Postcards from a Peugeot: Part 1.

[singlepic id=3172 w=720 float=] Calais, France, is hell on Earth, designed with the sole intention of confusing disorientated foreigners. I found myself here, along with my girlfriend Nicola,  having already been travelling for over four hours. We had taken it upon ourselves to go on a bit of a holiday, not, of course, by plane to somewhere exotic, but by car, exploring two and a half thousand miles of Europe. The previous year, myself and a friend had proven that four thousand miles could be dispatched by car in a single week, and rather than being scared off by such a daft endeavour Nicola wanted a piece of the action. Our objective today was to get through as much of Central France as we could, in as little time as possible. Higher stakes this time though. We would be travelling for the next eight days in a 1995 Peugeot 306, the very car Nicola uses for the commute to work every day. We had no particular reason to choose this as our favoured transport, In hindsight this was far from the obvious choice of vehicle in which to undertake such an expedition, a decision that now seems downright reckless when you consider that the Peugeot had been maintained solely by yours truly for the past 18 months. And it had recently suffered a problem with overheating…. Better still, on the way to Dover this morning a peculiar noise had issued from under the bonnet. A strange, grinding noise which Nicola now reveals had reared its head before and then gone away months ago, but which sounded rather ominous today with thousands of miles ahead of us. As fortune had it, this time the noise abated after a stop at a motorway service station to stock up on Red-Bull and Pro-Plus, but it left us wondering whether it was serious and, wepp, just what the hell had it been? Needless to say, other than acknowledging that it had gone quiet, neither of us mentioned it again, possibly preferring to pretend it never happened. Normally my working day sees me driving posh new cars on a regular basis. Every day I am insulated from the world by advanced sound-deadening, Harmon-Kardon sound and flush glazing. The 306 was built in 1995 and in the time since then there has been an awful lot of automotive development. I was intrigued to know, in real world driving, how different the old car would be from today’s cutting edge. Has fifteen plus years of progress been worthwhile? Would this whole episode be one I’d want to put behind me, or maybe there would be a lesson somewhere for me to learn? [singlepic id=3168 w=720 float=] We had come equipped with a 12v coolbox, one of those peltier effect jobs which keep its contents either incubated or slightly chilled, and it was empty thus far except some Spreadable Anchor butter. It needed filling with comestibles for the Journey and I only knew the confirmed existence of one supermarket in the whole of Europe, the Carrefour in the Citie-Europe complex outside Calais, favourite of coach-drivers and budget-conscious corner-shop proprietors across the UK. A brief flurry of efficiency before departure had seen me remember to look up the address so we stood some chance of finding it. This came after the first occurrence of a theme which was to repeat itself throughout the trip, namely figuring out how to use our Sat-Nav system. We had bought a Garmin to offer us navigational support over and above that afforded by our Jumbo Road Atlas of Europe, a shrewd move we both agreed. But when faced with the mysterious address of Citie-Europe, neither of us could figure out how to enter it into the system. Postal code? Which bit of the address is the postal code? Destination not found. Shit. Fortunately, my vague recollections saved the day, and it turned out to be on the main road between Calais and Boulogne, which happened to be where we were headed anyway. We visited the hypermarket, stocked up with yoghurts, bread, bottled water and sweets (to supplement the crisps we already had) and braced ourselves for our imminent attack on the spine of France. To demolish as many miles as we could we would need to use fast roads, which in France invariably means tolls. We maintained a comfortable cruise of between 60 and 70, pausing occasionally to dole out handfuls of Euros at the Paeges, navigating using the atlas with the Garmin set up to keep us in roughly the right direction. We wanted to avoid Paris as it would probably absorb more than its fair share of our driving time, so we headed first in the direction of Le Mans, then Chartres, then Orleans, then Clermont Ferrand, where we would join the final autoroute of the day, the magnificent A75. The early stages of the trip disappeared with little drama, the only hilarity being when the two-way adaptor we had to supply volts to the Garmin and the fridge, got hot and melted. It had been complete rubbish from the beginning; a big, bulky affair that only just fitted into the cars awkwardly placed lighter socket, and which lost electrical contact with even the slightest movement. It melted less than 3 hours into the trip, leaving us having to alternate between running the fridge (to preseve our newly acquired yoghurts) and having GPS. We figured that Yoghurt Preservation was priority number 1 and so dismissed the Garmin from duties, being sacked immediately after having guided us safely through the industrial areas of Orleans. [singlepic id=3173 w=720 float=] We elected to abandon the Autoroutes whose tolls were already eating away into our Euro reserves, and because we fancied to perhaps start to see a bit of French scenery, It was here that we had our first interaction with rural French society. We found ourselves driving cautiously on unfamiliar roads from one identical French peasant village to the next, all brown plastered houses, closed shutters and little or no sign of life, Suddenly I saw in the middle distance what looked like an enduro rider, all wrapped in black leather. I saw his bike, too, and that he was waving me to the roadside. Maybe there had been an accident and he needed our help? That would be no, then. Instead, a man with glasses and an amusing hat invited me to pull over, produce my documents and sit in a van for a little chat. He was a Gendarme, and I, it seemed, was screwed. His English was a damn sight better than my French, my effort at Franglais wasn’t particularly well received and he didn’t award me any leniency for trying. The fine for 80km/h in a 50km/h zone was 90 Euros, and I gained a point on my French driving license, something I never knew I possessed in the first place. Once back in the car, I was annoyed. It had been stupid of me, surely there had been signs advising that there was a 50 km/h limit, surely I could have seen the speed gun and slowed in time. But because I hadn’t been intentionally driving fast, this never occurred to me. We were never likely to experience the upper limits of anything much in a 1.4 litre 306, but this was always intended to be a nice, sedate trip. It was a shame that the spectre of the Gendarmes constantly on the look out for errant speeding Eengleeshs would render relaxation a little less easy. With Nicola at the helm we pressed on, thinking it would still be wise to bypass a chunk of toll and stick to the back roads as far as Clermont-Ferrand while daylight remained. With our yoghurt having by now reached absolute zero we decided to switch the single remaining power outlet from the fridge and back to the Garmin to keep us from straying back onto the Autoroutes. For a while all seemed to be going well when, suddenly. it announced “prepare to turn left”. [singlepic id=3169 w=720 float=] The left in question appeared to be a tiny residential street, so we ignored it. Displeased by our disobedience, the Garmin went on to demand we again turn left, this time onto something that looked like a farm track. Mile after mile we gave blatant disregard to the Garmin with its preposterous routing suggestions. Nicola had never driven on the right and tends not to go on really long drives very often. One reason for our somewhat left field choice of transportation was that it was Nicolas own car, and she felt comfortable driving it. She could have really done without the unease brought on by the Garmin barking out silly ideas, and me saying “No, ignore it!”. The solution, in the middle of Clermont-Ferrand, and after a particularly ludicrous instruction from the Garmin, was for it to be switched off again and the fridge reinstated. I took over driving for a bit as Nicola had done the last couple of hours. It was now pitch dark and I would begin the night shift and drive as far as I could before fatigue killed me for the night. The N75 is a fantastic road made even better by the added mystery of night. I have no doubt at all that the scenery it threads through is astonishing, but the darkness meant I didn’t get to see any of it. I recall though huge numbers of roadside eateries and illuminated hoardings lining the tarmac as it sinuously flowed from valley to crest. In places the gradients were deceptively steep, and unless I kept at least 75mph in the bank my speed would soon dwindle on the ascent, a downshift would be necessary and we’d be forced to join the lorries in the crawler lane. I was enjoying the car. I loved that it felt like I was doing all the work and I loved that you could hear exactly what was going on under the bonnet, feel the gears meshing asnd the clutch biting. The steering, devoid of any hydraulic assistance, was just a linkage from biceps to wheels. For the first time in a long while, I was participating in the sport of momentum management, taking overtaking opportunities wherever gravity and traffic allowed, using the throttle gently and never, ever touching the brakes. To me, this is the essence of driving. My girlfriend could see how much fun I was having even though we were travelling at thoroughly legal speeds. [singlepic id=3171 w=720 float=] It is such a shame that the cars of today, irrespective of price, deny you many of these simple tactile pleasures. I look at the driver of a newish Mercedes C-Class as he spears past us: he’s not driving; he’s steering but his car is doing everything else for him. I feel we have the moral victory of the roads as we draw to a halt at a service area outside Severac-Le-Chateau. Here, BP were to play hosts for us for our first night of European sleep. Night had truly taken over and my last the pro-plus caffeine boost had long since worn off so it was wise to stop now lest fatigue and grumpiness get the better of us. Our accommodation for tonight and the next seven, if all else wet to plan, would be the car. This meant a bit of reorganisation to make the most of the meagre interior space, the fridge, maps and belongings were all assigned new homes for the night and the seats were reclined to give some semblance of bed-ness. How we felt tomorrow morning would tell us whether our plan was going to work. Could we would make it through the week without a major re-think? It had been a day not without drama, nor a little misadventure. But the car seemed to be in fine form, the earlier reliability questions seemed to have answered themselves for now. Better still, we were having fun. But now, sleeping bags deployed, and on the edge of unconsciousness, we closed our tired eyes and slid contentedly into a deep, chilly, slumber Sunday, 4th October, Severac-Le-Chateau to Marseilles We had been travelling deep into the night and had finally reached our limits at a BP service station near Severac-le-Chateau. The service areas in Europe offer a legitimate place to spend the night on long journeys, they are usually rich with heavy trucks, the sort with curtains and TV aerials, and rest is essential when travelling the long distances offered by the interior of France. The question of whether we would survive our first night had been answered but we were thankful that we had come equipped with blankets and warm clothes. It had been a cold night, but you never notice the cold until you wake up, and then find it impossible to sleep again. [singlepic id=3164 w=720 float=] When we did finally get up, we were made fully aware that we were definitely, properly, no longer in England. What we saw through our condensation heavy windscreen was a proper view of rural France. The whole hillside village of Severac-le-Chateau was presented in front of us, complete with castle at its peak and looking like a haven to all the possible French stereotypes. We were tempted to visit and look for signs of a beret-toting unshaven man in a blue striped jersey with a string of onions around his neck, astride a rickety old bike with a basket full of baguettes. We made do instead with using the facilities at the service station and grabbing some leaflets from the excellent tourist information desk, noting how, so far, European service stations were better than English ones in every single way. We found ourselves in a region known as Aveyron, famous for lending its name to a certain Bugatti, which is appropriate when you take the roads in consideration. They. Are. Superb. One notable feature, of course, is the Milau Viaduct, a magnificent and world reknown structure that piggybacks the A75 over the Milau Valley, a span which prevents an otherwise 45 mile journey to reach the opposite bank. It was my second visit here and I still suffer a shortage of breath when I see it even on TV, but to see it and to hear it in the flesh is another matter. After visiting the thoroughly superb visitor centre (which even provided the occasional word of English if you looked hard enough) Nicola drove the Peugeot over the worlds highest motorway bridge deck (at a thousand feet, Canary Wharf’s One Canada Square would easily fit beneath) while I excitedly squirted the video camera around. The results were probably unwatchable, recording felt necessary at the time. [singlepic id=3165 w=720 float=] To be honest, the road from Clermont Ferand to Montelimar didn’t really need embellishment with such a grand structure, but it acted as an extraordinary dressing atop an already inspirational salad. Carving its way through sandstone landscapes, bridge and tunnel takes you from one scintillating panorama to the next. The autumn colours dance from the palette all year round while the foliage scrolls through the traditional seasonal spectrum. It was no surprise whatsoever that I totally missed our turning. I was proving to be a terrible co-pilot, my concentration quite rightly being stolen by our surroundings. Acknowledging my failings, I turned to the Garmin to lead us safely into Marseilles, our next port of call. The AA Atlas of France provided a (nearly useless) street plan of the town, with only a handful of street names, and I dialled one in which looked to be pretty much where we wanted to end up. And here began another battle of wills between Global Positioning Technology and us. At first I was very obedient, following the roads that it suggested, until I got fed up with the Autoroute and opted for the coastal road into Marseille. After the roads we had been on this morning the flat landscape and cohorts of trees and vines, all perfectly aligned, were a marked contrast. Our first sighting of the Mediterranean was a somewhat industrialised and slightly unlovely one, and I handed control back over to GPS.. As if to punish my disobedience, the Garmin took it upon itself to send us down all manner of side streets barely wide enough for a bicycle, let alone a car. Door mirrors were in great peril as the streets wound around the city centre, and all too often we were sent the wrong way in one way traffic, or onto streets which had long been pedestrianized with no vehicular access. After one daft instruction two many, I sacked the Garmin yet again and took matters into my own hands. Our end destination (the marina) was actually within visual range, and we were headed the wrong way. So, skilfully avoiding the trams, and one heart stopping J-turn later, we were home and dry. We found a hugely expensive place to park securely, and sighed with relief. [singlepic id=3170 w=720 float=] Poor Nicola, though, was not a well girl. The combination of headache, heat and my constant evasive driving manoeuvres had aggravated her somewhat, and it was all she could do to stand and walk. It didn’t help that our initial impression of Marseilles had been lukewarm at best. Certainly we felt it necessary to be protective of our possessions, and I caught my Nikon being eyed up on a couple of occasions. We didn’t make it any further than the marina. We took it nice and easy, a few holiday snaps and that was that. I’ll gloss over how Nicola was feeling when we got back to the car, but she seemed much better when we stopped on the promenade to watch the sun setting over the Mediterranean for the first time. After the dramas of the day we had great cause for relaxation and made plans to head for our rest stop for the night, a service area on the city’s outskirts. Unfortunately for Nicola, the last section of driving for the day was unexpectedly arduous, our route out of Marseilles having many sharp turns and manic drivers. Such was the tailgating I suffered that I was forced to keep speed up, and Nicola suffered rather more lateral G than I wanted to expose her to. After a couple of mercy stops we finally made it to the rest area, which was substantially less pleasant than the one we visited the previous night. We got the stove out and had a go at eating some fine cuisine in the guise of Heinz Alphabetti Spaghetti. I lapped mine up on an empty stomach, I’m not sure if Nicola’s went down quite so easily. It certainly came up again well, though. [singlepic id=3166 w=720 float=] Roadwork also goes by the handle of Rust-MyEnemy, but his driving license says Chris Haining. He writes far too many words, often about subjects that can only possibly be of interest to him. He has a dusty cramped little blog of his own but we at Hooniverse occasionally let him post here. If he behaves.

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