Auvergne or bust - John Hammond

Following our short foray in the Custard Tart (our yellow Mk1 Minari) to Normandy, we decided to try a more extended tour this year; but with more planning. Well, we did a bit better on the planning side – the ferry was booked two weeks before departure. It was now time for getting all those little jobs done; override switch for cooling fan, raising the coolant tank (note the emphasis on cooling), etc. High on the list was the polite groan from the driver's side rear damper turret on heavy braking (Ooooh...eek. left it too late again). Study with the wheel off showed marks on the damper from rubbing with the turret bottom, although there was clearance when not loaded. Comparison with the nearside suggested a small sideways adjustment of the body on the suspension beam would even up clearance on each side. Slackening off the mounts for the top end of the Panhard rod proved remarkably easy, and with some persuasion the body was moved enough to equalise. Now I can brake in peace.

Lunchtime on a hot June day found us heading down the A3 again to Portsmouth for the Caen ferry packed with camping gear for two weeks. The other punters were an unusual selection; around 80% caravans (mostly big) so we felt more than usually dwarfed. Not wanting to repeat the mad midnight dash to a remote hotel (closed by the time we found it of course) which figured on last year’s trip, we booked a room through the ferry company. A good choice; five minutes after driving off the ferry we were booking in.

Breakfast was spent plotting step two of the plan, a day on the Normandy D-Day beaches, followed by a meander south for the night’s camp. The “Grand Bunker” museum in Oistreham was fascinating and along with the American cemetery at Omaha beach brought home the size and commitment of both the defenders and invasion forces. The cool wind and low cloud added to the atmosphere. The afternoon highlighted a feature of our trips to France. I wonder whether French signposting has really recovered from the war. Signs without road numbers, signs visible only when you’ve passed them; of course we got lost. Recovering our sense of direction we finally got south of Caen without quite going via Brittany.

We found a campsite (no easy task in mid-June, it turned out) and ate freshly caught trout as the sun went down, and the evening chill rose. The next day saw us past Le Mans and Tours via D roads, and evening camped on a farm on the northern edge of the Loire. The owner proudly showed us the facilities. Although looking pretty rustic from the outside they were the cleanest and best equipped that we were to see for the whole fortnight. He then topped it by giving us a bag of freshly picked cherries. Then across the Loire and into warm weather at last. Chateauroux got the award for the most unspeakable road surfaces of the trip, just one long collection of potholes. I wondered whether the suspension would survive. Then we saw the jagged outline of the Auvergne skyline, a rewarding moment after around 500 miles of driving.

The D roads we had taken were generally good, but almost exclusively single carriageway, and with a fair bit of traffic. While the Minari has the poke even fully loaded (in kg rather than accessories) for pressing on in these conditions, the poor visibility for overtaking when driving on the right ruled out fast progress without undue heroics.

packing the boot
lots of room in the boot!!

The search for our first campground in the Auvergne took an interesting turn. After following signs to a non-existent site we accosted a gent in the village square. He was soon joined by a charming white van man who asked what our car was. “une Alfa Romeo speciale” (don’t know the French for kit) I said. At this he hopped into his van with a “suivez moi au camping” and took off with mucho wheelspin. Shades of Le Mans. A hectic15km along a twisty, undulating D road followed as we tried to keep him in sight. It was worth it, he took us right to the gate.

puy de dome By now temperatures were heading for the 40’s every day although nights were cool, so shade trees were an essential feature for pitching the tent. To get a view of the area we drove to the top of the Puy de Dome (1465 metres). Quite a climb; I guess around two miles at a gradient of about 25%. Unfortunately the peak itself is rather spoilt by a large communications building and masts, but the views were stunning although the Alps and Mont Blanc were hiding in the haze. Our second center in the area was Murol, from where we explored the villages and byroads. Here we met a Dutch couple (ex ballroom dancing champions!) who were motorcycle camping. In five days they had toured the Cevennes and further south and were planning to make Rotterdam nonstop the next day. It made us look a bit feeble.
cooling off at the top of the Puy de Dome

Our week in the Auvergne concluded with a night of tremendous thunderstorms and torrential rain. We were snug in the tent, but the morning sun found me bailing out the lowest point of the boot. The drainage channel had surrendered at some stage and overflowed into the boot on one side. The hood held out though.

Bailing completed we packed up and regretfully left the Auvergne, hitting the autoroute at Clermont Ferrand for the dash to Orleans. As soon as we left the autoroute we were totally lost, but navigating by the sun (if it's behind you you're going north) we managed to get on the map again. A couple of days in Sees (lovely old cathedral town) found us in the company of brits again; we had only met one English couple since leaving the hotel on our first morning.

Then back to the ferry (on time again) for Portsmouth. We drove off (with crate of wine) at 9pm into a downpour (hood down of course), and had to resort to a few miles of fast driving to keep out the worst of it before we could erect the shelter (first time in 2 weeks) to continue home in the dry. Fourteen hundred miles door to door.

Overall impressions? The Auvergne is certainly worth a visit for the scenery, food and villages. Open air driving can be hot work at such high temperatures, and it was interesting that it was all tintops (presumably with a/c) south of Normandy. But you can’t beat fresh air motoring in our opinion. Our bums were a bit sore at the end of it; those potholes aren’t soaked up too well particularly when heavily loaded. Fluid consumption: oil, none detectable; coolant, none detectable; petrol, around 37mpg; wine, many litres. No overheating despite hot weather, steep gradients and heavy load). Not a spanner or screwdriver was wielded during the fortnight. A memorable trip.