Monday, 24 March 2008

The espresso effect

On Easter Sunday the weather was still up to its usual tricks. There was no real surprise as I peered out early in the morning to be greeted by the grizzle of the day. The house was almost completely in the clouds and the village perched less than a kilometre away at the top of the hill, barely visible.

A tramp up the terraces for another "chat" with the Linden tree, leaves me once again pretty much soaked to the skin, so it's quickly back to the house for a shower and change before hopping in the car and making my way to Lucca.

The city is always a delight, even on an autumnal spring day. But I wasn't really prepared for the number of people parading up and down the main shopping street, via Fillungo, braving the elements and proudly and determinedly joining in that time honoured ritual, the passiagatta.

I had thought firstly the fact that it was Easter Sunday and secondly miserable weather for strolling along the streets, would have kept most people inside. But instead the city was buzzing with locals and tourists alike, everyone seemingly going nowhere very slowly.

Instead of joining in, I made straight for the elegant Antico Caffè di Simo, propped myself up against the bar and downed an espresso in double quick time. Now I'm not that much of a coffee drinker and certainly no connoisseur, but there's no denying the glorious effect a small shot of the rich, thick stuff the Italians brew up can have as it hits the back of the throat. It just has to be one of the simplest but most enjoyable pleasures of life and not something the US chains can ever hope to emulate, no matter how successful they might have been in making litres of coloured water a totally unacceptable alternative.

Invigorated and still smacking my lips at the aftertaste I rejoined the throng and took a leisurely walk around the old walls before hopping back into my car to race back to the house.

Monday would be an early start as I once again attempted to beat the traffic by setting off at another ungodly hour.

And little was I expecting the shock that was in store for me when I poked my head outside of the front door at five o'clock the next morning to be greeted by.... snow. And not just a thin layer, but a lovely fluffy carpet stretching from the grass just outside the house all the way down the track to where the car was parked.

The 10-minute drive down the steep and winding road to Pescia was going to be treacherous and of course I had no winter tyres and the roads would not have been gritted. I knew that if I wanted to arrive back in Paris before dark I would have to fast forward my schedule, so I hurriedly showered, dressed and packed before traipsing down to the car.

Rescue of sorts came in the shape of a small Ford Fiesta carefully rolling its way around the bends in front of me, and I followed in its path for the next 40 minutes, gently and slowly battling against my car's desire to go in every direction but the one in which I was pointing it.

By the time I made the motorway the snow had turned to rain of course, the temperature had risen and I was thankfully able to go at a fairly normal pace, given the driving conditions.

Heading north towards Genoa was almost like arriving on another planet. The skies had cleared, the sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud to be seen. But on the radio there were warnings of more snow later on in the day on both sides of the Alps and possible tailbacks at both the Mont Blanc and Fréjus tunnels.

A decision had to be made. Did I want to spend most of the day on the shorter route most likely stuck in congestion, or would it be better to take the longer coastal drive passing by Nice and the Cote d'Azur, adding time and distance for sure but where the traffic would probably be more free flowing?

In the end I plumped for the latter, which made me smile somewhat as I realised that I would be travelling past the Fréjus to which I had for a while been unwittingly headed on my downward trip. It also meant that I would arrive in France earlier and avoid having to refuel in Italy, where the price of diesel at least, is a good 10 centimes more expensive per litre.

As I crossed the border, I resisted the temptation to programme the GPS - just to see how much further I had to go. Experience had taught me not to fiddle with it and to rely on my own ability to follow the signs. The Nice-Paris route was after all a familiar one I had taken in the past without any problem.

The hours and the kilometres passed, the traffic became denser, as did the proportion of nutters on the road. Still the traffic was relatively free flowing and the weather had held up - so far.

Then I hit Lyon. I missed the ring road and instead took the Fourvière tunnel, which passes underneath the city and is notorious for its traffic jams at most times of the day. Lady Luck must have been smiling on me - temporarily at least - because I made the other side without incident, but my fortune was short lived as the murky skies threatened and once again I found myself driving in pouring rain.

All four seasons in one journey, made longer by the enforced detour along the coast and one very exhausted Easter weekend holidaymaker arrived home more than 13 hours after he had set off.

Lesson learned - until the next time I fear.

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