19 July 2013

A French road trip in style

Given the choice between taking a seven-year-old Ford Focus and an admittedly borrowed but shiny new Peugeot RCZ on a 1,500-mile trip through France, it was hardly a tough decision to make.

A chance conversation at a press lunch resulted in Peugeot lending me its latest sports coupé for my 10-day jaunt through western France. It wouldn’t be a test drive as such – just the opportunity to see how the low-slung RCZ sports coupé would cope on narrow winding country roads leading to hilltop villages as well as long stretches of motorway.

It would be a little while before I could show off this really quite beautiful car, however. The “dolphin-blue” RCZ sat patiently below deck during the civilised overnight crossing on Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to St Malo. And then it went straight to the underground car park of the Grand Hotel des Thermes while we explored the underrated port of St Malo. But finally the car had a full six hours of being on view – and duly admired by passing motorists – as we headed south through the Pays de la Loire’s lush green countryside and Poitou-Charente’s endless sunflower fields towards the Dordogne.

I could see why the car turned heads. It resembles the Audi TT in shape and design, but has none of the WAG stigma attached. It’s also considerably cheaper than an equally tooled-up TT: mine was the six-gear GT HDi with all the bells and whistles and its on-the-road price is just over £25,000.

It was also immediately obvious that taking a fuel-efficient diesel on a long road trip was a good idea. The display showing the remaining miles before the next fill-up actually went up as we cruised along the motorway; the car was dutifully calculating that a steady speed along a smooth road was doing wonders for fuel efficiency. In fact, I didn’t refill until after 550 miles, and there was still fuel left in the tank.

I could also set the speed limit to prevent me from unwittingly breaking the law. Going at breakneck speed along French autoroutes is becoming a thing of the past, I’ve noticed over the years – at least among French drivers. Satnavs aren’t allowed to show locations of speed cameras any more, but then I had no desire to go above the 80mph motorway limit. And the car’s low position gave me the impression I was going much faster than I was.

It was only on the rather bumpy D roads towards my destination near Bergerac that I noticed that the extra-wide tyres and 19-inch wheels made the ride a bit harder. But then on the stretches where single-lane carriages briefly opened into two lanes – uphill, as they invariably do – the engine’s power made overtaking easy work.

We could nip past lumbering Dutch caravans that clogged the roads leading to the Dordogne’s most popular medieval villages: Beynac, Les Eyzies, La Roque-Gageac, Domme. Sunflowers lit up the fields along the D roads between the half-timbered village houses of Issigeac and Monpazier’s handsome arcaded square. These roads were quieter, made for pootling along – which suited the RCZ just fine.

The car would have plenty of time to glide through its six gears as we sped along the motorway through Limousin on the way north to the Loire Valley. The landscape flattened out somewhat as we reached villages along the confluence of the Loire and Vienne rivers, broken up occasionally by limestone ridges housing troglodyte caves. The car was getting heavier by this point, as the temptation to stock up on Saumur reds and rosés was proving too much. Luckily the boot was much bigger than you would expect from a coupé, with two narrow seats in the rear adding extra room. Indeed, the whole interior was remarkably spacious, with plenty of legroom and comfortable sculpted front seats.

There was just enough time to fill the boot to capacity with a last-minute shop near Calais before the return ferry crossing and the drive home. I was hoping against hope that the Peugeot driver might get lost on his way to pick up the car. Sadly he didn’t.

Images © Adam Batterbee

14 July 2013

Bastille Day – France en Fête

The French don't call their biggest holiday Bastille Day, of course. For them it's la fête nationale, or simply le quatorze juillet – even if half the country celebrates on the 13th rather than the 14th of July. If geography is on your side, you might be able to catch back-to-back festivities. Over the years, I've had the luck to be in France on both nights, and each experience has been as diverse as the country itself.

The village experience
If you're a Francophile, Bastille Day in a small village reinforces every reason why you love France. Last summer, while I was in the Lot Valley, I was taken by my hosts at Lot Cycling Holidays to the small village of Rampoux on 14 July. Several hundred people were squeezed into two long marquees, where €16 bought you five courses of rustic food and unlimited wine and water – capped off with creamy rounds of cabécou cheese. A band played old-fashioned French songs that required no dancing skill apart from a basic ability to waltz. There was raucous singing that went on till the early hours, and at some point I imagined they had set off the fireworks. We didn't stick around long enough to find out, as we had left by 2am. It was one of the most enjoyable nights I'd ever had in France.

The small town experience
Purely by chance I was in St-Girons in the Ariège one year on 13 July, intending just a quick stopover before going on to Carcassonne where I had planned to spend the festivities. I had no idea that St-Girons was one of the towns that celebrated on the 13th, so a stroll into the centre of this pleasant riverside town in the Midi-Pyrénées quickly revealed a massive party going on. More dancing, market stalls, dodgem cars for the kids and an impressive display of fireworks for such a small town.

The slightly bigger town experience
That brings me to Carcassonne, which has the second-largest fireworks display in France. (Paris comes on top, naturally.) The fireworks are set off behind the ramparts of the medieval citadel, La Cité, where the display has all the drama of a five-act play. By the end it looks as though the Cité is on fire. Utterly compelling.

The seaside town experience
A bowl of mussels on the quayside of Sète, followed by cheesy French bands playing in the main square. Then a manic bash on the dodgems before a cocktail at the water's edge and a brilliant fireworks display. I could think of worse ways of spending a July evening in Languedoc.

The twin town experience
Antibes and Juan-les-Pins sit side by side on the Mediterranean, barely a kilometre apart. By sheer luck, I was in Antibes on the 13th when they hold their festival, and in Juan-les-Pins on the 14th for theirs. As restaurants in Antibes were advertising hugely overpriced menus for the night of the fête, we decided to stock up on food from the market in Cours Masséna and have a picnic on the balcony of the seafront flat we were renting. The fireworks were being held just next door on the beach, where an orchestra was playing the theme tunes from James Bond films. It was entertaining, but there was none of the carnival atmosphere I'd seen at other celebrations. Meanwhile, in Juan-les-Pins, we were guests at the jazz festival on the 14th, when the organisers time the fireworks to go off between sets. Jazz on a summer's night and fireworks lighting up the Mediterranean. Pure magic.

05 July 2013

Rimini: La Notte Rosa

La Notte Rosa is like New Year’s Eve all over again – but with better weather and thousands more people enjoying the balmy summer air. Every July since 2005, this 100km stretch of the Adriatic has been putting on one of Italy’s liveliest festivals, la Notte Rosa, which translates inelegantly as “pink night”. Sounds better in Italian.

Everything is draped in pink – from the ancient bridge in Rimini’s old town to the hotels and bars lining the seaside strip. And everyone wears something in that colour, even macho Italian men who nonchalantly don garish pink wigs, T-shirts and shorts. Somehow, they pull off the look with complete panache.

Thousands of people stream through the streets of Rimini, all in a relaxed mood, stopping now and then to dance to a band performing on a street corner. Fireworks along the coast are set off at midnight, but that’s not the end. The party goes on all night: if you’re lucky enough to be awake after 5am, you just might catch one of the world’s biggest beach barbecues on the wide stretch of Rimini’s sands. Or sway along to the music of the pianist who managed to stay awake all night to serenade the partygoers draped on the sun loungers.

You might wonder why everyone joins in with such gusto in a festival that has no obvious link to the region. Usually festivals celebrate a seasonal event (such as a wine harvest) or some of the wonderful food produced in various parts of Italy. But la Notte Rosa has no such straightforward history.

La Notte Rosa was inspired by the summertime Nuit Blanche (White Night) in Paris, when the French capital’s art galleries are open all night in a festive atmosphere. So why pink? The local Rimini politician who came up with the idea rather liked a festival that celebrated womanhood – hence the pink. That gender segregation didn’t last long, though, as people of both sexes wanted to join the fun. It quickly turned into a festival that celebrated the beginning of the summer season.

For such a busy event, the atmosphere is remarkably chilled. The streets might be packed with people of all ages, but no one is in a hurry to get anywhere, and nor is alcohol an important part of the evening. The result is an incredibly genial and happy atmosphere that is positively infectious.

There are special events planned throughout the evening. Most are open to the general public, including concerts featuring Italian X Factor winners on specially erected stages by the venerable Grand Hotel. This former home of the film director Federico Fellini is also the setting for a sumptuous private party put on by la Notte Rosa’s main sponsor, Martini. It’s a wonderfully elegant affair, filled with the beautiful people of Italy. But you don’t need to be on the A-list to enjoy la Notte Rosa. It really is a magical feeling strolling along the seafront watching the Italian population enjoying itself. And no matter how late you stay up, there’s always the enormous Rimini beach waiting for you the following day.

Images © Adam Batterbee