The Elephant on the Road

In late January 1986 my family drove from the south of France into northern Italy, continuing our grand tour of Western Europe. After skirting Genoa we drove south to Pisa, stopping to take a unique, never-to-be-repeated photo of the leaning tower, and then carried on to Florence, where I fell in love with Botticelli and Michelangelo at the Uffizi, and learned from a newspaper stand that the space shuttle Challenger had just exploded on take-off.

From Florence, we headed south to Naples and Pompeii, but after a couple of hours drove into a hailstorm and had to stop for the night at the small town of Frosinone. We couldn’t as a result hope to spend much time in Naples before having to turn back, so reluctantly did so now. I wasn’t to see Naples for another twenty-one years. Instead, I got to admire the Vatican, the Forum and the Colosseum.

After learning from a tourist information centre a slightly quicker route north going through the Alps rather than around them, we headed that way, enabling us to stop in Geneva to visit my uncle and his family. From there, it was on to Fontainebleau, Paris and Versailles. Although it wasn’t covered in snow, I remember Paris as the coldest part of our trip—not that you can tell from the crisp, clear photos I took from the Eiffel Tower. I also remember being encouraged by a restaurateur in Fontainebleau to try the “TONG-guh”, and regretting it.

One of my key memories of driving through France, though, is of some signs we kept seeing at Total service stations, as recorded in my diary:

Close as I can draw him from memory

Sketched while waiting in service station

Heading for Calais after Paris, I grabbed an opportunity to photograph one:

At one place before Calais I saw a gas station with the elephant symbol that I wanted to photo. So we stopped and I leapt out and took one, then ran back to the car (it was cold). Before we could move, three big gendarmes on bikes were stopping us and motioning me out! They looked like they ate roofing nails for breakfast, and I didn’t know what was going on. I got out, and [saw] the petrol station proprietor, [who] glared and asked what I was doing. I just said I photo’d the elephant, thought he was nice, and Dad helped me out, so he let us go.

I can still remember my father telling them it was «une photo de l’éléphant». The proprietor must have thought I was casing the joint. Here’s my souvenir of the moment:

Total GR sign, 1986

Our trip ended with a Hoverspeed ferry over the channel to Dover, another pinnacle of twentieth-century technology lost to time. A string of photos of the approaching craft rounds out part three of the Grand Tour: Italy, the Alps and France 1986.

The Grand Tour: Italy, the Alps and France 1986

29 November 2019 · Memory