Crown Infernal

Seeing Pavarotti by Sue Mitchell

Not so much an account of his concert in Geneva, though he does get a mention.
No. This is a tale of the alarums and excursions in getting there.
And back again.
Murphy was kept very busy enforcing his Law!

I rarely travel abroad. My better half is like a good wine - doesn't travel well. The first time I left the home country, apart from a geography field week in north Wales, was an overnight trip to Düsseldorf for a rock concert.

This was arranged through the International Queen Fan Club. The rock concert in question was headlined by The Cross, an excellent band put together by Queen's drummer, Roger Taylor.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to foreign travel as it was well organized and everything went according to plan. You will gather from that (and the title) that this little tale is not about the Düsseldorf trip.

Having forked out ten pounds for a one-year passport, I thought I ought to make more use of it than just one coach trip. It wasn't until June of the following year that an opportunity presented itself. Our local newspaper, the Grimsby Telegraph, sometimes has holiday offers. My eye was caught by a four day coach trip to Geneva to see Luciano Pavarotti, the 'King of the High Cs,' in concert. Rock music then opera. For a Libran, it offered a nice sense of balance.

The itinerary sounded wonderful.

Day one: Grimsby to Troyes in France via the Dover-Calais ferry. We would arrive in Troyes in time for dinner, leaving plenty of time in the evening to explore this attractive and historic town.

Day two: Troyes to Geneva, stopping for lunch in Dijon - and would I please bring some genuine Dijon mustard back with me for Darling Daughter? In the evening, we would travel to Geneva's Pal-Expo to see Luciano Pavarotti.

Day three: Geneva to Paris, stopping in Chablis for lunch and a chance to sample the local wine.

Day four: the final morning featured a coach tour around the sights of Paris, then back home again, tired but happy. Well, that was the plan. Sounds great, doesn't it?

The beginning of the jaunt carried a hint of things to come. The early start was delayed by fifteen minutes while we waited for someone who failed to appear. I was also a little surprised to find that we had only one driver for the long trip.

On the Düsseldorf expedition, we'd had two drivers so that one could slide into a little cubby hole and get some sleep. I think it was a new E.U. directive, but one which seemed eminently sensible. You don't want a driver who's falling asleep at the wheel.

The driver reassured me by saying that we would be picking up a new driver at Grantham. I realized later that he hadn't entirely followed the reason for my concern.

The coach, pretentiously named 'Queen Esther,'had its own public convenience at the back of the coach, but this turned out to be more of an inconvenience as there was no toilet paper, no water and no flush. And the heating didn't kick in until the need for it had passed.

My fellow travellers appeared to be mostly SAGA holiday rejects, but that was fine. It made me feel so much younger! I soon palled up with another unattached lady called Sylvia, Syl for short. She was a cheerful, good-natured sort who, like myself, was willing and able to seeing the funny side of life. We got on very well.

At 8.30 a.m., we made a 'coffee stop' at Grantham. There we picked up the promised second driver; the first one then cleared off home! We still only had the one driver. The new one, Jurgen, was a jovial South African - if that isn't an oxymoron. Well, he was jovial at that point anyway...

We lost another fifteen minutes at Grantham because two dozy ladies from the other side of the back of the bus took their time during the 'coffee stop' and nearly got left behind. This was the beginning of a trend.

If anyone had done trial run for the trip to work out the timing, then he was twenty-five year old with a large bladder capacity driving a Ferrari! Getting fifty not-so-sprightly people through service stations takes a lot more than ten minutes, especially when there is a limited number of cubicles in the ladies.

At Dover, we picked up our courier, Andrew, a young man of indefatigable optimism who seemed to think his job was to jolly the old dears along.

If anyone remembers seeing Chris Barrie1 in The Brittas Empire, then you've seen Andrew. He could have been the model for the hapless Gordon Brittas in looks, manner and way of speaking. I found out later that, when not being a courier, he was a double glazing salesman.

Gordon Brittas

The crossing to Calais was quite choppy but not enough to trouble the digestion. Well, something had to go right. By 4 p.m. local time, we were on the road again. I fished an old National Geographic map of France out of my bag so I could follow our route. The scenery wasn't much to write home about, except for some clusters of beautifully tended war graves. These were surrounded by small white picket fences and decorated with bright red pelargoniums.

After a couple of hours or so, we stopped for a break and "thirty minutes" turned into forty-five. I bought a snack and a bottle of juice at «La Sandwicherie.» So no problems with besmirching the purity of the language there then. I noted in my travel journal that «je suppose je doix écrire en français maintenant, but I'm not going to.»

After Noyon, I lost my place on the map. None of the names on road signs looked familiar, but maybe they were for nearby villages too small to make it on to the map? The first indication that something had gone seriously wrong was when I spotted a road sign for Beauvais. ::blink::

This is north of Paris and heading west! We should have been travelling south-eastish and passing Paris by a very wide margin to the east. Some time later, we drove under a runway at Charles de Gaulle airport. The next sign I recognized was Saint Denis. A suburb of Paris. In answer to my query, 'Brittas' said we were gong that way because Jurgen knew the route...

On the plus side, Jurgen's route took us via Fontainebleau, or as Brittas said, "Fontan-whatever." That should've given me another clue. The down side was that the chateau was completely hidden by the trees.

It was clear by now that, while Jurgen might know the route he had taken around Paris, he hadn't a clue about the route to Troyes. The passengers at the front of the coach were all consulting maps and giving him directions. More worrying was the number of cups of black coffee they were feeding him to keep him awake!

We finally arrived, absolument crevés, at our hotel in Troyes at 10.45 p.m. F.T. (Frog Time) We'd travelled 1,153 kilometres. There was no chance of doing the promised sightseeing or taking photos. The punters were not happy.

I had a splitting headache from sitting on the sunny side of the coach for so many hours. Most of the windows had working sunblinds. Not mine. We were all very tired and cramped, and longing to stretch our legs, but Brittas swung into action.

"Now, I know you're all tired and want to get off the coach, but just bear with me for a few moments. I'll go and sign us all in. It'll be quicker," he said, demonstrating a similar concept of time to the one Jurgen had of distance.

Twenty minutes later, he returned bearing an enormous tray weighed down with large brass balls each with a key attached; no one was going to take one of those home by accident! Brittas then ploughed up and down the aisle calling out names and handing out the keys. It took an age. The punters were even more not happy. «Ils en ont plein le cul» in fact.

On the plus side, the room was well appointed and the bed very comfortable; on the minus side, there was no hair dryer, no kettle and no hospitality, only a mini-bar. Which cost extra. Naturellement.

In the morning, we were granted a quick quart d'heure to look around the 'attractive and historic town.' I figured this was to shut up the grumblers. While on our micro-tour of Troyes, we encountered some members of another tour group whom we'd met at a service station the day before. They'd arrived at 9.00 p.m. and couldn't understand why we'd been so late...

Belatedly, we hit the road again. The scenery and the villages we passed were picturesque and interesting. The architecture was very French, especially the little churches with their quaint squat square spires. Fields of red poppies conjured up images of the ghost of Monet cheerfully slapping paint on to canvas. Well, there had to be some compensations.

Next on the alleged itinerary was lunch in Dijon, France's equivalent of England's mustard capital, Norwich.

Or not.

This time, Jurgen didn't get lost, just bypassed Dijon altogether and stopped at yet another seen-one-seen-'em-all service station. On the plus side, I did manage to buy some Dijon mustard for Darling Daughter, even if it wasn't bought in Dijon itself.

Brittas was getting a lot of stick from the SAGA louts up at the front of the coach about the omission of a wander around Troyes and the total avoidance of Dijon. Syl and I (at the back where the trouble-makers usually sit) felt a little sorry for him. He was basically a nice lad who been stuck at the sharp end of a bum deal. He was the one the punters could get their hands on regarding the disorganized chaos of the trip. And credit where it's due, he kept on smiling in the teeth of all the agro. Hm, maybe that wasn't such a good idea...

Watching the road signs, Syl and I were surmising that we might be going to Geneva via Marseille. At this point, Brittas noticed me scribbling away in my little note book. He asked if it was a record of all the blunders so far, which did indicate a sense of humour. I naturally disclaimed. I mean, perish the thought!

Rather surprisingly, weak-willed Providence didn't take up our tempting option of Marseille and Jurgen managed to get on to a motorway signposted «Genève 119 km.» (Seventy miles.) It was only 2.30 p.m. so chances of actually making it to the concert were looking good at that point. Could we have shaken off our jinx at last?

That would be a 'no.'

We arrived at our hotel in Geneva at a reasonable time. Except that it wasn't our hotel. Someone had double-booked; the hotel could only accommodate two thirds of our party. Credit to Brittas and whoever he was liaising with. They managed to find another hotel with rooms available for the rest of us fairly quickly. We outcasts got the better of the deal as our new hotel was much more up-market. Of course, Jurgen wasn't too happy as he had to pick up from two hotels instead of one.

At least we all had time to freshen up and change before setting off for the venue. Fortunately, we also had plenty of time for the journey there. I could be wrong here, but I don't think whoever planned the trip had chosen the optimum route for the coach drive to the Pal Expo...

This route took us up a steep hill, «La Rue de Richemont.» It was strongly reminiscent of Steep Hill in Lincoln, i.e. it was steep. Very steep. And long. Very long. And narrow.

The Swiss, as a nation, are very neat and tidy; I never saw any litter anywhere at any time. Unfortunately, this tidiness does not extend to the way they park their cars. These were parked half on and half off the footpaths on both sides in a higgledy-piggledy manner.

There was only a couple of inches to spare on either side, so Brittas left the coach. Darting from side to side, and using hand signals, he guided Jurgen, comme un escargot, up the street. It was the biggest wonder that Jurgen didn't burn out the clutch!

At the top of the street, there was another problem. A T-junction. We had just driven up the vertical leg of the 'T.' The cars were parked all the way up the hill including one right at the top on the corner. The road we needed to turn right into was a little wider but not much, certainly not wide enough to negotiate around the obstructing vehicle.

Ahead of us was a long, tall block of flats. At the corner on the right was a bistro called L'Étoile. Maybe the car's owner was dans L'Étoile? Brittas went in to enquire. Meanwhile a crowd gathered to watch the fun, including, I kid you not, a small boy and a dog. But no gendarme when you needed one.

Brittas emerged some time later. His mission had not prospered. I found out why the following day. Then the clientele all came out to enjoy the show. We couldn't reverse down the hill and try another route even if we'd wanted to, as there was now a car behind us.

At this point, the SAGA louts took action. Well the males anyway. Between them, they lifted the vehicle bodily and manoeuvred it out of the way, dropping it on the foot of one of our party in the process. Fortunately the car did not have an alarm. So far so good.

Jurgen managed to get half way around the corner where he found another car in the way. The SAGA louts leapt into action again. This time, the car did have an alarm; a very loud one. Still no representatives of the gendarmerie showed up. This was probably just as well as Jurgen was well over the limit for hours on the road by then. Soon, we were on our way again. The whole exercise in la Rue de Richemont had taken half an hour but - amazingly - we arrived at the Pal Expo in time.

The concert was brilliant. It was the only part of the advertised trip that did go right. Pavarotti, as usual, was magnificent. We were surprised to see him using a microphone, though this was probably for the benefit of guest singers. It was not altogether a bad thing; we had seats right up at the back. Naturellement.

We enjoyed it anyway.

In the evening, a group of us left the hotel to have a look around Geneva as, based on past experience, we didn't think we'd have the advertised opportunity to look around in the morning. We also wanted something to eat and decided to sample the local cuisine. Yes, we went to a Chinese restaurant. Most impressive was the staff's ability to cope with our English group, a party of Germans, and the usual French speakers as well as the Chinese they spoke among themselves.

In the morning, we did have a little time to look around Geneva. I walked down to the lake to see the Jet d'Eau. It wasn't working. Naturellement.

Having dashed back on time, we were then kept waiting while Brittas, bless his little cotton socks, tried to organize a trip to Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge for the evening. Would we arrive before midnight?

You may remember that lunch in Chablis with wine-tasting was promised. Did it happen?


Yes, because of the late start and the half hour 'watering stop' of one and a quarter hours, it was decided that there wasn't time. The SAGA louts protested loudly. They'd seen enough French motorway service stations to last a lifetime. The only difference between them and the ones back home was that the menus were in French. This wasn't the French experience they'd paid for.

Jurgen's patience snapped. They wanted a French experience? They could have one. He turned off the motorway at the next exit and set off into the wilds of the French countryside. It was probably marked 'Here be Dragons' on local maps. The scenery improved at least.

After a while, we came to a fork in the road. The left branch was signposted «Missery.» Jurgen took the other one.

The next complaint was about food - as in absence thereof. Jurgen was driving through a quiet little town and spotted a roadside hostelry with a lay-by almost opposite. He pulled in and everybody alighted. Did I say quiet? It was about as lively as Barnsley in Wakes Week!

The hostelry was suitably named «Le Terminus.» The staffed looked shell-shocked by the invasion of about fifty starving Brits. I suspect we'd probably trebled the local population. From what I could tell, Le Patron would do his best to feed us all, and invited us to go into the ball-room.

Then the chef appeared. He looked much like Manuel in Fawlty Towers. He took a look at the invasion force. His eye eyes bugged out and I swear I heard him say, ¿Qué? This was followed by protestations that he was unable to feed so many people right now. Perhaps France has Wakes Weeks?

Syl and I decided to do our own thing and left. We found a small and ancient bar on a corner. The elderly barmaid did not look pleased to see us, welcoming us with a sullen grunt. Think the love-child of Basil Fawlty and Madam Edith from 'Allo, Allo' but without the singing. Or the cheese. Especially without the cheese.

In my best schoolgirl French, I requested «deux sandwiches avec fromage, s'il vous plait.» Mme. disappeared into the back for a couple of minutes. When she returned, it was with the news, "We 'ave no cheese."

I tried again with «deux sandwiches avec jambon, s'il vous plait.» Two minutes later, "We 'ave no 'am."

At the third time of asking, "We 'ave no bread." In which case we wondered why the establishment offered sandwiches, and if there was no bread, why she hadn't mentioned this in the first place. Definitely not an Anglophile!

Oh. Apparently it was a wine bar. So we each ordered un verre de vin blanc (large) and a packet of crisps.
Mme. softened a little. The loo was reasonably clean though, and wasn't one of those awful porcelain holes-in-the-floor, thank le bon Dieu!

As the coach had been going slowly in the search for somewhere to eat, I'd noticed a sign saying «Boulangerie» down a side street as we'd approached the lay-by, so in hopes of something more filling, we thought we'd give it a try.

What a difference in attitude! La boulangère was charming. No, really. We bought ourselves a gougère each and had a little chat. She seemed to know the old bat at the wine bar and sympathized.

We took our gougères back to the coach to eat. That was the intention anyway. However, there was no one else there and the coach was locked. So we ate our gougères al fresco. They were mouth-wateringly delicious!

I then fell into conversation with a local farmer driving a tractor. He stopped to pass the time of day. Now, being a farmer's granddaughter, I was interested in the livestock in the field adjacent to our coach. My identification of them as Charolais cattle turned out to be correct.

Eventually, our travelling companions returned and we hit the road again. As we left, the farmer waved to me.

"Ooh, you've obviously pulled!" a fellow passenger said with a saucy grin.

Brittas had bought some red wine from Le Terminus as a peace offering, and strolled up and down the coach, filling people's cups. It was a nice gesture.

We hit Paris in the rush hour.


During the next couple of hours, or so it seemed, we became mind numbingly familiar with le Boulevard Périphérique. For those not familiar with le Périphérique, this is to Paris what the M25 is to London - an orbital car park. The only difference is that it's underground. Oh, and it's full of French drivers.

A number of our fellow travellers passed the time by waving, gesturing and/or making faces at other drivers. I don't think anyone mooned, but it wouldn't have surprised me. There really isn't much entertainment in an underground car park.

After we'd dumped our baggage in our hotel rooms, we decided to go for a wander around Paris. In the hotel's foyer, we came across Brittas in conversation with one of the hotel staff. He seemed to be having trouble communicating, so I wandered over to see what the problem was. The Frenchman, surprisingly, didn't speak much English. Mostly, I find that 'furriners' speak better English than the English. Even in Tibet!

It was then I found out that our doughty courier didn't speak any French. Not a word. A courier on a trip through France who couldn't speak French! I was momentarily speechless.

This explained so much! Like why he'd had no joy in finding the owner of the car near L'Étoile. Anyway, with a little help from my very rusty schoolgirl French, we managed to sort out the problem.

Next came a delightfully French experience. A group of us opted to go to Montmartre for our evening meal, Brittas having put the idea into our heads earlier. This little outing was led by a couple of the SAGA louts and their wives who'd been there before.

Montmartre was far enough away that we had to travel on le Metro. Bizarrely, there was a group of lads hanging out on the opposite platform singing We Are The Champions and various other Queen songs.

We ended up in a pleasant little restaurant which seemed to have a live tree growing in the middle of it. There were several faux macaws 'perching' on the branches. As my money was going down, I opted for French onion soup; something genuinely French. This arrived with chunks of bread topped with melted cheese floating in it. It was delicious.

La Basilisque du Sacré-Coeur

After this, there was a suggestion, from the men I think, that we should visit Le Moulin Rouge, but this was vetoed, probably by the wives, on the grounds that it was too far to walk in the time available. Instead, we walked to La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur.

This large white domed building, sited at the top of a high wide flight of steps, was brightly illuminated and breath-takingly beautiful against the dark sky. It was definitely worth the side trip to see it.

We returned to the hotel without incident; it was almost disappointing. Still we had the sightseeing coach tour to look forward to the following morning.

Or not...

As you have probably surmised, it didn't happen. Jurgen was so fed up of the constant barracking of the SAGA louts at the front - and was probably worn out from the excessive hours he'd been driving - that he effectively went on strike. He wasn't spending the morning ploughing through the French traffic to show the whining ingrates the sights. No. Way.

This was Brittas' finest hour. He really rose to the occasion. Somehow or other, he persuaded our jolly South African to drive us to the Seine - probably with a view to dumping the lot of us in it! He also booked us a sight-seeing trip up the Seine on one of Les Bateau Vedettes du Pont-Neuf.

This was brilliant and an excellent way of seeing the sights. Simply not being stuck in traffic was wonderful. It would've been nice to visit the Louvre and Notre Dame, but at least we were doing some sightseeing. One thing we didn't see was the Eiffel Tower. How did we miss that? Easy. All of the tower except the lower half of the legs was hidden in very low cloud. Micro-climates! Sheesh...

The rest of the trip went as advertised. We arrived home safely.


1 He also played Arnold Rimmer in Red Dwarf.

[ 4,000 words ]

Crown Infernal