Student travel-writing competition: The winner: Falling in love: a Mini series

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The Independent Travel
I HAVE always held that the most enjoyable journeys are made as an end in themselves, so when my friend Kate suggested a drive to the South of France for no better reason than that we hadn't been there before, and with only the prospect of turning straight round and coming back, I was all for it. I was less keen when she revealed that the rusting Mini at the end of the street was, in fact, hers, and it was thus that she intended to reach the Mediterranean. It had evidently moved at some time in its existence, for it hadn't always been there; but I had never seen it go.

But the south was an enticing prospect; this was at a time when I had not been further than Paris and I was itching to see more. With the proviso that we acquire a car maintenance guide from Halfords, I agreed to be her co-driver.

Kate had cunningly positioned the Mini at the top of one of Sheffield's steepest streets, and I swear the momentum we got from that downhill start took us all the way to Dover. It was off the ferry that the problems began, where the Mini, like a soccer hooligan, seemed to take a perverse nationalistic pride in misbehaving when removed from its domestic environment.

My atlas told me it was 1,066km from Calais to Marseilles, and the car made us fight for every one of them. The problems started in a minor way with a wheel change near Arras. At St Dizier another was required, forcing a frantic chase round town for a spare spare.

In Chaumont it was spark plugs, near Beaune the radiator, and approaching the Fourviere tunnel in Lyons the number plate fell off. Kate secured it with a pair of tights. The scenery was beautiful. Near Valence is a service station called, I believe, Parallele 45, where the second half of the northern hemisphere begins. We slept there in a ditch on a gorgeously warm night. Next morning I discovered L'Equipe and red wine for breakfast and we drove down the Rhone valley with no mishaps and the smell of Provence growing heavier in our nostrils.

Marseilles is the most beautiful city in France, excitingly dangerous at night and a joy in the earliest daylight when the port wakes up; everywhere is hazy sky-blue and white (also the colours of the football team) and orange pantiles. We looked out on to our first view of the Mediterranean and decided to go to the beach.

It was the start of two love affairs: one with France and one with my co-driver, which both still last, tested in each case by disagreements over the benefits of European monetary union. The Mini has endured less well, though it can still be seen, from the train, near the top of a pile of equally mechanically challenged vehicles in a scrapyard in the Don Valley.

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