Keith Adams takes an unstructured journey back home from the International Mini Meet in a Clubvan Cooper D and surprises himself by travelling rather further than he planned.
Florence and home in a day…
Time to go home – after a great weekend at the International Mini Meet 2013, it’s time for the MINI Clubman Cooper D to do its thing and whisk me back to England as entertainingly and quickly as possible. I don’t really have a plan, other than to see how far I get before needing to settle down and stop for the night.
This year’s IMM was held at the Mugello circuit and a more suitable location for a gathering of Minis (and MINIs) is hard to think of. The circuit nestles deep in the Senese Clavey Hills, which tower over Florence, Tuscany’s principal city and one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations, and is some 1200 miles from home. But the achingly pretty medieval architecture of the city is not what makes Mugello so perfect as a gathering place for Minis and their owners – oh no, it’s those hills, and the roads that wend their way through them. That’s because, as we all know, Minis don’t just bend the rules, they rule the bends.
The event itself is probably the ultimate of its kind, with Mini owners coming from all over Europe to be there – and, in 2013, around 2000 cars attended, with an overall turn-out of around 10,000 people. Not bad, when one considers it was also one of the wettest April/May period in recent European history and the lead-up to the weekend’s festival had been disappointingly rainy. I’d driven down over three days to be there and had taken a reasonably predictable, and picturesque, route to do so, arriving via stop-overs in Mulhouse in Alsace and Stresa on the shore of Lake Maggiore.
And as I’d travelled in convoy with my old mucker Dave Smart and his Marvellous Mini of Doom, it’d been brilliant driving with a mate and his unmistakable Union Flag Mini that so memorably first starred in Staples2Naples 2006.
In all of this, the unsung hero of my weekend was the MINI Clubvan Cooper D. It was quick, comfortable, well-optioned and made equally light work of the long motorway stretches as well as the sinuous mountain roads of Switzerland and Italy. Three days of easy ambling at classic Mini pace had left me quietly impressed, declaring that the Clubvan is probably ‘Britain’s fastest van’. It’s certainly the best handling. But as the weekend drew to a close, my thoughts turned to my drive home.
As much as I loved the idea of returning to Switzerland, the fact that most of its best Alpine passes are still closed and the motorways are riddled with cameras policing its tedious 75mph speed limit meant I decided on another option which would centre on the best road I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving on – the magnificent Route Napoléon (above). It’s a road that follows the path that the abdicated Bonaparte and his army took from Grasse to Grenoble, on his way to overthrowing Louis XVIII in 1815.
Napoléon arrived on the French shore from the Island of Elba on the night of 1 March 1815 and, after spending the night in Cannes, headed north accompanied by 1200 men. The route he took avoided the Rhône valley to the east, where he knew he’d soon be intercepted by the royal troops, and instead he climbed into the lower Alps through Digne-les-Bains and the beautiful town of Sisteron on his way to Grenoble. Back in 1815 the route was composed of small trails and mule tracks. It was treacherous and not at all suited a marching army, no matter how motivated.
And although it was not to be for the famously short Emperor, one legacy of this journey played out during the 1920s and 1930s, when French road engineers built the Route Napoléon along the same path. I know this: whatever the reasons behind its creation, I’m just grateful they took the time out to build it.
But as much as I like the Route Napoléon, I’m usually working when travelling on it – so it either means I’m on a launch, testing the latest people carrier, or along with an owner and their treasured car. In both cases, that means I’m on the world’s greatest road in not-quite-perfect circumstances – not that I’m really complaining.
Today is going to be different, because I’m doing it for fun – on my own terms and in a vehicle blessed with brilliant handling, superb steering and excellent performance. But it’s also going to be a long day. I’d been staying in central Tuscany near to Mugello and, in order to miss the traffic, I’d need to hit the road before dawn in order to get to the start point of the Route Napoléon at a sensible hour. That’s going to involve a four-hour squirt along the E80 Autostrada that hugs the Mediterranean coast on its way to the Côte d’Azur.
At 6.00am, wending my way round the Florence ring road, I do wonder what the hell I’m doing. It’s early, the sky’s grey and flecked with mist and forbidding rain clouds, while the traffic’s as belligerent as you’d expect it to be – I’m surrounded by Espresso-fuelled Italians on their way to work. But we slide through easily and, by the time we’re on the autostrada, I’m finding my feet, spirits lifted by some of the destination signs ahead – Pisa, Viareggio, Genova.
The drive out of Italy is a straightforward feat of motorway mile-munching. The Autostrada flows beautifully and, even through we hit the port town of Genova at rush hour, there are few hold-ups. By late breakfast, the sky is clear and blue and the Mediterranean to the left is doing its best to match its brilliance. We pass into France, the signs are now pointing us in the direction of some of the most expensive real estate in Europe: Monaco, Nice, Cannes… After dropping off the A8 autoroute for a quick breakfast in La Turbie, followed by a few shots of Monaco from the mountains above, we need to push on towards the start of the Route Napoléon.
The miles have, thus far, clicked off effortlessly and the Clubvan had been brilliant on the motorway – at a Euro-friendly 85mph, its engine spins at a shade over 2000rpm in sixth and, despite being a mere 1.6-litres with 110bhp, it feels muscular and at ease here. The combination of simple cruise control and integrated infotainment/sat-nav system (all options, of course) take the effort out of the decision-making (and the music choice) – so much so, that by the mid-morning arrival at Grasse, I’m feeling relaxed and ready for a challenge – the dynamic of the trip is about to change…
Let’s get this out of the way first. I mean this with all my heart – if you love driving and have the opportunity to make it happen, you really must make the pilgrimage to Route Napoléon. It’s a road that really has everything – long straights, hairpin bends, long sweeping corners and gradients – lots of them. And if you like scenery, there are few places on earth as beautiful as the South of France on a sunny spring morning. After days of intermittent rain and cloud cover, the weather has truly blessed us.
Climbing out of Grasse, the Clubvan punches pretty hard and I can’t imagine your average florist is going to be disappointed by the way it goes. Hanging on to third, picking off the tourists on the straights is easy, generally meaning that I can have a clear run at the corners. The Clubvan really excels here – the first part of the Route Napoléon is composed of steep climbs punctuated by sharp, open, bends, which in the MINI are taken in third gear, foot hard down after an early apex, so that we can carry as much momentum as possible. It works, too, and the Clubvan loads up in bends, but never feels like letting go, even at silly speeds…
The real joy of the Route Napoléon is that it goes on and on – like an open ticket for your favourite ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The road is aggressively carved into the side of the sand-coloured mountains and, heading north, you’re threading together short straights and open bends, glancing every so often at the mountainous views to the left, catching a quick breath when you catch a dawdling local. This is no exaggeration – Route Napoléon brings on goose pimples and, in this so-called commercial vehicle, it’s a combination that brings incredible highs.
Having driven the 50 miles between Grasse and the first stop at Castellane, I came to the conclusion that the MINI’s brilliant grip, incisive steering and strong brakes make this a great tool for the ‘job’ of driving on Europe’s greatest road.
Most people who drive Route Napoléon head from South to North and enjoy a break in the beautiful town of Castellane. I do just that – and re-gather my energy for the next leg of the journey. We’re still 160 miles from Grenoble and it’s all single-carriageway, which might be good fun, even if I’m hoping to cover some serious mileage today. Sitting in the town’s pretty square over a light lunch, I begin to wonder where I’ll be bedding down for the night – and, right now, I’m thinking it’s going to be a fair distance from home.
Round two of the Route Napoléon doesn’t disappoint. Its character changes the further north we head and, after a brief complex of hairpins out of Castellane, it opens out into a faster, more sweeping road. At this point, I let a local on a motorcycle catch and pass me, and then sit behind him, allowing him to set a quick, if not electrifying pace – I’m aware that the MINI’s brakes took a pounding before (it certainly smelled that way) and am happy to take in the scenery, much like I hope the pillion is on the motorcycle ahead. It’s a different challenge now, mainly involving keeping my speed legal on the straights and maintaining my concentration in what is a beguilingly pretty part of the world.
Beyond Dignes-les-Bains, traffic density increases markedly and overtaking becomes more of a challenge – one that I’d like to minimise – so, more often than not, I take parallel D-roads, choosing longer distances and emptiness over congestion. It’s satisfying to turn into the mountains, enjoy brief periods of freedom before returning to the main road and often re-joining among the same cars I’d left before. They might have been happy in their 40-50mph convoy, but I wasn’t – so these brief escapes offering wide, sweeping roads and unhindered views of Grenoble’s beautiful snow-capped peaks on the horizon, including Mont Blanc, were utterly lovely.
I’m now counting down the miles to the Autoroute – and the prospect of putting some serious miles under our wheels is beginning to look appealing. Well, actually, turning south and doing it all again looks like the most appetising prospect right now, so much do I love the Route Napoléon. Conclusions from this leg of the journey are easy to make – the MINI’s as good a driver’s car as it ever was and it’s emerged from the challenge of the Route Napoléon with its head held high. A quick refuel also confirms that it’s not been arduously expensive, either – a typical refuel costs around €45 and takes us a good 400 miles (aside from on Route Napoléon for some reason…) The trip computer reports 46mpg at a charming rural filling station, probably ahead of the classic Mini I end up parked alongside.
However, as we close on Grenoble, the blue and white Autoroute sign ahead beckons, it’s a case of fun-time is over and the more serious matter of mile-munching takes precedence.
It’s now that the pattern of the day changes radically. It becomes a game of numbers, tolls and learning all the functions on the infotainment system. We’re now heading for Lyon and, as I zoom out on the sat-nav’s display, I see our route is going to encompass Paris. That’s not going to happen and I wimp out, deciding instead to travel north via Dijon and Reims and stick to the Autoroute.
The spookily empty French motorway network is a great way of covering distance without distractions. Unlike in UK, Germany and Italy, where it seems our major routes are choked to bursting point, in France, this way of travelling between cities is limited to the wealthy, business people and foreigners. Grenoble to Lyon is about 70 miles and comes in at a tenner; Lyon to Dijon is 120 miles and €30; Dijon to Reims is 190 miles and €40; with the final leg of Reims to Calais another 150 miles and €25.
Each individual link in the journey is comparatively good value compared with our own M6 Toll but, in reality, for those on a long journey, crossing from one end of France to the other costs the thick end of €100 – and that’s before we take into account the pain in the neck that is each toll booth for a lone traveller in a right-hand drive car. That said, despite its fiscal implications, the Autoroute network reminds me that this MINI Clubvan really is pretty good at making good progress – cruise control taking care of the miles; my iPod’s music library providing the company.
I turn my mind to MINI niggles and can’t think of too many. But, then I own one myself, so I would say that. The side-hinged split rear doors aren’t great if you like reversing into parking spaces and, if I were travelling abroad a lot in this car, I’d want concave glass in the passenger door mirror to overcome the blind spots. The side-mounted Clubdoor is – I’m afraid to say – pointless in a van, and using it often ends up knotting the driver’s seat belt. In terms of driving, there’s not too much to fault – you’d want a rotating knob for seat rake adjustment, as the lever makes fine changes on the move difficult. And, er, that’s about it.
Dijon passes in the early evening and I decide that Reims should be my stopover point. But a couple of hours later, I reach the famous capital of the Champagne region, and instead, decide to push on. Calais is now signposted and the distances on it are encouragingly small. As we pass the 1000-mile mark on the final run-in to the Eurotunnel port, I do a quick numbers check and they make impressive reading: average fuel consumption since we left Florence is 46.9mpg at 69mph excluding stops. You can’t really moan at that.
We roll into the Tunnel terminal at midnight and something else interesting happens. The French customs officials are all over the van. I’m assuming because they want to know what I’m taking out of their country, but actually it’s because they like it and want a closer look. ‘Très cool,’ the first one says. ‘Is it fast?’ asks the second. ‘Très chère?’ chips in the third. Each to their own on the first; Route Napoléon proved yes for the second; and yes – this one costs £22,000 optioned-up – although, as we all know, options cost dearly and, if you don’t mind losing the toys, you can get into a Clubvan from £11,000.
In the end, I sleep in my own bed that night – Kent, Essex and Cambridgeshire pass in a blur. The motorways are deserted and the MINI keeps me alert for those soul-sapping final few miles. Most people would probably have thrown the towel in at Calais, but the train is waiting for me, allowing me a chance for a brief nap while crossing sous la Manche – and it was this brief recharge that ended up carrying all the way home.
Unbelievably, I’d made it all the way from Tuscany to the East Midlands in one hit. The final few miles were a trifle hard going but, other than that and the annoyance of motorway tolls, I’d enjoyed every single minute of it. In the end, MINI and I covered 1189 miles together; had averaged 47mpg and 69mph; consumed 20 cups of coffee on the way up and more junk food than I care to mention here. Had anyone said to me as recently as 10 years ago that I’d have happily covered these distances across Europe in a 1.6-litre diesel-powered van, I’d have laughed hollow. Instead, thanks to the epic Route Napoléon, I just did – and smiled pretty much all the way…