Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Idiot Wagon

First of all, an explanation. The term Idiot Wagon isn't pejorative, but a term of affection, rather like you would use when your dog does something silly...

The AMG A45 is a bit of a beast. Mercedes send their smallest 4 door hatchback (the A series) to the AMG factory, where the car is un-manufactured, the engine and gearbox rebuilt (each item done by one individual who signs his work), fitted with a mahoosive twin turbo, and just about everything else upgraded - suspension, interior, steering, wheels, brakes. Then, according to the options you choose, an aerodynamic pack is added, and all of a sudden you have a 4 door shopping trolley that will outrun most supercars.

The car my brother very generously lent us when we were in Australia:
A fully optioned AMG A45 4matic

I kid you not. The handbook (all 3 inches thick of it) states that using the 7 speed, dual clutch gearbox, no way - no way AT ALL - should you exceed 287km/h (178mph) in 6th gear. It has a 1991cc, dual turbocharged, 376hp engine, 4 wheel drive, and will reach 100km/h in 4.2 seconds.

This makes overtaking a real blast - literally. Injudicious application of the loud pedal, even in "ECO" mode, will take you past most trucks before you realise it, and even the shortest of overtaking lanes become practical. In sports mode it's even faster...

Apparently all those plastic aerodynamic bits aren't just for looks.
I never really drove fast enough to find out.

It climbs hills and goes around corners like a lunatic, meaning you have very little use for the super huge (and super efficient) brakes. In sports mode it cackles like a demented witch everytime you take your foot off the accelerator, and the seatbelts give you a hug when you put them on. The load space will take two large suitcases, and there is room for 3 in the back seat although anyone behind me would benefit from being either 1 metre tall or a dual amputee. The GPS more or less works, although it does sometimes take serious convincing about describing the route YOU want to take, and the sound system seems to be ok (not that I ever used it). Likewise the sunroof, which I opened once just so I could say I'd done it.

The headlights are amazing, although the auto-low beam function gets confused when confronted by reflective road signs, and the windscreen wipers just don't cope with the way it can rain in Australia. On the other hand, the climate control really did cope with Australian weather  - even when the outside temperatures were in the 40's (well over 100F) we were looking (and feeling) cool.

I particularly enjoyed the adaptive cruise control, which you can set just above the speed limit and forget, allowing the car to slow as the traffic in front of it slows, before automatically accelerating (usually like a maniac) when you pull out to overtake. There were stretches of over 100km where I didn't touch either pedal at all. I never tried the automatic reverse parallel parking (press the button and it reverses into the parking place with no driver input) because although it sounds like a good idea, I never needed it.

Yup - flappy paddle gearbox, and the bit of the speedo you use is all in the bottom left corner.

It does have issues. The suspension has virtually no travel (and with 19 inch rims the very wide but not very thick tyres aren't much use for absorbing bumps), and the racing Recarro seats aren't made for man sized people. It's also very low, which meant the proximity "watch out, we're going to crash" alarm went all hysterical when encountering speed bumps in station car parks. The lack of suspension travel might not be so much of an issue on the good roads around here, but on some of the windey roads I chose to take in Australia, road surface isn't really a thing.

Not a car for mature people, or those with dodgy hips or knees..

Would I want one to live with? Honestly, I don't know, although the fuel consumption was ok (we used 545litres of fuel for 6893km at 7.9l/100k ) I imagine the insurance would be more than two Traction Avants (insured as Taxis) and a 1.5l Ford hatchback all added together. I also thought it a bit loud even in ECO mode, although the soundtrack in sports mode - where you want it - was really antisocial and therefore a good thing. I love the reassuring squeeze the seatbelts give you when you do them up, the way it goes around corners, and the way it overtakes. But then there is the issue of cost - a Porsche would be cheaper.

The risk? The risk is that I might want one..

Just substitute the seats with a nice comfy sofa, and give the suspension some travel and I might consider it. Especially if every time I got out the car I had an idiot grin on my face...

Friday, 19 January 2018

The Long and the Short of it

Something to brighten up a Northern Hemisphere January morning:

Surfers on Manly Beach.

Surf culture is alive and well in the Sydney suburb of Manly, which has an ocean beach and a harbour beach.

The two guys in the photo demonstrate the two different basic styles of surfboard. The one at the front is a shortboard, the one at the back a longboard. Modern surfboards are made from polystyrene foam coated in fibreglass. The longer or wider a board is the more stable and easy to control they are.

Shortboards are for showing off on, zippy and contrary so that the rider's skill can be highlighted with a technique known as 'shredding'. Longboards are easier to paddle and stand up on but don't get airborn and can't be twisted into the sort of extreme turns and displays that modern surfing competitions put on display. They are more for the old fashioned art of hanging five (walking up the length of the surfboard to hang your toes over the very front of your surfboard as it is lifted up and pushed forward by a wave).

These two surfers are wearing wetsuits, probably not so much because they found the water chilly but because they are protecting themselves from UV in the sun's rays. This is just one difference between visiting beaches in Australia and visiting beaches in northern Europe.

We spent eight weeks in Australia over the 2017/2018 southern summer and will be writing about it regularly

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Things are Grave Part VII -- Susan Sontag

Not someone who entered my consciousness much, Susan Sontag was an American writer and activist. Except briefly in the late 1950s, she never lived in Paris, but her experience here as a student was apparently the most important period of her life. 

We visited Montparnasse cemetery in September and are posting about selected graves over a period of weeks.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Random Bits of News

We have some good news, and some bad news..........

First the less good news: We arrived back in France at 06.35 last Friday morning. On the plane I slept quite well, but appeared to have caught a cold. Saturday was spent being (I'm sorry, there isn't a politer word for this) very snotty. By Sunday it had migrated to my chest, and by Monday I was at the doctor's for an investigation. I have asthmatic bronchitis (as opposed to the usual slightly inconvenient form of asthma I am subject to day to day) so I am on a course on antibiotics, and three (count 'em) different types of corticosteroid. It is now uncomfortable rather than painful as long as I don't cough, but extremely painful (and distressing for Susan) when I do cough.

Boo to airlines making their planes so cold!

But now the good news: Yesterday I booked our train tickets to go to Paris for Retromobile. I was pleasantly surprised (actually no I wasn't, I was amazed) to discover that if you're lucky you can now get from Saint Pierre des Corps (4km from Tours) to Paris in less than an hour, for 10€ (yup - ten euros!) per person each way. This is because Ouigo now service our neck of the woods with their no frills trains.

>There are a couple of fairly easy to deal with conditions - you have to check in (on the platform) at least 30 minutes before your train, and your baggage allowance is a cabin bag and a handbag each. Additional luggage (up to 30kg per person) is 5€ per bag. You have to pay an additional 2€ if you want a seat with a power plug, and the trains arrive and depart from Paris Montparnasse Hall 3.

The previous cheapest TGV tickets to Paris were 17€, but usually more like 20€ or 25€ depending on time of day, so this is quite a win! There are supposedly 3 Ouigo services per day from Bordeaux to Tours, stopping at Angouleme, Poitiers, and Saint Pierre des Corps. All tickets are 10€pp until 18 July. There's more info here

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The Largest Medieval Fortress in Europe

As we were driving north through Brittany to Mont Saint Michel in July 2017 I noticed a sign advertising a historic attraction. 'If you haven't seen Fougères you haven't seen anything' it said. Then there was another sign which said 'Fougères, the largest medieval fortress in Europe'. 

Well, this was all news to us, so we thought we'd better stop. After a bit of going around in circles while our GPS didn't cope, we finally made it to the top of the hill which looks out over the 'largest, best preserved medieval fortress in Europe' and out over a valley and extensive farmland. There's no doubt it's impressive and very medieval. We reckon it might be worth a proper visit in the future. The town of Fougères is attractive and would make quite a good base for exploring the area, which has a lot more to offer than just the chateau.

The fortress of Fougères defended the independent Duchy of Fougères for 500 years, from 1000 to 1500. It's in marcher country, that is to say, in a band of frontier territory that is along an oft disputed border, in this case with Normandy and Maine. Most of what you see today dates from the 12th, 13th and 15th centuries.

The complex has access to the River Nançon, which was used for both defensive and more domestic purposes. Ditches could be flooded at will to turn them into moats and from the 12th century there was four waterwheels powering flour mills. Even today, one of the wheels has been restored and generates electricity for the site. The vast lower court functioned as a space where daily life went on in times of peace, with workshops, gardens and warehouses. In times of war it served as a refuge for the local population and protected the well which was the only source of potable water. After providing centuries of vigilance and protection for the Dukes of Britanny, the chateau finally fell to the cannons of Charles VIII in 1488 (taking advantage of the death of François II, Duke of Britanny, leaving his 11 year old daughter Anne as his heir).

Apparently Lawrence of Arabia really rated the castle, saying 'this castle is really above and beyond everything that one can say...I'm not sure that Fougères is not the most beautiful of them all.' (Note that I couldn't find this quote in the original English so I've back translated it from the French text on the chateau brochure, so it could be slightly off, but you get the idea...)

Monday, 15 January 2018

Monday is Queens Day: 14 Clémence Isaure

Clémence Isaure isn't a real person. She is a character associated with Toulouse, credited with founding a poetry competition known as Les Jeux Floraux (the Floral Games). The literary society that runs the Jeux Floraux was founded in 1326 and is undoubtedly the oldest literary society in existence in the western world. The competition is called Les Jeux Floraux in reference to ancient Roman poetry competitions dedicated to the goddess Flora.

In 1513 the original literary society split into two separate organisations. The modern Academie des Jeux floraux is the descendant of the group who invented an endowment to the city of Toulouse and the character of Clémence Isaure, claiming that a condition of the endowment was that a poetry competition be held annually. By this means the city of Toulouse found itself funding the annual event. The members of the society co-opted the tomb of a local aristocratic woman, turning her effigy into that of the fictitious Clémence Isaure by modifying the sculpture to include various floral emblems. Amazingly they got away with all of this and the Academie survives as a respectable literary society.

The Jardin du Luxembourg has statues of 20 French Queens and Illustrious women. The subjects were chosen by Louis-Philippe I in 1843. This statue was created by Antoine-Augustin Préault 1848. To see Clémence looking wistful you have to go here.

Eventually all 20 statues will be featured here.