Earlier this month the Guardian’s travel supplement ran a feature with ten people remembering their ‘most memorable’ holidays. Here’s my memory of my first independent holiday ‘Four in a Mini to the South of France‘ as featured in my earlier post ‘Five significant holidays’. Click here to read it.
Here’s a fuller account.
It was 1966. England won the World Cup, a Labour government (Harold Wilson) had recently been elected and I was coming to the end of what’s now called a gap year. I’d earned some money and bought a car, a green Austin Mini (770 XTU), and three friends and I drove down to the South of France in it.
The other three were Tony Clarke, Rodney Macgregor and Noel McKeand. I met Noel subsequently, he ran a bike shop in Shotton in the mid 80s before cycling acquired its current popularity, but otherwise we’ve lost touch.
For some reason we took an overnight ferry so headed off across the north of France as the dawn broke. It was classic. Sun burning off the morning mist, long straight roads flanked by rows of trees, sparse traffic and the occasional tractor. It was a new world to us. It was different.
We’d never been out of the UK before, people generally didn’t travel much in those days, and very quickly we saw a country quite different to the one we’d left. We saw cars we hadn’t seen before, Renaults, Peugeots and Citroens were a rarity at home, we stopped in a bar for breakfast and drank our first espresso coffees, and we quickly found out that in France people spoke French.
The motorway was in its infancy and I seem to remember the N7 and paying tolls and barely pausing for breath we drove down to the Mediterranean coast in 2 days where we stopped first at la Ciotat. I remember seeing vineyards and stalls on the roadside selling peaches. It was hot and sunny and then when we saw the Med it was very blue.
We saw a culture for the first time where it was commonplace to eat out. We were amazed by all the menu offerings and, of course, by the prices of wines to go with them. We drank lots of course: not just wine but good French beer as well and we tasted pastis for the first time (and drowned it with water). We even sampled Gauloises and Citanes.
As we headed along the coast eastwards, we stopped at St Raphael and then close to Nice, we got a first lesson in student budget sharing. Of course we shared our costs but then we had to account for sharing costs when one of us didn’t drink wine, another didn’t eat this and so on. We generally got on but I remember one debate on the relative sizes of our coffee cups. Did it mean that the coffee budget should be shared accordingly?
It was of course pre-EU days and there were border checks but they weren’t really an issue. We didn’t need visas and were able to take a quick trip into Italy just to notch up another country and then we returned via Switzerland.
I had a camera but of course it was also pre-digital and films cost money so I took few photos. I did take a couple in Paris though which proves we were there but although I can remember lots about the trip for some reason I don’t recall Paris although we did go at least a part of the way up the Eiffel Tour.
On the way back across France somewhere between Geneva and Paris we had a crash. Noel was driving and must have come over the brow of a hill and been surprised by slow moving traffic or similar blocking the road. He took to the ditch. We all clambered out unscathed and found ourselves across the road from a cafe with a bunch of pretty tough Frenchmen who came over to help us to push us back onto the road. It wasn’t an easy job and would have been impossible without them but remarkably there was no fundamental damage to the car. Repairs to the bodywork ran to about £20 when we returned and I got the roof sprayed black which gave my Mini the look of a Mini Cooper.
It was a great adventure and although it seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary when I got to talking about it at Uni at least it put us on a par with with the others. Compared to the experiences of our friends back home however it was enormous.