The Opel and the MINIs

Beastmaster and Peanut Adventures

Minis Head to Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo Adventure Album ONE
Monte Carlo Adventure Album TWO

In September 2006 we had an eleven day MINI adventure in France with RVW (Ray and Gail) from MINI2. The holiday was a mixture of exciting mini driving and sampling the sights and delights of the South of France. The climax of the trip was to be a drive around the famous L’Escarene / Sospel / Col de Turini / Luceram / L’Escarene loop of the Monte Carlo rally. This was the same route that Paddy Hopkirk drove when he had the historical victory in 1964 in his red Cooper S.

9th and 10th September 2006

Before that though we had to get to the south of France and the journey began in Boulogne with our first stop being just south of Clermont Ferrand. Essentially this was a motorway slog to put distance between us and Boulogne although the drive through the centre of Paris, after accidentally coming off the peripherique, had a certain charm!

Our hotel for our first night was the Hotel Pariou in Issoire - it was very pleasant and the restaurant was very good indeed. This stop set us up nicely for the next leg of our adventure which was a dash to the Cote d’Azur via one of the modern engineering wonders of the world the Millau Bridge. This is quite simply a staggering piece of engineering – a huge suspension bridge, which at its highest point is 23metres taller than the Eiffel Tower. The bridge straddles the Tarn valley and dramatically shortens journey times for drivers heading for the sun this way. A trip to the Visitor Centre at the feet of the bridge is well worthwhile to enable you to appreciate the sheer scale of this engineering achievement. We lunched in the Tarn Valley in Millau in er... MacDonald’s and thought of another of our MINI friends Matrog who has shares in MacDonald’s!

Before we reached the bridge however, we had time to do some driving off the motorway to sample the real France in this region. The roads were superb, remote, heaps of MINI fun and abundant in breathtaking scenery. A mental note was made to explore the region south of Clermont Ferrand with its volcanic landscape again in the future. This is the region where Volvic mineral water comes from. We see it all the time in the supermarkets of France, but before this I had never given a thought as to where it comes from!

Our usual route to the south is motorway all the way from Boulogne to the coast, completely missing Paris by going past Troyes and Dijon and on through Lyon and if done in one go is a ten hour drive. However, this route – in truth an indulgence to allow us to see the Millau Bridge – proved not to be all motorways after Clermont and this slowed us down somewhat. Consequently, it was eight in the evening when we reached Port Cogolin and God knows what time it was when RVW eventually found his place in Tourette sur Loup near Grasse!

11th September 2006

Still no time for slackers and the next day saw us rendezvousing with RVW on a rest stop on the A8 as it went through Cannes, so that we could drive together to the “rock” in Monaco to “do” the palace and Monte Carlo. Parking in the underground car park deep inside the rock on which the old palace of Monaco sits never fails to amaze me. The day was a pleasant one in the sunshine, spent being tourists in Monaco sightseeing and window shopping. Nowt wrong with that!

For our evening meal we decided to come out of Monaco and head closer to home and ended up in Grasse – close to RVW’s but still an hour drive for us! We headed for a part of the old town and I spent the evening eating and enjoying the wine comfortable in the knowledge that Peanut was driving me home.

12th September 2006

The next day (Tuesday) was the day for the Monte Carlo rally loop. We elected to meet again at the rest stop in Cannes on the A8 at 9.30. RVW eventually turned up at 10.15 to find us both asleep in our deckchairs by the side of our MINI. Yes, even though he had met us there the day before he had got lost! This amused us immensely, as the previous navigational mishaps on the holiday, such as ending up driving through Paris, had been the fault of our TomTom seriously misbehaving and losing his maps – so it was nice to be blameless on the navigational front. Seeing us asleep in our deckchairs did however make him smile (for the record we did manage to take one picture of him smiling – we caught him when he wasn’t expecting it).

We headed straight to L’Escarene where we stopped for a hot chocolate, paused to savour the moment, photograph and video the MINIs, prior to driving the Monte Carlo Rally route in a MINI!

The first leg was to Sospel and no time was wasted before we established a very fast pace! Retracing this famous drive in tandem with another MINI was very special and it encouraged us to attack the drive with gusto. However, it wasn’t long before we realised we were not the only MINIs driving these roads, as suddenly three black Cooper S R56’s shot past us the other way! Yes BMW MINI was using the same roads to do some fine tuning on their soon to be released new incarnation of the iconic MINI. It seemed totally appropriate to me that the testing should be done on these famous roads – though obviously they will be fine tuning the car all over the world in all kinds of conditions.

Exhilarated from the drive and seeing the new MINI, we arrived in Sospel for lunch and immediately confronted 3 brand new R56 MINI Coopers! This time we had caught them good and proper and the cameras were out with alacrity as we clicked away before perusing them in detail. The conclusion? Completely different, yet at first glance virtually the same. Not quite as sexy, as small compromises have been made due to pedestrian safety legislation, but we will soon get used to the small changes and love it just as much as the current MINI. Have to say though, listening to the Cooper start up and not have the whine of the power steering pump seemed completely wrong – something was missing! Anyway, judge for yourself – here is our Checkmate next to the new style Cooper!

Lunch, in truth was not the most exciting meal France has to offer, but hey, we didn’t care – we had MINIs and we were heading for Col de Turini! This was another leg of the loop driven fast, though we did break the drive up with an extended stop while we impersonated film directors and took some film footage of the cars to complement the footage we had from inside the cars. You can watch the results of our film making here.

This rally was being done very much the French way, so when we pulled into Col de Turini it was yet another coffee stop – no point in making hard work of it! Col de Turini will have seen its fair share of MINIs over the years but it didn’t stop ours getting a fair amount of attention as some motorcyclists stopped to photograph themselves in front of the cars.

More of the same followed as we charged around the other side of the loop, through Luceram and back to L’Escarene. This was the perfect day for MINI lovers.

That evening we were stopping with Ray and Gail in the villa they were staying in close to Tourettes sur Loup, so we found a place to dine in Tourettes sur Loup itself – an inviting creperie. Emboldened by the exhilaration of the day, I adopted a “devil may care” attitude and chose their speciality – some kind of galette filled with sausage meat . Eugh! It was ‘orrible! Still just proves that you can turn anything into an adventure – including food!

13th September 2006

RVW is well known in the MINI community and is a top bloke all round. He is the kind of bloke that journeys to France and takes with him his eggs, bacon and sausage from home. This is the kind of bloke you want to be stopping with when the night before you have savoured France’s poorest! Egg, bacon, sausage and tomato with tommy sauce! Yes breakfast was fantastic!

This set us up for the day nicely and we decided to explore the area around Tourette and along the Loup valley. Put simply, it was another MINI adventure as we discovered more fantastic roads and stunning scenery. Yesterday it was new MINIs in Col de Turini, today it was sneaking through roads that were closed off to allow rally cars to test their cars out! I had been lusting after some Team Dynamic Race Wheels and here they were on this mean looking rally car teasing me! ( Irrelevant though – after paying for this trip a compromise was necessary so the Cooper gets Mini fins powder coated in white!) It all proved that we had hit lucky and found all the right roads to be driving on. Before this we had headed for a ski resort in the mountains, which itself was a superb drive and while there we realised we needed petrol. Ray’s Sat Nav indicated that petrol could be found 15 miles away. This was as the crow flies and forty miles later we limped into a fuel station albeit after a superb drive along some stunning roads.

Lunch on this day had been modest ham baguettes in a sleepy café opposite a rather stunning Monastery perched way, way, way up a mountain! This allowed a small indulgence for the evening and we dined in the beautiful medieval hilltop village of St Paul de Vence – famous for its art galleries and American tourists. This was a lovely end to another brilliant driving day.

Thursday 14th September 2006

We had returned to Port Cogolin from St Paul de Vence so the next day – a MINI adventure in the Gorges du Verdon – saw us meeting in Grasse, so that we could head there along the famous RN85 Route Napoleon in the direction of Castellane and drive around the gorges Rive Gauche, which for my money gives the best views of the gorges.

The weather was not brilliant this day, but we gambled on it improving and luckily it did. This was important as we had all been here last year and it was torrenting down then and this revisit was in part to amend for the disastrous weather the previous year. Unfortunately it was still not nice enough to explore the gorges in a pedalo! However, we had a lovely picnic lunch by the side of the lake at the head of the gorges. The colour of the water in this lake is unbelievable – a beautiful turquoise, as fine in colour as any waters in the Caribbean!

From the gorges we were all heading back to our apartment in Port Cogolin and that was a fun drive too. We decided that as Ray and Gail were originally going to be staying in St Maxime, that we would approach Port Cogolin along the coastal road from St Maxime, so they could enjoy the view and the er… choppy seas. This was a mistake as the traffic making for St Tropez (5km further on than Port Cogolin) was horrendous. Still we persevered and made our first stop Geant – the local hypermarket – where we stocked up on some provisions, mainly for the bbq we had planned for the evening.

We would have watched the sun set, as we enjoyed our bbq on the terrasse  but had to make do with crowding into the loggia and watching the rain slowly peter out! Still the food was lovely and the wine cleared away any grumbles with the weather! 

Friday 15th September 2006

On Friday – a beach day in our plans – we awoke to miserable drizzle. I have to confess a notion was brewing in my mind and The Curse of RVW was seriously evolving as a theory. Could it be that whenever he got within 30 miles of St Tropez there would be rain and thunder and damnation like never seen before! Certainly September 2005 justified the theory! Wary of the curse and unable in my mind to dismiss the weather and RVW’s presence in St Tropez as mere coincidence, we went for the safe option, abandoned the beach trip and went driving round the local villages.

Port Grimaud was first and we had a mooch in the shops, before I suggested we climb the Bell Tower at the church for a fantastic view of the port – a mini Venice Provencal style. God was clearly affronted that we should take RVW up his holy tower and the second we stepped out on the top the Heavens opened and the rains trapped us in the tower! The notion of the curse was becoming a fixed idea!

Eventually we escaped and took shelter in a nearby café. Later we drove to the beach at L’Escalet (not to swim but because the drive was a MINI owners dream) via Gassin and Ramatuelle. Halfway, between these two hilltop villages is a windmill, and as the rains had let us be, we stopped to photograph the MINIs in front of the windmill. The windmill was surrounded by wooden posts, guarding the windmill, but waiting for the cross slats that would turn the posts into a fence. RVW decided that we would drive the MINIs between the posts for a good picture. Unfortunately, this was a step too far and God was angry. Incredulous that RVW had defied his thunder and lightning he hit us with a more potent weapon – a furious Frenchman who could not speak a word of English! He was not happy that we wanted to park the cars there for two minutes for a photo and belligerently stood in the way and ranted and raved at us. RVW just ignored him – thunder and lightning were nothing to him and this man was no different. I, however, am a weaker man and troubled by thoughts of The Curse of RVW and our defiance of the Gods, I let the man get to me. Finally I snapped and in my best French accent I told him to “Fook off!” Clearly my French isn’t that bad as he jumped as if shot by a machine gun!

From here we went to L’Escalet and enjoyed the coastal views. God – realising he had a veritable foe in RVW – decided to take a breather for a wee while. We went back the same way past the tranquil setting of the windmill and on to Grimaud a medieval perched village that sits inland behind the sixties built Port Grimaud. Contrasting Port Grimaud and old Grimaud is surely what every visitor to this area does. We climbed to the top of the village where a ruined chateau is perched guarding and watching and waiting. We waited and watched – but nothing, no thunder, nor lightning, no irate locals demanding we remove our presence from the face of the earth. Was The Curse of RVW lifting?

We left Grimaud to return to the apartment. As we drove from the village we saw, walking up the hill towards us the irate French Guardian of the Windmill!

As I drove past, I shouted to him wishing him good day! He looked up startled, recognised the MINIs and his anger returned! I smiled smugly to myself as I drove down the hill. Somehow, I knew that God might still huff and puff but The Curse of RVW would be beaten and we would swim in the sea.

With the threat of the curse receding, I was emboldened and opted to take us all into St Tropez itself for an evening meal. The night stayed dry, the food was good and the obscene demonstration of wealth and indulgence that one expects in St Tropez was wonderfully up to scratch. The boats were lit up beautifully, so that occasionally you got a glimpse of the luxury within and the lights reflected back from the polished metal of the Astons and Ferraris, the Porsches and the Lamborghinis that came back and forth to the boats like taxis. And yet – if a little red mini with white wheels drove by, all the heads would turn that way!

Saturday 16th September 2006

The next day woke with God behaving like a petulant child – he knew he was beaten but continued to sulk – he sensed RVW was leaving town so sent him away with a torrent of abuse in the form of sheet rain, the like of which has never been seen in these parts since September 2005, the last day that RVW left town! We headed to Cannes along the coastal road and finally at Agay, convinced he was gone for good, God allowed the rain to stop and the sun to shine. We stopped for a hot chocolate and pondered upon the epic weather.

Unfortunately, when we reached Cannes, there was a big boat show on and every Porsche and his aunty was there trying to park. When we did finally park, we walked our legs off exploring the shops and gazing at the Breitlings and other nice things. Late in the afternoon, we left RVW to return to his retreat near Grasse and we headed back via the motorway to a dry, sunny and welcoming Port Cogolin!

Sunday 17th September 2006

Sunday is market day in Frejus and as so much of the adventure had revolved around driving we decided to visit the market as a change. The market is strung along the side of the beach in Frejus, just to the east of the very smart cosmopolitan new port there. After walking our stumps off (we lost the legs in Cannes – do keep up) exploring all the stalls, we all had a sandwich in the new port and then we headed for the beach!

Yes, the last thing we did together, before we went our separate ways was to swim! The sun shone and we went for it, splashing about in the waves at Frejus beach. After this we said our sad farewells – us to return to Port Cogolin for a last day of swimming before heading for home and RVW to continue his MINI adventure, meandering north to the Nurburgring before finally returning to England.

The adventure had been epic. Battling through Paris, traversing the Tarn Valley on the Millau Bridge, driving the most famous leg of the Monte Carlo Rally, seeking out petrol where no man had seeked out petrol before (in the mountains and hills near Castellane), exploring the Gorges du Verdon and last but not least, defeating The Curse of RVW. As we stood in the car park, by our faithful MINIS, saying our goodbyes, we knew we had all just done something special together and the good memories will last a long, long time.

Col De Turini Video

Millau Bridge and Beyond - The Magazine

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