To France & Back With A Passat

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BASQUE OR BUST


Before we go any further I need to point out that the Basque part of the title refers to the area that straddles France and Spain. Therefore it has nothing whatsoever to do with a lady’s pseudo-erotic undergarments tempting as the though might be. Instead the purpose of Tour 2016 was to drive the latest and at times infeasible named VW Passat Estate R-Line 2.0-Litre BiTDI SCR 4Motion 240PS 7-Speed DSG from my base in Lancashire, down to the French-Spanish border in the Basque region and back.


For reasons of simplicity the aforementioned VW will now be referred to as the Passat although in the guise as described, this family estate must rate as Volkswagen’s most understated performance car. Delivering 240hp, 500Nm of torque, a respectable 0-62mph of 6.3 seconds, it’s the limited 147mph top speed and the car’s sheer efficiency that set this latest Passat apart from the rest. Granted, the R-Line body fitments do to some degree ensure it looks slightly different from the more conventional models whilst the ersatz racing front seats give the passengers exceptional levels of comfort over vast distances.


The other impressive aspect was that two weeks worth of luggage stowed away in the cargo area without having to resort to using the rear seat or having to fold them down. Like its Skoda equivalent, the latest Passat estate is a genuine load carrier in every respect of the term. And better still, the mandatory European obligatory spare wheel made no difference to the 586 litres of available luggage capacity. The only other requirements were the mandatory GB sticker, a pair of hi-viz vests, warning triangle, first aid kit, spare bulbs and since we were heading over to France, disposable AlcoSense breathalyzers.    


This French law is supposed to be being reversed after it was discovered that the then French President was best friends with a company owner who manufactured them in France. But since Brexit had just occurred it struck us as a wise idea to have about six of them in the glovebox. Your average Gendarme doesn’t tend to ‘do the law’ when your car has English number plates. The one extra we didn’t need were the headlamp converters, the Passat adjusting the front beams accordingly after the advanced satnav system updated the car as to exactly where it was!


Pre Day 1: Lancashire to Newcastle: 132 miles


Luggage and paperwork onboard the first leg was the cross-country drive to the Port of Newcastle for the crossing to the Port of IJmuidense on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Unlike previous years, the sailing was courtesy of DFDS onboard their Princess Seaways. One of the most efficient, comfortable and smoothest over night crossings I’ve experienced, I can fully recommend booking one of this modern ferry’s Commodore Plus cabin packages that incorporates priority boarding and a rather pleasant evening meal. Add in a full breakfast served in the fully equipped cabin and it’s about as hassle free as you’re likely to get, you’re on and off in the briefest possible time clear of Dutch customs well before 9am.


Day 1: Amsterdam to Courteney, France: 455 miles, 49mpg


As always the first day is a good hike to get some reasonably serious miles on the clock. The first leg of the drive down towards France was via the polders, reason being although the roads aren’t as fast, they’re nice and quite, the scenery is unusual and there are some seriously outstanding bridges to drive over. Likewise, for the majority of the time you’re well below sea level, the first time you’ll see the satnav with a minus elevation figure. Into France and onto the peage, the famous French toll auto routes or motorways that for some reason many Brits resent having to pay for.


Toll roads especially motorways are nothing new in parts of Europe, paying to us a motorway in the France and Italy part and parcel of everyday motoring. Working exactly in the same method as the M6 Toll, unlike the few miles just north of Birmingham, the hundreds of smooth, hassle free miles they provide make them some of the best value for money motoring, the hundred or so pounds they cost whilst driving round France worth every penny.


The first evening was in the small town of Courtney about seventy or so miles south of Paris. Exhibiting the crumbly, patina rich and slightly dusty atmosphere that only small French towns seem to be able to achieve, the narrow main street was as they tend to be, awash with little French vans replete with dents, lights that don’t work and dubious exhaust systems. Parked up against paint peeling window shutters, old mail boxes and old posters that had been there for years, from the open room window in the small but comfortable furnished Le Relais on the edge of town and the Passat secured behind the large wrought iron gated parking area, we couldn’t have been in any other country. The hotel also boasted an award winning restaurant of which we took full advantage.


Day 2: Courteney to Val de Vienne: 208 miles, 48mpg


There were three reasons the Passat was aimed at Val de Vienne. Firstly, I’d raced on a couple of occasions at the circuit of the same name about twelve or so years ago, I remembered the Hotel Val de Vienne was rather nice providing it was still there and it was about twenty miles from the village of Oradour sur Glane that regrettably became well known for terrible reasons.


As per the previous day, the bulk of the journey was peage based, over a hundred and fifty of the total miles covered in exceptionally quick time. The motorway also meant that the Passat’s 66 litre fuel tank was able to be topped up, the recent French fuel tanker drivers’ strike still fresh in our mind since it could happen again over night. The other benefit of a full tank was that the Passat had of in excess of a 600 mile range, something of an advantage if fuel became harder to find. It also became apparent that apart from the motorways and the major towns the once familiar village fuel stations had all but disappeared as had most of the residents.


Contrary to what the French politicians would have everyone believe, rural France is seriously on the decline. The landscape and small hamlets are still very pretty and well maintained but apart from the local farmers and small shopkeepers, most of the indigenous population has moved out in search of work, these once thriving small communities now a shadow of their former selves. And it’s not just me saying this, talk to any local, which is if you can find one and they’ll tell you the exact same thing. That said, it doesn’t detract in any way whilst good restaurants and bars can still be found. It’s also interesting to see the number of classic French cars sat at small intersections up for sale and the old advertising signs on the sides of buildings. Evocative since they promote long lost products, their fading colours are still bold enough to allow them to stand out as a reminder of far simpler times.

 

The Hotel Val de Vienne was even better than I remembered it, a recent refurbishment inkeeping with the now international grade circuit. Interestingly, it isn’t strictly a hotel more a traditional motel, the secluded, elongated single story V-shaped building housing beautifully furnished chalet style rooms, your car parked directly outside your door. With a wide patio, long rolling lawns down to the river and a decent sized swimming pool, it’s the perfect location for drivers and their teams to relax after a day’s practice or racing, another gem of a restaurant just eight kilometers away.


Up to the circuit and the chance to stroll around the pit lane brought back a few memories of when I was last there, the café still serving some of the best food to be found at any racing venue. Similarly, the circuit staff was still as friendly as ever they were, allowing me to show Karen around areas where the general public is rarely allowed access, a small endurance racing team more than happy to let us watch their mechanics working on the two cars.


Day 3: Val de Vienne to Oradour sur Glance to Val de Vienne: 80 miles, 39mpg


Over the years I’d been within a handful of kilometers of Oradour sur Glane on quite a few occasions, besides the circuit the area still very popular for numerous road rallies and other tarmac events. However, I’d never had the time or the opportunity to visit this sad little village, the story and the remains now a international monument to atrocities throughout the world.


Just like the new village of the same name, the original Oradour sur Glane was nothing out of the ordinary apart from the fact it had an historic church, the river that runs alongside it offered some exceptional fishing and still does and it was the terminus of the local tramline. However, on the afternoon of 10th June 1944 the SS Das Reich came to town to wreak revenge for the kidnapping of one of their officers. Within three hours the entire population had been executed, the men shot in various buildings, the women and children burnt to death in the church whilst the rest of the buildings set on fire. It could have happened to any of the nearby villages but Oradour was where the soldiers decided to stop.


After the war General De Gaulle declared that Oradour should be left as it was and become a lasting, tangible memorial and reminder to those who were killed there. On a bright, sunlit morning with crystal clear blue skies to walk round the once busy but now deserted streets is an unusual feeling, to come upon the remains of the doctor’s little Peugeot 202 parked outside of what was to be his last patient and the almost endless number of skeletal bicycles and old Singer sawing machines exactly where they were left over seventy years ago is surreal.  


If Oradour Sur Glane has a new problem to face it’s the fact it’s becoming more of a novelty than anything else. For many of the post-war generations WWII and the events at Oradour that fateful afternoon have become meaningless. So as the significance of this little French village fades into history so will the global events that lead up to it. That is until it happens again which as we all know it inevitably will!!


A short meandering journey back to Val de Vienne gave the Passat a relaxing return tour of the local countryside, this part of France delightfully relaxed and picturesque. It also proved that the VW was as at home around the narrow country lanes as it was storming down the auto routes, this accomplished estate impressively versatile, very easy to drive and remarkably economical.


Day 4: Val de Vienne to Saint Pee Sur Nivelle: 253 miles, 50mpg


The great thing about the old motel layout is that hauling the luggage from room to car is a matter of seconds, none of that humping case after case up and down staircases and out across the car park. A leisurely breakfast later and it was time to head south once again this time deep into Basque territory at the foot of the Pyrenees. Having decided on the small town of Saint Pee Sur Nivelle and staying at the recently reopened hotel of the same name, whilst the once Hotel De Ville still retains its 3-star rating it’s actually anything but.


Modern, beautifully furnished rooms with two superb restaurants that look out over the town’s 16th Century church, life in Saint Pee still flows along at a far slower pace. Equally, the local boules pit which came alive every afternoon was a constant source of entertainment as players of all ages became incredibly serious about each game’s outcome. Maintaining and keeping alive as many of their traditional sports and customs as possible, the Basque is interesting in that whilst on the map it straddles the borders of two countries, the people who live there don’t especially recognise the fact. All of them speak both French and Spanish whilst every aspect of their lives especially the food and drink is a combination of the both.


Quite strikingly the Basque flag looks remarkably like the Union Jack apart from it being red, white and green, these three colours appearing at every available opportunity. No matter where you look, the four-legged log appears as does their homage to the red headed sheep and small, compact ponies indigenous to the region. There passion though is for the region’s history, its inescapable mixture with it’s Spanish counterpart and the sport of pelote, each and every town and village having a court that’s seemingly always in use.


This ancient game of hurling a hard white leather clad ball against a wall by use of a hooked shaped whicker basket lashed to their hands or nothing more than their bandaged fists, the people of this region regard these ultra-fast ball games as a religion. There are weekly matches, regular tournaments, frequent exhibitions and practice sessions running from dawn to dusk. And with the Basque region also famous for its food especially foies gras and confits, foodies will be in their own form of heaven, numerous top quality to be found around every corner.  


Day 5: Saint Pee to Biarritz: 32 miles, 32.6 mpg


About sixteen miles away from Saint Pee is the famous coastal resort of Biarritz. Sat on France’s Atlantic coast, whilst it tends not to enjoy as much sunshine as its more famous Mediterranean counterparts, this still 60’s orientated town is famous for its architecture, hotels and the fact Winston Churchill was a regular. So much so a semi-covered walkway along the beech is named after him. Very cosmopolitan in atmosphere with hints of the 1920’s still to be found, it’s still the place to buy a pair of genuine espadrilles for about a tenner and to stroll along the promo taking in the views and the famous old cafes that line the way.


Surprisingly, Biarritz is remarkably easy to park in so you can ignore the infrequent bus services and Park & Ride services. The town bristles with centrally located underground parking that, apart from the familiar tight spaces, are convenient and cheap.


Day 6: Saint Pee to La Rhune: 17 miles, 37 mpg


Amongst the regions other attractions is the cog railway at La Rhune. The old wooden coaches and diesel locomotives wind along a spectacular route and climb up to 2,952 feet, the mountain’s wide plateau summit once the scene of various WWII escape routes and various other clandestine goings on. Besides being able to watch the vultures fly and see the famous ponies, the yellow line that appears almost everywhere denotes the border of France and Spain. So yes, the favourite pastime is to straddle the line and be in both countries at once. And whilst it’s a little bit touristy up at the station, it’s well worth the effort.


Heading back into Saint Pee also allowed for a shopping spree into one of the typical French supermarkets. Those who’ve never been through the portals of an Inter Marche will be rocked back on their heels. They stock absolutely everything in vast quantities which even extends to some superb, high quality wines so don’t think you’ll only find the cheap stuff. Fortunately there was still plenty of space in the Passat so what seemed to be a vat’s worth was easily loaded onboard.


Day 7: Saint Pee to Nogaro: 134 miles, 43.8 mpg


Something of a wrench to leave Saint Pee, the village the sort of place you could happily spend a couple of relaxing weeks, the next destination was Nogaro. Best known for its racing circuit, the old town sits in the heart of the Armagnac producing area. Considered by the French to be far superior to cognac, the examples we get here in England are regarded as paint stripper. The plus side is that top end Armagnac is superb, the downside is that it costs a small fortune. And like the big wine houses, the area around Nogaro is dotted with numerous Houses or chateaus, each one unique in taste, one of the best being Chateau de Cassigne.


Day 8: Nogaro round trip: 66 miles, 43.8 mpg


Chateau de Cassigne’s Armagnac starts at expensive and goes upwards rather quickly but the extravagance of at least one bottle of their blue label collection is perfectly forgivable once you’ve tasted it. Also, a stroll round the chateau’s deer park softens the financial blow. Well worth the small detour is the fortified medieval Gascon village of Larressingle. Huge ramparts and towers still intact, this preserved and protected 13th Century hamlet is still lived in, the old village square boasting a more than passable restaurant.


Heading back to Nogaro takes you through the small town of Eauze. Hosting one of the typical French antique and flee markets twice a week, I guarantee you’ll walk away with at least a couple of things in my case two sets of Ricard glasses along with two branded water jugs carafes. But do beware, the French have twigged onto the fact that we Brits like their antiques and various bits and pieces so the prices have gone up and they aren’t always open to negotiations!



Back at the Hotel Solenca, the scene of many a racing team celebration, part of the car park had become the gathering area for the national Citroen Traction annual gathering, over fifty of these innovative cars and their owners displaying their motors and preparing for various daily tours. In many ways the first successful front wheel drive car, the Traction has a dedicated following especially in France, the locals ecstatic at their presence.  


Day 9: Nogaro to Sees: 430 miles, 45.9 mpg


Regrettably it was time to head back north, the Passat and its passengers enjoying their last night in France at the quiet L’ile de Sees hotel in Normandy not far from the historic town of Falaise. Literally in the middle of nowhere this old hotel once again boasts an exceptional restaurant and a relaxing atmosphere, ideal for a single night stopover before heading into Belgium.


Day 10: Sees to Ypres: 283 miles, 46 mpg


One thing my wife Karen had never seen was the famous Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. Straddling the Meenseweg, in memory of those who gave their lives in WWI, a full ceremony is held every evening of every day of the year at 8pm. Whilst the huge arched memorial is stunningly impressive especially when the floodlights have been illuminated, the service attracts hundreds of onlookers all there to pay their respects. Once finished there are numerous small restaurants and bars to relax in but be quick, they fill up in a matter or minutes.


The one aspect of Ypres that at first seems slightly strange is the buildings. With the town more or less destroyed during the war, although the centre of Ypres was rebuilt more or less as it used to be, the nearby houses and streets took on a new look. Built by the soldiers who were waiting to go back home, most of the Tommies were from Lancashire which meant they constructed row upon row of red brick terraced houses just like the ones back home.


Day 11:Ypres to Amsterdam: 294 miles, 57.7 mpg


All that remained was the journey back to Amsterdam to once again reconnect with DFDS’s Prince Seaways and the sail back to Newcastle. If the journey confirmed one thing it’s that Belgium’s reputation for having the worst roads in Europe is well founded, the condition of their motorways and A-roads is deplorable. For a country that considers itself the epicenter of Europe, apart from the Spa Francorchamps, Jacky Ickx and a remarkable selection of excellent beers and pastries, Belgium I’m afraid has little else going for it.


Day 12: Amsterdam to home: 132 miles, 43.8 mpg


Another comfortable DFDS later and a westward drive along the M62 and as the Passat rolled to a halt outside our house the odometer clocked up an exact 2,450 miles at an average fuel consumption of 45.2mpg all of it accomplished on just over £200 of diesel. In the main the weather was excellent with the temperatures especially around Val de Vienne energy sapping although the VW’s air conditioning was more than able to maintain a nice even 18 degrees.


So what about the car


The most noticeable difference is the new corporate VW front, the slender, full width grille and new LED headlights and twelve individual LED daytime lights that give the new Passat a determined if at times sinister countenance. Complimented by a deep splitter and auxiliary forward looking lighting, it’s the R-Line spec that takes the new look to its ultimate conclusion. High defined arches, an upwardly flowing shoulder line, chromed window surrounds and twin ovoid  tailpipes and a ground hugging stance emphasized by 235/45 shod 18” Monterrey alloys coalesce to give the new Passat and understated yet broodingly purposeful presence.


Adding to the R-Line’s sporting overtones, the thick rimmed, squared off, multi-function sports steering wheel enhances the driver’s feel of the car whilst the 8” central screen and 12.3” virtual instrumentation provide exceptional levels of feedback, car status along with a second, more detailed 3D satnav readout. Working in conjunction with the immediate directions displayed on the head’s up display, the trio of satnav outputs allow the driver to constantly check that the required direction is being maintained whilst the colourful on screen dials constantly maintain fuel consumption, economy of driving, mph and kph information along with fuel used and remaining. Basically, if there’s information that isn’t on show, it’s not actually worth knowing.


The black roof lining accentuates the cabin’s embracing sensation; the new Passat’s increase in size has significantly improved head, shoulder and leg room whilst the estate’s luggage space now provides 650 litres of space with the rear 60:40 split rear seat in their upright position or 1,780 litres with the seats folded. And for those who need it an extra 100kg can be carried on the roof along with 2,200kg of braked trailer capacity courtesy of the folding tow hitch.

Our car if only for just over two weeks, the R-Line was fitted with VW’s latest Euro6 specification 1,968cc 16v, 4-cylinder bi-turbo diesel that delivered 240hp and 500Nm of torque. Twin turbos mean assistance is available from the instant the driver hits the throttle, the smaller turbine handing over to the larger unit at around 2,200rpm which means the car hits 60mph in 6.3 seconds and progresses onto a 147mph top speed, the 7-speed DSG transmission giving the driver the option of standard automatic drive, sport, sequential and paddles.


There are also the optional settings of normal, sport, comfort and eco all of which change the overall characteristics of the car whilst enhancing either economy or performance although the automated 4Motion AWD system remains constant throughout. Paired to a 50 litre fuel tank which gives the Passat a very useful 625 mile range, as a touring machine VW’s new Passat is possibly as accomplished as it gets.  

 

Similarly, the 11.7 meter turning circle gives the sizable car useful maneuverability, whilst minimal driver effort was required on motorways, general A-roads, B-roads and narrow lanes. The most notable aspects of the latest bi-turbo Passat are the impressive reserves of power, the 4Motion generated surefootedness yet neutral feel of the car even when pushed hard on corners. Likewise, the sheer comfort and ease of driving, the constant yet uncomplicated amount of feedback the onboard systems generate and the all round radar and camera systems that keep the driver abreast of approaching vehicles and the car’s general surroundings.


If there were negatives they were the at times slightly harsh ride and tyre noise generated by the Continental ContiSport tyres, on all but the smoothest of surfaces, the rubber transmitted both into the cabin and the steering wheel. Similarly, the head up display is for me to low given my ideal driving position the end result being that since I had to lower my head to see it, the facility was for me redundant. However, slightly shorter drivers will be able to take advantage of the multi-function display.


In no way do these minor critiques detract from this Passat in any way. This new VW is extremely accomplished, impressively capable, delivers economy especially over long distances, provides the driver with notable levels of ergonomic comfort and ease of driving combined with a stress free, comfortable environment and looks that belie the car’s levels of performance. Equally, Volkswagen’s almost legendary levels of quality and attention to detail also shine through to produce an estate car that really is able to be all things to all drivers. As tested the Passat Estate R-Line 2-litre BiTDI DSG 4Motion will set you back £37,515 although fortunately it only says Passat and 4Motion on the tailgate.


An excellent and rewarding trip to parts of France we hadn’t been to for quite a while along with other places that were new to us. The aspect you quickly realise is that few people have any concept as to what this particular Passat was actually capable of, a dark blue estate car sat on slightly larger than usual alloys and wider tyres. During the entire trip most that saw the Passat were left blissfully unaware of the car potential although there were the odd ones who quickly realised their mistake, their error being to underestimate one of the best Q-Cars currently on the road.



By; Mark Stone







To France & Back With A Passat