"Get your knees in the breeze," they said in the 1990s. "Buy yourself a strap-on beer belly, stick-on tattoos and grow your hair lank and greasy."
Dusty but untattooed, I'd allowed two weeks for the Grand Tour of Europe that had taken the Fynes Morysons of this world a couple of years. But then I had a Harley Davidson.
My conveyance, a chrome-covered, street-eating, easy-riding 655lb of hog, had a booming stereo that got automatically louder as it accelerated, but what sort of music should it be playing? I didn't want to come across as a wimp, but then nor am I a Hell's Angel. In the end I plumped for Haydn string quartets for the frontier crossings, and "Bat Out of Hell" for the narrow French country lanes.
The Haydn accompanied my wobbling descent down the ramp on to the Harwich ferry. I could see by their expressions that two fellow passengers, thought it was pretentious rubbish. They were real Harley pros: covered in soot and grime themselves, but not a spot on their gleaming hogs.
The following dawn we emerged into the Netherlands. The Dutch were just giving their motorway verges a quick trim. "A giant must have been along with a scrubbing brush" a Grand Tourist had reported of the Netherlands, 300 years before.
It doesn't take long to cross Holland. The Harley churned up past Amsterdam and out along the 20-mile dam where the Zuider Zee, with its scenes of herring-swallowing clog-wearing fishermen had been turned into the unappealing Lake Ijssel. Then I roared into northern Germany, which didn't, to my mind, look much different to the Netherlands. My host in the small town of Oldenburg, however, was scandalised by the suggestion.
No one is quite sure where the sausage line falls, but I'd crossed it before Frankfurt. Sausage meat above it is brown and below it is white, and this simple colour change has become symbolic of a divide between a richer south and poorer north.
North or south, the Germans all have smart, fast cars. Even with 1,340cc chunkering steadily away between my kneecaps and the assistance of "Bat Out of Hell", I was still slow-lane material on the German autobahns. The Grand Tourists reckoned German roads the slowest in Europe, barely achieving 18 miles a day, but I'd done 200 miles by breakfast. Not without some penalty, however. By Heidelberg my nose itched extremely, and the hog's vibrations had shaken all the tiny screws out of my camera lenses.
I stayed overnight in Strasbourg and in the morning found a flower on the Harley's seat. Switzerland, bathed in sunshine, looked as if someone had just cut the grass. In Zurich an old gent actually left his park bench to perambulate slowly around the Harley, nodding approvingly at the hog's Fat Bob tanks.
Most motorcyclists treat the alpine roads like race tracks, but the hog and I plodded. The mountains, without their softening snow, looked like a giant cat litter tray. The Grand Tourists hadn't been much enamoured of this natural barrier: "Dismal mountains" said one, "Frightful Alps" said another.
In those days the Grand Tourists had had to dismantle their carriages and pack them away in huts ready for their return. They would descend the other side on charabancs ("a species of jolting wheelbarrow"), at frightening speed. My charabanc gave me a fright, too: affected by the altitude, the heat and my nervousness, the brake fluid boiled, and I descended rather faster than I'd have liked, saying my prayers.
As I stopped at Lake Orta, thunder was rolling around the foothills of the Alps on the Italian side. But by the next morning it had grumbled away as I set off across the misty plains of northern Italy. South of Milan, the opposite lane fell suspiciously silent. A distant figure in white turned out to be a woman who was having an argument with a lorry driver, both gesticulating furiously. Behind them was a mile-long queue of drivers leaning on their horns.
Up in the Alpes Maritimes I negotiated the hairpin bends with barely a missed heart beat. Among these hills - which the poet Swinburne on his Grand Tour described as "calcined, scalped, mangy, grimy, parboiled country" - are the villages to which the aristocrats of Europe have retreated; somewhere up there, I thought, as I thundered past below on the autoroute du soleil, Graham Greene used to sharpen his pencils.
The Cote d'Azur turned imperceptibly into the Cote Vermeille and later into the Costa Blanca. I entertained myself with some generalisations about national motoring characteristics: the Italians drive with their arms hanging limply out of the windows; you can't see the Dutch for their kitchen sinks and the Swiss never have anything on their back seats.
The true Grand Tourist spent some months in Rome, recuperating from his journey, observing manners and architecture and sketching the major sights. I took four days off in Majorca. After all, travel has speeded up and today's sketching only takes 1/125th of a second.
On the return journey, shortly after crossing the Pyrenees into France, the Harley had its most inglorious moment: it was overtaken by an insect. Not that we were going slowly, the pistons where shoving a good 60mph when this orange thing whizzed past doing 80mph.
I parked the machine outside an auberge and ordered a sandwich from a sultry serveuse, straw in hair and damp stains under arms, who snorted gently in the direction of la moto. I dreamt of slipping on my sunglasses and offering her a lift anywhere, but in France the Harley and I had a rendezvous to keep.
Woodeson and Leblique were married in a tumble-down, unconsecrated church in a tiny, pretty village between Toulouse and Montpellier. This was the Harley's moment of glory: the bride, in complete bridal gear, arrived at the church on the pillion, with Monteverdi booming out of the stereo.
After that came the hangover. For 15 hours the Harley and I slogged back over France, through shuttered-up villages, on into the sunset. The following dawn, Portsmouth was covered in drizzle and by Newbury I was frozen. Some Grand Tourists returned home "conceited, unprincipled and dissipated". I returned cold and wet, and to cap it all, someone had stolen my "Bat Out of Hell".Reuse content