. Having been invited by Nick and Maggie, otherwise known as Lord and Lady Houghton of Richmond (as Nick is Constable of the Tower they’re fortunate enough to live over the shop), we were privileged to enjoy supper in The Tower with them and eight fellow guests, and to attend a wonderful Carol Concert in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula performed by the Choir of the Chapels Royal, HM Tower of London.
The evening started with a short tour and whistle-stop history of The Tower given by ‘Barney’ one of the Yeoman Warders. Quite how he managed to pack 940 years of history into 30 minutes I’m not entirely sure, but suffice to say that he had all the patter and most of the facts at his fingertips.
Nick and Maggie live in ‘The Queen’s House’ which was built around 1540 and is supposedly the most original timber-frame dwelling in London having missed the ravages of the Great Fire (it’s built into the inner wall of The Tower itself) and the best efforts of Hitler’s bombers. In their cellar is the room in which Sir Thomas Moore was imprisoned for 15 months before his execution, and in the space now occupied by their dining room Guido Fawkes was interrogated following the failed plot to blow up Parliament. So there’s a bit of history about the place!
The Choir Concert was fantastic and completely up to the standards you’d expect of the venue – Queen Anne Boleyn was executed just outside the Chapel and re-united with her head before being buried under the altar.
Supper in The Queen’s House was interrupted briefly at 10 o’clock while we observed the Ceremony of the Keys, which is apparently the oldest unchanged ceremony of its kind in the world and has only been missed once in the past several hundred years (on one occasion it was delayed by an air raid – which earned the Constable a sharp rebuke from King George VI). I remember attending the ceremony once before as a ten year old on a family holiday to London and can therefore say with some authority that it hasn’t changed noticeably in the last 55 years.
All in all it was a wonderful evening and we will be eternally grateful to Maggie and Nick for allowing us to enjoy such a special event in those historic surroundings. We hope that they’ll come and visit us soon so that I can repay their hospitality by giving them a guided tour of the Ewbank car collection!
When it comes to attending outdoor events during the English ‘summer’ timing is everything, and for once we seem to have got our timing spot-on. Our trip to the Goodwood Revival has been planned for months; in fact, ever since Denise bought me a couple of tickets to attend Saturday’s activities for last year’s Christmas present. At the time it was a bit of a leap of faith because I was really quite unwell at the end of last year and the beginning of 2017, but the big day eventually dawned and fortunately coincided with the ‘Ewbank Remission’ (an event of equally epic importance as the Revival!).
Whilst some gentlemen may be deluded into thinking that the Goodwood event is all about motor racing, the ladies know different. As probably Britain’s, and possibly the world’s, largest vintage fashion event it really is all about what you wear. After months of angst and countless hours of research and trawling the local charity shops we (that is to say Denise) finally decided what we would be wearing at the eleventh hour. I, on the other hand, simply had to dig out one of my older suits, source a waistcoat from a well known internet auction site, and doff my panama – who says that fashion’s a young person’s game? If only I could have found my flared jeans and US Army surplus jacket I would have felt right at home back in the sixties . Fortunately the TR3A needed no ‘fancy dress’ and was completely at home in ‘memory land’.
As far as timing goes attending on the Saturday turned out to be an excellent choice as torrential rain and prolonged drizzle were the fate of Goodwood goers on Friday and Sunday. We, on the other hand, stayed dry and saw some excellent racing – not to mention more than a few vintage fashion victims.
….and treat those two pretenders just the same…. (with apologies to Mr Kipling – that’s Rudyard, not the chap with the cakes). Well, I’m pretty sure there weren’t any pretenders at the Triumph International meeting held at Malvern last weekend, but if there had been they would doubtless have been overwhelmed by the number of lovely Triumphs (and their owners/masters) that turned out for the annual gathering. As the Three Counties Showground is virtually on our doorstep it would have rude not to have gone along to admire the cars and pick over the usual junk, sorry, autojumble that was on offer to those of us with more money than sense.
Fortunately the weather was kind so we enjoyed a nice run out in the TR3A which behaved itself impeccably throughout the day – perhaps it was just happy to be among so many close relatives or maybe the fact that they were celebrating the 60th birthday of the TR3A had something to do with it?
The weather for our trip to the Waterperry Gardens today wasn’t quite so clement but it was good to meet up with the Wigmores and the odd shower (that’s precipitation I’m talking about – not our good friends) didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the lovely gardens. That said we were perhaps a fortnight late with our visit; next time we’ll aim to visit in June when the herbaceous borders will doubtless be at their spectacular best.
….holiday blogs, motoring obsessions and a general account of life in the Ewbank household…..