Alps roadtrip – Days 4, 5 and 6

Day 4 – Grasse to Monte Carlo and back

Despite a phenomenal (in both taste and size) Calzone the night before at the charming ‘Le Vieux Four’ pizzeria in Mouans-Sartoux, I indulge myself at the breakfast buffet before the drive to Monte Carlo.

The French really know how to lay on a spread in the morning – cereals, bucket loads of bread, croissants, vienoisserie, cheese, ham, brioche, cake, fruit, yoghurt, and an endless variety of juice and coffee on tap. My selection consists of more-or-less all of the above – hoteliers generally regret adopting the ‘all you can eat’ principle when I come to stay…

I drop the pressure in the tyres once more (if you’re reading this thinking “I never even check my tyre pressure, let alone change it”, then you’re probably ruining both your ride and your rubber – change that habit immediately) before setting off on the mountain run to Monaco. Rather than drive down the A8 to the port, we opt for the ‘scenic’ D3 up and around to Coursegoules, followed by the D2 that runs South East from the village. North of Gourdon, the former becomes a terrific piece of road; long open curves play into the tightest of switchbacks and out again. Equally as good is the D603 that forks off to the North West up to Cipieres and Greolieres. You then swing directly East to Coursegoules, and down to the coast via the D2 (look for signs to the ‘Col de Vence’).

For the first few kilometres this is a good road, but for the eight or nine over the summit it is just superb – no surprise that this was the chosen location for evo’s ‘Enzo killers’ showdown with Nick Mason’s car.

Through Vence and there’s probably about 20 different ways down to Cagnes-sur-Mer thanks to the lattice of local roads South of the town. Joining the motorway, I’m mindful that this is a 100/110kmh stretch as opposed to the usual 110/130kmh limits on most other autoroutes to the North. You are constantly moving in and out of tunnels through the mountains, and the limit often drops to 90 or 70 depending on lanes being shut or work being carried out in the central reservation.

After the Tunnel de Monaco, traffic grinds to a snail’s pace. Entering the principality adds a quarter of an hour to the journey as we weave down to Avenue des Spelugues. Place du Casino is decidely empty this morning; a few Mercedes and BMWs, but not a supercar in sight. Our destination is the Fairmont Hotel on the famous hairpin of the Monaco Grand Prix. We leave the keys with a friendly valet who parks the car next to a Murcielago Roadster and a Marussia B1. We’re in good company.

The second best place to spot cars going up and down the hairpin turn is on the West side of the road, just up the first few sets of steps to the jardins above. There is a crescent-shaped balustrade here, perfect for sitting on with a zoom lens to hand.

But the best place to spot cars from is the seventh floor of the Fairmont, resting on the balcony of the sun deck around the pool. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where you can take a dip, then waddle a few yards over to your perch in bare feet and swimming trunks to snap some supercars with your SLR. There are a few key advantages to this position: 1) you will be bothered by absolutely nobody else when taking your photos, 2) you have prime position to spot the cars far earlier than anyone else, coming from both the North (Avenue des Spelugues) as well as from the South (driving out from the famous Grand Prix tunnel that runs under the hotel). It is also the only carspotting location in the world where the waiter-cum-lifeguard will bring drinks directly to your shooting position. Better re-mortgage your house before you come though, because even a cup of tea here is nine Euros.

I find myself having a chat to the French owner of a Ferrari 16M who is staying at the hotel. He’s heading off to the Casino, and despite it being only yards away, he insists that taking the car “will be worth it”. Shortly after he leaves, I spy the Enzo I barely caught earlier heading back down the hairpin. This turn the car turns right at the bottom of the hill into the Bretelle tunnel. The noise is deafening.

Dinner tonight is at the Quai des Artistes overlooking the harbour. There’s not much in Monaco that could be described as cheap, or even ‘reasonably-priced’ for that matter, but I have to admit that the food is spectacular. We head back to Mouans-Sartoux through the echoing tunnels of the motorway. A few eight cylinder motors that fly past us on the way obviously aren’t too worried about the Gendarmes tonight…

Day 5 – Grasse to Turin

With the car loaded up again, we set off on the next stage of our roadtrip across the Alps. Today is the drive from Grasse to Turin, not via the coast and the E717 North West to the city, but via the mountains above Monte Carlo instead. We head down to Le Cannet, then swing North East along the A8 until it bends North towards Carros. From here you take the D6202, then the D2565 up to La Bollene-Vesubie. Alternatively, go further along the A8 and take the D19 instead – it merges into the D2565 at Beringuier in any case.

From Le Puey onwards lies the Col de Turini (follow the D70, then take the left fork of the D2566 towards Moulinet/Sospel). At this junction you’ll find a larger open space that’s commonly used by car clubs as a rendez-vous – see this intrepid group of Mini owners courtesy of Google Street View. Before Moulinet it is a very different beast to the D3 and D2 of the day before. The hairpins are much more frequent, and generally at a tighter angle. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to build speed as you’ll be back on the brakes again before you know it. If you’ve done the other roads first, you’ll also be aware of the common blue-arrow-on-white-background chevrons that alert you to the impending switchbacks. Along the Col de Turini, these are few and far between – and don’t expect a warning sign before the turn either. A Sat Nav comes in handy here, if only to anticipate the severity of each hairpin before you tackle it.

From Moulinet the road opens up more, with some fantastic loose curves that lay themselves out for hundreds of metres ahead of you, affording a great view of (hopefully) the lack of cars coming the other way, and allowing you to maximise use of the asphalt. For me, this section of the road showed why it’s included on so many ‘best driving roads in the world’ lists. As with so many of the roads from the last few days of the trip, there’s great variety here, from the long open stretches to the narrow, twisty turns gaining as much as 40 or 50 metres in altitude at a time. This stage is broken up by lunch in the charming town of Sospel – its small square overlooking the river is crowded with motorbikes of all shapes and sizes. Whilst we rarely encounter another car along the Col, the roads are incredibly popular with those on two wheels, motorised or not.

From Sospel, we follow the road that leads North East for the first kilometre, then heads North, and North East again to finally join the larger road at Breil-sur-Roya. The route here now runs virtually parallel to the train line all the way to the Italian border, passing through Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende and Tende itself. The road here varies from narrow passes slicing through tunnels in the rocks to much wider, open passes with three lanes across. It’s a great road to drive, and the scenery is spectacular. We finally reach the border and the 3.2km tunnel. Be prepared for a long engine-off period here – we had a 15 minute wait for the green light!.

The first stint of driving in Italy doesn’t bode well. There is a blanket 50kmh limit for the first stretch, along roads that the French would have stuck a 90 sign on, and the driver in front of me drops to barely-moving speed at the first sign of a bend, so it’s incredibly slow-going. But once we find a stretch of autostrada, all that changes – I’m amazed at how smooth, flat and long the stretches of motorway are. Unlike France where the locals seemed to err under the limit, the Italians seem to be particularly fond of keeping their cars in fifth or sixth at around 160kmh. I once heard someone describe the Italian style of driving as “get there first, or don’t bother getting there at all” – during this stretch I find no evidence to contradict that.

Within no time we are in sight of Turin; hilltop villas glistening like jewels in the sun as we approach the city. If you can remember how bad the traffic got in The Italian Job, visiting Turin for real won’t disappoint. It is manic. I’ve heard others talk about driving in Rome, and I’d imagine that this is about the same. Cars everywhere, multiple lanes of traffic that run alongside the main streets, turnings with unclear markings, sporadic ZTL areas that you can’t drive down without special permits, and horn-bashing a-plenty. Until now I’d loved every minute of our trip, but purely from a driving point-of-view, I wanted to leave this city as soon as possible.

Fortunately, the experience on foot here is fantastic. Vast piazzas around every corner, tiny alleys housing stunning cafes and shops, and superb outdoor restaurants that cater for every taste. We choose an establishment on the impressive Piazza San Carlos, the entrance to which is marked by two imposing churches on the Southern side. A super bottle of wine and a delcious risotto milanese are a great way to round off the day.

Day 6 – Turin: Egypt, espresso and the world’s best chocolate

It’s our first morning in Italy, and whilst the coffee is hand-crafted in front of you by a barrista rather than a machine, the food is considerably less substantial than that in France. Croissants, toast, jam and fruit juice is about all that’s on offer here. Nevertheless, it’s incredibly tasty, and we head out into town on foot in search of artefacts from North Africa and – apparently – the best chocolates on the face of the Earth.

After a walk to see more of the city and enjoy the low morning sun – where I spot my first Lamborghini in Italy, a tractor! – the first stop is the ‘Museo Egizio’. With the second largest collection outside of Cairo, this is an amazing treasure trove to explore. The top floor is smaller pieces, whilst the ground floor is turned into a hall of statues – a dark room with spots on the 20ft high figures, it’s a striking display. Entry for two is just 15 Euros – hugely recommended if you’re visiting Turin in the future.

Just yards away from the museum entrance, at Via Lagrange 1, lies the ‘Guido Gobino’ Cioccolateria. named after the son of Giuseppe Gobino, the man responsible for turning the 1940s chocolate ‘laboratory’ into the boutique producer that it is today. You can sit outside for coffee (which all come with various chocolates to taste, natch), or venture into the back of the shop where the air-conditioned tasting rooms lie. I won’t describe the experience here in too much detail, lest you dehydrate due to excessive salivation, but ‘spectacular’ would be an understatement.

NB. If you’re looking for the shop along the road, make sure you check the windows at the front – ‘Guido Gobino’ is in gold stencilled text on the glass, and not across the banner name above the door as you’d expect.

After buying my own body weight in cocoa butter, we head off to explore other restaurants for dinner later. Despite some promising offers, several other squares seem to be hosting some sort of drum’n’bass competition, so we decide to go back to San Carlos again. Other items on the menu are equally as impressive as the night before. We grab gelato in a cone on the walk back to the hotel instead of ordering dessert. Remember when an ice cream in the UK cost 99p? It still does here.

What lies ahead on Day 7: the drive to Maranello via the coast and the moutain roads from La Spezia and Abetone.

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