Friday, 30 December 2011

Four/Four to the Guggenheim.

Blimey it was cold! I’d just returned to the house after assessing the amount of condensation forming in the Morgan’s garage. How I wish that I’d bought a wooden one instead of sectional concrete. Even though I’d lined the walls, sealed and carpeted the floor and left all orifices open for ventilation, water always accumulated, especially on the transparent roof panels and dripped on to the dustsheet.
Winter fruits
So there I was, a dejected and forlorn figure, sitting in my terraced home in deepest Lancashire, huddled over a glowing ember in the fire grate, teeth chattering, clothed in a Morgan gilet and woolly hat, fingerless gloves on my almost frostbitten hands and with a dew drop forming on the end of my nose.
Winter 2010
Oh for the summer! I lay back and dreamt. Fields of sunflowers, vineyards basking in the shimmering heat, a picnic in an olive grove with a bottle of wine, the morning walk to buy the bread. Those thoughts painted what had to be the picture of a blistering French or Spanish summer and with these overwhelming images in my mind, having duly wiped the dewdrop from my nose, I started to cobble together a plan for the third ‘Grand Tour’ in our 4/4.
We would go in July, hopefully to ensure that we had excellent weather, avoiding what happened in June 2009 when the indifferent weather in France contrasted sharply with superb weather in the UK. So we would take a gamble, July it would be and to hell with the prospect of French holidays and the Tour de France!
Routes were planned using Via Michelin (Mappy is also good), printed and attached to the relevant pages cut from large scale road maps. Not only saving space, but a simple method that reduces, but does not eliminate, the likelihood of domestic disharmony in the restricted confines of a Morgan cockpit!

A sticky business!
Amidst the mental contortion of trying to remember all the items and paperwork demanded of French legislation, to say nothing of once again crawling under the car to grease the front suspension, an exercise that always seems to involve the use of more degreasing materials than grease, it did occur to me that I should order some over-specs goggles that might be useful in reducing the eye-watering aspects of top down motoring.
These duly arrived and were returned via the next post! The view I had of myself as a thinning on top T.E.Lawrence was not shared by my dear wife who took one look and said that I looked a right pillock! A blunt response that knocked me back on my haunches after 44 years of marriage!
Anyway these things were far from my mind as we arrived at the toll booth in Courcy on the A26, having driven 163 miles from Calais. My wife Helen took off her seatbelt, scrambled with some difficulty to a kneeling position on her seat and stretched to reach the payment machine, banging her arm on the sidescreen, as she flopped back into her seat, commenting, rather unkindly I thought, that life for a navigator was somewhat easier in our old Volvo sitting in it’s garage at home. Very difficult to disagree with that, I thought, acutely conscious that there were many more toll booths ahead of us that my illustrious co-pilot would have to contend with!

Gite du bois Tuilerie at Lancharre, Burgundy

Looking into my rear view mirror it was clear that the occupants of the car behind us had collapsed in paroxysms of mirth and I decided that it might be a shrewd move if I allowed some time to elapse before launching into a long diatribe about the obvious charms and delights of Morgan motoring!
Relations were however excellent by the time we arrived at 5 Rue du Paradis, St Thierry, near Reims (culled from Alastair Sawday) our first overnight stop and the vineyard of Champagne Remi Harlaut. Lovely accommodation, friendly hosts and a beautiful evening meal prepared and served by Mme Harlaut herself together with a glass of their own ‘champers’. How civilised!
After a substantial breakfast and with top down we set off on the next leg of 263 miles to the hamlet of Lancharre, near Chapaize in Burgundy. It was sometime later when the heavens opened and we pulled into an Aire de Repos to put the hood up before continuing.
Gite du bois dore with Solange's flowers
The water dripping onto my wife’s legs was greeted by her with a sporting measure of sang-froid I thought, considering the toll booth incident, whilst some miles previously, unbeknown to her, I had resorted to surreptitiously placing one of the pieces of towelling we always carry on to the widening damp patch on my trouser leg! What the hell, the car was performing superbly and we arrived at the Gite du bois dore Tuilerie de Lancharre (Homelidays Ref.266788) four hours after setting off from Reims, It was still raining and little did we know then that it would be France’s worst July weather for 100 years!
It is a glorious place, listed as an historic monument, this ancient tile works has been painstakingly restored by the owners. They are gilders, restoring the frames of the finest works of art for art galleries, museums and churches throughout France in their workshop. Their creative and artistic eyes certainly appreciated the Morgan’s lines.
Romanesque Church at Lancharre
We awoke next day to a soft, cloudless morning with the mist rising off the fields and apart from the sound of the Charollaise cattle munching the grass in the field opposite, the stillness was total. It is wonderful Morgan country, quiet roads linking hamlets and villages many with beautiful Romanesque churches and vines and sunflowers everywhere. Just buy a bottle of wine, some cheese, tomatoes, olives, bread or whatever and picnic under a spreading chestnut in the middle of nowhere overlooking the pristine rolling countryside. It doesn’t get much better!
During a visit to Cluny, a lovely town, we returned to our car and were accosted by an elderly French lady (probably our age actually!) who spoke so enthusiastically about her love of Morgans that she could have been the local agent! She even enthused and spoke knowledgeably about the new three wheeler which she had seen on television and the internet!
Picnic in lovely Burgundy countryside
On returning to our gite we were informed that there were warnings of serious hail storms and were offered the use of the Tuilerie as a garage, an offer we accepted. That night we had no hail but a vineyard a short distance away was effectively wiped out.
Next day, parked on the road with our warning flashers on, perusing a map, a Lotus pulled up in front of us. Thinking that we had broken down, the French driver got out and asked if we needed assistance. We thanked him graciously for his concern, telling him that we were merely looking at a map, very conscious of the fact that had we indeed got a problem his help and local knowledge would have been invaluable. It is perhaps an indication of the camaraderie that exists between classic car drivers and I have written to Club Lotus in an effort to formerly thank him.

Bastille Day celebration in the hamlet of Lancharre
Bastille Day brought an invitation to attend the hamlet’s celebrations in the almost medieval surroundings of the square, complete with its  ancient communal washing facility. The twenty or so permanent residents bring something to eat and drink, chat to each other and get quietly ‘pickled’, a lovely unforgettable experience that gave us an opportunity to develop further the entente cordiale.
Outside our host's house and gite near Realmont
But the south beckoned and the day after we set off at 6am on the 350 mile leg to Albi in the Tarn region. We had physically managed to avoid the Tour de France, although we watched it on TV, but there was to be no way that we could avoid the hoards of French driving south on that holiday Saturday and a brief stop at the Aire de Volcans, just north of Clermond-Ferrand confirmed this. The place was seething with huge queues for fuel and the loos, so having literally fought my way to the ablutions we got the hell out of it!
Temporary garaging at 'The Little House'
 We do tend to get rather blasé about all the attention the car receives wherever we take it, but we were staggered when, in the inside lane of the autoroute  I indicated to overtake a caravan,  but was blocked from doing so by a car that drew alongside us and whose passenger was hanging out of the window at 65 miles an hour taking a photograph of the Morgan....or was it my wife?
West of Castres
'The Little House at Saint-Lieux-Lafenasse near Realmont our destination, was reached in 8 hours, Our English hosts were delightful, offering us fresh vegetables and bags of advice about where to visit in this beautiful area rich in bastide towns and villages, including a recommendation for a superb local restaurant, used by locals, truckers and white van men where the Morgan aroused much interest and where on two occasions we enjoyed a five course lunch including wine for 11.5 euros...fabulous!
While in the Tarn we visited Albi, with it’s amazing brick built cathedral, had a lovely pootle through the Gaillac wine area, Lautrec (Toulouse’s birthplace), Castres, Realmont with it’s bustling market and because I don’t fancy crawling about under the car with a grease gun on holiday, a special visit to a garage!
At the outset I was concerned about the potential misunderstandings that might arise in asking a French mechanic in broken French to lubricate my sliding pillars, risking perhaps being carted off by the local gendarmerie to the local clink or asylum for gross indecency! As a result I had taken the precaution of requesting a translation from my learned but not mechanically minded sister, who has lived in France for 40 odd years.
Sunflowers near Gaillac

We selected a small garage and I approached the person who I thought most likely able to offer us assistance and showed him my translation. It was soon clear, following a number of Gallic shrugs and grunts together with a glazed expression in his eyes, that my sister’s efforts had failed miserably. After a very brief discussion in our respective languages that yielded nothing in the way of understanding, he took the initiative and put the car over the pit. After leaning on the wings and pushing the suspension up and down, whilst talking to a much more desirable customer than I, he appeared with the French equivalent of a can of  WD40!! Non, non, Monsieur, suivez moi! I said in my fluent French and down into the pit we went where I pointed to the nipples. Success and 15 euros plus tip later we left him with a self satisfied look on his face.
Lautrec, family home of Toulouse Lautrec
Duly greased we set off on the final leg of our journey, 319 miles to Lekeitio, between San Sebastian and Bilbao. Good time was made to Toulouse where we made a massive blunder and ended up on the autoroute to Carcassonne! We had passed two junctions before we realised and to say that the air was blue would be a huge understatement. We just could not believe our own stupidity and the thought of the extra mileage and time involved filled us with horror. Anyway, back we went to Toulouse to correct our error.
Hotel Zubieta
Some six hours later we arrived at the Hotel Zubieta on the Basque coast of Spain in the fishing port of Lekeitio.
It’s a good job that I took some photos of the hotel and port while the sun was shining, because that was the last we saw of the sun until we arrived back in England. The forecast was truly abysmal, so having ruled out the prospect of lovely sun-drenched drives in the area, we decided to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
Lekeitio, Basque coast of Spain
We found the museum building most impressive and architecturally outstanding, in our opinion far outweighing the artistic qualities of the modern art inside. I must say that our first thought on seeing one exhibit which was of a pile of paint cans scattered randomly on the floor was that we should tidy them up immediately! There is no doubt in our minds that the exhibits would have been greatly enhanced by displaying our car as a sole feature in one of the halls! After all, our very creative host in Burgundy had exclaimed that it was a true work of art!
Guggenheim Museum
Next day, a Basque festival bank holiday, found us at lunchtime, after a great drive on the rain drenched roads, in a very rustic local restaurant in the hills, struggling with the language but enjoying the festive atmosphere and a wonderful meal with the locals. Just brilliant!
It was a 7am start in pouring rain and awful visibility to Bilbao for our 10.30 sailing. The roads through the pine forests were treacherous so much reduced speed was the order of the day, much to the horror of the local Basque commuter traffic which was intense by the time we were passing the city en route to the port.

Homeward bound on 'Cap Finistere'
In the mist and gloom the ‘Cap Finistere’ was there waiting for us. We carefully parked the car on board, taking our time to leave it until we were sure that it wasn’t going to get bashed by a passing suitcase and then made our way up to our cabin for a very pleasant voyage back to Blighty.
On arriving back home in Lancashire we had completed 2400 miles and a swift calculation showed that the 4/4 had averaged 43 miles to the gallon. Both the car and the navigator had behaved impeccably, despite the stresses placed on both of them and we all look forward with some relish to the prospect of yet another adventure....because in a Morgan that’s what these touring holidays are!

Article first published in 'Miscellany' January 2012

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