Clara goes to Alsace

These Clara posts are getting somewhat predictable now. Almost three years and an ever increasing list of replaced engine parts, yet still the words ‘Clara goes…’ are synonymous with messy breakdowns and troublesome journeys. To be fair on our beautiful VW camper, Clara goes to Ireland, Clara goes to Wales and Clara goes to Shropshire have remained unwritten. Mainly because our erratic campervan behaved herself then and our journeys were trouble free. Suffice to say, this journey wasn’t…

Our destination this year was a rather tranquil French campsite, nestled in the hilly forests of Alsace. Roughly 650 miles south. We’d briefly considered Cornwall this year, then soon abandoned that for the hopefully warmer French weather and the sense of adventure that a European road trip offers. Cornwall became a lot more appealing as this particular holiday unfolded! The initial drive was down to Dover for our overnight campsite. The weather, almost as soon as we left home, was hideous. Solid rain battered Clara for most of the drive south. I’ve no idea if this had any bearing on what would happen in the morning, but I’m sure it didn’t help.

As this post is mainly about Clara, I’ll reserve my Dover campsite review for TripAdvisor. I’ll simply say that the café may need restaffing and asking two vegetarians, ‘how vegetarian are you?‘ is not massively encouraging. Our ferry crossing was early this morning, so we were packed and ready for the off just before 7.00AM. A click of Clara’s ignition key and nothing. Absolutely nothing 😯 Tracy and I exchanged ‘a look’ and I tried again. Completely dead!!! Clara’s battery was about a year old and we’d never had a problem before. A quick check revealed we’d not left any battery draining electrics on either. What the hell was the problem? Had our holiday died before it had even begun?

I then spotted a bleary eyed Dutch guy walking out of the toilet block. Maybe we could zap Clara’s battery into life with our jump-leads and this guy’s car? It was a nice plan, but the poor guy’s wife was still fast asleep in their caravan. Moving his car would mean uncoupling the caravan. Something he wasn’t prepared to do at 7.00 in the morning. We couldn’t really complain.

How about a bump-start instead?’ he offered.

In all my many years of driving, I have never bump-started a car. I have pushed many a car that was being bump-started, but never  in all that time have I been sat behind the wheel. Maybe I’m just good at pushing??? I would get a lot better in the next few days 🙄 It was eventually decided that as our friendly Dutch helper had a bad back, he would sit in Clara, while Tracy and I pushed… Second gear was selected, clutch depressed, handbrake off and we were good to go. After only a few feet Clara’s clutch was released and her engine sprang into life 🙂 Still assuming that we had a battery problem, we thanked our sleepy Dutch helper and went on an early morning drive around Dover, to hopefully charge the battery a little.

After a twenty minute jaunt up and down the A2 we eventually rolled into the rather busy ferry terminal. I’m not sure twenty minutes driving is really sufficient to recharge a completely flat battery, but deep down we were both very sceptical about the flat battery diagnosis. In my non-mechanical little head, a loose wire or faulty ignition was to blame, but what did I really know? As we inched our way closer to the passport kiosk I smelt the burning!!!

Something’s burning. I can smell burning!


Look, there’s smoke!!!’ A small wisp of black smoke drifted up from behind the steering-wheel. What the hell was on fire?

Thankfully the smoke and the smell lasted only a few seconds and Clara’s engine was still ticking along just fine. Whatever had been on fire had now stopped or was entirely burnt out. Neither of us had any clue what this meant, but it did seem to back up my electrical/ignition diagnosis. Had this little fire completely buggered Clara’s ignition? We had no idea, but we did now have a very tough choice to make. Should we continue our holiday, or abandon it right here? Would Clara’s engine start again? Were we insane to consider driving any further? We were now just a few cars shy of the passport kiosk. Anything beyond there and aborting our holiday would get complicated. Yes we had breakdown insurance, but we were all too familiar with how complex and painful this can be on foreign soil. Still undecided we eventually rolled up to the first passport kiosk. Our holiday, it would seem, was to continue. For how long, we knew not.

Our passport queue had delayed everyone so much, that by the time we drove towards our ferry, we didn’t have the usual long wait to board. We were simply waved onto the large P & O ferry. Even if Clara refused to start, at least we were going to get to France 🙂 Once safely parked, I switched off the ignition, held my breath and gave Clara’s ignition key a turn. She started. She bloody started. Maybe we were going to be ok after all? Unfortunately only Clara really knew the answer to this and we left her down in the loading-bay, while our boat practically bounced across the choppy sea towards France. Ninety minutes later and we were once again sat in Clara, with ignition key poised and all available digits crossed. She started. She bloody well started again 🙂

Off the ferry and rattling along our french motorway, all thoughts were now on our Alsace campsite. Once there I could take a look at Clara’s electrics, where I would hopefully find a burnt out wire or loose connection. Fixing the problem would be a differnt challenge, but we could cross that bridge once we’d reached it. We still had many hours and three country borders ahead of us, but we were certainly feeling a lot happier than we were earlier this morning. Somewhere just shy of the Belgium border I pulled in to refuel Clara. Tracy and Sawyer sampled the toilets while I sorted the fuel out. When they returned Clara was still sat next to the pump, with me frantically turning the ignition key. Nothing!!! Absolutely nothing. So for the second time today we had to weigh up the pros and cons of continuing with our already overly adventurous holiday. We pondered, briefly. The many cons were dismissed, Tracy took the reins of Clara and I pushed her across the petrol forecourt. Clara bumped into life, just as she’d done in Dover this morning and we were off on our merry way once more.

Our situation was far from ideal. Pushing a 2 tonne vehicle, packed with luggage, every time you stop the engine has its very obvious drawbacks. A list of the world’s strongest men would need a pretty lengthy piece of paper to include me on there 😯 But it’s the path we’d chosen and all being well, we should be able to reach our illusive Alsace campsite without refueling again. So we stubbornly continued to head south. We crossed into Belgium, then a few hours later crossed into Luxembourg. Soon after that we were back on french roads and our destination was tantalisingly close, but alas, not close enough. Clara, bless her, had decided that more fuel was needed. She can be a thirsty old girl sometimes!

Somewhere in between Metz and Nancy we pulled over for our final refuel and push-start. Having to pay for our fuel at a drive-through kiosk wasn’t something we’d bargained on? Not being confident that we had sufficient space to bump-start Clara before we reached the kiosk, we decided to push our 2 tonne campervan backwards for a bit of a run up. The bemused garage staff watched on. Were we attempting to steal the fuel? Was this the slowest and most inept robbery this garage had ever seen? Thankfully the garage was fairly empty and mercifully Clara bumped into life pretty quickly. Baring any further disasters we were now stop-free until our Alsace campsite.

At just after 8.00PM we exhaustedly rolled into Flower Camping La Sténiole. Tracy attempted to piece together enough french, to explain our mechanical woes to Rudi, the campsite owner. Whatever she said, seemed to work. Rudi knew of ‘a man’ if we wanted any help. Reassuring news indeed. We thanked Rudi, parked up in our camping pitch and switched off Clara’s ignition, knowing full well it wouldn’t start again unless we fixed the problem.  The rest of the night was spent with alcohol. We’d had rather a day!


Our scheduled stay at the very beautiful La Sténiole campsite was just six days. We’d arrived late on the Monday and had planned to leave on the Sunday. Under normal circumstances a six day stay would have probably been just fine. However, things were a long way off being ‘normal’. We had a stricken vehicle to fix and our supplies of food and much needed alcohol were dwindling fast. Our campsite did offer a tiny shop and a restaurant, which was a welcome relief, but who knew just how much of our cherished holiday money Clara would take to repair? We needed to somehow get to a supermarket and to obviously get Clara fixed. Needless to say, my investigation into Clara’s electrics proved entirely fruitless. There was no sign of any burnt out wires or any obvious loose connections. I did find a few unconnected wires, but they didn’t seem to go anywhere near the ignition. A more qualified diagnosis was needed.  It was time to call for Rudi’s ‘man’.

Monsieur Mechanic arrived on the Tuesday afternoon. We’d done our homework and now knew the french for wire (câble) and ignition (allumage). Monsieur Mechanic seemed impressed but he immediately suspected a faulty démarreur (starter motor). Clara’s démarreur was prodded, tweaked, fiddled with and whacked, but still the ignition was dead. Monsieur Mechanic suggested a trip to his garage tomorrow would be best. He even offered to tow us there if the bump-start failed. The rest of the night was spent with alcohol, freshly made pizza and a campfire.

After only two days most of our neighbouring campers (mostly dutch) knew about our stricken Clara. While struggling to push her along the gravel road  the following morning we were soon inundated with help. Much welcomed help as it turned out. Tracy had failed to put Clara into bloody gear!!! Eventually our flowery campervan leapt into life and we left a group of exhausted Dutch campers behind, to hopefully get their breath back. At the Renault Aviva garage in nearby Granges-sur-Vologne, Clara was hoisted onto a set of ramps while five french mechanics beavered away underneath. Cables were attached, lights were shone, metal was hit and chins were stroked. Clara was lowered, she was raised, lowered, then raised, lowered once more, then raised again. This was like being on the bloody ferry again 😯 Finally with chins sore from all the stroking, a decision was made.

‘Le démarreur…’

What followed was a hugely complicated conversation. Our french mechanics could speak little or no English. My french was limited. Tracy’s a lot better than mine. From what we could gather, Clara’s démarreur (starter motor) was knackered. The garage couldn’t get a replacement part, but could repair the faulty démarreur. The main problem being; the repair would probably take three days and the garage wanted to keep Clara for the repair work. Un grand problème. Clara was our home. Admittedly not a very mobile one, but she still contained our beds, our fridge, cooker, sink, storage and shelter from the cold Alsace nights. All we had back at our campsite was the canvas awning that attaches to the side of Clara. At a push (and I do mean a push) we could decamp into there, but that really didn’t fill us with any joy at all. Especially as today’s wet weather had a distinctly UK feel about it. We’d reached a bit of a stalemate. Should we try and find a hotel, on foot, in the rain, in a tiny remote french town? A town that quite possibly didn’t even have a hotel. Should we hike back up through the woods to our campsite? Should we contact our breakdown insurance? We really didn’t know what to do for the best.

Eventually an option was thrown to us. It was thrown entirely in french, but Tracy somehow managed to decipher it. Our french mechanics were offering to follow Clara back to our campsite, where they would then remove Clara’s knackered démarreur. This would be taken away, repaired and returned to us, at our campsite three days later. Pas un grand problème 🙂  We gratefully agreed to this, but told the garage we needed to refuel and restock our limited supplies at a supermarket before returning to our campsite. All was fine. We refuelled at the Renault Aviva garage, had a helping push across the forecourt and set off towards Bruyéres to shop.

It was decided, mainly by me as my muscles were aching, that I would sit in Clara with the engine running, while Tracy and Sawyer dashed in for a quick supermarket sweep of a shop. I really couldn’t face pushing Clara any more. And what if the bump-start actually failed. What would we do then? Leaving Clara running was by far the safest option. Tracy agreed to be quick and off they went…

An hour and ten minutes later Tracy and Sawyer emerged from the supermarket. Seventy minutes for a ‘quick’ shop,  which apparently was nowhere near enough time to ‘shop properly’ 😯 We then raced back to our Alsace campsite and prayed that we’d not missed the french mechanics. We hadn’t. In fact Monsieur Mechanic didn’t arrive until fairly late in the day. A day that was thankfully a lot drier and warmer than it had been earlier on. Without too much fuss Clara’s démarreur was removed and our mechanic said it would be returned on Friday. And with that he was gone. Clara was minus her démarreur, making her more immovable now than she had been with a knackered one! Whether the starter motor was truly at fault or not, we still didn’t know. I had my doubts, but at least something was being done. And whether we liked it or not, we were now entirely stuck on our campsite for two days.


The next two days was the closest we ever came to relaxing on our holiday. Our remote campsite, hidden away in the vast Alsace woodland really was rather special. Campfires were positively encouraged, the setting was idyllic, the amenities were great, our fellow campers were lovely. We really couldn’t have picked a nicer place to be stranded in. We barely even saw Sawyer. He was happily making friends all over the campsite, oblivious to the fact that apart from one other family, our fellow campers were all non English. Sawyer had a football, and that is sometimes the only language you really need. Sawyer would’ve happily stayed at La Sténiole for the entire summer. As it turned out, we extended our stay for one extra day. After much reshuffling it was agreed that we could extend our stay until the Monday, just in case the garage didn’t return Clara’s démarreur before the weekend.

Thursday and Friday came and went without any sign of Monsieur Mechanic. Would the garage be open on Saturday? They’d certainly be closed on Sunday. Our worried thoughts now turned to our ferry home on Tuesday. Not to mention our homesick springer spaniel that would need collecting on Wednesday. After two rather nice days the butterflies in the stomach had returned. Was this garage even trustworthy? They’d clearly stated Friday. What if the démarreur wasn’t even the problem? What the hell would we do then? Would that be the time to call our breakdown insurance? Would they tow us home or simply get us to another garage? Our wine fueled sleep that night was rather restless. Our awakening the following morning was rather sudden.

It was Tracy who heard the clatter of the engine first. The destinctive chugging of a large tow-truck. The first I knew was when Tracy flung open Clara’s curtains and there was Monsieur Mechanic, happily jumping from his truck 😯 The next ten minutes is rather hazy in my recollection. I’m never at my best in the morning, but as I was currently in bed, on top of Clara’s engine, I clearly needed to shift it pretty damn sharpish. I think I did? Tracy spotted Clara’s gleaming and refurbished démarreur just before it was dropped into the depths of Clara’s engine. I think I was still stuggling with my socks at this point.

Without any real hassle the démarreur was fitted and I was given the green light to give Clara’s ignition a try. I smiled at Monsieur Mechanic and crossed my fingers. He seemed entirely nonplussed at my apparent lack of confidence. I climbed behind the wheel, inserted the key and genuinely held my breath. I knew this wasn’t going to work. I turned the key… Clara leapt into life!!! Tracy’s yelp is probably still echoing through the valley. I was more than a little stunned, but as I’ve stated many times before, I am a long long way from being a car mechanic.

Still in shock we thanked Monsieur Mechanic profusely. I was close to kissing the man I was so elated, and I’m not talking about one of those delicate little french pecks on the cheek either ? We paid the man the €400 bill, which for everything the garage had done, we thought was really reasonable. I’ve really no idea how much work is involved in repairing a démarreur, or how much the new parts cost, but our french mechanics had driven out to us three times and spent a long time diagnosing Clara’s problem at their garage. Yes we could’ve done without spending €400, but at least Clara was now fixed 🙂

Now if that was the end of our holiday woes, I’d wrap up this blog post with a witty little paragraph and that would be that. Friends of ours on social media will know that sadly our holiday woes were set to rear their ugly head again. So, as you brave readers have already ploughed your way through 3000 words, I’ll save the homeward journey for another blog post…