Updated: Jul 1, 2020
We’ve all heard of the Cannonball Run. That uncouth stampede across the United States, from sea to shining sea. All those big engines and bigger egos. The brain out, foot down brashness of it all. How undignified it all is! Wouldn’t it be so much better if it was held in France?
Of course it would. And that’s why after a few beers, we dreamed up the Camembert Run, a dignified meander through the French countryside, from cheese to shining cheese. We envisaged a highly cultured vin and fromage-fuelled stroll from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, stopping at only the finest patisseries for our morning croissant, fuelling ourselves with only the most enchanting of café au laits and consuming only the crustiest of baguettes with our cheesy delicacies.
That was the idea, anyway. The dream which motivated us to put together a convoy consisting of a Volvo 240, a trailer-towing Mazda MX5 and a ubiquitous Citroen 2CV and head across the channel in August 2019, rolling out of Calais bound for Monaco, and the Mediterranean coast.
We’d planned a route which avoided the auto-routes as much as possible, instead opting to live life to the slow beat of rural France. And naturally, after several hours of roads which twisted and undulated through the countryside, our first destination had to be that sleepy place in Normandy where cheese is life – the village of Camembert.
Given that it shares its name with one of the greatest cheeses the world has to offer, Camembert is a surprisingly unassuming place, seemingly consisting of about a dozen houses, a tiny museum and a tourist centre which exists solely to flog cow-related merchandise to passers-by. But still, as a place to symbolically begin our trip, it hit the spot.
The next stop on the road south was somewhat less sleepy – the city of Le Mans. And while it wasn’t race weekend, we were still able to get our petrolhead fill with a visit to the museum of the Le Mans 24 hour race, where everything from Porsche 917s to McLaren F1s vied for our attention – definitely worth a stop-off if you’re passing by.
We soon fell into the rhythm of the Camembert Run, setting up camp every evening and relaxing with a few beers or glasses of wine, and slowly cruising across France each day, taking in interesting roads and sights. In Ambiose, we toured the castle where Di Vinci once lived, and in the Auvergne we climbed volcanoes and coaxed our cars over high passes which were lost to the clouds. In Millau we marvelled at the viaduct which made the town famous, before heading down to Roquefort, where we toured the caves in which the cheese is still matured. And then we followed twisting tarmac through the Gorge du Tarn and up over the Corniche des Cevennes, where enough hairpins lurked to satisfy even the most motivated of drivers, and a tour of the spectacular Grotte de Trabuc show-caves offered a welcome respite from the 33°C heat.
Despite the temperature and the hard driving demanded by our twisty route, six days after leaving the UK, our cars were all still running well as we approached what was for many of us, the trips cultural highpoint – the first century Roman Aqueduct just outside Avignon, known as the Pont du Gard.
This bridge spans 275m across the river Gardon, carrying water almost 50m above the river’s surface which is bound for the town of Nimes, dozens of kilometres away. Built at the zenith of the Roman Empire in around 50 A.D., the aqueduct makes for a stirring sight, particularly when viewed at dusk, when the crowds drift away, the bats whirl around in the velvety air as they have done for almost two millennia.
Those Romans certainly knew what they were doing when it came to stacking stones.
After our time in the presence of historical greatness, we headed east to Monaco, arriving at the Mediterranean and in doing so, completing our ‘sea to shining sea’ goal which was inspired by the Cannonball run. And the highlight of our time in Monaco? Easy. The Ferrari F50 which growled its way past the harbour while we were grabbing a celebratory beer.
From Monaco, our drive north initially took us along the wonderful curves of the Route Napoleon, which follows the same path its namesake took after his escape from the island of Elba in 1815. And it turns out Mr Bonaparte had pretty good taste in driving roads, as our route north was punctuated by mountainsides tiered with hairpins and picturesque valleys down which the smooth tarmac swept. The driving was so good, in fact, that it was almost a shame to divert our path through the Verdon Gorge – but given that this is the deepest chasm in Europe and offers a chance to drive through the whole gorge on a road which clings improbably to its edge, it would’ve been rude not to.
With the Route Napoleon behind us it was time to turn right, and enter that landscape which is the stuff of petrolhead dreams – the Alps. Here, we journeyed from La Grave to Chamonix, but don’t for a minute think that the challenging terrain sent us scurrying for the autoroutes. Oh no, we definitely took the high roads, with the Col du Lautaret, Col du Gailiber, Col de l’Iseran and the Petit St Bernard Pass all scrolling beneath our unlikely steeds. And as we conquered these passes, which topped out with the Col de l’Iseran at 2,770m, we confirmed what the trips earlier twisty roads had hinted at. Of our Volvo/Mazda/2CV convoy, the Volvo was the quickest going uphill, while on the descents, the 2CV could just about keep up when aided by some committed driving. The MX5/trailer combination would slowly fall behind in both situations, due to the unpredictable effect the thin-tyred trailer had on the handling. So, if you’re considering a spot of tarmac rallying and you’d whittled down your shortlist to these three options, our consumer advice is to go with either the French or Swedish option.
With the Alps behind us, we had a rest day in Chamonix before beginning the home straight, with all three cars running well and plenty of cheese still to be eaten. Unfortunately, in the Cheese-town of Poligny, the 2CV decided it didn’t fancy heading back to the UK for another winter, and made its point by unwinding its gearbox, jamming itself in reverse.
Not the ideal situation to find yourself in, when you’re due back in work in another three days, and none of the garages in the area have the first clue about how to fix such a car. Luckily however, a hero soon came to our rescue.
One phone call to Classicline's UK call centre, and stress gave way to confidence. Within an hour, the stricken escargot was taken for a check-up on the back of a low loader, Frasier was able to enjoy the remainder of the trip from the palatial comfort of the Volvo’s back seat, and Classicline were on point when it came to arranging a courtesy car to get him home from Dover on the Sunday evening, ready for an early Monday morning start.
Up until its unfortunate failure, we’d decided that the 2CV was the hero of the Camembert, gamely scrabbling around corners at ridiculous lean angles, soldiering on through the head despite being air cooled and somehow keeping its travelling companions in check even though they had around four times the horsepower. But sadly it's anticipated completion of its very own tour de France wasn't to be, and with the convoy down to two vehicles, we gamely pushed on towards Calais, via the interestingly named village of 'Anus', and the exquisite sunsets of the Foret de Fontainebleau.
And then, two weeks after leaving the UK on the inaugural Camembert Run, we rolled back into Calais, for the journey back to England, our minds as full of fine memories as our bellies were of fine cheese.
The next Camembert Run is scheduled to take place in 2021. Follow our social media channels or subscribe to our email updates for more information.