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Broken down, engine sizzling, black smoke billowing, I wearily repeated the name of the town and confirmed, not for the first time, we were definitely in France and yes, 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.  My patience was stretched to the 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 realized that although a road trip through rural France in a vintage camper van may be romantic in theory; the reality was somewhat more frustrating.

Chateau De Nieul, Haute Vie

Our decision to go on a road trip came about quickly. At number two on my “ten things to do before I’m thirty” list was to buy a classic VW camper van. At number one on the list was to live abroad for a year. So when Mat, my partner, signed a rugby contract with an Italian club six months shy of my 30th birthday we jumped at the chance to combine the two, and our road trip dream was born.

We scoured the country for a suitable camper van and after many false starts we found “Bluebelle” our 1967 blue and white split screen 1600cc camper van.  After a few trips to the garage for 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 south through France and into Italy where we would get our ferry from Genoa to Olbia in Sardinia.

Place De La Maire, Arles, F

One month ago, the idea of traveling to our new home in Sardinia via France and Italy in our VW had seemed like a novel way to start a new life chapter. But after four hours roadside 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 five month old puppy in tow and the road trip, to outsiders looked crazy. To us, it seemed an adventure, and one were relishing.

Stopped For Our Regular 2 H

Besides the two hourly engine cooling stops, the 50mph speed limit ensured our trip was not going to be a fast one. But the enforced snail’s 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 traveled leisurely through beautiful towns, villages and hamlets. However, the date of our pre-booked ferry loomed ominously over us as we headed slowly southwards through France and onwards towards Genoa. The decision to drive to Sardinia was motivated by the desire to see France, the real France, so we planned our route to avoid toll roads and big cities and escape to the country; the fact “Bluebelle” had an aversion to any sort of hill and a faulty fuel gauge only added to already convoluted route map.

Loving Life On The Road

Unfortunately Mat, having never visited, let alone driven through remote agricultural France before, decided none-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 pass us. This resulted in a) a lot of arguing and b) a number of 25-point turns much to the amusement of the locals (I defy anyone to turn a VW camper van in 3-points on a single track farm road).

On The Roadsm

However, the beauty of traveling in a classic vehicle 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 center of attention. 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 advised how hard it would be to find non synthetic classic car oil on the continent so we had planned ahead and bought a five liter 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.

The thrill 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 Genoa campsite three days before our ferry crossing and settled in for a mini-break before the ten hour crossing to our new home in Sardinia. Unfortunately, our arrival coincided with one of the biggest thunderstorms we had ever encountered; 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 inevitable our awning didn’t make it through the night and collapsed under the sheer force of the storm flooding all our possessions and traumatizing our pup. That coupled with me standing barefoot on a hedgehog in the middle of the night ensured that the end of our road trip didn’t disappoint on the drama front.

Capa Caccia Sardinia

Despite the frequent overheating, the twice daily oil top ups, the five 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. 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.

Destination Reached Algehro

We both learned patience from our road trip, with each other but 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 expectations. Unfortunately, after five weeks on the road without problems, within a week of arriving in Alghero, Sardinia my beautiful van was vandalized – losing the VW badge, a wing mirror, the original metal AA badge and the wiper blade… But that, as they say, is another story!

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

Alghero Sunset 1 

©Fiona McArdell

Twitter: @FionaMcArdell


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