Vintage travel: France in a campervan

Broken down, engine sizzling, black smoke billowing, I wearily repeated the name of the town and confirmed, not for the first time, that we were in France and that the town definitely existed! As luck would have it, we had broken down 500m from the road sign bearing the town’s name and road number; therefore my patience was stretched to breaking point when my English based breakdown company informed me once again that neither the road nor town was listed on their database.

At this point, and not for the first time in the trip, I realised that a road trip through rural France in a vintage campervan whilst romantic in theory was somewhat more frustrating in reality!

Our decision to go on a road trip came about very quickly. At number 2 on my “10 things to do before I’m 30” list was to buy a VW split screen campervan, at number 1 on the list was to live abroad so when I was made redundant 6 months shy of my 30th birthday and Mat, my partner, signed a rugby contract with an Italian club we jumped at the chance to combine the two; and so our road trip dream was born.

We scoured the country for a suitable campervan and after many false starts we found “Bluebelle” our 1967 blue and white split screen camper and – with some fine tuning and an overhaul of the engine – we were ready to go. We decided to get the ferry from Poole to St Malo and travel leisurely south through France and into northern Italy where we would get our ferry from Genova to Olbia in Sardinia.

Our pride and joy "Bluebelle"
Bluebelle, our 1967 VW Split Screen

Back in the UK, the idea of travelling to our new home in Sardinia via France and Italy in our classic VW had seemed like a novel way to start to a new chapter in our lives. But four hours after breaking down and with no breakdown service seemingly able to locate us, I began to wonder if we had fully appreciated the highs, lows and pitfalls of this mode of travel. Throw in the fact that we had decided to travel to our new home with our 5 month old puppy Smudge in tow and the road trip, to outsiders at least looked crazy. To us, it just seemed an adventure, and one were relishing 99.9% of the time…

Smudge playing peek-a -boo
Smudge playing peek-a -boo

The 2 hourly engine cooling stops aside, the 50mph speed limit ensured that our trip was not going to be a fast one. But the enforced pace of travel did allow us to fully appreciate the changing scenery as we drove north to south and allowed us to take numerous photos as we travelled leisurely through beautiful towns, villages and hamlets. Nevertheless, the date of our pre-booked ferry loomed ominously over us as we headed slowly southwards through France and onwards towards Genova. The decision to drive to Sardinia was motivated by the desire to see the real France so we planned our route to avoid toll roads and big cities and to escape to the country. The fact that “Bluebelle” had an aversion to any sort of hill and a faulty fuel gauge only added to the already convoluted route map.

Stopped for our regular 2 hourly engine cooling break
Stopped for our regular 2 hourly engine cooling break

Unfortunately Mat having never visited, let-alone driven through, remote agricultural France before decided non-the-less that he knew better than our trusty satnav and took it upon himself to direct me along unmade farm tracks, into hamlets with no names and up and down what can only be described as mountains with hair pin bends, steep drops and no chance of pulling over to allow the frustrated drivers behind to overtake.  This resulted in a) a lot of arguing and b) a number of 25-point turns and much amusement for the locals (I defy anyone to turn a classic campervan in 3-points on a single track farm road!)

Cooling down at the top of a particularly steep inline
Cooling down at the top of a particularly steep inline

The beauty of travelling in a classic vehicle however far outweighed the odd low spot.

Wherever we drove or stopped people waved, beeped and flocked around us. We were mini celebrities in each town with locals and tourists alike asking for photos in front of the van and wanting to know our story. At the campsites we were guaranteed to be the only split screen and were yet again the centre of attention.

Only split screen on site
Only split screen on site

Our puppy, desperate to get away from the crowds of people, started hiding underneath the van, and it was then, as she crawled out covered in oil that we discovered we had an oil leak. Luckily our mechanic had mentioned how hard it would be to find non-synthetic classic car oil on the continent so we had planned ahead and bought a 5 litre can of classic car 20w50 oil. We therefore found ourselves four days into the trip using a food funnel to top up the oil morning and afternoon.

How Smudge found our oil leak
How Smudge found our oil leak

The trill of overtaking a cyclist, after hours of being over taken by everything from mopeds to trucks and tractors proved to be one of the highlights of the trip, maybe you had to be there, but our whoops of delight at actually being faster than another road vehicle still brings a smile to my face.

We arrived in the Genova campsite 3 days before our ferry crossing and settled in for a mini break before the 10 hour crossing to our new home in Sardinia. Unfortunately, our arrival coincided with a thunder storm; being in a campsite surrounded by trees and in a vehicle which is effectively a tin can was scary to say the least. It was almost inevitable that our awning didn’t make it through the night and collapsed under the sheer force of the storm, flooding all our possessions and traumatising our pup. That, coupled with me standing bare foot on a hedgehog in the middle of the night, ensured that the end of our road trip didn’t disappoint on the drama front.

The awning collapsed following a storm!
The awning collapsed following a storm!

Despite the frequent overheating, the twice daily oil top ups, the 5 hour breakdown in a town no one could locate and the frustrating inability to negotiate tight bends, the trip was something neither of us will forget. The pace of our travels through France allowed us to take in and appreciate the sheer beauty of the countryside and the friendliness of the locals wherever we went never failed to amaze us.

Beautiful Chateaux were around every corner
Beautiful Chateaux were around every corner

We were advised against using the free campsites or Aires because of fears of vandalism but on a couple of occasions we ignored this advice and came to no harm. In-fact, one free aire was in the shadow of a beautiful chateau which we would never have seen if we had stuck to the main roads and didn’t deviate from our route.

We discovered the beautiful Chateau de Nieul in Haute Vienne by accident
We discovered the beautiful Chateau de Nieul in Haute Vienne by accident

We both learnt patience from our road trip, with each other but far more importantly with the journey to our destination. The adventure was in the trip itself, not in our move abroad, and the trip lived up to expectation. Unfortunately, after 5 weeks on the road without problems, within a week of arriving in Sardinia my beautiful van had been vandalised losing the VW badge, a wing mirror, the original metal AA badge and a wiper blade …. But that, as they say, is another story!

With a bit of patience and a willingness to abandon pre-made plans and time scales, road tripping in a classic camper is one of the most fun experiences I have had and I wouldn’t think twice about doing it again …

At Genova Port preparing to set sail to Sardinia
At Genova Port preparing to set sail to Sardinia

 

Further info

Total distance: 1600km

Start point: Salisbury, United Kingdom (ferry from Poole to St Malo)

Finish point: Alghero, Sardinia, Italy

Campervan: 1967 blue and white split screen 1600cc

 

One thought on “Vintage travel: France in a campervan

  • January 5, 2016 at 5:28 pm
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    You’ve got courage! We know all about going for vintage rather than comfort. I can’t imagine road tripping in our austin mini. Good for you!

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