Major R R. Dove describes another journey In his Continental travels in his 1928 “12/40” Lea Francis—providing food for thought to those of our readers who are already planning their 1950 holiday.
This 1949 venture of ours was long planned on the basis that it would be pleasant within the compass of three weeks to see a little of Switzerland and a lot of Italy, to explore the Italian and French Rivieras and to return by way of the French Alps. In the event all this was done, except that yielding to the charm of Portofino meant cutting out the French Riviera. The party consisted of the writer who was the sole driver, his brother and a friend. For the car, my faithful “12/40” Lea-Francis then in its 22nd year, it was the third continental journey. To it the success of the whole trip is largely attributable as those who read will learn.
The initial part of the journey was the crossing on September 4th by S.S. Dinard from Dover to Boulogne, where the unloading was quick so that we were clear to go on our way by 2 o’clock. Alas, the car suffered a dented wing on the boat and although letting off steam to an official of British Railways helped in a psychological way, one might really just as well have talked Dutch to a bedroom utensil for all the practical effect it produced. The idea being to avoid Paris we made Pontoise that evening and a small place called Le Brochet did us very well at £1 a head for dinner, bed and breakfast; the mileage from Boulogne was 133. I should say here that any prices given in sterling are worked out at the pre-devaluation rates because, having had a pigeon from Downing Street, the volie face of Cripps failed to catch us bending.
Next day we pushed on via Versailles, Fontainebleu, Auxerre and Dijon to Dole, where, at the Grand Hotel de Geneve, they charged the three of us £4 for dinner, bed and breakfast and the day’s mileage was 258—the greatest of the whole journey. Dole is an old place with primitive plumbing, and sitting in the Grand Hotel one could almost see veiled ladies coming in from the great dust-covered Rolls-Royce and Delaunay-Belleville cars of the Edwardian age. The writer having an appointment in Geneva on September 7th the plan was to spend the night of the 6th by the lake. In that direction, therefore, on the 6th we turned the nose of the old car which, in the intense heat, had kept going like a clock. Up over the St. Cergue Pass—a mere pimple of 3,000 ft.—we went, leaving got expeditiously through the customs at Les Rousses and so on down to Nyon. Slight reconnaissance yielded a delightful small hotel called Gay Rivage at Rolle; this was right on the lake, and for dinner, bed and breakfast for three they charged us £2 7s. 6d. It was here that the writer on waking from a post-beer snooze saw a leopard on a string. Fortunately the other two saw it too and it turned out to be the pet of a man who looked like the late Richard Tauber.
On the morning of the 7th we drove into Geneva and lunched in the station buffet; this cost us one guinea for three. I should explain that our normal drill was to lunch at the roadside on eggs, tinned beans and bananas; this not only saved time and money, but we found it avoided the post-prandial urge to slumber which I always associate with a full-blown continental lunch. To revert to the events of September 7th, leaving lunched we went back on our tracks to Rolle and so on to Lausanne and the well-known Rhone valley road to Brigue. It rained hard all the way from Montreux; incredible as it may seem this in no way impeded the activities of the numerous road-men at work. I always think that this part of the Rhone valley is a classic example of the beauties of nature harnessed to the needs of man. Anyway, there is no doubt at all but that the Hotel Couronne et Posts at Brigue is well able to cater for the needs of man; this cost the three of us £3 10s. for dinner, bed and breakfast. The wine flowed freely that night and the proceedings were enlivened by some Swiss officers and a piano. All rain had gone next morning—as mine host foretold—and we set off leisurely up the Simplon Pass, At Berisal we took beer (and vowed to spend one night a year at the old coaching inn there) and after a quick passage through the customs, Stresa was reached in good time. As two years ago, we stayed at the Albergo Italia; the dinner, bed and breakfast charge for three was just under £3. Stresa was chiefly notable for the large number of English people, for the sleek 1949 roadsters of the prosperous minority in Italy, and for Vespas galore. The Vespa is the equivalent of our Corgi but no Corgi endures the abuse that is the lot of the average Vespa. In Italy all machinery has to work hard, but there ought to be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Vespas; this cruelty ranges from prolonged bouts of full throttle on the Autostradas to the transportation of as many as three adults.
On the evening of September 9th we were due in Florence so an early start was made. Until clear of Milan the road was indifferent, but once on Route 9 we made good time to Bologna; this road really is magnificent. At Bologna you turn right on the road to the Fute Pass and all along it you still see signs of American thoroughness in war; they called it Route 65 in those days. We planned to descend on Florence at sunset, but actually we got there in the dark after 253 miles.
At Florence, which the writer knew well in the war, we stayed at a comfortable pension where for five days and nights for three persons they charged us the reasonable amount of £10. How pleasant it was to revive old memories in driving up to Fiesole and the castle of Vincigliata where Allied high-ranking P.O.W.s were interned and from which a celebrated escape was made, in drinking in Leland’s Bar and indeed in walking the incredible streets of this old city. We went one day to Lucca, so famous for its walks, to lunch with a relation who lives there and whose husband organised a D.R. to speed us on our return journey through the crowded streets to the Autostrada. This, except for a very few bridges, has made an incredible recovery from the war. It was on this day that we met a 4½-litre Bentley and on this Autostrada a few days later, I regret to report, a just-not-vintage Rolls-Royce in trouble. It was attended by a garage car, so we crept furtively by while old Fanny made internal combustion noises which amounted to “Poor show, chaps!” From Florence, too, we made a long, planned trip to the Apennines, which for the benefit of those who fought with 8th Army and 13 Corps I will recount in more detail. The road to Borgo San Lorenzo (known in the war as “Arrow Route”) is still bad and it takes you through Communist-tainted villages where you get nothing but looks of the dullest hate and not a wave or a flicker of recognition. The road from Borgo San Lorenzo to S. Piero is quite deplorable. At Scarparia, surprisingly, it improves and at the same time you leave the stench of Communism behind and meet friends. Firenzuola has made an astonishing recovery from war and is a thriving if still scarred community, but the road from there to Castel Del Rio is atrocious; the old high Bailey bridge is still in use but badly in need of maintenance. Castel Del Rio, on the other hand, has completely recovered from the war; it has new houses, the streets are resurfaced and the inhabitants were delighted to see us; we had quite a party at the pub and they all remembered the night, which members of 78 Division no doubt also remember, when in the winter of 1944 German shelling produced a diabolical brew-up of vehicles in the streets of the town. It was odd to see an ex-78 Div. Bren carrier, doing duty as a plough in a remote farm and our journey home was beautified by the red glow of sunset on the Tuscan hills, than which to me there is no more glorious earthly vision—a memorable day in lonely and well-remembered places in the course of which we covered 107 miles, at least 70 of which, because of road surface, or gradient or both, were in second or third gears.
Another day of idleness in Florence and off we went on the 14th to Portofino. At Lucca we left the Autostrada and took the old but picturesque road to Pisa where, after photographing the leaning tower, we became involved in a thunderstorm of Wagnerian dimensions; the car did not like it so we adjourned to an establishment where they sold cognac. Things soon cleared and the road to La Spezia was flat and of no great beauty, but to me, as, always when motoring abroad, of ever-recurring interest. After La Spezia you take the Bracco Pass mechanically easily but mentally, on account of the blind hairpins, in some trepidation; we thanked St. Christopher for the penetrating note of the Bosch and Klaxon horns which adorn the Lea-Francis. The road to Sestri Levante is hilly and quite charming with its glimpses of the sea and of villages perched on hill-tops. We get to Portofino and there, but for the squalid necessities of every-day life, we would still be. Here we met a 1949 Lea-Francis saloon which had had its roof and the tops of its beautifully domed mudguards dented by hail-stones. “Letting the side down!” snorted our old dear. It is a peaceful place—a small community clustered round a natural harbour—in which we bathed, lazed, ate and drank supremely well at the Albergo Nazionale; it cost us £13 plus for three whole days and all our strength of will to quit on September 17th to make Briancon that night. This meant going through Genoa and taking the superb Autostrada on the road to Turin, which village we negotiated not without difficulty. Then on to Susa and the 6,000-ft. Col de Montgenever, after which we dropped down to Briancon at dusk to stay a night at a cost of £1 per head for food and lodging. This is a fine old town famous for its walls, but personally I shall remember the stream which runs down the village street and which is used for many purposes, moral and not so moral. Here and in these parts one constantly came across memorials to Partisans who lost their lives in the war; some of them are pathetically crude but obviously there for all time.
On September 18th we tackled the well-known Col de Lautaret (6,750 ft.) which is so well written up in that classic of Edwardian days, Freeston’s “High Roads of the Alps.” This col and the journey to Grenoble are quite unforgetable. La Grave, at the foot of the col, is earmarked as a place to stay at next time; what could be more pleasant than to sit on the hotel terrace drinking a bottle of wine and watching the La Meije, that most majestic and elusive of mountains, merge into the darkness. To return to reality we made Uriage les Bains that night and there we stayed for three nights at the Hotel des Alpes; this is a very good hotel and the three days cost us £3 each. Grenoble was explored and on September 21st we were off to spend the night at Beaune in an hotel which fed us well but slept us badly (at a cost of £1 each) and the day’s mileage was 182. The night of September 22nd saw us at an hotel called “Mon Ami,” in Armeau just short of Sens. It was a charming place just, off the road and adjoining the River Yonne. A most excellent dinner and bed and breakfast cost £4 10s. for the three of us; we are most enthusiastic about this pub.
Paris was reached by mid-day on September 23rd; a night was spent there. To prove that Paris need not be expensive I may say we dined and wined in a good restaurant in Montmartre for just over £1 for the three of us.
The night of September 24th was spent at Montreuil at an hotel which was sadly lacking in those qualities which it was alleged to possess in “Lea Auberges de France.” However, congenial company and much wine made things tolerable and next day we were due to embark on S.S. Dinard. Of the return journey I will say only this. We docked at Dover at 6 and it took until 9 to get the car unloaded and through the Customs; outside Great Britain I have never seen such a performance. It made me vow never again to take a car abroad; now in the cold light of reflection, I am resolved never to use S.S. Dinard again. And so in the inhospitable darkness of an English Sunday night we dispersed to our respective homes.
What of the car? It covered on the Continent 2,265 miles, to do which it demanded a gallon of petrol every 26 miles; two pints of oil were consumed. No demands were too great for it and it performed in that robust, tireless fashion which I now know so well. Troubles were confined to occasional plug-oiling on long descents, to a fractured petrol pipe and to an incident near Turin when a collection of miscellaneous objects equivalent in size to a large beetle was removed from the petrol system.
On the Continent the vintage car is getting rare. It seems that Vintage Citroëns and Renaults will grace the roads of France for generations, but they are usually in a deplorable state and seldom venture far afield. What amazes people abroad is not that I should own a 1928 car but that I should go so far from home in it. We did see the odd Hispano-Suiza of better days and very well preserved usually they are.
In Switzerland vintage cars are much more rare than in 1947 and in Italy, except for derelict F.I.A.T. “10/15s ” and Lancia Lambdas, they are virtually nonexistent. In Genoa I did see a beautifully-preserved circa 1924 Ansaldo torpedo and in Florence a superb vintage Voisin.
As to the cost of the whole thing the following will be of assistance:—
Car transportation .. £16 0s. 0d.
Passenger fares .. £9 0s. 0d.
RAC charges .. £3 0s. 0d.
Petrol .. £19 0s. 0d.
Repairs .. £0 2s. 0d.
Board and lodging .. £66 8s. 6d.
Total .. £113 10s. 6d.
Cost per person .. £37 16s. 10d.
I should explain that the cost of a night’s lodging or a day en pension always included as much wine as we wanted with meals, so that the figure of £37 odd per person covered nearly all our requirements. The balance of cash was used to cover outside drinks, food for picnic lunches, and purchases of clothes or what have you. Worth it? Most certainly—in spite of the efforts of British Railways and the S.S. Dinard ferry.