Travel/Food 2005 – Monza, Italy

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Thursday, 7th to Monday, 11th July 2005 – Monza

I know I only had three days out of the office, but it still felt like a holiday to me.

It started on Wednesday evening, when Skil and Clivio flew in so that Clivio could compete in the GP2 Race, supporting the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. We had dinner at La Strada in Towcester. It’s an excellent Italian, as I think I’ve said before, and it certainly seemed to find favour with Skil, Clivio and their friends, though Clivio was running a fever from some sort of infection and reckoned the antibiotics made everything taste burnt. The rest of us had no such reservations and a fine time was had. We dropped Clivio back at his hotel at about 11 pm, and went off to get some sleep.

On Thursday Lynne and I made a sensibly timed start for a change, and drove round to Gatwick Airport, picking Bob up on the way. We made it in good time, had a sushi and smoked salmon lunch at the Seafood Bar in the airport. Because we were early, we were able to blag the extra leg room seats on the plane, and managed to hold onto the others for Megamarshal, PD and Dinky. Everyone was happy about that, though we weren’t quite so happy about the long delays caused by security issues. Apparently two people who had boarded the plane, were not going to be able to travel. Because they had been on the plane, all the bags had to be taken off and identified by their owners, a process that delayed us by a couple of hours, though with the news filtering through from London, no one was objecting. My feeling is that if the crew are worried there might be something untoward on the plane, I’m happy to stay on the Tarmac while they check thank you! It did mean we hit Milan in the rush hour, which wasn’t funny. However, we had Megamarshal’s SatNav system with us and at least it meant we didn’t get lost. The Hotel Parco turned out to be very conveniently located, right on the edge of the park, though on the far side of it from the circuit. The lobby was full of racing photos, and the rooms turned out to be on the basic side but still comfortable (although the chambermaid seemed vaguely forgetful). We unpacked, wandered down to dinner and discovered the Chef is a madman, in the best possible way. French rather than Italian, we asked him what was good before we bothered to look at the menu, and were rewarded with the best seafood risotto I have ever eaten, followed by a freshly made tiramisu, with no chocolate on my portion! Perfection! And it was followed by a grappa and a relatively early night.

Unfortunately, it was also followed by a very early morning, as Lynne messed up the alarm clock, and set it for 6.30 instead of 9.00… I wasn’t best pleased, and was even less pleased when she woke me up again at 7.30 because she wasn’t sure what time it was! We woke to cloudy skies, after overnight thunderstorms, and torrential downpours. It was dry, but nowhere near as nice as we’d been hoping for. Anyway, we made a leisurely breakfast, discovering that the hotel offered a very good buffet breakfast, rather than a traditional Italian breakfast of a roll and coffee. The only mistake I made was not asking clearly enough for a cappuccino. It meant I got a coffee that was so black you couldn’t see through it, and which hotwired my brain and attempted to drive off with my central nervous system.

Around 10 we sallied forth in search of the accreditation office, which was surprisingly easy to locate. We then drove the rest of the way to the circuit. Monza is utterly fabulous, set in rolling acres of park, full of beautiful old trees of many sorts – oak, ash, birch, chestnut – with tiny little lizards darting everywhere, strange black butterflies with wings covered in white spots that I couldn’t identify, cicadas chirping away in the undergrowth, and rabbits cropping away at the wildflowers and grass. The park has been here since 1805, and the circuit since around 1922, so there is history at every turn, including the old banked oval circuit which was in use well into the 1970s. The press office is state of the art, and the pits are modern, but the place oozes atmosphere at every turn. We were already prepared to love the place almost from the moment we got in.

We also had the great pleasure of meeting the rest of the Kimball family properly, having met Charlie’s Mum, Nancy, and sister, Rachel, at Combe. Grandmother was with them, having flown in from California on Thursday just to see her grandson race. She’d picked a great weekend to come and see what he’s getting up to over in Europe, and seemed to be enjoying herself a great deal. His Dad, Gordon, seemed to be a great guy too, quiet but knows what he wants and talks a great deal of sense. Someone else we were pleases to see was Jacqui Groom, now standing in as temporary press officer for the series, as Jasmin has gone off to work for Prodrive, dealing with merchandise, where hopefully she won’t have to write English. Jacqui is incredibly competent, can write, and asks lots of questions. She’s great! Hopefully, we can keep her, but she may turn out to be too expensive.

Anyway, we didn’t have to do much on Friday, so we pottered round watching the testing sessions from the grandstands at the Ascari Bend. The views were phenomenal, and you could really see what people were doing, and how well they were driving. During the afternoon we picked up a recommendation for a restaurant from Charlie, and duly attempted to locate the Ristorante del Centro that evening.

It wasn’t easy. Doris (as the SatNav is now known) tried to send us to a riverside restaurant by getting us to drive down the steps to the towpath… We eventually found the place, and discovered that it was indeed a lively place, with incredibly friendly staff, and that Friday night is paella night. When the paella arrived, I was very glad I’d had a light starter (four scallops, gratinated). The paella was excellent, and enormous, and I struggled to finish it. And then we discovered what a dangerous place it was. They asked if we wanted dessert. We said we did, and they duly brought out 7 or 8 beautiful cakes, and just left them with us. You could have as much or as little as you wanted.

The same went for the limoncello liquer, the moscatel wine and a bottle of something I never identified. The same thing happened with the grappa too, and when we eventually staggered out of there about three and a half hours after we went in, we were also only 37 euros each lighter in pocket. Oh, and we’d gone from a party of four to one of seven. We’d collected Cassandra (Tim Bridgman’s PR woman, so she didn’t exactly have the easiest of weekends), John and Lorraine (who both work for MST, the timing people). It was an excellent evening out, though there was the lurking realisation that we were going to have to get up at stupid o’clock the next day. This wasn’t helped by the incredibly thunderstorm that woke pretty much everyone up at 4am, crashing round the area for a couple of hours before it finally blew itself out.

At 7am it was still raining cats and dogs. It was also the start of a packed day. Because we were having an extra race over and above the normal two (to replace one of the rounds we lost to weather at Spa in April), and the LMES sports cars had a 6-hour race on Sunday, Saturday was seriously action packed, with a practice session at 9, another at noon, and races at 3.15 or thereabouts and 6.30… As a result we didn’t get a lot further than the paddock and the cafe just outside the paddock gates, though I did manage to get out onto the grid at the start of the first race, and onto the podium after each race.

The racing itself was fabulous, some of the most exciting stuff I’ve ever seen I think, with slipstreaming and overtaking, all at the most amazingly high speeds, and in very close formation. It was tremendous stuff, and everyone (with the possible exception of Tim Bridgman who collected a disqualification for cutting the Chicane) seemed to be having the time of their lives. We managed to spend a little more time with the Kimballs, which was fun, but mostly we just worked flat out. When we got back to the hotel, the chef tried to tell us he had no food, but then managed to feed 9 of us (we’d now collected Sam and Tim, Megamarshal’s sister-in-law and brother), and more impressively to feed us extremely well. The starter of hams and salamis was wonderful, Lynne and I shared the only beef tenderloin left (wrapped in pancetta and perfectly cooked), and finished with a very rich raspberry bavarois. He then left us with a bottle of grappa, which may have been unwise!

Certainly, my head wasn’t good on Sunday morning, though it eventually cleared during the day. This time all we had was a single race, and once again it was very exciting stuff. Bridgman behaved like an idiot, and was lucky to only get a fine for what he did on track. Mostly, we stayed in the press office, working through the LMES, though we did venture out to the cafe on the outside of the track, just to see what it was like. Impressive. You can stare all the way down the pit lane and start/finish straight to the mountains in the distance, and the whole scale of the place is so huge it makes Silverstone look like a child’s toy.

Anyway, after a day working hard on various reports, we went back to the hotel before arranging to go to a nearby Brazilian restaurant, Il Carretao. This was yet another good decision (though once again Doris got more than slightly confused, and we had to stop a pizza delivery boy to get directions only to find we were right behind the place!). The starters were all on a self-service buffet and were very Brazilian indeed, though there were some “normal” Italian things for diners of a nervous disposition. Apparently, these days, the Italians eat a lot of ethnic food (for which read Chinese, Indian, Thai), which is interesting because even ten years ago you would have been hard pressed to find a non-Italian restaurant anywhere in Italy. Anyway, the main course was a typical Brazilian barbeque, where a chef with a large skewer of meat came round and carved a slice or two onto your plate. There was everything from pork, sausages, and lamb to perfectly cooked beef, and once you’d finished with the meat there was grilled pineapple, before they brought the desserts round. And so, stuffed with food and very tired, we retired to the hotel and bed.

On Monday we had a late breakfast, packed, paid and went back to circuit to nose round the historic bits, and to walk in the woods. It was wonderful – we scrambled down some mud banking and over a load of tree roots to walk about on the historic banking and take photos. We disturbed the rabbits, and were in turn disturbed by a cyclist who suddenly appeared out of nowhere it seemed, with a rushing noise of tyres. It was a little odd, and not at all expected. We thought a bit about the drivers who used to race on the banked circuit in the days before safety harnesses, flame proof suits and crash helmets and came to the conclusion they were crazy; gloriously so, perhaps, but nonetheless crazy. And after that we had lunch in a small Spanish restaurant, El Cordobes, where, to my amusement and hers, Lynne ordered a “Los Desperados” pizza. And so to the airport and home.

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