So if you’re reading this you’ll probably know that I’ve taken two weeks out of my working life this September to tackle a 2,500 mile alpine roadtrip that takes in the South of France, a big chunk of Northern Italy and its lakes, and several days in Switzerland. Along the way there’ll be hundreds of kilometres of motorway, Stations Carburant a-plenty, and some of the best mountain roads that these areas have to offer.
Day 1 – Home to Dijon
Eurotunnel may be “faster than a ferry” to France, but it’s just not as interesting – besides, there’d be plenty of time for speed later. The M20 was suitably deserted in the morning, so we were in Dover at least half an hour ahead of schedule, with plenty of time to mooch around the mini mall at the dockside. In reality, this was the sum total of a W H Smith, Costa and Burger King. Nevertheless, a plaque on the wall indicated that this was worthy enough to have been opened by HRH The Queen herself… (not kidding).
A flat white and an almond croissant later and we were boarding. I love the uncontrollable urge I feel to find a Full English the second a boat leaves port, and this was no exception. The post-scoff verdict? Eggs, sausage, beans and toast: 6/10; tomatoes and bacon 1/10.
Just over an hour later and we were docking in Calais. Off the boat and straight into the thick of it – the 560-odd kilometres of French autoroute that Google assured me would take more than six hours to tackle was dispatched with in well under five. The 130kph good-weather limit in France makes a great deal of sense, and turned the conversation to proposals for a similar limit in the UK. Whilst my personal opinion is that that the blanket 70mph motorway limit is a relic that should at the very least be debated, the smoothness of the autoroute was a timely reminder of just how poor the UK road surface is in so many places. In all the lobbying for an 80mph UK limit, I wonder what research has been done into whether all stretches of British motorway would actually be tolerable at significantly higher speeds…
The quality of the French roads is such that you could quite happily push on to 90 or 100mph with no discernible compromise (speed limit notwithstanding). However, despite the higher limit, most other cars on the road were travelling at 120kph or thereabouts, treating the limit as just that, rather than a target. When’s the last time you saw someone on a UK motorway doing less than 70…? As a final point here, consider this: on stretches of German autobahn where there is no mandated limit, cars have been clocked doing an average 85mph in four-lane sections and 88mph in those with six.
As we finally arrived at the hotel in Dijon, I circled to the front of the car to inspect the menagerie of flies that the car had collected on the way down. The visual was pretty shocking – the photo here is what it looked like AFTER I’d given it a quick clean with so-called ‘bug and tar wipes’. I need to find a car wash, stat – don’t think there’s a local @perfectionvalet in this part of the world…
A refreshing drink followed by what has to be one of the world’s best bœuf bourguignon was seen to on Place de la Liberation in the city centre, a fantastic space overlooked by the grand ‘Palais des ducs de Bourgogne’. Even well after the sun had gone down, kids were out madly dashing around the square on heelies, rollerblades and scooters while parents sipped their Pinor Noir and looked on. There aren’t many open squares as impressive as this in London, and those that come close only ever seem to be filled with smitten couples or battalions of teenagers. Spending time with the family as a unit is important here, and it shows.
Day 2 – Dijon to Grenoble
Early to bed, early to rise. Wanting to make the most of the day further South, we left the hotel a little after 9am and got cracking with stage two.
The autoroute to our next destination was predominantly more of the same monotonous smooth, wide, 130kph tarmac. The salient difference being the stunning views from the E711 that open up from Saint Blaise du Buis onwards towards Grenoble.
Arriving in the city a shade after midday, we checked in, took 10psi out of the tyres and headed up into the hillside to the North of the river. The Restaurant du Téléphérique sits high above the city, and whilst you can get there by cable car, unsurprisingly I opted to explore the narrow switchbacks to the top. The black line of the map shows the cable car route, compared to the arguably more enjoyable zig-zag up the hill. I’ve extended the road on the map to show you where you can walk down to from the car park at the top (see the red circle).
The view from the bistro-style restaurant is simply breathtaking. The whole city is laid out beneath you, vast pin-straight avenues extend into the distance, and the river snakes from North to East, slicing a path between the modern industrial district and the beautiful old town.
After another superb breakfast I discover that despite the heat there’s dew all over the car – all the better for lifting more of the muck collected on the blast down the E711. Pressure back in the tyres and it’s time to go. There’ll be no péage today, just 200 miles of N85, D4085 and D6085 – better known as the ‘Route Napoleon’.
I can’t say what it’s like in the middle of summer, but in early September the road is a dream – no traffic to speak of and perfect conditions for winding through the alpine passes. The stint down to Gap is perfectly decent, though pretty unremarkable. It’s from here onwards that the road really comes into its own though.
The mountain pass down into Castellane and the rest of the route on to Saint-Vallier-de-Thiey is superb – I can imagine the switchbacks of the Stelvio get pretty boring after the first ten (I’ll let you know in a few days), but the variety of these 50 kilometres is brilliant.
If you have the misfortune to end up behind something large and slow here, then I have huge sympathy for you, because tackling this with nothing in front of you (or behind, for that matter) is surely one of the must-do drives on the planet.
When we do encounter another vehicle, it’s invariably a local in a 15 year-old hatchback, three-wheeling all the way down the passes with unbelievable bravado.
Extra weight in the boot can pay dividends here, keeping the rear end planted under power out of the corners. It’s predominantly third gear to keep the power flowing and the engine bubbling away, though plenty of the hairpins require a drop down, and fourth or fifth are needed when the passes open up. As we snake up and down the mountains, a handful of temporary barriers mark what I imagine to be the exit points of mystery vehicles, whose drivers have perhaps underestimated this marble-smooth asphalt at their peril.
The final peak of this stage is eventually conquered; the riviera and Nice Airport are visible in the distance as the road flicks back and forth down to the perfume capital of the world, Grasse. Our hotel for the next two nights is just to the South, in the surburb of Mouans-Sartoux. A small, villa-style building with a tranquil pool and not a single other guest to be seen. Perfect. Within minutes we’re by the water, my feet out of the Pilotis for a few hours, and a beer perched beside me as I type.
Once the tyres are cool they’ll be bled again, ready for the luggage-less drive to Monte Carlo tomorrow via the D3 and D2.
What’s that you say? Photos of supercars? I should coco…