Last week we celebrated 35 years of marriage which these days seems to be sufficiently unusual that we half expected we might get a telegram from the Queen. We thought of giving ourselves a week’s holiday in Provence as a reward, but then we realised we actually live there so instead we took three days off and drove across the border into the western end of Italy. We could easily write two or three blogs on what we saw: we certainly took enough pictures of picturesque villages and beautiful landscapes. What we have decided to do is simply summarise the whole trip here and then some dull boring week when we have got nothing else to post about we might stick up a blog about some individual little town.
So here’s a quick overview. Last Wednesday morning we drove east for an hour and a half from Taradeau to where the A8 motorway starts to rise as it heads towards the border and becomes a series of tunnels and bridges. It’s not a road for the sensitive; the tunnels can give you claustrophobia, the bridges vertigo and the driving good old-fashioned, straightforward fear. (Car owners from Monaco are a particular hazard: the principality’s tiny size seems to create such frustration in them that when they escape into the real world they feel compelled to use the accelerator as much as possible); then we dropped down to Menton which we mentioned a couple of weeks ago.
We then drove across the almost non-existent border to the Hanbury Gardens which run down to the coast in a controlled riot of glorious vegetation. Why have they got an English name? Well, that’s for another blog!
We then went back on the motorway and drove to San Stefano al Mare, where we stayed in a very pleasant Great Western hotel about a hundred yards from the beach.
Next day we drifted down the coast to Alassio, which is famous for having given rise to an Elgar overture, and which is a charming old town full of pastel-coloured buildings on the edge of a very blue sea, and with a long, sandy beach.
We were going to turn back at this point, but decided to continue east for a while, and made the serendipitous discovery of Albegna about which we knew nothing. It turned out to have some impressive medieval towers and ecclesiastical buildings in the old town, which is built on a former Roman one.
The last day we simply drove back inland up winding roads to the border village of Saorge, which is improbably stuck onto the side of a mountain miles from anywhere. It has has a charming old Franciscan monastery which the French state now maintains and lets visiting intellectuals stay there when they feel a call to create some great work of art.
And from there back to Taradeau in time for Chris to have a Skype with Canada.
Italy feels very different to France. It’s a subtle but very real difference; a little bit like when you cross from England into Wales. It’s not just the different language on the signposts but a very dissimilar world; a place that seems much more relaxed, much less stressed about achieving prosperity and somehow that more at ease with the fact that things aren’t going to schedule. Chris has decided that at least part of the difference is due to Napoleon who bequeathed to the French the impossible dream that everything could be run smoothly according to logic and an almost infinite set of rules. This might have be possible if the French were Germans but they are not and the result has been two centuries of national schizophrenia and frustration because no one can make Napoleon’s vision of a tidy, clockwork nation actually work. The Italians – spared Napoleon except as an occupier – seem to be much more realistic. They seem much more content to just let life happen, however untidy the final results, and in the meantime sit in the sun and have a coffee. They may have a point.