Saturday, September 24, 2005

Tunnelvisions: Genoa to Nice

Restless night not helped by visiting mosquitoes. Rose early enough to make it down to the Genovese old city centre, the Porto Antico, by 9am. Turning the corner away from the hotel, I spotted a large reddish malamute shuffling down the street, perhaps having caught Bondi's odour.

Parked underground without any hassle and ambled along the promenade past a galleon, the Aquarium (Europe's largest) and some of the metallic decorations garnishing architect Renzo Piano's refurbishment of the area.

Walking under this city's version of Sydney's Cahill Expressway, we walked up the stone-paved Via San Lorenzo towards the Cathedral of the same name. After zig-zagging through some narrower streets (not more than 3m wide), I stopped for coffee, a breakfast sandwich and Bondi got some heavy-petting from the locals. The cappucino foam was like an ultra-soft meringue, rather than the Starbucksy froth that resembles dirty detergent foam. Later, on the autostrada, I stopped for another superb cappucino, served quickly and reliably at a quarter the price of the muck I'd been served through most of the UK. If your typical roadside service centre served this quality of coffee, you'd have double encouragement for drivers to take frequent breaks: I'd stop every 100km for a creamy blast like that.

The streets were alive with canines (dogs, not teeth). I'd been told that it's the Italians beyond all that love their dogs and you can see it: dogs walked or attached to shopfronts. Socialised with other dogs and people, there's rarely a sound from them. The Aquarium even advertises a dogsitting service for visitors. In the Ducal square Bondi plays with a large husky amongst the fountains. Large dogs have been common in recent days: Bernese mountain dogs and other less familiar breeds. In Italy everyone knew what Bondi was: "A - lask -an!" they would cry a grin and extended thumb, or "magnifico Mal - a - mut - o!!" and I would smile beatifically and repeat " A -lask - an!" like a reverse Nino Culotto.

There's really too much to see in 3 hours - without a map, you find a little sidestreet could lead to a dirty dead-end, a row of elegant shops or open on to a palazzo with painted brickwork.

Just before midday we're back on the Autostrada, heading southwest towards Nice. It's tunnel following viaduct following tunnel for the entire trip, an amazing engineering achievement.We ride from hilltop opening to opening like pegs dragged along a 200km clothesline strung above countless little Mediterranean townships. It's the same even as we cross the French border, yielding our final Autostrada coupon before another tunnel and the exit to Monaco, and then the exits for Nice.

For the week, David and I had booked a pet-friendly holiday cottage or Gîte on the outskirts of Nice. The Gîtes de France website doesn't allow you to see the street address until you've paid, so it's a bit of a gamble. I was also a little concerned about finding the place as the owner's printed directions were imprecise, and I couldn't find the street on my MapPoint Europe trip-planning software.

As per instructions I took the exit for Saint-Isidore, and started prendring gauches and rues up a hillside. If my Genovese hotel was a goat-track, this was a Himalayan goat-track, winding through switchbacks and ascending at 15 degrees over pothole and rock-fall through a suburban-rural zone. After driving upwards for nearly half an hour, I was still not seeing the desired Chemin de Saint Romain, although I had passed other houses labelled as Gîtes, and pulled over to recover from the lack of oxygen. An approaching convertible slowed towards me and I broke out into involuntary laughter as I realised they were going to ask me for directions. They were two French Anglophones, and were actually looking for the same street as I. A few minutes later I discovered that the Chemin de Saint Romain street sign was hidden behind two other signs only a few metres from where we were paused.

The Frenchmen drove off and I knocked on the door of a house whose number figured in my directions. Burbling in franglaise I indicated a name and address on my Tablet PC (ordinateur) screen to a lady peering through the metal lattice of her door. She withdrew into the house, and moments later came around the front and escorted me to the nearest corner (with the hidden street sign) and waved down there with a confident "Deux kilometre" and left me to explore those wilds. I drove down that meandering, steepening track into what I was believed was a restricted military zone until I could find a place wide enough to turn around. Just after that, the two Frenchmen came past, and we shrugged at each other. Further back up the road I pulled into a Gîte and started my Franglais burble. <>mon ami David was arriving ce soir avec tres bien Francaise".

Mr ----- led me to the flat below his house, with a commanding view of the lands below. You could pick out the usual landmarks seen from a space-station: the Great Wall of China, Great Barrier Reef, and Trent Lott's porch. He quickly led me to the bathroom and filled the bidet for Bondi, who slurped greedily at it. Mme ----- suddenly appeared and effected a series of exaggerated sitcom reactions to Bondi's granditude. She protested the water on the bathroom floor to me and started mopping it up, glancing reproachfully in my direction, and then scurried off to get a basin of water for outside drinking.

I finally managed to pursuade the -----s to leave me to unpack, after having the purpose of the kitchen explained to me and several enquiries as to Bondi's bedding. I'd explained to each again and again "non comprehend pas" and "mon ami avec bon Francais" but that didn't help a great deal.

After some preliminary unpacking I left Bondi to nap and drove back down the hill, hoping that the heat-tiles on my shuttle would withstand the re-entry velocity. A Carrefour giga-mall was close at hand, easily the largest single store I'd ever been in in my life. It made your average CostCo look like a 7-11. I trundled around happily for an hour, filling my trolley with provisions, sat in the mall exit-queue for thirty minutes and finally managed the re-ascent to the Gîte.

Mme ----- came by again to ask rapid-fire French questions including a confirmation that I didn't parle French. I confirmed this and the velocity of speech continued unabated, albeit punctuated by more pantomiming.

At 2200 hours I scurried back down the hill to collect David from Nice International airport and filled him in on my day's adventures. When we returned, Mme ----- was waiting to question him. Apparently she wanted to know if sheets were wanted from the beds - something her world-class mime skills had not attempted.

I also discover that a local call made to CK in Switzerland has cost me GBP25 or more - even with a cheap roaming package attached to my O2 account - and now I cannot top up my phone (the British "we don't accept non-UK credit cards syndrome"). I was intending to get a Spanish SIMM card next week but this will hamper communications till then. Bummer.

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