Europe Through the Windscreen (Part One)

WALES & LOTUS

Wales is home to Tom Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones, the world’s oldest language and more castles per square mile than any other place on Earth. It’s an old and fastidious land of charmed, dreamy landscapes; farmhouses and snug villages tucked away amongst deep woodlands in the most inaccessible lush places.

At Heathrow Airport, Bespokes Car Hire handed me the keys to a Lotus Evora, a 3.5-litre V6 missile. With its visor-like windscreen, sloped rear windows and fixed roof, this compact coupe makes a Porsche Boxster appear broad and squat. The lines are curvaceously sensual and it’s meatier than the Lotus Elise in width, height and length which translates into a significantly longer cabin, ideal for tall people.

With the SatNav aimed at Wales, I gently engaged drive and took off with a startled cry, a brief wheel-spin and a throaty roar. As the road unfurled before me I put my foot down, winding past a succession of villages and hamlets, heading towards the Snowdonia National Park with its mystical mountains. Once I crossed the geographical Welsh border, I began chasing lengthening shadows through ancient parishes into the Llangollen valley, set in a green bowl of lustrous mountains.

It takes some finding but the character of the West Arms Hotel, a centuries old Inn, in Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, is worth the effort. It opened in 1670 and historically served beer to shepherd’s who drove sheep through the area to market. The owner has cleverly turned this Inn’s fifteen spotlessly clean chintzy rooms into a travel destination.

At sunrise, trailing through narrow country lanes in ground misted valleys and up through the Cadair Idris Mountains via the Pony Path, I pressed on to the market town of Dolgellau. Immense landscaped gardens and a riot of roses greeted me at the award-winning Penmaenuchaf Hall Hotel, a 14-room privately owned luxury mansion house. It stands in glorious seclusion on the brow of a steep hill, overlooking the Mawddach Estuary and the mountains of Snowdonia National Park. The hotel gives the impression of being a well-run family home as attention to detail is reflected throughout; from sumptuous bedrooms to the formal terrace. It is individual and just slightly quirky, yet a stay here is a complete contrast to the bland and impersonal offerings of chain hotels; and the food served in the glass encased dining room, is quite simply exquisite.

Heading back to London I stopped at Cheshire, an area of quiet prosperity folded against the Welsh border, just below Liverpool. It’s a small county best known for the fabled grinning cat, noblemen’s mistresses, excessive wealth, famous authors, rock stars and cheese. I overnighted at the medieval Peckforton Castle in Tarporley – whose views alone brought to mind a child’s picture book. Formerly home to Lord Tollemache (and film location for Robin Hood) Peckforton is a beautifully restored 48-roomed castle, with a truly exhilarating hour-long falconry experience. Peckforton’s award-winning silver service restaurant, 1851, is a little temple of great food.

Luminous, compelling and absolutely gorgeous are just some of the superlatives I could heap on this little corner of the UK. But don’t take my word for it, visit Wales yourself. Wake up in a bewitching landscape of cascading streams, craggy mountains, wild moorlands and forested hills to the sounds of a deafening dawn chorus of birdsong.

Lotus is as special on the road as it feels behind the wheel – which is why it commands more attention than Porsche, even some Ferrari’s. I drove the entire width of the UK from Norwich to the Welsh coast in one stretch and can vouch that Lotus have added luxury and refinement to a car that can do long trips in comfort (and short trips in ecstasy), making a unique sports car truly suitable for grand touring.

To hire a supercar in the UK, click here.

TUSCANY & LAMBORGHINI

“Take one liberty with this car and she’ll take you down,” says the man bearing the keys to the closest thing I’ve seen to a Stealth Fighter roll up to the airport’s pick-up point in Bologna; its Y-slanted headlights glaring, its sunset orange carbon fibre body and flared air-intakes looking angry. This is Lamborghini’s new battlecruiser – the Lamborghini Aventador, a perfect union of beauty and beast.

I slide into the high-tech cockpit, trying to find an ignition to slot the keys into. “You push the button there,” he says. “No there. Mama mia, the button on the centre console!” He points to a Top Gun starter button under a red flip-up cover which, when depressed, triggers what sounds and feels like a seismic event. And off I go.

Navigating a winding mountain road towards Tuscany, I came to Castello di Compiano – a medieval castle embraced by fortified walls and built atop a rocky outcrop of a mountain village. The castle’s jaw-dropping views across the Taro River and the Apennines mountains make it one of the most spectacular locations in northern Italy. In its life Castello di Compiano has been a royal residence, a prison, military barracks, an all-girls boarding school, and now it’s an exclusive 13-suite hotel. Although it’s a 90 minute drive from Bologna, the tranquillity of the village of Compiano and its Castle makes this a boutique escape from city chaos. The adjoining park and swimming pool complete the paradise feel.

The suites are all bespoke – some boasting original 16th century fireplaces, wooden floors, ceiling and doors – complete with a royal crest. A marble plate which hangs on the castle wall denotes all the royal families that have inhabited the structure since 800 AD. I stayed in the North Tower’s Junior Suite (€180), which has a loft area with two additional beds (great for kids) and long views across the park. Untouched for centuries the ancient village of Compiano, which surrounds the castle, is simply gorgeous with its narrow cobbled streets, sculpted doorways and little old ladies taking their wicker baskets for a walk to the village market.

Facing the village square is La Vecchia Compiano, a traditional family-run Italian restaurant with superb time-honoured flavours. Their seasonal menu (which includes Italy’s famed Porcini and Prugnoli mushrooms and some 400 bottles of Italy’s finest) had me and my dinner guest feast on Chestnut Gnocchi with Ricotta Cheese and Pumpkin Gnocchi with walnut sauce, washed down with a bottle of Pinot Grigio from Veneto. (I got a chunk of change from a €50 note).

Returning to the road, I settle into drive mode. In the hills I steer with what feels like telepathy, the power of suggestion. The Aventador’s gearbox is sharp with remarkable traction and fierce pulling power in the corners. For a bit of fun I drop it into track mode, step on the gas and throw it into a few tight corners, which it just shrugs off without me needing to brake or change gear. Emboldened, I decide to truly test the Aventador’s F1-grade power plant on an open stretch of tarmac. In seconds it goes from fun, to exhilarating, to somewhat unsettling. I took my foot off the accelerator when the horizon began to warp. I round a bend to a sudden magical tableau of small green fields and steepled villages spread across an undulating land, like a shaken-out quilt just settling back onto a bed. The road snakes deep into the hills towards Laticastelli, where I bedded down for a couple of nights. Laticastelli’s owner is a former Argentinean polo player turned hotelier, Gonzalo Aguilar, who in recent years sympathetically restored the 1200-year old village into this boutique hotel. It has an equestrian theme, infinity pool and one of Tuscany’s best regional restaurants. My beautiful deluxe suite housed an immense and hugely comfortable four-poster bed (€180).

I visited several neighbouring mountain villages, dined at ‘greasy spoons’ and drank in working men’s pubs, each time coming away with new retirement plans and a promise to return and linger just a little longer in the Tuscan hills.

To hire a supercar in the Italy, click here.

SUSSEX & CAN-AM

When the low-lit streets of Rye are threaded in a salty mist, it evokes feelings of nostalgia, bringing with it an air of mystery stabbed with sudden pockets of quiet. If you listen closely you may hear the ghost-like creaking of King Henry VIII’s warships anchored where the bay once was. This tiny Sussex hamlet has an extraordinary past which includes, amongst others, author H. G. Wells and Joseph Conrad. Its history dates back to before the Norman Conquest when, as a small fishing community, it was near enveloped by water.

Rye evokes feelings of being forgotten, left hanging in an alternate reality. I take an unhurried ‘ghost walk’ through the town’s winding cobbled streets that are hunched over by medieval churches and beautifully preserved historic houses. Look down Mermaid Street, flanked either side by absurdly charming houses; here centuries seem to melt away, making it seem only right for the clatter of horses’ hooves to echo on this steep thoroughfare. Mermaid Street is peppered with ancient buildings like the Mermaid Inn which was restored 400 years before America was discovered.

Hidden amongst this history is a host of fascinating and unusual shops, a Pandora’s box of vintage fashion boutiques like My Sweet Old Etcetera; Herald & Heart Hatters; Britcher & Rivers – a specialist sweets-in-a-jar shop; bespoke jewellers; galleries exhibiting local potters and artists; quaint antique shops; collectors’ books at Martello’s; Grammar School Records for vinyl record collectors; a cheese delicatessen; state of the art Beauty Parlours like Rye Retreat; Glass Etc. for ‘antiques and high class junk’ owned by Andy McConnell of Antiques Roadshow fame; and Ironmongers Extraordinary – the kind of place you’ll discover all the kitchen knick-knacks you did not know you needed; hand painted model soldiers, maritime photographic prints, tapestries and teddy bears. Then there is the Thursday general market beside the railway station and the Farmers’ Market on Wednesday mornings on Strand Quay.

Having taken in enough of the town’s history, I felt it time for some culture and pulled up at The Standard, a pub frequented by Sir Paul McCartney. My wheels turned every head along the way.

“What the heck is that?” a patron enquired.

“This is a Can-Am Spyder RT-S, a sort of three-wheeled, mutant trike thing that sits somewhere between a Goldwing touring rig and a Snowmobile. It’s made in Austria by Bombardier Recreational Products; a Canadian company with a history of making groovy playthings,” I said.

“Some may consider the Can-Am to be a wrong-way-around trike but, as a motorcycle rider, I can tell you there is more to this machine than a bike that doesn’t fall over; and as a car driver, I can tell you it’s not a car with only one rear wheel. This is a hair-on-fire experience!”

“So, what’s it really like?” he asks.

“It is great fun. In fact, it’s bottom clenching terror fun. With its luxury-car-inspired composition I tire of the constant attention it gets me on the road; but I love the cruise control and electronic windscreen which lowers for some breeze or raises, allowing the volume of the 4-speaker sound system to reach the rider. I also like the fact that you don’t need a motorcycle licence to ride it and yes, it is OMG-fast. You won’t hear me complain if this appeared on my drive at Christmas, but I would rework the exhaust note to sound more convincing of its 1330cc as it’s not nearly as loud as it should be; that way at least I’ll be heard going through the Pearly Gates. There are only two draw backs: you have none of the benefits of a car (roof) and all the disadvantages of a bike (weaving through traffic); but I defy anyone to ride this and not immediately want to own one.”

To hire a Can-Am in the UK, click here.

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About the author: Cindy-Lou Dale

Cindy-Lou Dale is a freelance writer who originates from a small farming community in Southern Africa, which possibly contributed to her adventurous spirit and led her to become an internationally acclaimed photojournalist. Her career has moved her around the world but currently she lives in a picture postcard village in England, surrounded by rolling green hills and ancient parish churches. Her work is featured in numerous international magazines, including TIME and National Geographic.


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