Travels with tech: After the Geneva auto show (final)

CNET editor Wayne Cunningham takes a road trip through France in a Mini Cooper Clubman.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
6 min read
Wayne Cunningham/CNET
Mini Cooper Clubman
The Mini Cooper Clubman kept good company at this little hotel in Cannes. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Day 3 - Cannes to Grenoble

(This is the third installment of a travelogue covering CNET editor Wayne Cunningham's travels through the French Alps in a Mini Cooper Clubman. For the first installment, click here. For the second, click here.)

My computer needs an enema. After five years of hard use, it starts up slow and takes even longer to connect to Wi-Fi. In the Cannes hotel, the connection bounced on and off so much that it qualified for the NBA.

The view over Cannes. (Click to enlarge.) Wayne Cunningham/CNET

During the times that I did have a connection, I was able to plot the next day's route. Ultimately, I would end up in Grenoble, a city just south of Geneva. But I had heard of the Gorges de Verdon, sometimes referred to as the Grand Canyon of Europe, so thought it worth a stop. The Garmin listed a few different locations under the Attractions category for Gorges de Verdon, so I picked on and looked at the route.

No good, as the route went through about 15 miles of Cannes/Grasse urban sprawl. The traffic in Cannes is heavier than in New York, with narrower streets that follow no logical pattern. The only good thing that can be said about the traffic is there are few taxi drivers. But that doesn't really matter, as the locals drive like New York City taxi drivers. Hence, minimize the city driving.

However, Google maps showed a town called Aiguines just to the west of the Gorges de Verdon site. Entered into the Garmin, and the route looks a lot better, quickly getting onto major roads, then, well clear of urbanity, climbing north on what looked like enjoyable country roads. And from Aiguines to Grenoble looked like a quick jog over to another big A road. The route was programmed.

Before taking off, I tried the iPhone in the car's USB slot. No luck, the Mini's stereo wouldn't read it. Back to the USB drive which, with almost 4GB of music, should hold out.

Garmin  1690
The Garmin's windshield clamp often picked inopportune times to fall off. (Click to enlarge.) Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Getting onto the A8 out of Cannes proved interesting. No simple cloverleaf here. Instead, a roundabout, then a long turn east, followed by another turn west, and through a toll booth, the highlighted route on the Garmin winding around on itself until it was just a smudge on the screen. But soon the Mini was cruising easily down the A8 at 110, then 130 kmh, sixth gear minimizing fuel use and proving adequate to keep up with and pass traffic.

Construction zones shut off one of the three lanes here and there. Everything seems to be under construction in Europe. And the Garmin counted down the miles until the exit. I had not programmed the Mini's navigation system, mostly because I could not remember how to spell Aiguines.

And while negotiating the traffic through yet another construction zone, the exit passed by on the right. Damn. In the U.S., this instance would merely entail going a few more miles to another exit, then taking a cloverleaf or other means of turning around. But no, not on a French toll road. The exits are few and far between, and it was another 30 miles or so before I was allowed to leave the A8.

Mini Cooper Clubman
A sign, but no sign of the French army. (Click to enlarge.) Wayne Cunningham/CNET

But the navigation didn't have a problem with it, pointing out another road north. And here the driving was good. A rural two-lane road swept through vineyard-covered valleys. Little villages along the way squeezed the road down. It was much like wine country in California.

Content with the Garmin's advice, I enjoyed the roads, which got more and more deserted. Traversing a scrubby hillside leading up to distant mountains, signs on the side of the roadway said "Terrain Militaire." Oh great, I was driving through a bombing range.

The lack of explosions suggested the French army was on vacation, so I continued driving, exercising the Mini through turn after turn, some broad sweepers, some tight switchbacks. It was clear and dry, excellent driving weather.

And then, over a ridge, suddenly a vista laid bare, Lac de St. Croix, a large body of water in a low valley among high mountains. The view was spectacular and the road lead high above the valley to Aiguines, an ancient little town. Here I set for the second leg of the trip, deciding to let the Mini have its say to, programming Grenoble into its nav system.

Lac de St. Croix
Lac de St. Croix caught me by surprise. (Click to enlarge.) Wayne Cunningham/CNET

I missed most of the spectacle that is Gorges de Verdon, just catching the end of it, which leads out into the valley of Lac de St. Croix. But being a little unsure of the timing to Grenoble, cut out any further side tripping.

Both nav systems were in perfect agreement about routing around the top of the lake, which lead to some more fantastic driving on curvy, country roads with few other cars in sight. And both nav systems decided that a little road called the D8 was the right way to get to Grenoble. After driving it for a few miles, I began to have my doubts.

This little road, although well-paved, was just one lane. It went through farm country, then wound its way up and down mountains and through valleys. The scenery was spectacular, but the driving less so. With so many blind turns, and so much of the road lacking any place to pull off, I had no idea what I was going to do if a car came the opposite way. It was not a road on which you could confidently drive fast.

But it had been nicely kept up, complete with freshly painted stone markers with its D8 designation. And fortunately the only other traffic I encountered was a lone bicyclist going in the opposite direction. Finally this tiny road came down another hillside and led to a roundabout, which had an exit to the A51, a toll road that I was happy to take.

After 50 miles of 100+ kmh driving, the nav systems and the signs pointed out an exit, the road to Grenoble. This last segment was some 60 miles of two-lane highway, eschewing the valley below and sticking to the hillsides. As the main route to Grenoble from the south, it played host to all sorts of cars and trucks, including tractor trailer rigs with three rear axles that could only manage 35 mph or so on this twisty highway.

The D8
The French consider this road a regular highway. (Click to enlarge.) Wayne Cunningham/CNET

If you are going to maintain a city of about 500,000 people, the capital of its region, it seems that there should be a set of larger roads in. While the route from the south went through more impressive scenery, most of the time I was just frustrated with the traffic ahead. As for passing, well, you can do that just about anywhere, even on blind corners, which this route has in abundance.

But this last bit of frustration ended and, with only 80 more miles to go the next day for Geneva, so does this account. The Mini Cooper Clubman proved its worth on this trip, just about the best car for the variety of roads driven. A Cooper S, with its extra power, would have been more fun, but I shudder to think of the cost of fuel for the trip, and the trouble finding places to fill up.

The handling and the size of the car were perfect for negotiating the dense urban areas and the tiny, tiny mountain roads. It contributed to quite a bit of fun, especially on roads like the Route Napoleon. You would plan a vacation around driving that road alone.

The Mini's navigation system is a little slow when it churns away at the map DVD, and the resolution isn't particularly good, but it got the job done. Traveling through unfamiliar territory such as this, having the Garmin along as well was reassuring.

Parting words on planning a road trip in France: be prepared to spend a lot of money on tolls and gas. Carry a couple hundred Euro cash, as some more-rural areas have trouble with U.S. credit cards. Allocate time in each day's driving to explore and get lost, and don't be afraid to leave the A roads. Especially in the Alps region, there are so many spectacular vistas to stumble on. And generally expect that roads will be narrower than in the U.S., so leave the giant SUV at home.

Read about Day 1.

Read about Day 2.