Driving roads

Dedicated to the memory of Leonard John Kensell Setright, Ronald 'Steady' Barker, George Bishop and Phil Llewellin, motoring journalism's Greats. And Agony Uncle, Sir David 'Shanghai' Tang, just for the heck of it.

In this business, we should all be jaded by now. But no. There are still surprises that make the heart beat faster. And that is when one enjoys a great drive. What makes for a great drive? It doesn't always mean Herculean feats on sky's the limit expenses. The elements of a great drive is the satisfaction of all the senses. It need not be a constant high, but a series of compensating peaks when climaxes of tactile, visceral, visual, aural and taste take their turns. Man and machine should be as free from worry and conflict. And the journey itself should be free from hassles and trouble.

Motoring enthusiasts can claim that the best drives will always be around the Alps of Europe. Simply because the sportiest and best handling, ergo most fun cars were tested and benchmarked there for more than a hundred years of the automobile's existence.

But the Alps need not be the only venue. For epic mountain journeys, I can rattle off a few. A personal favorite was a 250km segment from Imperia by the Ligurian coast, up the Strada Statale 28 and down into Turin, savoring half of the route of the San Remo Rallye through cliff hugging hamlets and mountain springs that irrigate much of the produce for the Slow Food Movement. Ironically, I suspect that short segment of my trip was more fun because I was dicing with a briskly driven Ford Orion in my underpowered 1990 1100cc Fiat Tipo. It was part of a weeklong journey that took me through fog-bound Autostrade in Emilia-Romagna, uphill against the rush of flood waters around Firenze and a wonderful but short drive from Bergamo to Venezia. After Turin, I doubled back into the Val d' Osta crossing into Switzerland, where I switched to an Opel Omega and went up through every Swiss mountain road as demanding as the Furka Pass, which took another week.

But as Political Correctness overtakes Europe, driving fun or any kind of fun may soon be legislated to extinction, into being just a pleasant memory. Much of SS28 today has been Euro-homogenized – curves flatter, inclines gentler - to make it safer and, unfortunately, less fun. Even a German's constitutional right to drive as fast as one wants on the de-restricted sections of Autobahn will no longer be sacrosanct as homogeneity directives of Big Bro EU creep through all its 27 nations.

My freshman year of European motoring started in 1979 driving a Citroen Cx on the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Right Hand Drive Britain cast its magical spell on me where even pottering around the Cotswolds, in a rusty Alfasud in '84 or in a Citroen Bx in '87 was like promenading in a huge garden.  More poetry in scenery was in store at the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales driving a Ford Sierra in 1988. And for an added measure of contrast, I drove up into frozen and desolate Aberdeen in  Scotland.

I tooled around Rome in a basic FIAT Uno, but was tempted by the signs on the  G.R.A., Rome's EDSA, to all points leading out. So I went on to Napoli, Pomigliano d' Arco, Vesuvio, Pompeii and Positano back in 1987. In 1988, I covered most of the cantons of Switzerland in Ford's Fiesta Mk. 2.

Retracing my ancient Brit History lessons in De La Salle College under Keith Maslin, I toured Warwickshire, Surrey, East Anglia, Canterbury and the Dover Cliffs in a Ford Scorpio in 1989. Across the Channel, Normandy became a yearly autumn ritual for 6 years hopping from Gothic Cathedrals in Bayeux, Rouen and Lisieux mixed up with D-Day Invasion memorabilia in cars ranging from a Renault Supercinque in '89, a series of R21's annually up to a Renault Nevada in '92.

Incidentally, that 1989 trip culminated in my witnessing history being made at the Fulda Gap in then West Germany, behind the wheel of an '89 Mercedes 190E 2.3. It was through this Fulda Gap that armored columns of the Warsaw Pact were supposed to punch through NATO's defenses if war ever broke out. That 9th day in November, it was jolly East Germans in their smoky Trabants that were crossing into the West, waving and popping champagne bottles. The day the Wall fell.

1992 saw an appended journey into Italy, going back and forth between Assisi in Umbria and Portofino in the Amalfi Coast in a '92 Renault Clio. This 21st century has shown that there is more to an EU-energized Spain than Naranjas, tapas y vino. Its landscapes look imported by the Moors from the Maghreb. Coastal forests and mountains with spectacular views of the Med adventuring from one Medieval hamlet to another.

Enjoying Europe doesn't  always mean the playgrounds of the plutocrats like the environs of Maranello, the Ascari race circuit or Monte Carlo. Across the pond, there are still plenty of adventures available in a United States of 65 MPH speed limits. Everyone has variations of Freeway mixed with Pacific Coast highway travel between Las Vegas and San Diego. There's scenic gratification from the Grand Canyon, the levees of Mississippi, the Berkshires, the Tennessee mountains and the Rockies. Even the Thelma and Louise cruise: top down cruising in the Dakotas under a starlit evening sky. Speed lovers may say thousands of miles of federal concrete ribbons at 65MPH suck, but in the land of the Free, there is more freedom to have fun on private property.

What the mountain highways in the Andes do not have in decent paving, they make up with danger and excitement lurking with every change of weather or marauding bandits. In the Middle East and Gulf States, rushing the dunes in localized Nissan Patrols is quite an experience, but there are other ways to enjoy the Gulf.

Nearby, there's the land of smiles. Usually breezed through from the window of tourist coach, there's more to Thailand than tom yang gum, glass noodles, jasmine rice, massage and shopping. Especially when you consider the Royal option.