Versailles

No torrential rain and a shorter (albeit by about 90mins) journey meant that this leg of the trip was less arduous than that of the previous day. With no memorable scenery the only highlight of the drive was watching the trip counter pass 3,000 miles during the second stage – followed shortly afterwards by the moment which marked the trip equalling one tenth of the car’s total mileage. The latter fact being of little interest to anyone – except those of us with a more nerdish nature.

Bassin de Latone (2003) A mid-afternoon arrival in what was once the defacto capital of France was followed by a visit to the reason why: the Palace of Versailles. Le Roi-Soleil moved the court (and by extension the government) there once he’d finished upgrading his father’s hunting lodge and it remained there until the revolution forced his great great grandson to move everything back to Paris just over a century later.

I’d been to the palace before, back in 2003 when my dad celebrated his 50th by taking the family and some of his closest friends to Paris for a long weekend, and at that point the signs of neglect were obvious. Vicky and I didn’t go inside the palace, choosing instead to wander around a portion of the massive 800ha gardens*, but from the outside it was very noticeable that things have changed over the last 13 years. The two pictures of the Bassin de Latone shown in this post are from my first and second visits respectively and you can see the difference.

Bassin de Latone (2016) With Vicky meeting up with an old colleague, I was on my own for dinner so decided to ask the twitter hive mind for recommedations. This did, of course, mean that some people suggested I try the local McDonalds (you know who you are) but also produced a couple of more sensible ideas. One of those was L’Aparthe and I had, once again, a very pleasant meal and a carafe of red wine.

All good things come to an end however and the 0600ish wake up the next morning to ensure that we made the ferry out of Le Harve at 1100 was a sign that that point had been reached. :(

* To lapse in to journalism measurements for a moment this is approximately the equivalent of 800 Trafalgar Squares

North to Clermont-Ferrand

Clermont Cathedral (Interior) Sadly we had to depart the warm, sunny interlude that was Nice and head north because we do have a ferry to catch on Friday. I already had commitments for this weekend when the trip was planned else we’d probably have aimed to cross back to Blighty on either Saturday or Sunday in order to ease our passage across France.

With Vicky meeting a friend in Versailles on Thursday, we’d picked Clermont-Ferrand as a suitable place to stop between the two places. Whereas our daily drives had, up until now, been between 3.5 to 5 hours (including breaks), today was going to be about 6 hours before coffee breaks. With the torrential rain that we encountered on the approach to Lyon this only went up since muggins here was not about to do 110km/h on the wrong side of the road in someone else’s right-hand drive car when the windscreen wipers are going full blast.

By the time we rolled in to town night was falling so taking a walk around was clearly out of the question – and we were also tired after spending so long in the car – thus it was simply a question of where to eat once we’d had a rest. The rest turned out to be a bit longer than expected as Vicky had become lost in google map geekery and so was oblivious to the passage of time. I shouldn’t complain since I’ve spent plenty of occasions myself lost in code and suddenly looked up to realise that an afternoon has passed and I’ve neglected to eat or drink.

Clermont Cathedral (Exterior) Unlike Nice, we opted for the first place we found in the old town (since that was where all of the restuarants seemed to be) – and that was not in any way a bad choice. If you do find yourself in the city and wish to eat somewhere that is approved of by two obviously bonkers Englishwomen then L’instantané Restaurant is the place to go.

Thursday morning was rather colder than it had been the previous day on the south coast but dry unlike our departures from Venice and Pisa and so we took the opportunity to have the stroll that our late arrival the previous day had ruled out. The cathedral in the centre of the old town is most impressive – both inside and out – and was producing feelings of déjà vu in the driver. This was, in turns out, because she and Clare had briefly stopped in on their way out but this had been forgotten thanks to the multitude of places she has visited over the intervening 16 days.

Photographs taken, it was time to continue our trip northwards…

Nice to see you, to see you Nice…

Mountains (as seen from the road) After briefly delaying our departure from Pisa so that we could have a cold shower or, more accurately, walk around the city in the rain in search of postcards, a cash machine and a post box, we left in search of another toll road and the penultimate country of our journey: France.

Much of the road can be summed up in one word: tunnels. Genoa might be worth seeing, it might not, but given that they’ve tunnelled under it and through it, I barely saw any of the city from the road as we went through (strictly obeying the speed limit of course).

Unlike my travelling companion it is my first time on the south coast of France (having previously only visited Paris and Dunkirk or passed through the country in a coach on my way to Austria to go skiing) so we’d decided to stop in Nice for the night. With a hotel room overlooking the Mediterranean and the sun in the sky, we unloaded the car and then set out for a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais (yes, the English are entirely to thank/blame for Nice having an esplanade) after passing through the marina with its risible set of luxury yachts belonging to the more impoverished billionaire oligarch*.

Nice Coastline With the sun going down we sat and looked out over the sea for while, including watching traffic out of the airport, before heading back up the seafront and then in to streets behind it for a spot of dinner. With Vicky happy to try the first eatery we come across (unless it’s a chain), I’m the fussy one who will happily wander around in search of a place she likes the look of. What I eventually settled on was a place called Daddies Bistro. Empty when we entered, it filled up a bit later with locals (always a good sign) who were apparently well-known to the staff (an even better sign). The food did not in any way disappoint. Indeed I would go as far to say that it was one of the best meals I’ve had on this trip and I’d recommend the establishment to anyone passing through Nice.

Not, all told, the most exciting day of the trip but a very relaxing one.

* Warning: snark

Pisa de Résistance

The morn when first it thunders in March,
The eel in the pond gives a leap, they say;
As I leaned and looked over the aloed arch
Of the villa-gate this warm March day,
No flash snapped, no dumb thunder rolled
In the valley beneath where, white and wide
And washed by the morning water-gold,
Florence lay out on the mountain-side.
Old Pictures In Florence — Robert Browning

A Leaning Tower in Pisa Florence: the birthplace of the Renaissance, once one of the richest places on earth back when it was a trading and financial centre, now considered to be a World Heritage Site… with crumbling streets and, annoyingly for myself and Vicky, a hotel which was now a building site – the very hotel we’d booked for the night of our next stop. Ooops!

But first…

Setting off from Venice in the pouring rain our intention was to drive to Florence and spend the afternoon walking around taking in some of its history. Sticking to the fast roads, as we have mostly done since leaving Split, we spent much of the journey on Autostrada del Sole (literally “Motorway of the Sun”). Obviously this piece of trivia is of little interest in and of itself and I wouldn’t have bothered but for the new stretch of the route, the Variante Di Valico.

Built with the aim of reducing to travel time through the Apennine Mountains (and thus fuel consumption and pollution) this ‘bypass’ only opened fully on 23rd December 2015. It is 66.6km in length, of which 49% runs through tunnels, 18% on viaducts with the remaining third not needing any assistance. The longest tunnel on the route is approximately 8.6km long, had a working face of 180m² and required 10.2 million m³ of material to be removed.

That’s not a bad feat of engineering.

Pisa Cathedral at night Arriving in Florence we couldn’t find our chosen hotel until one of us (me) got out and went looking for it on foot. What I found was a sign on a wall outside of what was more of an apartment block undergoing renovation than a hotel and certainly no sign of a reception desk. Upon communicating this to my driver it was decided that it would be a good idea to cancel the booking and look elsewhere… an approach which lasted until we were reunited in the car and I threw out the suggestion of trying Pisa instead.

The driver considered this, decided it was acceptable, and so we found ourselves, less than a couple of hours later (including time taken to book a new hotel), standing outside of a campanile with a rather bad list. However as nice as the tower is, we were both of the opinion that two of the other items in the complex, namely the cathedral and the baptistery, are much better.

Breakfast at Slovenia

The plan we decided upon as we weathered the storm on Saturday night was to find somewhere in stop in Slovenia to break our fast and post the blogs about the previous day (our overnight accommodation being somewhat deficient in the wi-fi department) before continuing to Venizia and staying the night there (instead of our original destination of Isola Albarella).

A view of Venice's Grand Canal Since the underlying theme of this trip is contrariness things didn’t entirely happen like that. Breakfast in Slovenia became stopping for coffee which became leaching off the wi-fi of a closed cafe because we couldn’t find anywhere in the country that was open along the route of our brief traversal of it. Add in it being wet and it is safe to say that our first impressions of the country were not positive. On the plus side, crossing the border from Croatia (which is not yet in the Schengen Area) was pretty much a matter of waving our UK passports under the noses of the, as usual, humourless officials. Freedom of movement is great, shame about the political crap which is layered on top.

With Vicky insisting on doing all of the driving today, I was reduced to just watching the road go by until we fetched up in Venice. Whilst we didn’t see many other nationalities on the road in either Croatia or Slovenia, once we hit our third country of the day (Italy) this did start to change with vehicles from UK, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia and Ukraine spotted as we drove along.

A view of Venice's Grand Canal Venice, even at the beginning of March, is not short of tourists so I shudder to think what it would be like at the height of summer. With its narrow streets it is perhaps how I imagine London was before the Great Fire swept through and Wren’s rebuild ensured that wider streets became the norm. Our stroll around part of the city allowed us to take in some of the sights, including a Vivaldi museum. There are certainly no shortage of tat shops, with the occasional high-end one for the discerning collector of junk but, beyond a postcard, I declined to enter, let alone spend money, in them. Given their number we did wonder how any of them manage to make any money.

Dinner was in a perfectly acceptable restaurant on the other side of the canal our hotel overlooked but, when looking for a bar after dinner, we discovered that at high tide some of the streets becoming a touch wet underfoot. Luckily for me the heels I was wearing were platformed and this saved me from the worst but others weren’t so lucky.

To Krk

Roadside monument And so the day on which the return leg of the great Contrary Roadtrip was to begin arrived. Since this was the whole purpose of my trip to Croatia – Vicky would be driving home alone otherwise – I was looking forward to it but my excitement was balanced out by the sorrow felt by Vicky and Clare at their parting after four years of being housemates. The friendship will endure but this morning marked the end of a significant chapter in both of their lives.

Given this (and the aforementioned need to cycle three women through one bathroom) it was inevitably a late start so the decision was made to make use of the motorway rather than the coast road in order to ensure that we made our accommodation for the evening in good time. Obviously this came at a cost since our continental cousins are far happier with the idea of road tolls than we Brits are (perhaps it has something to do with the lower taxes levied on petrol?) but at less than a Kuna/mile (about 10p/mile) it was a price we were happy to pay for cruising along at up to 130kph.

Road Formations Not going along the coast meant going up and through the mountains – literally. Lots of tunnels, the longest 5.8 klicks – I’d say kilometers but Vicky gets annoyed at me saying klicks ;) – and all lit much better than the one at Dartford, eased our passage from sea level up to over 2000 ft – at which height there was evidence of recent snowfalls.

To say that for parts of our journey we were the only living souls for kilometers in any direction would be to understate how barren it was in those places. This emptiness was offset by some occasionally spectacular views but we felt that the local plod probably wouldn’t be amused if we stopped to take pictures – Sod’s Law meaning that one would show up just as we had pulled over on to the hard shoulder to do so – so they were taken on the move.

Rock Formations Things became a lot more interesting once we left the motorway and joined the road down to and along the coast for the last hour or so to the bridge over to Krk. This was a road made for driving, especially as we descended from the mountains, and I’m quite jealous that it was Vicky and not I who got to throw the car around on it. The scenery was even better than that on the motorway and we did pull over to take pictures on several occasions as we made our way along it.

The view back towards the Krk side of the bridge The wind had been picking up throughout our journey and by the time we reached the bridge was probably strong enough to be named something ludicrous by the Met Office. As I type it is howling around outside of our accommodation quite loudly and by the time we got here we’d realised that we should only have one car door or window open at a time in order to mitigate the effects on both the Clio and ourselves.

Krk is very much a place which will only come to life during the tourist season from what we have seen so far – like parts of the coast we passed. Lots of apartments which are obviously holiday lets so are shut up and lifeless. Think Daily Fail tales of villages where many of the properties have been purchased by Londoners as second homes but on a much grander scale. The owner of this apartment is, we suspect, very grateful to be able to rent it out for a night at a time of year when they might otherwise not do so.

The downside is, of course, that very little is open so we are making do with the traditional software engineer food group (crisps and pizza) and the rather less tradition one of red wine whilst trying to cope with the lack of wi-fi for almost the first time since either of us arrived in Croatia (rare is the coffee shop or service stations that doesn’t have it). More detailed planning of tomorrow’s route through Slovenia and in to Italy (as well as the posting of this blog) will have to wait until we find somewhere that is connected to the world…

Spitters

The time had come to meet up with the roadtrip properly so, after a quick hop over to the Dalmatian Coast (disappointingly on a jet rather than a prop plane), I was joining the chaos which is always evident any time you get Clare and Vicky in a room together.

Arriving in Split also allowed me to meet up the luggage I sent on ahead with the cackle twins to avoid the hassle of dragging it though airports. Hello hair spray and hand cream, I missed you in Zagreb.

A view of Diocletian's Palace, Split, at night A perambulation through the city as dusk fell on Thursday was followed by a lovely dinner at the restaurant just around the corner from Clare’s new home. The menu was, as befits a port city with a fishing industry, mostly fish but with a couple of options for weirdos like me who don’t get on at all well with seafood. All washed down with a recommended bottle of red.

Brač coastline With the Friday weather threatening to be very pleasant, certainly when the Sun was out, the decision was made to visit the island of Brač so, once we were all ready (insert jokes about three women and one bathroom here), we managed to make it down to the harbour for the 1230 crossing in reasonable time. We fetched up in the town of Supetar (a corruption of St. Peter) and walked along the coast for a bit, admiring just how clear the water was, before taking some time to sit down and enjoy the peace and quiet – until we lost interest and decided to retire to a bar for a beer.

Upon returning to Clare’s, Vicky and I eventually (and separately) got around to putting together a rough plan of how we get ourselves back to Le Havre for the ferry back to Blighty next Friday. Given that we were doing this independently of each other, although working to a rough guide of how long we wanted to spend in the car each day, the rough routes we sketched out weren’t that different.

First stop on the way home is the island of Krk

One night in Zagreb

Zdravo.

That is, I’m assured by Google Translate, ‘hello’ in Croatian – and since no-one has attacked me so far for using it I’m going to assume that they’ve not screwed up.

Since I’m (eventually) joining a roadtrip started by a couple of very contrary people it only makes sense to join in the fun so things began in suitable fashion by eschewing the recommendation to arrive at the airport two hours before my flight in favour of about half that time. After all, airport termini are tediously dull places. In the end, thanks to my procrastination in leaving home and the slowness of the Piccadilly Line, I arrived less than 30mins before scheduled departure. Just about enough time to subject myself to the inevitable security theatre, visit the ladies and call the necessary banks to let them know I’d be using my cards in foreign places so please don’t decide to cancel them on me.

“When are you leaving the country, Ma’am?”
“In about 15 mins.”

Organised? Sometimes.

So, Zagreb.

Room Artwork To get a better flavour of the place I’d chosen to participate in what everyone but Frances refers to as the ‘sharing economy’ and found myself a room via AirBnB in what turned out to be the area referred to by the locals as the lower town. Certainly none of the buildings in the area could be described as new and the exteriors where often quite shabby and decorated at the lower levels with graffiti. My room (and the apartment in which it was located) was though perfectly acceptable given that all I wanted was a place to sleep.

Armed with a map and a few suggestions on places to visit (and eat at) from my hostess I set out to explore the city. The goal was to wander around and pop my head through the door of anywhere that seemed interesting.

Zagreb Cathedral This turned out to involve looking around the Archeological Museum, including admiring the somewhat out-of-place 3D printer amongst the Copper Age exhibits that was pumping out replicas of one of the pieces for sale in the shop; admiring the architecture of the cathedral; spotting what I assume to be the local equivalent of blue plaque for Nikola Tesla; and the Museum of Broken Relationships – a home for those pieces that remind you too much of former relationships (family or romantic), good or bad.

Dinner (and this has to be mentioned given that the gastronomes I’ll be joining up with have barely written about anything else) was in a place that was certainly popular with the locals – something which I always take to be a good sign. Unlike them, I chose not to troll someone who will remain nameless (waves at Andy) by taking pictures of each course but I will say that both the pastry stuffed with cottage cheese which I started with and the slow cooked veal which followed it were absolutely lovely.

Nikola Tesla Sadly I was rather knackered after all the travelling so any exploration of the city nightlife was out of the question and an early (by my standards anyway) retirement was in order.

Thursday dawned cold and wet so, in the absence of all common sense, I went for a walk around the Botanical Gardens. Since I know about as much about flora as I do about art, this didn’t involve a lot of stopping to admire particular plants – but since none of them are in flower yet there wasn’t a lot to admire.

A bit of research had unearthed the fact that Zagreb apparently has a mushroom museum so I decided that was a quirky enough to warrant a visit once I’d had breakfast (croissants and a hot chocolate that was more melted chocolate than warm milk and cocoa powder) seen the cathedral on daylight and been inside. Sadly I didn’t manage to find it, even having looked it up on Google Maps and asked at the local tourist information office. Instead I depressed myself by wandering around the Torture Museum and its reminder that sometimes all that has changed is that we’ve become more sophisticated in our methods of inflicting violence upon our fellow ape descendants…

Next stop: Split.

Freedom’s Price

Never one to miss an opportunity to suck up to the bully, Labour scion Dan Hodges barely manages to allow the bodies of those murdered in the Paris attacks on Friday to cool off before using his Torygraph column to call for us to welcome even more state intrusion in to our lives by supporting the monstrously illiberal Communications Data Bill (aka the Snooper’s Charter). This will, he believes*, ensure that London isn’t itself the target of such an atrocity.

He offers no evidence as to why we should do so, just the emotive plea of someone who thinks that he can gain security by sacrificing the civil liberties of 65m or so people.

Since his only attempt to justify this piece of useful idiotry when confronted on twitter was to repeatedly pretend that all the security services wish to do is have a look through people’s browsing history – as if that isn’t bad enough given the state’s propensity to try to hang you for what they find on your hard disk if they can’t get you for what they initially wanted – I thought I’d deliver a cold hard dose of reality to him and anyone else who thinks that this piece of legislation is a great idea…

The brutal truth, although you might not like it very much, is that the price of living in a liberal democracy is that occasionally we will be the victims of an outrage such as we saw in Paris on Friday night.

No, that doesn’t mean I want to see people murdered in cold blood. Nor does it mean that I disapprove of sensible precautionary measures that may prevent incidents (such as not allowing those with mental health issues to have access to firearms**).

What it does mean is that I am an intelligent, grown-up human being who accepts the possibility of it occurring rather than someone who is so scared that something bad might happen to me that I wish to sacrifice my freedom in order to be swaddled in the dubious comfort blanket of the police state.

Capisce?

* Whilst, no doubt, furiously working himself in to a state of pleasure at the thought of Theresa May in black leather standing over him praising him for this loyalty to the cause.

** Related to this is the need to stop kicking meaningful mental health reform in to the long grass.

At the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month

Field of poppies

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

In the last 12 months the following have died whilst in the service of their country:

  • Roberts, Geraint
  • Scott, Alan
  • Campbell, Michael
  • Sawyer, Jamie
  • Warrender, Charles
Image taken from pixabay

List of British military deaths courtesy of the BBC