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Renault 4 Rail Tales
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by Peter Gumbrell, 6 December 2003

In June 2003, I set off on an Interrail trip around western Europe, meeting up with a few Renault 4 fans along the way. The story of my travels developed unfeasibly into a full novel, and more details on that can be found on my site Here follows a much shorter account of just the R4 aspects of the adventure, including several extracts and photos from the full story.

Hove - San Sebastián/Donostia

With a clear dawn facing me on the first Friday in June, I set off from my home town of Hove on my first real travelling adventure. Something that I had wanted to do all of my life, but for which I had never had the resources, was a rail trip around Europe with an Interrail pass. My original plan had been to drive my second Renault 4, Nicolexia, around the continent, but in early 2003 I discovered the shocking state of the car's floor pans, and this idea had to be scrapped. Despite all the effort that had gone into restoring the car's chassis, most notably around its rear (documented in the 'technique' section, article number TQ2), the central floor areas had not been treated to so much attention, and proper restoration would set me back an inconsiderate sum running into three or possibly four figures. Whilst poor Nicole sat outside my home redundant, with her MOT expired and looking like her days were numbered, I decided to pursue my other ambition and let the train take the strain on a month-long European trip.

My progress southwards through France was continually hindered by a series of transport strikes across the country, but I had roughly arranged to meet two Renault 4 contacts in San Sebastián, on the northern coast of Spain, about one week into the trip. After a weekend in Paris, two days at a bizarre avant-garde theme park called Futuroscope in western France, and other stops in Poitiers and Bordeaux, I was finally able to find a train running that would take me further south and beyond France.

Amongst the greatest contributors to the Renault 4-Play website over previous years were Luis and Asier, both owners of red Renault 4s, and who had originally met each other via this site. They had become friends with João and Fernando, two other R4 enthusiasts from Lisbon, who I was also expecting to meet up with later. The four of them, together with their girlfriends, wives, pets and Renault 4s, had been on several outings and holidays together since making contact through these pages. (Their many experiences and photos are documented around the articles section and elsewhere).

I didn't know quite what to expect of my Spanish and Portuguese cohorts. Since launching the website in the year 2000, I'd been contacted by countless people; some to place adverts, sign the guestbook, send photos and other articles, some just to say hello or ask other questions. Luis and Asier had been in touch with me more than most, but it was a strange concept for me to grasp; that all these people around the world were viewing my site, which I composed from my bedroom as a result of boredom. Of course, I'd always known the potential reach of my website, but until now I'd barely had any real physical proof that these people contacting me actually existed. My limited travelling experiences also left me in some doubt as to whether much of Europe existed and the world wasn't just a big fake. Thankfully, such paranoid fears were soon calmed when I stepped off the train at San Sebastián - also known by its Basque name of Donostia - and gave Asier a call. He took time off work to come and meet me a few minutes later on his scooter.

We popped into the city fire station to say hello to Luis, who we would be meeting again later when he finished his shift, and who had very kindly offered to house me for the night in his family's flat. The heat was phenomenal, but there was no choice; we had to take the Renault 4 out for the afternoon, despite its unsuitability in such scorching conditions. Nothing else would do, it was a ritualistic act, and Asier drove me up into the hills to a place with a fantastic panorama overlooking the whole city and the distant mountains (below).

Asier and I, united by the Renault 4, sat overlooking San Sebastián

We sat in the shade outside a café with glasses of iced coffee, admiring the sights, and even Asier was stunned by the extraordinarily hot climate, which he assured me was above average for his city. In fact, he claimed it was the first beautiful day in a long while, and the hottest of the year so far. Asier's R4 (below) was of course a left-hand drive, yet it was the first time I had taken a ride in one, so it was a little peculiar to be sat on the right-hand side but not driving, and with only a dashboard in front of me. (His car features in the 'Star Car' section of the gallery, in a photo taken the previous year, number SC13).

Asier stood beside his red Renault 4

Our next journey was along to Hondarribia, a town several miles to the east on the very border with France. Upon arriving there, Asier received a phone call from Luis, who was warning of the impending weather. According to the two of them, we were shortly due for a torrential storm, which quite frankly was the most ludicrous thing I had ever heard, and I suspected that they were winding me up. I had, previously, stood atop a hill with a 360-degree view, confirming that not a single cloud existed in the shockingly blue sky. The temperature was hotter than anything I had ever experienced in my thirty years, into the forties celsius and warm even by Spanish standards. Asier was convinced that although the storm may not exist out at sea, it would materialize within twenty minutes or so, and as we felt a breeze beginning to pick up we set off again into the mountains.

How a storm could evolve from this barbecued climate was beyond comprehension. A phenomenon that I had never experienced until now was the 'hot wind'. The little Renault 4 was baking inside and I stuck my hand out of its window for some relief, but it was not forthcoming. The breeze, even as we cruised at eighty miles per hour along the motorway, almost burnt my arm off. Somebody had switched on a giant hairdryer in the sky.

We began climbing a road through the hills, following a scenic route which was free from other traffic, when the most extraordinary sight unfolded ahead of us. Above the mountains, puffs of cloud were forming from nothing, at first just creeping insignificantly, as though a steam train had just chuffed along and left a short-lived trail behind it. But within minutes, these menacing creations were rolling fast over the peaks and threatening us with their mysterious contents as they crawled ever closer. We pulled over into a lay-by, and found another vantage point from which to look back and admire the sunlit land that we had just driven through (below). By now, however, we were just seconds away from a mighty onslaught of mean thunderclouds that were approaching behind our backs.

I was trying to fall back over the wall for improved comedic effect, but in the end I just look a bit of a git with unnervingly large skeletal hands.

Asier and I taking a breather at a viewpoint on a road into the mountains

The marauding gloom was about to swallow us up and we jumped back in the car, driving into the centre of the action like a brave soldier running towards an atom bomb with a bread knife. The winds became gusty as we ascended the highest ridges of the hills, but aside from being surrounded by cloud which limited our vision to several feet, we escaped with a short pelting of rain and emerged the other side unscathed.

It was something of a disappointment as we descended the hills once more to normality. The storm hadn't lived up to its hype, and the temperature was only lowered by a few degrees, which left us still roasting under the sun like a pair of ants in the cruel hands of a young boy playing with his magnifying glass. We left the slopes of Jaizkibel (the same mountain seen previously in Asier, Luis, João and Fernando's trip around the Basque Country - Star Story number SS4c) and visited a quaint fishing village down by the harbour, accessible only through a series of narrow, covered passages, and once home to the poet and novelist Victor Hugo.

We returned to the centre of San Sebastián and met Luis, who was finishing work. Plans were hatched for a Friday night out on the town, and I went off with Luis to his family's flat, conveniently located slap bang in the middle of the city. I was very kindly allowed to sleep in the kid's bedroom, with the poor child being turfed out into the main room next door, but at least there were plenty of miniature, model Renault 4s on the shelves to play with. They were part of Luis's collection and a mark of his devotion to the car.

After my introduction to the family and a quick coffee, Luis and I - donning our Renault 4 t-shirts in an almost scarily obsessive fashion - located Asier and set off into the lively evening streets of San Sebastián. It was a very attractive place, with grand tree-lined avenues, pleasant apartments and unpretentious bars dotted around each corner. We went on a tour of the town, taking in various sights and tapas bars, plenty of nosh, ice creams and sorbets after midnight from a heladería. Asier and Luis's hospitality towards me was grand, with every attempt I made to pay for something being hastily rejected, and accompanied by the same absurd lie that they had been perpetrating all day in my company: that my Euros were not valid currency in the Basque Country and I should put them away in my pocket! It kept them amused and I wasn't going to argue. Events became hazy as the night wore on and more drinks were consumed, and I eventually found myself sound asleep back at the flat, thankful that I had made it beyond France and enjoyed a successful first meeting.

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