Ferrari taken over to Europe to make sure that the natives are not ‘too restless’. Speed essential to report from the ground, so the latest Ferrari California 30 was chosen for the journey. It was to take four days, 1605 miles, and visits to Paris, Bordeaux, and Le Mans to confirm that the bad weather had not unsettled the natives, and that the entente was still cordiale.
‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now’, opined John Betjeman in his famous ten-stanza poem of 1937. Fast forward 75 years, and ‘we are fortunate now’ that the majority of the 850 factories that incurred his wrath have disappeared, replaced with shining structures of steel and glass, altars to electronic gallimaufry. Oh, and most importantly, the headquarters of Cavallino Rampante, otherwise known as Ferrari (North Europe), from whence we collected the California 30, to carry us on our trip to France and back.
The California is a model which scored a number of firsts for Ferrari: a front mounted V8; direct fuel injection; seven-speed double clutch gearbox (with super-fast gear changes); folding steel roof; stop-start system; magnetorheological dampers, and a multi-link rear suspension system. In addition the car is fitted with an F1-inspired traction control system, which includes launch control. This latter feature disables the traction control system, and allows the car to accelerate at roughly the same speed as Mjölnir, when released by Thor. Designed for the track and the road, let there be no doubt that this car has racing in its DNA, as has every Ferrari road car since the 1947 125 S, powered by a 1.5 L V12 engine, Enzo Ferrari’s first road car. Our California was (still is, I imagine) fitted with the latest 490 bhp/505 Nm engine, and an astonishing £106,000 worth of factory fit accessories, which brought its total value to just over £258,000. I had expected the standard red paint, cream leather interior mix; I was delighted with a beautiful Bianco Fuji pearlescent exterior complete with a Nero Opaco roof, and a cabin lined with grey leather and alcantara. Our progress was also made easier with air-conditioning and cruise control, though the extras I was especially grateful for were the carbon fibre framed racing seats; without doubt, the most comfortable car seats I have practised posterior placement upon. We stopped every 260 miles or so to refuel, and just jumped out, no squeaks or creaks, aches or pains; we were fine as well.
It is a magnificent drive. Most cars have some slop somewhere in the drive-train, steering, brakes or suspension. This one doesn’t. The gear changes are completed so fast that there is virtually no interruption to the car’s progress, with no hesitation at the point of changing gear. Turn the steering wheel and the response is direct and linear; the car moves immediately, the feedback is precise. The carbon ceramic brakes, originally launched on the Enzo, are immensely powerful and easy to modulate, do not fade, and save approximately 4kg per wheel, so the un-sprung weight is reduced and the suspension benefits accordingly. The steering wheel, a £4231 extra, fitted with the now-obligatory manettino, and a bright red engine start button, was a delight to hold; a beautifully finished creation of leather and aluminium. It was like holding the helm of a rocket-ship.
The first stage of our French odyssey took us anti-clockwise around London’s largest multi-lane car-park, complete with optimistic and varied speed limit signs, and eventually on to the M20 and Dover, home to P&O Ferries with whom we completed the trans-channel part of the trip. The journey to Paris was uneventful, the E15 proving to be billiard table smooth and ‘swift’ to drive. Negotiating the Peripherique, in a city known for audible driving was always going to a trial, but, without so much as a petite craquement to interrupt our progress, we arrived at the magnificence that is the Saint James Paris, the only chateau in Paris; the rest, we were later assured by the Countess de la Barre, are only hotels. How right she was!
The chateau was originally commissioned in the mid-1890s by Madame Thiers, in memory of her husband and former President of the Republic, Adolphe Thiers, as the Thiers Foundation. From that time until 1985 it served as a boarding school, offering scholarships for gifted but penniless undergraduates. Between ‘85 and ‘91, the chateau was turned into a private club, and was also used as asset for a number of TV chat shows.
Salvation from the tawdry shackles of the media came in the form of the Bertrand family, who already owned the four-star Relais Christine Hotel in Saint Germain. They acquired the Saint James Club and proceeded to develop its hotel business. 2008 was the year that marked the most extraordinary event in the chateau’s history. The Bertrand family commissioned Bambi Sloan, a poetic, wild-eyed Franco-American visionary of unorthodox interior design, and give her carte blanche to turn the chateau into an extravagant family townhouse. The result blends fictional, factual, historical, cinematographical and literary references, as diverse Napoleon III, The Avengers, My Fair Lady, Ascot races and Josephine de Beauharnais, to produce an extravagant interior, rich in trompe l’oeil details.
Bambi Sloan’s interpretation of the spa area is as avant-garde as the rest of the building. She has used a subtle blend of oriental and western themes for the decoration: tiling featuring arabesque patterns, like a carpet, leading to the changing rooms and hammams; and for the fitness room, she chose the shock of contrasting antique chandeliers and Versailles floorboards, with state-of-the-art exercise machines. The spa also hosts Gemology, founded by Chrystelle Lannoy. It is the first comprehensive range of cosmetics to use precious and semi-precious stones, to take full advantage of the very high trace element content of the minerals in the stones.
The heart of the chateau is undoubtedly the kitchen where Virginie Basselot has just settled in, after a nine year stint at the Bristol, where she ascended the ranks to become Premier Sous Chef and gain her third Michelin star. Her dishes reflect this background: they are thoughtful, bright, and her clever play of flavours preserves the taste of each product used. For the summer she has created: bass tartare; wasabi root and herbs crumpets; quail stuffed with foie gras; raspberries with white chocolate emulsion and caramelized pistachios, to name a few. Her expertise and craftsmanship makes the Saint James the place to go.
After a typical, but beautifully presented French breakfast (café, croissants, jambon, fromage et confiture), we set off to face the capital’s manic traffic, in search of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Notre Dame, for some photography. After a couple of hours, our job was done, and we set off for Bordeaux; ‘only’ 585 kilometres to go.
Despite the pleasure of driving a thoroughbred Cavallino Rampante, 585 kilometres is a long haul, even on the excellent, though expensive, peages, and with cruise control set at Warp 6, we proceeded apace. We were mightily pleased to see Bordeaux.
Bordeaux is often referred to as Le Petit Paris, and such is the magnificence of the architecture that more than half the ground area of the city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and described as ‘an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble of the 18th century’. This would not surprise Victor Hugo, who once stated ‘take Versailles, add Antwerp, and you have Bordeaux.’
The Grand Hotel De Bordeaux and Spa reflects this: it is a mighty edifice, an architectural masterpiece, built in the style of the Grand Theatre de Bordeaux, under the guidance of Victor Louis, one of France’s most renowned architects. To see both buildings facing each other across the Place de la Comedie is to understand the splendour of France’s baroque epoch.
The interior is equally opulent: Jacques Garcia, the renowned interior designer, has created an atmosphere that showcases this pomp and grandeur, and creates a superb space for guests and staff alike. Within a few seconds of arriving at the edge of the great square, a concierge had appeared to unload the car, and whisk it off to the underground car park. We retired to the bar for several well-earned bières seize cent soixante-quatre. Dinner was ordered through the Brasserie l’Europe, which is watched over by Pascal Nibaudeau, who also runs the hotel’s restaurant, the one-Michelin-star Le Pressoir d’Argent. Pascal’s excellence was reflected in the dishes we ordered: Peter’s foie gras risotto, candied tomatoes, pesto and brown jus was a masterpiece, and my own roasted sea bass with thyme and grilled vegetables was delicate, bursting with flavour and beautifully moist.
After a typical café and croissant breakfast taken outside on the Brasserie L’Europe terrace, in the warm early morning sunshine, it was time for photography, with the 21st century bodywork of the Ferrari, and the 18th century architecture of the hotel providing a wonderful juxtaposition of styles and timeframes. We were then given a tour of the hotel by Gregory Vacca, the Head Concierge. It is a remarkable building, combining the original façade and four other buildings to give it a huge internal space. We saw the splendour of the three wining and dining areas within the hotel, each a place to enjoy sweet and savoury palates of taste and colour. L’Orangerie was a further contrast to these areas, designed as a winter garden, under a glass roof, and set in the centre of the hotel; a place for afternoon tea, or relaxed business meetings. There is more though, from meeting rooms decorated in the style of Napoleon III, to the Private Member’s Club, adjacent to the hotel, where one might have discrete conversations with one’s mistress before retiring for further intimacy, or heaven forbid, one’s own wife, though someone else’s would probably be preferable. Discretion we were assured comes as second nature to all the staff.
The spa, set on the fifth and sixth floors, is a place for relaxation and pampering, boasting an array of state-of-the-art devices, aimed at exercising the flesh and soothing the spirit. The whole spa is decorated in the style of a Patrician villa, with many motifs depicting Apollo and Aphrodite: marble, Roman beds and rich hanging fabrics round off the effect. A quick photo-shoot at the blackened and brooding WW11 submarine pens, and then on to the Château de la Barre; a quick and easy journey.
The chateau, set in a gentle hollow in the countryside outside Saint Calais, has been in the Vanssay family since around 1400, and has been added to at regular intervals since that time. In its latest iteration, the old and new sit wonderfully well together, with the interior décor, supervised by Countess Marnie Vanssay, reflecting this. We were warmly welcomed and ushered to our rooms to freshen up, before setting off to Le Relais d’Antan for dinner.
Le Relais d’Antan is owned by one of France’s top celebrity chefs, Paul Van Gessel, who began his career with Mr Charles Barrier at his eponymous three-Michelin-star restaurant in Tours. Paul won the Prix Taittinger in 1976 for his turban lobster, before moving to direct the kitchens of Petit Nice in Marseille, where he earned two Michelin stars. His career was then guided to the Champs Elysees in Paris, to the Crown Restaurant in the Hotel Warwick, where he received a Michelin star, which he held for 14 years. In 1999, he bought the Relais d’Antan, in Lavardin, and effectively turned his back on the world of Monsieur Bibendum and his stars, to settle down and run the restaurant just the way he wants. We both tried his signature hors d’oeuvre dish of lasagne de langoustine: delicate wafer thin sheets of pasta interspersed with thin slivers langoustine, covered in a subtle sauce; melt in the mouth.
The next day, after another simple petit déjeuner, we set off with two objectives in mind: a visit to the Jasnieres winery, and thereafter to Le Mans, to pay homage to the brave, fast and furious men and machines involved in Le Vingt – quatre heures du Mans.
The Jasnieres vineyard is on one side of the road, and the winery, set into caves in the hillside, keeping the bottles cool and dry, on the other. Entranced by the owner’s daughter, a subtly-curved brunette, we bought eighteen bottles of her finest reds and whites, before setting off for The Circuit. A request to the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) to photograph the Ferrari both on the starting grid of the circuit and in the pit lane was swiftly agreed to. Access was allowed at 18:00. About two hours remained, so we toured the museum, wherein lay some of the most iconic Le Mans winning cars of all time: magnificent Jaguars, Porsches, Fords, Ferraris, and Audis – too many to take in all at once. The surprise was the number of grand pre and post war Renaults, Peugeots, Panhards, Voisins and Hispano Suizas on display. The latter three luxury marques ended production some decades ago; the former produced beautiful grand tourers, and limousines far removed from the proletarian tin-boxes they churn out today.
The empty circuit is an eerie place. Ghosts of drivers and cars lurk in the background, the whoosh and roar of engines seems imminent, and the stands redolent of the crowds sharing the triumphs and disasters of the teams: from the nadir of the 1955 tragedy to the zenith of the 1995 race, in which McLaren entered three F1 GTR cars, which came in first, second and third, a feat never before achieved, in a first race by a new entrant. To park in pole position, in a Ferrari, was, for your scribe, an extra-ordinary experience; it completed our homage to this greatest of motor racing circuits. We left and floated back to the chateau, heady on scent of high octane fuels and burnt rubber, courtesy of the circuit, and anticipating the formal dinner that was to come.
Dinner at the château, in the formal dining room, with the Count and Countess de Vanssay in attendance, was a splendid affair. After champagne cocktails in the Salon Rosé, we moved to the dining room, with the table set using the Vanssay family’s centuries-old silver service, porcelain and glassware. We started with a soufflé made from Le Petit Troo, a local cheese, followed by tournedos fillet de boeuf with tarragon sauce, medallion potatoes and courgettes, all from the châteaux gardens. A cheese dish, containing a selection of cheeses from the across the region, along with a superb Jasniéres red followed. Coffee and a mouth-watering chocolate mousse were served in the Grand Salon, which was last decorated in 1778. The cuisine was superb, the wines eminently palatable and the company humorous; wine, and words flowed in equal measure!
Our return to Calais and Slough the next day involved an early start, blasting through misty roads around Le Mans, helped by the Ferrari’s intuitive and user-friendly sat-nav system. The Cali once again impressing us with its ‘bahn-storming performance, and relatively parsimonious fuel consumption: about 20 mpg over the whole trip; astonishing really, given the levels of performance available. We arrived in Calais in plenty of time for the 15:30 ferry. Our trip across the Channel was uneventful, marked by sour-looking black clouds scudding across the sky, dropping the occasional spot of rain. The journey back to Slough took longer than expected, despite a lax interpretation of the national speed limit, whilst keeping up with the flow of traffic.
The folk at Ferrari were very pleased to see us return their mighty machine, even more so when it proved to be unscathed, after our many miles and tight parking places. And it is a mighty machine: scary fast if required, unexpectedly modest with its precious fuel, and subtly curved for cleaving the air at improbably high speeds.