The Péage of Unreason

Despite the fact that I suffer from a motorway phobia (not such an uncommon thing as you might imagine), I found myself saying to the family, “You know, maybe motorways aren’t so bad after all”. It was Sunday lunchtime, late July, just outside Calais. The autoroute was almost picturesque, its central reservation crammed with attractive flowering shrubs, and there was not a single car, lorry, caravan or “mobil-‘ome” in sight. I was cured!
Twenty-four hours later, we were all reaching for the Valium again. South of Dijon, the lorries were back, the Dutch were back, the Brits and the Germans were back and the péage was once again the Highway To Hell. In fact, it was Hell.
Now we remembered why we’d sworn never to drive the length of France again. What was worse, we’d just worked out that, by the time you added up all the petrol and the frequent and astronomical péage tolls, it would have been almost as cheap to put the car on the train and travel without terror.
People love national stereotyping when it comes to drivers, but it doesn’t matter where they come from, as soon as they hit the French péage, they all go completely crazy. It’s almost as if they’re saying, look, we’ve paid for this, so we’ll do what we like.
“What we like” consists of switching lanes without indicating, weaving in and out of traffic like a snake, exceeding the speed limit as a matter of honour, flashing, hooting and gesticulating and, above all, seeing how close you can get to the car in front while travelling at 100 miles an hour.
The autoroute has magnificent signing. One of the most useful notices is a frequent and gigantic hoarding pointing out in pictorial fashion that you need to keep at least two of the white lines they have helpfully painted at the side of the road between you and the next car. If not, it says, you’re dead if it chooses to brake suddenly.
Fine. Except that not a single person takes the tiniest notice of it. The authorities might as well have saved themselves the millions of francs the warnings undoubtedly cost. Yes, so it’s just human beings exercising their right to take risks, like they do by smoking, mountaineering and walking to the North Pole. The only trouble is, they’re taking risks with me and my family as well as their own.
So it wasn’t surprising that every few kilometres, there was a pile-up. We saw a Dutch caravan which had ended up vertical rather than horizontal, numerous shunts and one scene where people were actually being laid out by the side of the road. The thing to look out for is a sudden blaze of brake lights and hazard warning lights immediately in front of you. This is a signal for you to slam on the brakes and do likewise, hoping that the person behind is reasonably alert.
The péage has huge and very impressive gantries which provide you with useful information such as “belt up in the back” (observed as much as the “keep your distance” signs are) or advance notice that the next “aire” will provide live entertainment for children. The one to watch out for, however, is “Bouchon”. This, conveniently, is a direct translation of the English word “Bottleneck”, and what it means is, keep going at the same outrageous speed, but be ready to leap on your brakes and switch on your flashers at any moment.
On the way home, something really peculiar happened. One of the many ignored signs is one advising drivers to “take a break”. This is something you can actually do in France (as opposed to in the UK) because every few kilometres there are very nice little “aires”, or resting places. Being obedient, we decided to do just that, and the three attractive females in the family promptly lay down on a blanket and fell asleep. I, the unattractive male member of the family, went to the loo and was startled, on my return, to find that a battered old Renault had parked next to them. In it were two young Marti Pellow clones (dark pony-tailed, handsome, unshaven), who were observing the girls closely.
Having just read a newspaper article about motorway bandits, I momentarily and mistakenly sensed trouble, until it became clear that they had merely broken down. The Renault wouldn’t start, so I offered them a push. It did the trick, the engine sputtered into life and they set off down the slip road. But then, inexplicably, they started to reverse, and came all the way back to us.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“We want to say thank you,” replied Marti One.
“Oh, that’s okay.”
Marti Two cupped his hand to his mouth and inhaled, imitating taking a drag on a joint.
“Would you like to ‘fume’ something?”
Ala! So it wasn’t only hairstyles they had in common with Marti Pellow.
I declined the offer.
“Une bière, peut-être?”
“No thanks, we’re driving.”
So, with friendly waves and cries of “Bonne route”, we parted company and they drove off.
“Do you think we’ll ever see them again?” wondered the girls.
We would. At the next péage toll barrier, the Two Martis had been pulled over and their car was being disembowelled by several gendarmes. I felt awful, simultaneously guilty and not guilty. After all, if I hadn’t done them the good turn of giving them a push, they wouldn’t have been busted.
There must be a moral here. It’s just that I can’t work out what it is.

From the Western Daily Press

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Blessed Virgin Island

The airport at Tortola, the main British Virgin Island, is currently being extended. Before too long, 777s will be able to land there and that may well spell the beginning of the end of this island’s uniquely unspoilt character, which thrives on the extraordinary contradictions you encounter every step of the way.
The most obvious of these is the fact that, despite the Britishness of the islands, the currency is the US dollar. In Tortola you drive on the left, not all that easy when using a left hand drive car, all the vehicles being imported from the US.Virtually the entire island has a 20 mph speed limit, enforced by some of the most uncompromising speed bumps in existence.
We stumbled by mistake into the Sugar Mill Restaurant, expecting it to be as informal and laid back as the other eating places on the island. “Will Sir and Madam be taking dinner with us this evening?” enquired the flunky. The food was actually fine, but you couldn’t help thinking back to the same morning, when we had breakfasted in the adjacent Carrot Bay Shell Museum. Egberth Donovan will cook you a breakfast so gigantic (three huge pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon) that you couldn’t possibly hope to finish it. This will cost you five dollars, the price which you would pay for a beer in the Sugar Mill.
Egberth will tell you that, despite the unrivalled value of what he offers, he can’t make ends meet. Why? There’s one main reason. An increasing number of visitors to the islands are choosing to stay at one of the “all-inclusive” resorts which are beginning to spring up. Most of them prefer to remain cocooned for their breakfast rather than walking a short distance to support Egberth.
Just round the corner from the Shell Museum you can find one of the Caribbean’s best-known social treasures. Constructed entirely from driftwood and cardboard and held together mainly by discarded bits of bikini, Bomba’s Shack is the ultimate den of iniquity. Its charm lies in being so unashamedly upfront about its decadence, with “mushroom tea” (ahem) on sale, a notice offering a free tee shirt to any woman removing her top, and a wall full of Polaroids illustrating the many customers who have done just that. The culprit? Bomba’s “special” punch (seven eighths neat rum, plus secret ingredients), which turns grown men and women into gibbering wrecks.
Just along the coast, Smuggler’s Cove must surely one of the most idyllically secluded beaches anywhere in the world. To get there, you have to hire a jeep and drive for half an hour through sub-tropical rain forest along a track that has more potholes than surface. But it’s worth it.
You certainly wouldn’t expect to find a beach bar at Smuggler’s Cove, but there is one. Bob Denniston, the 82-year old proprietor, operates a little Honesty Bar because he’s not there that often and even when he is, he’d rather sit and shoot the breeze than act as a barman. You delve into a cobwebby back room, past a rubber shark, and help yourself to your Carib beer from the fridge, placing your dollar bills onto a plate on the bar. You can then go and drink it in the sea.
The people from the resorts would never find Smuggler’s Cove, but you can bet that, within five years, there’ll be a metalled road leading there. Enjoy it while you can.
From the Hampshire Chronicle

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Un, deux, Troyes

Mention the French city of Troyes to any English person and you’ll probably get the response, “I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been there.” This is because it is efficiently by-passed by the A5 autoroute, meaning that anyone travelling from the Channel ports to the South of France will have seen Troyes on signposts scores of times but probably won’t have stopped off for a visit. This is an error!
To clear up the first question everyone asks, the pronunciation is as in un, deux trois, and not as in “Helen of …”. Troyes is the capital of the Champagne region, and large amounts of the sparkling nectar are drunk here, even though the bottling plants and cellars are mainly in nearby Reims.
The medieval city of Troyes is a charming place to wander round and, because it’s not nearly such a tourist magnet as it ought to be, it’s pleasantly quiet. Fairy-tale half-timbered buildings, impeccably restored, cluster round the market place and down the numerous narrow alleyways, the best-known of which is the “Ruelle des Chats”, or “Cat Alley”.
The city centre is enclosed within a network of roads which, on a map, exactly resembles a champagne bottle cork, and is thus known as the “Bouchon de Champagne”. Within this area, you can stroll from restaurant to creperie to bar unhindered by traffic. Just outside the central area lies the Catholic cathedral, which dates from the twelfth century and contains some of the most stunning stained glass windows to be found anywhere in France. Just adjacent to the cathedral is the Museum of Modern Art, with an ever-changing collection of top quality abstract works.
Once you have soaked up sufficient history (the Seine, incidentally, flows through the city), Troyes presents unusual shopping opportunities. The area’s main industry is clothes manufacture, so on every corner there are “bonneteries” selling “seconds”, and also a large number of full-scale outlets offering designer clothing at bargain prices. Among labels manufacturing in the Troyes area are Le Coq Sportif, for sports gear, and Le Petit Bateau, for children’s clothes.
During the day, there is much to explore. Within half an hour’s drive lies the Forêt d’Orient, a vast wooded area rich in wildlife and ideal for walking, cycling and picnicking. At the centre of the forest is a large lake with extensive water sports facilities and even its own artificial beach!
Dining in Troyes is extensive and traditional, with the emphasis firmly on meat. The local speciality is Andouillettes de Troyes (coarse sausages). And before you leave, don’t forget to head up into the hills and visit a few of the local small champagne vineyards, where you can taste the goods and buy at bargain prices.
So next time you’re on the A5, don’t ignore the Troyes signs – follow them!
From the Hampshire Chronicle

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Cream of Jersey

If you are at all concerned about flying, a trip with flybe to Jersey needn’t worry you at all. You wander down to Eastleigh, climb aboard, fasten your seatbelt and you’re there. Well, there’s just about time for the ignored duty free trolly to blast up and down the cabin, but that’s it. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are commencing our descent …”

To be frank, when we returned from our Jersey weekend, the feeling we had was more or less that we might as well go every weekend, so simple was it. A lot simpler, for example, than battling with the traffic to get to Devon or Cornwall. The initial impetus was to attend the first-ever Jersey Rock Festival (see below), but a brief search of the internet had thrown up the following ridiculous bargain: The Les Charrières Country Hotel was offering three nights’ bed and breakfast for £99, including a free car. I’ll repeat that, including a free car. And it had a nice swimming pool, fitness centre and carvery restaurant as well. It turned out to be every bit as attractive as it sounded, witrh no catches. Who knows what bargains they have on offer this summer? Check their website for details (see below).

The car is actually quite important, in that Jersey isn’t a place you can wander round on foot with any degree of success. Yes, the island is small, but the road system is dense. They are narrow and seldom have pavements, so cycling also isn’t an attractive option, outside of the specially designated cycle routes. But driving here is relaxing, as (unless you are Jim Bergerac with your little red sports car) you have to adhere to a 40 mile an hour limit, even on the token few hundred metres of dual carriageway around St Helier.

Our visit coincided with a heatwave, so most of the time was spent on the beach. Having checked out several equally appealing stretches of sand, we settled on St Brelade’s, which was just perfect, with every facility, yet pleasingly quiet. The feel is very much that of being somewhere like Granville in Normandy, except that St Brelade’s has the ubiquitous branch of Pizza Express. Two tips for St Brelade’s: Don’t tangle with the man who rents out sun loungers (he doesn’t do deals), and do take a master’s degree in understanding the incomprehensible scratch’n’sniff car parking system.

Rather like the Isle of Wight, Jersey has a wealth of things to do should the weather misbehave. There the similarity ends, however, as Jersey is a far more attractive proposition – and that’s coming from someone who actually loves the Isle of Wight as well. The world-famous Jersey Zoo, founded by Gerald Durrell and dedicated to conservation, is unmissable, as are the stunning Mont Orgeuil Castle at Gorey and the fascinating Jersey War Tunnels. The island also specializes in special events, such as the international Air Display (September), the Festival of Motoring ((June) and of course, the famous Battle of the Flowers (August), to name but a few.

We couldn’t resist the deliciously tacky “Jersey Experience”, in which the island’s history is enacted in a baffling audio-visual extravaganza, presented, for reasons unknown, by a lugubrious John Nettles disguised as a Captain Nemo character. I’m not knocking it, as it was great entertainment and also included a free round of mini-golf, set up in such a mad way that anyone useless at golf (me) can still win.

As a festival bore par excellence (every Glastonbury since 1980, numerous Readings, Knebworths and heaven knows how many others), people often ask me what is the best festival I’ve ever attended. The perhaps surprising answer is Jersey Rock. After the success of the original festival in 2004, this year’s effort promises to be even better. It’s hard to explain what the magic is. The community feel, perhaps; the fact that it is compact and doesn’t involve camping; and most of all (in stark contrast to other festivals) an intelligent coherence in the bands they book. The 2005 festival featured Southampton.s excellent Delays, plus two bands whose profile has risen enormously in the intervening twelve months: the charming Subways and newly-crowned megastars Razorlight. Razorlight’s dummer Andy Burrows, who is from Winchester, commented, “The Jersey Festival holds great memories for us. It was the first time when we were able to tell from the audience reaction that things were really taking off. The atmosphere was incredible.”

For the 2005 festival, promoter Warren Holt (an islander whose dedication and energy is crucial for the success of the festival) has secured an even more stellar line-up, with glam New Yorkers The Bravery (who will no doubt disrobe in the sun, since they stripped at Glastonbury in the rain), plus the nu-baggy of Kasabian and chirpy Geordies The Futureheads. He could scarcely have selected a more promising set of up-and-coming acts. The venue is the same as in 2004, namely the Jersey Royal Showground in Trinity. If you want to go, act fast, as the capacity is only 7500.

The highlight of our weekend last September came in an unexpected way. Searching for an idyllic harbour-front meal (we considered Rozel, but settled on the even more attractive Gorey), we stumbled upon the Moorings Hotel, in the shadow of Mount Orgueil. Hesitant at first (we feared it would be too posh), we were rewarded with a quite sensational five-course gourmet extravaganza for just £25 a head, served with impeccable courtesy and attention. You are unlikely to find a better culinary bargain anywhere in the UK. Will we go back this September? You bet!

From the Mid-Hampshire Observer

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