As many of you know Rob & I were recently away on a driving tour with Petrolhead Nirvana (Alpine North). Well our local AMOC rep asked for a write-up and I thought you might like to see it too as the question of European/Alpine routes often comes up around here:
First, and just because I think it’s brilliant, here’s the ‘promo’ movie clip that our Porsche-driving friend Kul put together: https://vimeo.com/45469799
We joined the gang of strangers (who were soon to become firm friends) at Hythe in Kent so that we could take our cars on the train journey through the ‘Chunnel’ together.
There were 15 cars in all including 2 Astons, 2 Ferraris, several Porsches, a couple of Lotus’ and a (very fast) Renault Clio! In the lead car and the rear car were the tour organizers and we were all issued with walky talkies which proved invaluable for keeping the pack together.
Our first day was spent covering many motorway miles in order to reach Offenburg for our first overnight stop. However it was a good day for acclimatizing ourselves to the European roads and getting to know our fellow travelers and their cars.
On Day 2 we began to weave our way through the borders: Germany to Switzerland to Austria, finishing in Italy at the top of the Stelvio Pass. We drove some fabulous winding mountain passes that day. However, Rob had bought me a T shirt back in the UK that declared the Stelvio Pass to be ‘the best driving road in the world!’ and unfortunately we found this not to be the case! On subsequent days we drove better roads but this, largely due to Top Gear of course, is the most famous. What they didn’t show us on TV was the stretch of road that was more like a rally route – loose dirt and stone and a lack of tarmac! We lost Bob and his bright yellow Porsche 996 GT3 that day. I can’t remember the exact cause of the car’s breakdown (a hose that detached itself I think) but we were following it when a dramatic cloud of spray/steam appeared right in front of us and at considerable speed! So that’s why they insist on everyone having their own European breakdown cover!
Day 3 saw more drama and this time the black Ferrari 360 broke down, ultimately to be repatriated to the UK and a lengthy repair process (no, being near to its birthplace did not help and a UK repair proved cheaper!). Its owner, however, was undeterred and decided to carry on with the tour in a hire car – still Italian and Italian registered – a Fiat Bravo! Well, everyone knows that, other than a white van, there’s nothing faster than a hire car and he certainly did his best to prove this! The vintage Jaguar XK140 also was in need of some tinkering at times, and a broken windscreen wiper was something of a nuisance as we were experiencing quite heavy rain at times on the early days of the tour! David carried on regardless though’, mostly with his window down (whatever the weather!) and, despite his occasional unplanned detours he made it to base each night and, as was his plan, carried on separately down to Classic Le Mans.
The route on Day 3 took us through St Moritz and various great mountain passes: the Umbrail, Julier, San Bernardino, Susten and Grimsel. Wonderful scenery, wonderful roads but the unseasonably bad weather caused some problems and we found various routes to our hotel closed and later learnt that the power was down at the hotel so they were unable to contact us and advise on the best route to take. Eventually it was found that the only way through to our hotel (at Oberwald in Switzerland) was to put our cars on the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn – the train that would take us through the mountain tunnel. A strange experience to be sitting in your car in an open, metal-framed carriage careering through the darkness of the tunnel! I believe it was around 10pm when we arrived at our hotel but they were patient and wonderful and still served us a very good meal.
Day 4 saw more passes on the itinerary: the famous Furka, the St Gotthard, the Grand St Bernard and the Petit St Bernard taking us back into France. By now we were all really settling in to the rhythm of driving the twisties and Rob had learnt that, for the major hairpins (of which there were many) it was necessary to drop to first gear before accelerating out. More fun was to be had in the tunnels too with everyone dropping their windows open, many videoing to record the noise, and all loving the sound of the cars (especially the Astons, naturally!). Our hotel on this night was a traditional ski lodge near Val D’Isere and another good night was had by all.
More passes again on Day 5: the Col De L’Iseran, Col Du Galibier and the Col De La Bonette going up to 2,802m, the highest paved pass in the Alpine range. Incredibly this range features in the Tour de France and we were amazed how many cyclists we saw both here and on the other mountains. They really love their cycling here! The final pass of the day was the Col De Turini – a challenging road, quite narrow in places and famous as a stage of the Monte Carlo Rally. Our hotel reflected this fame and was full of rally memorabilia and photographs.
On Day 6 we descended the Col De Turini and headed north on the Route Napoléan where the roads changed to long, fast, sweeping bends with occasional tight twisty sections and ever changing scenery. A different driving experience and a different view of France – we loved it!
Setting out on Day 7 it was decided that a couple of the ladies (of which there were only six, two of whom were with the organizers) should take a turn at driving. So Joanna got behind the wheel of their BMW Z4M coupé while her husband got to try the organizers’ Ferrari 360 Spider and I settled into our V8 Vantage S (with Livvy, one of the tour team beside me) and Rob took a passenger ride in the lead car, a 996TT. Wow! I had been missing out! I had a fabulous drive over to Annecy, known as the Venice of France where we had a lovely lakeside break before setting off again to Geneva. Needless to say, after the break Rob insisted on having the controls back!
We drove on through Geneva (spotting a McLaren outside a hotel and more expensive cars here than we had seen elsewhere on tour) and headed for Dijon and our last hotel stop of the tour. I would recommend this one – the Hotel Le Dracy – we enjoyed a dip in the outdoor pool in the sunshine and a fine dinner (also outdoors).
And so to the last day of our trip, Day 8, and a trip to the old Grand Prix circuit at Reims which I was surprised to find was actually a straight on a public road with the abandoned grandstand and pits on either side. A couple of people, naturally, wanted to experience what it felt like to drive past the pits at speed. Rob wanted to hear what the S sounded like here so Pete (tour team leader) took our car, with me as passenger and off we went. Unfortunately the weather had changed for the worst as we arrived and the road was very, very wet. I don’t think I had really experienced aqua-planing before but we got out of that one safely and lived to tell the tale! Here’s the clip of the return run down the Reims straight: https://vimeo.com/46607141
We drove on to Calais and said sad farewells to our new friends on the English side of the Channel.
We had a great trip, some scary moments (particularly for the passenger!), some funny moments and some fantastic experiences. Our Aston Martin did us proud and surprised a lot of people – for a touring car it was surprisingly nimble round those twisties and was always capable of an impressive turn of speed on the straights! At least two of the other drivers on tour are now looking into coming over to Aston ownership and there were many positive (and surprised) comments from our fellow tourers! Roll on September 2013 as we’ve told the tour team to put our name down for the Alpine South tour where we hope to meet some of the guys again and maybe we will find a few more Astons along next time!