The Turbo Banana
1. On the Monte Carlo racing line - 2. In a Beaujolais vineyard - 3. Outside L'Arbresle, the Country Retreat, near Lyon - 4. Camping at Cannes
My mission, and I chose to accept it, was to take a newly purchased and comparatively unknown Saab 900 Monte Carlo Anniversary Edition Convertible, number 155, to Monte Carlo. Along the way, I was to seek out the finest Beaujolais, the wonderful Brouilly. To provide further challenge, I was aware of a gearbox problem which left me with a very sticky 4th-5th change, naff tyres and the prospect of travel in peak-time August. Oh good.
Before going on, here is some French vocabulary to help you:
Bouchon · literally ·bottle-neck·, but taken to mean traffic jam
Serpent · snake
Fourmis · ants
Essence · petrol
Pluie · rain. Heavy rain is often described as ·important rain·
Vignobles · vineyards
Pompiérs · kind of combination of firemen/ambulance men. Very useful blokes
Merde · oh, come on, you know what that means ...
Degustation · a try-before-you-buy tasting. Very French, very enjoyable
Cave · basically a wine cellar. Cold, dark, smells fantastic
Fermé · closed. Adjective used to describe all of France on a Sunday. Or in August.
Plans started way back in the year to take a decent-length holiday in France. The idea was that my girlfriend Hannah and I, along with Hannah·s parents Helen and Ken and her brother Adam, would book a week in a cottage or similar. Hannah and I would then head for Cannes for the second week, a place we both know and love and have visited before. This would provide the ideal staging post for a foray to Monaco, the Monte Carlo·s eponymous home.
I·m not one to savour ·here·s me and my car on the ferry· photos, so suffice it to say that the (predictably very wet) journey to Folkestone passed off without incident (thanks largely to the new Bridgestones I had fitted), as did the run to our first night·s accommodation in Giffaumont Champaubert. The aforementioned gearbox problem was not too evident, although the change varied from dead smooth to deeply unpleasant. (This may have been compounded by the fact that, when I picked the car up two weeks previously, it had no gearbox oil in it · As a precaution, I also swapped the gear lever with that from my other 900, which helped, despite it having covered 225,000 miles).
Anyway, some fine wind-in-the-hair Autoroute motoring was followed by an excellent evening meal in our hotel, the Cheval Blanc. A walk along the shores of Lac du Der-Chantecoq, Europe·s largest man-made lake, rounded off the evening.
Pressed on to Beaune the next morning and encountered the first serious pluie of the holiday, complete with thunder. No matter, the architecture made up for all that. We arrived at L·Arbresle later that evening, approximately 25 miles north of Lyon. Super house, set in 23 acres and complete with swimming pool, satellite TV and fully-equipped kitchen. Oh, and a barbecue. We rented the top floor which could have accommodated at least ten people.
Spent many days enjoying the sun and swimming. Took a trip by train to Lyon (well worth it) and found many local restaurants and bars. In particular, le Donjon in Oingt (oink?) was spectacular as long as you ·go French· and don·t object to lunch talking three hours or so. The views from the terrace, over the Beaujolais vignobles, were fabulous.
Rain goes over your head after about 50 mph
One hot afternoon, Hannah noticed the cats were all staring intently at something. ·Is that a snake?· she asked, knowing there could only be one answer. Now, snakes are generally acknowledged as coming in two varieties: unpleasant and extremely unpleasant. We had no way of knowing if this was venomous or otherwise, so decided it would be a good idea to catch it in the pool-cleaning net and throw it over the hedge. The serpent, however, had other plans and hissed-off in the direction of Ken·s Xantia. (Sorry to mention such a car here, but it·s central to the plot so please indulge me). ·Septic Sid· was last seen disappearing into some cavity on the underside of said Xantia. Merde.
We spent an hour trying to extract Sid, including raising the pneumatic suspension and pressure washing him, to no avail. Eventually we called the Pompiers who duly arrived and tried in vain. (To be fair, the French equivalent of ·here Kitty Kitty· probably didn·t help). So, he may still be there for all we know, smuggled into the country as an illegal alien.
The rest of the week went without a hitch, save for regular gearbox oil top ups, and provided superb roof-down motoring around the legendary Beaujolais region. Villages such as Fleurie, Morgon and Chenas were visited with degustations at each. Ken did succumb to a bout of wallet-opening at Morgon and Chenas, although we almost gave up on the Brouilly as the cave we were looking for was fermé. By accident we found the family-run cave of Philippe Champier, at the foot of Mont Brouilly, and were glad we did. The best Beaujolais, sold to us gently in French so we understood the sales pitch. Time to open that wallet again, Ken.
So it was that we went our separate ways on the Saturday, Helen, Ken and Adam (and Sid?) northwards home, Hannah and I to the south and our ultimate mission.
Spent approximately 300 miles in a bouchon which made a three hour journey take over five (merde), but eventually arrived at our campsite in Mandalieu la Napoule, just down the road from Cannes. We were lucky: out of over 300 pitches just three remained, most being occupied for three to four weeks by French nationals on their extended August holidays. The weather was hot but the showers were cold, which didn·t seem to matter. We spent several days just sunbathing and swimming in the Med, and evenings cruising Cannes· palm-lined Croisette (a bit like Blackpool·s Golden Mile, but with more roller-bladers). Still swimming in the sea at 10 pm, one night.
We have been to Cannes several times, including 1997 in my first 900i but I have never felt as good as when we mixed it with the Ferraris, top down, along the Croisette. (In fact, we were in a much less common car, as we only saw three other 900 Convertibles compared to 15 Ferraris on one night along ·) We drew more admiring glances than the Italians, although that may have been Hannah in her bikini. She assures me it wasn·t.
We decided that Wednesday was when we would tackle Monaco, so I wanted to jet wash the car at the local Geant hypermarket just down the road. It was then that I noticed the hoard of fourmis that seemed to view the in-yer-face yellow car as a giant sunflower and proceeded to make a home under the bonnet. Back at base camp we investigated all the crevices that could possibly house a nest without ever locating one, so resorted to spraying ant killer in all available orifices. I was worried that they may cause chaos in the electrical wiring or something equally sinister, and was beginning to believe that we may actually make it home without a hint of mechanical gremlins and didn·t want to jeopardise that. As I write this, back in Suffolk, I still occasionally see one or two. Merde.
If you·ve never been to Monaco, go. You may not like its ultra-glam image or feel comfortable with it ultra-rich inhabitants (some of them, anyway), but you need to savour the atmosphere that is present even without its most famous residents, pedalling their motors round its narrow streets in May each year. I love Monaco, Hannah tolerates it but it is always worth going just for the crêpes at Restaurant Pattaya on the harbour wall, just near the exit of the famous tunnel on the Grand Prix circuit.
It would have been wonderful to photograph the ·Turbo Banana· outside the famous Casino de Monte Carlo, in (obviously) Casino Square, however the police pounce on any car travelling at walking pace and move it on. (Hard luck to the two English guys in the Fiesta · it nearly worked ·) So I contented myself with a brisk walk around the circuit, easy to find if you·ve ever watched it on television, and all the better without Murray Walker. The only feasible photo opportunity was parked on the rumble strip near the Swimming Pool. You·ll recognise it as the point where Hakkinen etc take off on the exit of the chicane, before the almost straight that leads to La Rascasse hairpin and the subsequent start-finish straight which, incidentally, forces you to stop on pole position when the traffic lights are red.
Snails actually taste nice
For our return journey, we decided to travel halfway on Thursday and stop at a campsite we know well, having stayed there before. Easy trip: roof down, cruise control set and no bouchons for a change. While eating our evening meal, the most fearful thunderstorm started, culminating in a hailstorm with hailstones literally three inches across falling from a sky so filled with lightning that you could read by it. Nothing could survive this, I told Hannah, and in an eerily calm period after the initial burst, we saw birds, leaves and branches lying on the ground. The storm went on for over seven hours, and only 100 miles along the Autoroute next morning, as we stopped for essence, did we spot the damage.
Hail damage is nothing new, however the golf ball-like surface before me made my heart sink, especially as I·d had one or two small dings removed soon after purchase. On the brighter side, at least there·s no actual paint damage and I don·t have to worry about getting the roof straightened as the hailstones just bounced off.
Our last full day was spent ambling back to Boulogne, where we checked into Hotel Ibis, did some last-minute shopping and headed off into the old town for dinner. Boulogne is often overlooked as a port, playing second-fiddle to Calais, but is much more pleasant and characterful. The old town, high above the ferry terminals, is beautiful and sports some excellent restaurants, particularly if you like fish. La Poiviere in rue de Lille was the perfect place to spend our last evening, their fillet de rouget (red mullet) a rare treat.
Took in the Nausicaa Sea Life Centre next morning: walk among the sharks and touch live thorn-backed rays for a great day out, especially with children.
Easy journey home on the Sea Cat (cheaper than the tunnel · give it a try) and a final blast back to Suffolk to complete 2,500 miles of trouble-free motoring. I·m not going to bore you with miles-per-gallon figures for the whole run because they don·t interest me, but I can tell you that my old 225,000 mile T16S will do slightly more miles per tank than the Turbo Banana, although both struggle to get much beyond 300 miles between fill-ups. We used the air conditioning only twice, usually when it rained and we had to travel slowly (rain goes over your head after about 50 mph), instead of dropping the roof at the earliest opportunity (unlike the wimps in the 911).
I believe in using my cars, and this adventure proves how reliable Saabs are. The speedo now reads 112,000 miles, although I will probably need to replace the whining gearbox soon. My T16S has taken me to Paris twice, the first time for the Millennium and the second at Easter. I waited until it was well run-in before venturing abroad, though: it clicked 220,000 miles on the way to celebrate the new century. I would not hesitate to take it again tomorrow, if only I could get the time off · Merde.
Ten useful things I have learnt from this adventure:
1) Saabs are comfortable in traffic jams
2) The best wines come from the Beaujolais region of France (you may know this already)
3) The F1 cars go round the roundabout in Monaco·s Casino Square the wrong way
4) Snails actually taste nice
5) French supermarket petrol seems to work OK in an APC-equipped 900
6) France does not work on Sundays.
7) I want to live in Monaco.
8) Hannah doesn·t
9) If you drive all day with the roof down, your forehead will get sunburnt
10) Err· Saabs are comfortable in traffic jams.
Owain 2,500 miles of trouble-free motoring Linford