Part two – roof down (for ten minutes)
As the car swung through the open gates…wow. A beautiful, palatial French manor house, dating back to 1766, set in lush green grounds. Cream coloured stone, the fourth tier in grey brick with matching slate roof. Tall double doors in the centre, with pairs of long shuttered windows on either side.
‘I could live here’, I said.
It was completely gorgeous, even with the stern, leaden sky and fat drizzly rain. A very splendid first sleepover stop on our journey to Tuscany. Sadly, the ever present wetness prevented me from sitting at a table in the grounds, sipping a delicious aperitif and pretending that I actually lived there. A glass of champagne in the bijou bar area at the bottom of the swirly staircase instead? Oh, alright then. And some delicious tiny green olives and miniature puffed sesame cheesy things that appear without asking for them? Okay, if I must. Needless to say, the dining room was elegant, the dinner, divine, and the wines, eminently quaffable. The drizzle even stopped long enough for us to enjoy the idyllic, if wet, garden views as we ate. I was so whisked away with marvellousness of it all, and the slightly incongruous un-French dinner music soundtrack of Dire Straits singing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ through the cheese course, it wasn’t until I looked around that I realised we were the only diners left in the room, and that it was dark outside.
The unseasonal weather through France meant that if it wasn’t actually raining, then it soon would be. However, the thrill of no rain for an hour or so, despite the very grumpy looking sky, was reason enough to put the roof down on the Old Lady. Jumpers on, rather than sunglasses, and the heater warming our toes, but at least the roof was finally down. Our exultation lasted until the rain began to spit, ten minutes later. I pulled my hat down more securely. Spit turned to drizzle and then to proper rain. For the roof to go up, or down, the car needs to be stationary, or travelling at half a mile an hour at the most – not ideal on a narrow road with nowhere to pull over. I tucked my enormous scarf more snugly around my neck and squinted through the rain for a stopping place. Wipers on, roof down, was an unusual combination, and a vision of English ridiculousness to the French drivers, who turned their heads to stare from the other side of the road. We were decidedly damp by the time a lay-by eventually appeared. Roof button deployed, the magic mechanism swung into action above our heads, the soft-top fabric fitting into place like some enormous black bird landing on its nest.
Although at times the thrashing rain did somewhat obscure the splendid scenery, it had a habit of reducing in speed and quantity when it really mattered. It was back to a tickling drizzle as we crested the hill to Épernay, enabling us to see the vista ahead – washed in black and white and a smudgy navy. With dark lines taking the shapes of the distant city it put me in mind of a Lowry painting. Breathtaking. The torrential rain and road spray through the Alps, coupled with high, winding roads, was also breathtaking! Here too, the rain did relent enough to allow for the most utterly amazing views, as though stopping on purpose so as to show off the most dramatic bits of scenery.
Throughout our road trip I loved the anticipation that came with each new destination. As we approached whichever town or village we were headed for, the excitement grew. Driving into Troyes, with its medieval old town, narrow cobbled streets and half-timbered buildings, was rather wonderful. Extra specially wonderful of course because stage six of the Tour de France did finish in Troyes, as any road trip pilot and, by association his navigator – on a road trip to Tuscany to play Rach two in a concert, did know. Our room for the night, a beautifully converted attic with exposed wooden beams and romantic vibe, with ginormous bathroom, was also rather wonderful.
‘I could live here’, I said.
The entire hotel and its surrounding higgledy-piggledy buildings, was very fairy tale-esque. It also provided the most glorious breakfast in the most loveliest of tiny old dining rooms. By the time our road trip ended I had eaten a lot of breakfasts, but the one in Troyes was the best – and the most expensive! The winner of the most eye-popping breakfast view though, was in Chamonix.
The Best Western bustled with groups of climbers, children, dogs, glamorous looking women in sky scraper gold heels and full make up and older gentlemen wearing jeans and flip flops. Wet haired swimmers swathed in white towelling robes wandered sporadically from the modest outdoor pool through the lounge area of the hotel. A mixed gathering of people, and dogs, speaking a multitude of languages ensconced in a hotel in Chamonix, brought together by a mind-boggling mountain range and his royal highness, Mont Blanc. Breakfast brought with it blue sky, puffy white clouds and a crystal clear view of his majesty, complete with icing topping. On the other side of him, Italy.