Monday, 2 December 2013

A Travelogue: Disco Lightning and Other Stories

This is a not-necessarily-linear tale of a road-trip in France; there is the odd toll gate on the way. Quite a lot of ‘80s music and fast cornering. Tomatoes. Wildlife. To be honest, it is fairly abstract. You can leave if you like. 

The Beginning, Folkestone, later than anticipated, July
“It’s not the Nürburgring* you know!”  the man said, sternly.
Hurtled to a halt. Sheepish, muttered apologies....late...made check-in by clear 30 seconds....embarrassed cough...continued towards customs.


Disco Lightning – Paris and South, 2-5am, July

Surprisingly, underneath the most romantic city in the world is a labyrinth of dark underpasses, packed with fast moving traffic. Diverted off the motorway, I stuck to the tail of the crazed lorry driver in front. Screeching round corners, heading south. My great uncle’s theory was that if you get lost driving in London you should follow a taxi. Same difference in Paris (more or less), except that I was also following signs to Orly airport.

The 2am mid-summer sky had blackened and flashes of lightning punctuated the cityscape in a pleasingly cinematographic fashion, and intensified for 100km south until the downpour arrived. The autoroute turned into a river and the lightning became a continuous flickering illumination. The effect of driving through a very wet ‘80s disco, was enhanced by Wham! The Final** on the stereo.

Strange things happen when playing with itunes late at night after a few pre-holiday drinks. But there is more to this than purely atrocious taste in music.*** My early teen years were punctuated by trips to the Isle of Man where we and our cousins were turfed out of bed in London at silly o’clock, slung into the back of a campervan and driven to Liverpool. The soundtrack to this was in the hands of a younger relative who was massively into Wham! and our grandmother who favoured Abba, and The Beatles (other than that blasphemous John Lennon and his Imagine song****). I recollect some Chas and Dave as well, but it may have been delirium.
So. Not atrocious taste in music, just the lasting effect of atavistic dawn road trips. Honest. That, and having already used up any lively surplus of rock, metal, ska and more up to date pop. There was some sort of fight between Lady Gaga and The Scissor Sisters at one point. It was 4am by this point. Anything could happen.

Some notes on Natural History, France, Saturday
  • The French for bat is chauve-souris. (Discovered this last year. When I also told a friend’s daughter who was starting to learn German that bat poo is Fledermaus Scheiβe. Well, I was amused). Lots of ‘em about, anyhow.
  • The French for moth is Papillion du nuit. The debate on day-flying hummingbird hawk moths and cinnabar moths did not reach a satisfactory conclusion.
  • “Je regrette, nous sommes complet” said the garcon. “How can they be full when they have lots of seats and everything?” Asked my son as we went for icecream instead. Now that is what I call a formative cultural experience.

The Dordogne and Tomatoes, France, Saturday

The Dordogne is lovely. Just lovely.  All nut orchards and pretty villages, bread and cherries. They are thoroughly kinky about topiary in this region. Even the retail parks have crisp, crenellated hedging. Very exciting.

Also exciting are tomatoes: tasty, brilliant and they double as goldfish in a bag.

It was here that the cafetière met with an accident. Have you ever tried to buy a ‘French press coffee maker’ in France? Don’t bother, they don’t have them – or at least not in normal places like shops. Pour faire du camping, one must acquire a filter-thing and extemporise.

 Lascaux II, Sunday
When I was about nine, I had a book called Mammoths, Mastodons and Man. In fact I still have it.  I read it until it practically fell to bits. It spoke, amongst other things, of cave paintings in the Dordogne and I also had another book on how the study of palaeontology developed and key discoveries were made.

In 1940, a group of boys in France came across the most fabulous cave paintings in the world, while looking for a lost dog near the village of Montignac. I have wanted to visit the site ever since. But before I was born the caves were closed; with visitors had arrived algae, fungi and carbon dioxide which had affected the art and it looked like it would be damaged irreparably.
The slightly bonkers, but very effective solution was to build an exact replica of the cave, every curve and contour reproduced to within millimetres, and to recreate the original paintings using the same materials as the original Palaeolithic artists.

I am cynical of this sort of stuff, and dislike the Disneyfication of heritage enormously, but actually Lascaux II works. You can see it, experience it, comprehend how the artists used the contours of the rock to inform the shape of the animals they were painting. You are actually underground; the air is damp and cold. Ambition more or less achieved.

Further Notes on Natural History, Perpignan, three days later
  • The very south of France where it joins Spain is, relatively speaking outside my comfort zone. Unlike England, things are like, totally dry. Many plants have reduced or leathery leaves to limit water loss so it is a bit like pitching up in a Biology demonstration. And rather than strolling around contentedly scoffing plants, snails congregate like clusters of calcareous flowers on the twigs in the super-littoral zone, aestivating to retain water in the baking heat. It is a different world.
  • Turns out les garçons do not like it much when a lady driving a heavily laden seven-seater with roofbox and a GB number plate overtakes them. But this is not confined to France.
  • Swallowtail butterflies are too lovely to be real.

The Loire Valley, five days after that...

Visiting the Chaumont-sur-Loire garden festival was the fulfilment of another long-held ambition. I liked it so much I wrote it up for The Telegraph. I will probably go back. 


The Millau Viaduct

This is a viaduct that is so epic that if you type 'massive viaduct' into google it is the first thing that comes up. The A75 through central France is not the fastest motorway in the history of the universe but it is one of the most interesting. You drive up and up and up, eventually going through a mountain, then with no warning the ground just vanishes and you are suspended on a miracle of engineering shouting 'Wow! look at that! No, not you, you are driving. But wow!". If you ever get the chance, go.

This is some of what happened. There may be more but I doubt it.



* For those more into gardening than motor racing, the Nürburgring is a circuit in Germany.

** The Wham! Rap: “Wham! Bam! I am! A Man! Job or no jo-ob you can’t tell me that I’m no-ot. Do? You? Enjoy what you do? If not. Then stop. Don’t stay there and rot./Dancing shoes and pretty girls, boys in leather kiss girls in pearls.” He’s gay – who knew?

***I have broad musical tastes. Only some of it is atrocious.

****There is only so long that one can try and explain.