Before I know it, the various songbirds of Le Champagne have taken centre stage. Those birds are quite familiar, not that different from the hubbub of my childhood awakenings back in the burbs huddling at the juncture of North West Kent and South East London. The cheery flutes of blackbirds, the busy chatter and chirrup of sparrows, the mournful cooing of wood pigeons. It’s just another day in their world, I assume. The usual worries and tasks, flights to and fro gathering food for what is likely to be a thrashing pile of fledgling offspring, demanding, urging, and relentless.
We asked for an 8.30 breakfast. In our eagerness, we are awake early enough to bring that forward by a half hour, which is fine by our hostess. Downstairs is where continental breakfast will be served. The surroundings are spotless, of course, with a large woodburner in the corner, redundant at present. There are large wooden sideboards, a couple of tables and chairs. The place has a kind of barn feel to it, quite probably because it was one once upon a time. Breakfast it’s self is a cornucopia of carbohydrates, coffee and confiture. There are other food types present, yoghurt and butter representing the delegate from the world of fats, but there is precious little in the way of protein. It’s all so neat in its nature this style of breakfast, so it seems appropriate for it to be provided by our hostess in these spruce environs. There is quite a lot of it though. So, because I am an absolute gutbucket, I sit for quite some time gorging myself, because I also know that this will be the last free meal till tomorrow morning, and I am going to be surviving on the road in a Vauxhall. The horror of it all! Ray seems less perturbed by the potential for starvation on the impending journey. He eats only a moderate amount. I don’t eat much bread at home, but here it’s practically ubiquitous, and as usual, I revert to whatever I can get, particularly if it’s not really costing me anything except my dignity. Dignity can be highly overrated in my opinion. This is the first trip abroad since my near moratorium on wheat based food. I think now though, a suspension of the suspension is in order, because Italy will be equally full of the stuff.
We’ve finished brekky by around 9am and the maps are beckoning us for another planning session. After a very short discussion, a decision is made to avoid tolls and opt for the casual saunter through the world’s most famed wine region. We bid our hostess a polite adieu, and hit the van, not bothering to wake Patrick just yet as he seems to be quite tired after his long day yesterday. (Good!).
Off we set, two travellers determined to get a decent starting stretch under our belts. But wait! Within a few minutes of leaving, there is a call to my mobile. Really? Who the hell?? I miss the call, which necessitates an expensive recall, reaching the answerphone first off. I can hear the cash registers at Virgin Mobile rattling from here. I get through at the second attempt. It is our hostess. She sounds deeply concerned that one of us has left something of indescribable import back at the BnB. Dammit! I knew it was going too well this morning. A passport maybe, or a computer? ‘What is it?’ I ask. ‘A toothbrush?’ .......... (RAYMOND!!) There is a snigger from the passenger seat. ‘No, thanks for ringing, I’m certain he’ll be able to buy another one....... No, really, it’s only a toothbrush...... No, I don’t think it’s anything special.....Yes, ...OK....Great, well, Merci beaucoups pour votre hospitalite....Oui, merci, et au revoir.’ The sniggers develop into laughter as Ray and I muse over what ill fate awaits his toothbrush now. Lonely, cast aside, forlorn and forgotten in a foreign land, redundant. Will it be sold on the black market, becoming just another statistic in a seedy underworld of gingivitis. Or maybe rented out with reckless impunity from the dimly lit doorways of backstreet dentists, suffering a daily onslaught from halitosis crazed French farmers with smiles like unkempt graveyards? Pauvre, pauvre brosse a dents.
Though progress is measurable once we hit the road in earnest again, our leisurely pace gives us a better chance of a tantalising view of the region unfurling around us. It’s a no-brainer decision with hindsight, this tariff free amble around rollercoaster scenery under overcast but gently improving weather conditions. The tarmac cuts a swathe through tiny towns and sleepy villages. Their names are fleeting navigational aids, and once passed through, they can be forgotten. But one cannot fail to have imprinted upon the memory the most striking thing about this place, the utter vastness of the vineyards. Rise after rise, slope after slope, tens of thousands of acres of straight rows of vines stretching off to every horizon like so many well organised legionaries. Leaf upon stem upon root, they line up dutifully at the start of another summer, waiting patiently, ready to convert the typically unbridled ammunition of sunlight into innumerable clusters of grapes. Once their efforts are realised, we will demand the ultimate voluntarily sacrifice of their fruits in our ongoing global war against sobriety. As I ponder this act of unselfishness, I assure them that their supreme altruism will not go to waste on my account. No indeed, because I intend to honour them on a frequent and regular basis.
Patrick, who has been awoken from his slumbers like a yapping Cerberus, does not approve of drinking. He wouldn’t say it to our faces, but deep down we know it. I say we, but really it’s just my stuff this feud of attrition with Pat. Ray has known him longer by far. I’ve only been acquainted for a day. Call me paranoid, but I am getting the distinct impression he doesn’t really like me. Ray displays a calmness and patience with Patrick’s idiosyncratic outbursts which I have yet to bring into play. I’m sure he must have noticed me swearing and chuntering under my breath at him by now. For the time being, Pat and I will have to tread our paths in separate forests.
The skies are lifting, and by the time we are approaching Lyon, the sun has won the most recent battle in its perennial and turbulent war against clouds. It’s getting warmer, the van funk will rise in commensurate proportion, no doubt. Lyon seems to me to be the gateway to the South. As we view it from slight altitude on our approach, its sprawl is noticeable, and to this outsider, its road system appears to have enormous potential for sinister complexities which may be the catalyst for another of my tiffs with Patrick. I have chosen to ignore him. It’s becoming my chief defence against his interruptions. Ray and I have successfully shirked tolls thus far today for the sake of scenic beauty. However, by our combined reckoning, Lyon has to be circumnavigated by motorway for the sake of simplicity, so we reluctantly fork out at the peage and get cracking. Light traffic and decent signposting put the wind back in our sails, and Lyon becomes another box ticked on our itinerary of course plotting targets. But a need for speed is soon usurped by our requirement for more intricate scenery, and again we divert onto smaller and more winding roads. The Alpine backdrop is becoming less and less distant. No longer is this a region of the world known only to my imagination. There it is, ahead, looming large and evoking the spirit of a thousand charity shop puzzle box lids.
Hunger is also looming large, and until we find a shop to buy lunch in, it will grow until it consumes our every thought, or mine at least. So we need to find a supermarche. Foreign supermarkets being their mix of wonderment, confusion and speedy mental arithmetic, I am soon more than ready for an al fresco feast. We would like to choose a picnic spot in the suburban environs a few minutes’ drive from the shopping area, but it’s easier said than done. Eventually, we settle upon a sort of play-park with tall trees in a suburban looking neighbourhood in Somewhereville, France. One of the more beautiful regions of the world, and we decide, out of time pressured necessity, upon a place where the local kids probably come to smoke illicit tabs and drink stolen hooch. Maybe I’m looking at it through English Park Tinted Spectacles. Are we two middle aged men without children trying their best to look like they should be adjacent to a children’s play park eating a picnic lunch?
Of course, cheese is on the menu. I adore cheese, just bloody love the stuff, but though I’ll eat almost any variety, not all cheeses are to my taste. I have gone for goat cheese with its tang and roof-of-the-mouth itching qualities. Ray has gone for some kind of rubbery stuff. Suffice to say, I don’t share some peoples’ admiration for bendy cheeses. There is also bread, of course, and tomatoes. It’s simple peasant fare. Ray has purchased a bottle of red grape juice. The juice is not rich, or wealthy, or princely. Oh no, it is the most stinkingly decadent grape juice known to mankind. Ray quite aptly describes it as ‘liquid raisins’. I look at the bottle label and sure enough, that’s what it says it is. It’s confirmation in writing, though my French to English translation may lean a little toward my personal requirement for poetic licence rather than any adherence to actual fact.
Fortified and restored by our super duper picnic in the park, we must return to the van with its burgeoning emanations and make for the border. We have a target, Asti, which is some distance across the Alps. It’s funny how we are aiming at another region synonymous with effervescent wine. Coincidence? We will never know. Once more, we assess the dichotomy of toll versus non toll. If time bore no relevance to the decision making process, then an amiable sightseeing roll through this staggering region would be preferable in the extreme. But time is pressing, and we have no real clue as to how steep some of the Alpine roads may be. In an attempt to lobby me toward his way of thinking, Ray embarks on a cautionary tale from his previous experiences, regaling me with disturbing reminiscences about the last trip he made when a burning smell issued from the van due to the effects of steep gradient on a Vauxhall clutch. I really don’t fancy the challenge of calling breakdown, because there are so, so many ways in which that particular scenario can go horribly wrong, so toll it is
Herein lies a tale of simple economics, as it does in all situations where ruthless capitalism reigns supreme. We aren’t the only people who drive around here without local knowledge, and anyway, the roads don’t get any less steep just because one may know them. The ‘somebody’ who sets the toll charges knows this all too well, and not to put too fine a point on it, they exploit the Bejeezus out of it. The bit of toll road we’re to use next is far more expensive than the others. If I remember my economics A level well enough, this is an example of inelastic demand. A reasonable summation of any transaction involving inelastic demand is that it fucking sucks for the consumer. So we unfetter the purse strings once more and pay, because to not do so may mean that later we will be driving around the general vicinity of Asti in darkness, with hunger and frustration the unwelcome accompaniments to Patrick’s increasingly irksome ‘I told you so’ tone.
Once the toll is paid, progress is fast as we drive through a succession of long tunnels intermixed with bursts of wide open road in bright sunshine. And suddenly, Italy is all around us, clutching us to its rocky bosom. We notice that the non-toll road is frequently in view and not looking too slow. Of course! There is a brief moment, when stopped by a genuinely insouciant border patrolman, that I thought there was to be a hitch. But his petty questioning and expression of casual intransigence are short lived, replaced by utter bewilderment as to why two middle aged Englishmen would need to cross the Alps in a small van packed to the gunnels with such an assortment of apparent jumble. Our disguise is perfect, and we can continue unimpeded by the vice like clutch that no doubt exists at the long arm of the law. It’s not long before we trundle into Asti, follow Patrick’s simple instructions, and arrive at the appropriately named Luna, since there will be a full moon beaming once the night sky descends to guide us into a balmy stupor.
Luna is a large two storey house up a steep, narrow lane. It’s adjacent to similar old houses, with their terra cotta roofs radiating the stored heat of the first day of June back at us with accrued interest. I feel that there is an almost palpable veil of sticky air surrounding me. There are leafy vines and big potted plants placed in an unsophisticated and unplanned manner around a walled courtyard. A few chairs surround a metal table under a shady overhanging upper floor.
A middle aged woman ambles out to greet us, and after fairly brief ‘Hellos’ we are shown our rooms. They are full of dark wood and odd artwork, photos from a different era and painted mismatched furniture. In my room, above the bed is a strange painting of Harlequin, or Arlecchino, the 16th century comic servant from Italian theatre. Do I need a flamboyantly attired jocular butler hanging over my head through my slumbers? Perchance, nay. There is also a classical painting which depicts a gathering of miserable looking folk hanging around in a garden near a city wall. Their facial expressions are so subtle they are almost invisible. I can’t figure out what they’re supposed to be doing, but the composition intrigues me for that very reason. I resolve to seek the artist and name of this painting upon my return to Blighty, but for now it will just have to remain another of Italy’s many mysteries.
And then, and by far the best example of oddness found so far in this house, there are two small highly stylised modern paintings of children, just their faces. Any attempt at a written description of these paintings cannot begin to do justice to the unnerving spookiness of their staring blue eyes.They are the stuff of horrifying childhood nightmares, a pictorial gateway maybe, to a strange nether world inhabited solely by the most blood-curdling of Old Nick’s imps. Yes, it’s those eyes, eyes that follow one not simply around the room, but also out of the door, around the corner and downstairs all the way back to the courtyard, blowing out the cobweb strewn candelabras which are the only source of illumination along the way. Perhaps my imagination has run amuck a tad, but only a tad.
Soon we are showered and back down to receive a most agreeable complimentary glass of white wine and directions to another venue for dinner. We are recommended Madame Vigna, which is a mile or so away, and that means we need to climb back aboard the van with its lingering, if gentle, aroma of unwashedness.
Madame Vigna is a trattoria at a crossroad in Baldicchieri. Once inside, we are greeted by a young woman who it turns out is the proprietor’s daughter. Good fortune because she speaks decent English. She explains the menu in a dancing tuneful lilt so dramatically unlike our own it’s almost as if it’s emitting from a different species altogether. Soon we are indulging in a beautifully prepared meal under a vaulted ceiling, the sound of Italian chatter bouncing from its angles like raindrops over palm leaves, mingling with rhythms from one of the strangest background CD choices I have ever heard for such a venue. There is some guitar based jazz, not uncommon I suppose. Elvis Costello is not that odd either perhaps, but Joe Satriani? And wait for it, my personal favourite as incongruousness goes, ‘Peaches en Regalia’ by Frank Zappa. We must endeavour to find out why. Once the meal is drawing to a close, the owner comes over for a chat and we find that it’s nothing more bizarre than a CD his mate did for him, so he thought he’d put it on in his restaurant. We turn down generously offered liqueur chasers as we’re going to be driving. Our host, in extremely broken English, still a million miles more useful than my non-existent Italian, proudly tells us he only drinks wine or beer now. His days as a former whiskey guzzler are over due to what I believe may be ulcers or acid reflux judging by his gargoyle impersonations and abdominally directed gesticulations. I wonder what lightweight is in Italian.
We leave shortly afterward with a poorly pronounced ‘Grazie, Buona Notte’ or two. Back at the dark Bed and Breakfast, those terrible eyes pierce my soul, but I’m too exhausted to be unduly troubled by static artwork, despite its notable capacity to unsettle the weak willed. It’s time to stretch out in a comfortable if rather creaky iron framed bed. And so I do, and my world becomes the picture postcard images from my day, ushering me gently through the surreal mountains.