Part three – Italy
A gigantic, immovable mountain blocking a short cut to Italy? ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve got to go through it’, as Michael Rosen might say. Mont Blanc was, obviously, impossible to miss, and his mouth could be glimpsed ahead, wide open and hungry for vehicles – but the inside of the tunnel, and what was at the other end, were unknown. Again we were queuing for a theme park ride that we couldn’t see. A far less boring wait than the one for the train under the Channel though; the air was buzzy with excitement as we sat in line, taking our turn to show passports and pay the toll. With a clear blue sky and tepid morning sun signalling the start of a permanent ‘roof down’ scenario, our spirits, and our layers of extra clothes, were high. The French map was relegated to the glove box and Italy, instead, lay across my knees.
It was pretty thrilling, driving 7.215 miles through a mountain with the roof down. Warm air blew across the tops of our hats and the roar of the lorries made me put my hands over my ears. Eventually a dot of brightness came into view, growing bigger as we moved towards it and then… dazzling Italian sunshine. Mont Blanc was now Monte Bianco, the Italian phase of ‘what I did in my summer holidays’, was begun. The descent from the Alps to the valley floor, and ultimately the Mediterranean Sea, funnelled us through myriad sets of tunnels, spitting us out each time into spectacular Italian scenery. As the altitude dropped, the temperature soared and extraneous clothing was shed. At last. Sun, sunhat and over-large sunglasses – just call me Audrey.
The coastal road through Genoa was mind bogglingly scenic, as well as extremely busy in places; peppered with a sweary gesticulating Italian or two, and scores of death-defying scooter riders. Our hotel was further along the coast and proved to be rather tucked away, slightly problematic for the navigator, but after a circuit or two of a clutch of very tiny back roads – there it was. Its beautiful gardens spilled forth with colourful flowers and intoxicating smells; a pair of powder blue vintage Vespers waited patiently in the shade. Glasses of prosecco were pressed into our hands in welcome, accompanied by loud Italian greetings. The slightly bonkers elderly waitress, reminiscent of an Italian Mrs Overall, added to the charm of the place, along with the occasional cheerful tooting of a car as it approached the blind bend outside the hotel gates. “I could live here”, I said.
The road trip pilot does enjoy a spot of TripAdvisor browsing, and so it came to pass that we found ourselves seated that evening in a picturesque, candlelit courtyard surrounded by lemon trees. The restaurant was renowned for its seafood, of which I am a fan, as long as it is not cold and slimy (it’s a texture in the mouth thing). Consequently, whilst I was intrigued by the oyster menu with its variety of different weights and prices and names, I declined the lovely waitress’s offer to partake. Sixty-eight euros for a basket of the Rolls Royce of slimy fish, however fresh and whatever its very splendid name, would be completely wasted on me. So, when four enormous half naked raw tiger prawns were placed on the table, reclining against quarters of fresh lemons, I had a Pretty Woman moment. The scene where a plate of snails is put before Julia Roberts and she whispers to Richard Gere, a horrified expression in her eyes, “who ordered this?”. I knew who had ordered ‘this’, actually. My road trip pilot’s eyes had shone with glee at the description of giant-sized prawns fished, just now, from the Mediterranean, a five minute walk away. His mouth had started to water when he saw a crate of them delivered to the kitchen, as we sipped delicious cold Italian wine. So fresh, it turned out, that they were best eaten raw, with a squeeze of lemon. I love prawns. Cooked, warm prawns. The not cooked, not warm super-sized crustaceans that lay artistically before me with their disturbing black eyes, enormous heads and dangly bits looked like they had bare midriffs, with the very tip of their tails still wearing the shell. I had several first-time experiences on my summer holiday road trip, and eating massive raw prawns turned out to be one of them. Thankfully, my prawns did not shoot off my plate into the hands of a well-placed waiter, and were surprisingly tasty – in an uncooked slippery sort of way.
At a large table in the corner of the courtyard the oyster menu was being thoroughly sampled. Fortunately it was not in my direct field of vision, otherwise I would have been unable to tear my eyes away from the slimy quaffing of such expensive slipperiness. At our neighbouring table the Italian waitress was helping a French couple to decipher the menu. All of a sudden she said “green beans”, in very clear English, flapping her hands about searching for the correct French translation. The couple before her were none the wiser, their faces blank with incomprehension. “Pardon”, I heard myself interject in my best French, “haricots verts”, I said, grinning jubilantly. “Ah..! Oui, oui”, nods of understanding from our neighbours, and thank yous from the grateful waitress. Who knew – delicious local wine, coupled with my euphoric raw prawn high, and I was a linguist.