Jo Foley chronicles a road trip to remember.

    It was a quiet afternoon in San Sebastian, the time of the day when most of the locals were indulging in that ancient Spanish practice called siesta, while many of the visitors were taking in the sights, strolling along the esplanade or relaxing at the beach.

    The doormen at the town’s grand hotel – the Maria Cristina – were enjoying the lull as guests had already either checked in or were not ready for the late departures. The air was gentle, the mood almost soporific…when suddenly whoosh! A new Bentley Continental GT Convertible with UK number plates pulled up, and three blondes in various stages of untidiness tumbled out…a cluster of bags, suitcases and paraphernalia awaited in the boot to be collected and a dog lead was thrust at a bellboy. For while Annie needed water, her two companions needed something a little stronger while they checked in.

    3 blondes view of San Sebastian © San Sebastian Tourism & Convention Bureau.

    It had been a long drive, indeed one could say it had been an adventure; and all because a newly acquired car needed to be put through its paces, so that its owner could discover its capabilities. Her last two cars had been Bentleys, but this was the first convertible…and with it, came a desire to take to the open road. A sort of Thelma and Louise but…with dog! Fret ye not, no banks were robbed, no guns were waved and no cliffs were ever in sight…just a romp through France stopping and staying wherever took our fancy…but with one proviso, everywhere we stopped had to be dog friendly. Oddly, not everywhere was…so some serious forward planning became necessary. Mostly we kept to it…but with certain, and serious deviations, such as San Sebastian, which was not on our original list at all but here we were – windblown and excitable in the foyer of the Maria Cristina – ready to bathe, party and explore.

    We were Sara, owner of mutt and motor, me, friend and chronicler and Annie, the passenger princess. Normally, she travels in the front with her mistress, but as this was a new machine opened to the elements, she preferred to sprawl in the back – carefully harnessed and belted of course. In her short life, Annie has travelled extensively and mostly within the confines of the UK isles. She has occasionally taken a tube train but has hardly ever been on a bus, which is surprising really, as she likes to be driven. However, her preferred mode of transport is a limo.
    In fact, this is how she began her travelling life from a remote Greek island, and needless to say, this is how she is determined to continue. She is not a particularly pampered pooch, but she does have standards. Which is why, when the family who found her had to return to the UK by EasyJet, she didn’t turn a hair, as she immediately knew such transport was not for her. Washed and brushed, inoculated and micro-chipped, she waited first for a ferry and then a car, before embarking on the journey that was going to transform her life from little Orphan Annie to Annie Onassis, a four legged blonde residing in Chelsea.

    3 blondes-Hotel. Maria-Cristina San Sebastian.

    Unsurprisingly, she has taken to her new life like the proverbial creature she chases in the park, to water. And she is a near perfect passenger, the only one of we three not to get agitated when we appeared to be circling Paris, on its interminable ring road, two or three times. This is where I have to admit that my navigational skills are zilch, the other two blondes knew this before we left home. Even with the additional skill set of Google maps, we found the ‘peripherique’ a little trying. And while the design and accoutrements of the aforementioned new Bentley Continental are almost peerless, its sat-nav is not easily manageable (or perhaps my driver’s knowledge of its workings were faulty). Mostly, we found Google maps on our mobiles easier to follow…apart from one occasion when we had different directions coming from both mobiles, and a third from the car sat-nav!

    In general, we managed to get to the places we needed to without too much of a hitch. Although it was sad that we finally got to Orleans in time to see that all the restaurants had closed, and our shabby-chic château guest house didn’t provide food. We eventually found a pizza joint next to a service station, which at first would not allow Annie through the door, but we pleaded so much and looked so pathetic that they agreed to let us sit at the table closest to the door. Weird in a totally empty restaurant… weirder still in la Belle France, where they claim to love ‘les chiens.’

    The only other place from which she was banished was at the bar in the Maria Cristina. We, at that stage were in full Thelma and Louise mode and refused to obey…simply agreeing to hide her under the table while we had a late supper under the watchful eyes of Bette Davis, whose portrait looms over the place. There is even a suite dedicated to the movie queen – another blonde – as it claims to be the place where she smoked her last cigarette before being rushed to Paris, where she died. Nothing so dramatic happened during our sojourn, although Annie broke cover at one stage, giving an uncharacteristic growl at a waiter, since in general, she was feted by all the bellboys who walked her, gave her fresh water and the occasional treat.

    In truth, she rather enjoyed San Sebastian even though we couldn’t let her loose on the beach – all that sand on the 500 thread count sheets on our return would not have been appreciated…, neither would it have been in the car among the cream leather, so she was kept on her lead there and also while we sashayed through San Juan da Luz on our way to lunch. But she was thrilled to really let her hair down when we stopped off to see friends, just south of Bordeaux, where she had acres of garden and farmland to explore, as well as several cats to chase. Annie spent the rest of that afternoon asleep, relaxed and splayed out in the sunshine, as we headed south. Who knows how many cats she caught in her dreams, while we complained again about the sat-nav, while looking forward to our next pit stop. In fact, Annie is a nearly ideal travelling companion, making friends along the way, introducing us to puddles and parks and never once complaining. Perhaps we’ll plan another journey.
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