Day 2--Briancon to Cannes
(This is the second installment of a travelogue covering CNET editor Wayne Cunningham's travels through the French Alps in a Mini Cooper Clubman. For the first installment,.)
During checkout, the kindly hotelier at Mont-Dauphin advised me to stop at Saint-Veran, claiming it was the highest village in Europe. So I decided to take this 20-mile side trip on the way to Cannes. Who wouldn't want to look at the highest village in Europe? But the previous night, wanting to take another crack at the music problem, I loaded up a USB drive with MP3s, figuring the USB port in the car must be good for something.
It was easy to find Saint-Veran on the Garmin, so I didn't bother with the Mini's nav. The USB stick fit comfortably into its port in the car, but the Aux source still showed blank. At least, until I figured out how to change the selection under Aux to USB. Ah, so maybe the iPhone would have worked after all.
With a selection of music going strong from the Mini's speakers, I followed the Garmin. The route led through a narrow river gorge, over an excellent road for the Mini. Again, the handling over twisty roads made for a fun time, and the six-speed manual's smooth shifts were equally enjoyable.
At times the road, carved into the side of a cliff, narrowed, requiring a careful watch for oncoming traffic. At some spots, I waited at the wide spot in the road while another car finished traversing the one-lane section. The road climbed up switchbacks, until it cut across a snow-covered hillside.
But after passing through another small ski town, the road ended in a parking lot, a sign noting that Saint-Veran was farther up an impassable snow-covered road. Lacking snowshoes, I would not see the town. And that didn't really matter, as later research showed it didn't even make the list for highest town in France. But the drive was reward enough, especially as I was anticipating a boring route over A roads down to Cannes.
As the Mini showed a quarter tank, I set about looking for a gas station. And here's where panic started to set in. The first station was only attended by a card machine, a machine that didn't like my U.S. credit cards. OK, drive on. Another, bigger station again proved unattended by all but a card machine. And again, no luck. Finally, farther down the road, I found a gas station with a mini-mart attached, and no card readers. A real live person could be paid in cash. But, alas, the sign on the door said closed at 1 p.m., open again at 4 p.m., Sunday hours.
OK, drive on. There had to be a big gas station off one of those major routes I was anticipating. I programmed both the Garmin and the Mini with the Cannes hotel address. In a little lake town, Savines-le-Lac, they began to disagree. I chose to trust the Garmin, which took me up a hill, and farther up to what looked more and more like a deserted road. Then the low-fuel warning flashed on.
A U-turn later, and back in Savines-le-Lac, finally, I found an actual, open gas station, with a person on duty and everything. At a cost of about 50 euro, maybe $80 U.S., the Mini was again maxed out on range. With these prices, things like a non-turbo, small-displacement engine with a start/stop system make sense.
The nav systems were still in harsh disagreement. I opted to go with the Mini, following its directions over a bridge, along a two-lane highway that quickly became congested. The Garmin urged an exit. I had a full tank of gas. Let's explore.
Following the Garmin's route, I was treated to excellent scenery, a mountain road running high above Lac de Serre-Poncon. It twisted and wound, and traffic was light. Good Garmin. After some miles, the Mini's nav fell into line. Good Mini.
But after more agreeable driving, in Les Thuiles, the nav systems again argued. Trusting the Garmin, I followed its directions east, on a road that barely deserved the name. It cut along the side of a gorge, and was so consistently narrow, filled with debris fallen from the cliffside, that the pace slowed to 25 mph.
Given the late hour, I turned around and followed the Mini's advice. It brought me to another A road, with speeds again up to 130 kmh. After traveling this way for a bit, the Garmin urging exit after exit, I finally succumbed to its siren song. After all, it did find that beautiful view over the lake. Germane to the decision was that the two nav systems registered similar estimated times of arrival.
The Garmin brought me to a two-lane highway. Generally limited to 90 kmh, about 55 mph, with speeds down to 50 kmh through towns, it was much prettier than the A road. But all along the way, the Mini's voice prompt kept insisting I exit, so eventually I turned it off. The Garmin's route looked good, and I was reassured by the road signs that said I was heading toward Cannes.
Little did I know that it had led me onto the most spectacular road so far, the Route Napoleon. This two-lane highway switchbacks up and over mountain after mountain, then winds through valley after valley. It was completely beautiful, and completely fun. The general speed limit is 90 kmh, but that is really too fast for much of this road, meaning you can challenge yourself on the curves without breaking the law.
And it was obvious the French know this road well, as Porsches, Audis, the occasional Subaru, and motorcycles slewed through the turns. The Mini was a little underpowered for that type of action, but still a trooper in the switchbacks. To make things more exciting, the occasional vintage Range Rover plodded along, acting as a mobile chicane. Passing seems to be allowed just about anywhere, on a straightaway, up a hill, or into a blind corner. Be prudent, as signs along the route say.
Muted, the Mini's navigation had taken to flashing graphic directions on the screen, urging a different route. But finally, well along the Route Napoleon, it acquiesced. The twistiness went on for what felt like hundreds of kilometers. According to Wikipedia, the whole thing runs 325 kilometers, and I drove about half of it.
At its end, there was a trek down the ridiculously narrow and congested streets of Grasse, the town on the hillside above Cannes. Into Cannes I went, through wider streets and a big boulevard, and with another day's driving down, both GPSes successfully bringing me to the hotel, even among the densely packed buildings and non-grid-patterned streets.