Saturday, 19 November 2011

Destination Viaduc - VW Camping Tour (France) - August 2008

Destination Viaduc
Four months hard graft, working on a new interior, followed by 10 nights, 2021 mile round trip camping in France, which included an un-missable visit to the magnificent Viaduc de Millau…

This isn't a story about how I, Simon Thompson (serious petrol head), came to own my precious 67' split screen camper back in 95’, nor is it a story about the endless hours/years spent transforming the body and chassis into something solid that I'm proud of today. It’s a story about planning a summer camping holiday abroad in early 2008 with my wife and being blasé about the fact that I would finish the interior in time for the BIG trip. All this when the interior didn't exist, as the interior was pulled out before its spray job and complete re-build back in August 2003 and since then was never looked at again!

Setting the Goal
So first things first - we agreed in February 08, that the last week of August and the first week of September 08 would be the holiday...that was the easy bit. Having watched a programme on Discovery Channel about how the French built the Viaduc De Millau, commissioning our own Sir Norman Foster as the architect, we had to go and look at it for ourselves. It's situated just north of Montpellier in the south of France. I wanted shots of our pride and joy next to something modern, magnificent, beautiful and many miles away. So the holiday was named 'Destination Viaduc' and the preparation began by booking the time off from our day jobs to put a stake in the ground and give us something to work towards, but boy did I have some work to do.  This would be the first trip abroad since we have owned the vehicle...

The interior design was simple, I wanted it to be clean, unique, simple on first looks, plush and to have all the amenities of a modern caravan. This meant that I needed to build it myself. Thank goodness for the internet as this helped me research options throughout the project and also helped us plan the camping trip route thanks to auntie Google maps and my wife (Louise) looking into the detail of the proposed journey.
The interior plan was in my head
So I bought all the tools I thought were needed - new saws, welder, safety specs etc. The list was long and cost over £500 in total.  I knew that if I had any chance of success, preparation here would be crucial. I decided on keeping things as light as possible and bought a mix of aluminium tubing for the framework, various thickness wood ply sheets for everything else and started from the ground up. I had all the plans in my head and could see the end vision.

I took a week off work at the end of April and worked pretty much 14 hours days, every day, to make some initial progress, which proved to be crucial in getting the ball rolling to meet our deadline. I loved it! This continued throughout May before and after my day job, where any spare hour regardless of time of day was spent building the interior. By the end of May the bare bones of the interior were complete and I was ready to start installing all the electrics, heater, sink and cooking facilities, which was no small task in its self. During this time we received the wonderful news that we were to have a baby, due in early January 09.

Before I knew it, we were in the middle of June and I had begun work on a new roof lining. We started the upholstery, covered the bare wood with a leatherette vinyl and painted any other exposed surfaces for some additional protection.

The maiden voyage was a test weekend away and an excuse to go to Bug Jam 22, in July. We enjoyed a good sunny weekend away without any curtains and lots of loose ends and unfinished bits, but it gave us a chance to thrash it out and refine any points. The weekend went perfectly and was a major success. The split charger test worked, running a fridge all weekend and lots of LED lighting and it still started the engine on Sunday! Phew…

Upon return I started work again to finish off everything else…I cut out all the foam to size and left the camper with a local upholsterer ( who covered the foam seating in off-white real leather. Can you believe that two whole cow hides went into the seating and bedding area which cost a fortune, but the end result was the icing on the cake. We bought the ready made curtains from which finished off the project. The curtains arrived on the Monday before we left for France, giving me just enough time to install them.

End to end it took four months working on the interior. Check out the interior video...Click here!

Let the journey begin
By now the trip was planned in detail and my wife Louise, small bump and I set off from Guildford on Saturday 23rd of August at 9am, along with Doris (Louise’s parents Sat Nav) and headed for Dover with 92,681 miles on the clock. After two hours we reached Dover, which was a great relief, as it would have been very embarrassing if we never made it across the channel!

Waiting in Dover for the ferry, on a gorgeous sunny day, created a lot of interest from passers by, all wanting to look at the camper and ask questions, as Louise and I relaxed in the back with food and drink and the fresh aroma of leather. Amongst the interested spectators were four Americans who stopped by and appreciated the work put in. We got chatting and it turned out they were a US rock band called ‘Ruth’, touring Europe doing various gigs here and there. They gave us a signed copy of their latest album before we set sail to Calais.

Once we got to Calais the next few days were mapped out to make maximum progress using toll roads in order to reach the Millau viaduct as quickly as possible. First stop was Reims, home of Champagne, where we cheated and stayed in a hotel, but the journey was pleasant, only gentle hills and one toll road which cost twenty Euros. As it got dark later we realised that I had put the new headlights on upside down and the wrong way around, so they were already Euro compliant.  Perfect - off came the temporary tape!!

The next day, Sunday, we headed further south on very windy roads, and we visited the French F1 Grand Prix circuit, Magny Cours, where there was some bike racing on. It was a lovely run where we got plenty of ‘thumbs up’, smiles and tooting from passers by. We crawled up some huge long hills reaching peaks over 1100 meters and enjoyed some magnificent views. We reached a small town called Sazeret, where we located ‘Le Petite Vallette’ camping site and there we settled, enjoyed a glass of wine (well one of us did!), super noodles cooked on the stove for dinner and slept inside the camper for the first time. It wasn’t very comfortable…with my wife being five months pregnant I had to settle for a third of the bed space. Anyway, we had a huge down pour over night, so Monday morning was a lovely fresh start and we left as soon as I could get Louise out of bed, which was about 9:30am. With nothing to put away we were off in no time, for the final fast leg of the trip to the viaduct.

Once again we were not disappointed with the journey which included more magnificent views. We went off-piste away from the motorways on a few occasions, where Doris got lost once or twice and we admired the countryside - it was great driving. As we headed further south we encountered steeper and steeper hills. Uphill was in most cases quite slow and naturally a big strain on the engine but down hills gave the engine a rest, apart from a down hill speed test where we reached 90mph which was well off the clock, but boy did that put the brakes under pressure! I was glad that 18 months ago I upgraded all the brakes including a CSP disk conversion on the front and a rear IRS kit with the help of our friends at Beetle link (  This all helps the camper drive at proper speeds, cope with hills and stop appropriately. I digress…where were we, oh yes, we were making good time getting nearer to the viaduct, so we dropped off the motorway for lunch and ended up in a small village called ‘Marvejols’, but the route off the motorway was a very long, wickedly windy, 7% down hill gradient where we almost cooked the brakes. We had to stop three-quarters the way down to let the brakes cool, then we trickled to the bottom of the hill where we stopped for lunch before we plodded on. It was a wake up call, that although we had good brakes, we must pace the poor vehicle when driving in temperatures of over 28˚c down incredibly long steep hills.

After 740 miles from Guildford we reached our target destination in Millau, where we stayed at a lovely campsite which was walking distance from the town and in view of the gorgeous bridge in the distance.  This was a great achievement for the camper, every part of the journey from here on, we saw as a bonus so we had to celebrate! We put the awning up for added comfort, hooked up the electric (as were staying two nights) then walked into Millau town. There was a local food market and all the locals were having a party, we tried to mix in and ended up enjoying a nice restaurant meal and then stumbled back to camp.

The next day we left the awning behind and headed off in the camper to visit the viaduct close up. We spent most of Tuesday following the river down stream (which was the old route around the river before the bridge was built) and explored the bridge taking lots of photos. The sky was crystal clear and temperatures reached a scorching 29˚c again - there were no complaints from us! The camper, which is a two tone sky blue, looked at home against the back drop. My description to the sprayer five years ago was for a sky blue finish and these photos show that it was a perfect match.

The Millau Viaduct
(French: le Viaduc de Millau) is a large cable-stayed road-bridge that spans the valley of the River Tarn near Millau in southern France. Designed by the structural engineer Michel Virlogeux and British architect Norman Foster, it is the tallest vehicular bridge in the world, with one mast's summit at 343 metres (1,125 ft) - slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower and only 38 m (125 ft) shorter than the Empire State Building. The viaduct is part of the A75-A71 autoroute axis from Paris to Béziers. It is a truly amazing sight to see and worth any de-tour if you are ever in the area. (*Info sourced from Wikipedia)

In the afternoon we found a shop, bought some fresh mince and enjoyed a barbeque back at the campsite by the river, cooking our home made burgers and salad with a beer or three. It was fantastic, 29˚c during the peak of the day, cooling off in the evenings.

1000 Miles…Only half way!
Wednesday the 27th, day 5, we packed up ready to leave and I cleaned off all the dead French insects from the front of the camper - we didn’t need any excessive drag! Finally I checked the engine oil level and we were ready for the next leg of the journey. We headed of to the Dordogne (slightly north west from Millau) taking a cross-country route that avoided all toll roads.  This route took us along very bumpy roads that were lovely and windy.  We are still hoping that the mega bumpy trip has not affected our un-born child! Not more than an hour down the road we reached 1,000 miles, a proud moment, so we stopped for lunch on top of a great big hill and gave the camper a rest. France is great for this type of travel as there are plenty of well-equipped road-side picnic areas, where you can have lunch and relieve any load! It was yet another very hot day and the heat exchangers got stuck on. I think the engine enjoyed this problem as it helped dissipate the heat, but the dissipation was on us sitting at the front, so we baked even more! After a six hour journey we reached Duravel, where we located a Dutch campsite with a lovely cool pool and found a pitch for the night. Everyone was very hospitable and our camper looked tiny in the large pitches that were available.

The next day we carried on north-west, heading for La Rochelle, which is a desirable port town on the west coast of France, where we stayed in a hotel to freshen up. The journey proved to be a longer one than planned as the camper broke down just north of Perigueux, where we had just refuelled. I knew it was a fuel problem due to the way we slowly ground to a halt. After a short time we called the AA for assistance, after checking anything obvious of course. Whilst waiting for assistance I started a process of elimination to identify what was wrong. At this point an orange and white bay window (UK plate) tooted as it drove by and so we waved back politely. I got back to work and noticed that the mechanical fuel pump ‘Brazilian made’ was missing a pin which acted as the pivot point for the pump and thus was not pumping any fuel. As I tried to fit an Alan key in the hole (as a possible temporary measure) the missing pin fell out the back! Bingo, what a stroke of luck, I had the pin in my hand so I knew I could fix it. All this just as the non-English speaking AA man turned up. He didn’t want to help, he simply wanted to put my camper on his big truck and end our journey. As you can imagine we weren’t ready for that, so I waved my arms about trying to communicate that I may be able to sort it myself and carried on trying to fix it. The pin went back in after a gentle bit of persuasion – it was rather a tight fit!  I used super glue on both sides of the pin to avoid any further movement and turned the key to test it. It was fixed – bliss - we were on our way again. Although we had lost a couple of hours with the break down, we were back on cloud nine again and completed the days travel. We arrived at our hotel in La Rochelle just in time for a fresh shower and some moulles for dinner in a port side restaurant. The hotel had underground secure parking, which was great but we only just about got in and out due to lack of clearance!

Truck Drivers Arm
So with croissants down the hatch, we checked out and headed off the next day (day 7), north-east towards the Loire Valley to Saumur to be precise. Not far into the journey we passed the 1,300 mile mark and near Saumur we passed 1,400 miles.  The camper was doing well and we were more comfortable with cruise speeds now. It was another hot day which added more tan to my already tanned right arm and we were still baking in the cab due to the fact that I still couldn’t turn off the heater, it was either on our feet or in our face! Hot feet or dry eyes, hummm…nice choice!

We stayed in a campsite just outside of Saumur for two nights, so we set-up the awning once again. The next day we ventured into Saumur town - it was another market day - and in the afternoon we travelled along the river stopping at a local wine producer, ‘Langlois-Chateau’ who has been making wine in the area since 1885. The camper gained great interest in the chateau car park and when we tried to leave the camper ran out of fuel at the gate blocking anyone from coming in or out, very embarrassing. Luckily I had a gallon spare and we topped it up and headed off, with our tails between our legs!

During our last night at Saumur there was an incredible thunder and lightning storm, the first bit of bad weather all holiday. It was loud and the rain was very heavy on the camper and tent. We thought we were going to get zapped by the lightning! We stuck it out and it had cleared by morning so we packed up before the sun had properly risen and headed east up the Loire Valley. We followed the river to Blois, a small town about 50 miles up stream. Blois was our penultimate night where we stayed in the camper alone at another well equipped campsite. The next day, Monday 1st September, we set off towards Paris. By this time we were experiencing a small teething problem with the gear selection - we could get 1st or 2nd and 3rd or 4th with ease but going from 2nd to 3rd or 3rd to 2nd, across the box, took a couple of attempts each time. This got progressively worse over the last two days but we lived with it and moseyed on. We travelled right through the centre of Paris and saw the main sights, albeit brief encounters just for the photos, as both Louise and I have been there before. We got through Paris with no problems and headed north for our final nights’ stay which was to be the grand finale of our holiday - a lovely four star châteaux called ‘Château de Montvillargenne’.

Another opportunity for photo shoots and time for Louise and I to ponder over the journey with fond memories.

The trip was not over yet, we still needed to head north on the final day, 170 miles to Calais, which was mainly toll roads and motorways. This proved fairly tedious after the whole experience and further more the weather deteriorated as we got closer and closer to England. We still had a ferry crossing and a two hour drive (100 miles from Dover to Guildford) to complete.

We returned to Guildford safe and well, the camper had done us proud, completing 2021 miles in total, with only a couple of wee problems gathered on route. We averaged 200 miles a day and had to fill up with petrol most days that we travelled. Although we had to fill up regularly, I think it’s a blessing in disguise having a small fuel tank as it keeps the weight down!

All campsites were well equipped and in most cases the web sites for each campsite (for planning the trip) were available in English which was a great help. For stays shorter than 3 nights we found you didn’t need to reserve before hand, you can just turn up. The vee-dub is perfect for this type of trip as you can literally go anywhere and park anywhere, when you get there. The only down side on the size is that it’s like a puzzle - every item you pack has a neat home but you just  have to remember where you put everything and sods law proves that the item you want is always tucked miles away or behind/under everything else!

We’re definitely hooked on this ‘camping in the camper’ lark and with a baby due soon, I’d better source some seat belts for the baby seat, so we can continue our travels in the following years.

I guess the only thing on reflection would be that we may regret having chosen off-white leather seating, as I can’t wait for the baby to learn what a mess crayons could do to the interior!

Below shows the places where we camped and the journey plotted on a Google Map...