Day 1--Geneva to Briancon
The maid pounded on the door, an early morning wake-up call. Well, not so early, as post-show jet lag had kicked in and I was sound asleep at 10:30 am. I had locked myself in the room for three straight days to write about the 2011 Geneva auto show, but made a quick exit, loading up a new Mini Cooper Clubman loaned by BMW for a French Alpine tour.
The car was similar to the U.S. version, a Cooper without the S, meaning a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Given a choice, I would have opted for the turbocharged S, but as I found out later, the price of gasoline in Europe would have made me regret it. Happily, this car came with a six-speed manual, which shouldn't be unexpected in Europe. And as a special treat, it was the first Mini I've driven that came equipped with navigation.
The Clubman has the rear ambulance doors, as Mini calls them, and is longer than a standard Mini Cooper. But putting my one 22-inch rollie in back, I found it wasn't what I would call a generous amount of cargo space. My suitcase fit, but another one wouldn't have.
Getting from Geneva to Briancon, a small Alpine fortress town the French had previously used to defend against marauding Italians, could take about 3 hours, if one were merely to follow the major roads, the A roads, in European parlance. But I was in it for adventure, so the night before I tweaked the route on Google Maps, making it favor mountain roads that zigged and zagged.
Although the Mini Clubman had navigation, I also brought a Garmin Nuvi 1690 loaded with a European map SD card. To make it give me a more interesting route, I programmed waypoints suggested by my Google Maps research: the little towns of Entremont and Seez, which were decidedly not on the direct route to Briancon.
With the Nuvi 1690 clamped to the windshield, I programmed the first town, Entremont, into the Mini's navigation as well. Although the Mini's simple interface was easy to use, the quality of the maps was disappointing. Filling up the big pie-plate speedometer, the screen showed jagged roads in rough perspective. As the nav system worked, the whirring of a DVD was audible.
But in a confidence-building result, the onboard system and the Garmin agreed on the route. Good so far. Having plugged my iPhone cable into the car's USB port, I hit the Aux source for audio, but was met with a blank screen. Nope, no iPod integration. Not so good so far. My driving soundtrack would be French radio fading in and out as I trekked through the mountains.
Eager for some twisty roads to flex the Clubman's muscles on, I followed the route recommended by the nav system and the Garmin, and soon found myself on a crowded multilane highway. The Mini's nav was good enough to advise me of traffic up ahead, but could offer no detour.
In this heavy, stop-and-go traffic, the Mini's start/stop system came into play. As traffic was held up for minutes at a time, I sat there in neutral, one foot on the brake, and the engine shut down. Besides the zeroed tach needle, an indicator in the middle of the tachometer said the idle stop system was activated. Hitting the clutch brought the engine back to life.
Using an idle stop system requires a little bit of forecasting. If traffic is only going to stop for a few seconds, keep the clutch in, which will keep the engine going. If it's a long standstill, pop it in neutral. But the idle stop system goes beyond mere traffic-stop shutdowns. Stopping for some photo opps, I pulled the emergency brake and stepped out of the car. The engine idle-stopped. But when it was time to get back under way, the engine would not start up at the mere press of the clutch. It wanted a full hit of the engine start button.
Coasting down a hill in neutral, the engine stays on, idle stop sensing the speed of the car. But here's where it fails. Creeping downhill in traffic at speeds of around 1 mile per hour, in neutral, the engine decides it's time to idle-stop. Fine, but then the engine decides to stay stopped, the clutch not reactivating it. There's a fun, panicked moment when the honking starts and I figure out, oh, yeah, hit the engine start button again.
Back to the traffic: the cause was soon revealed as a toll booth. Neither the Garmin nor the Mini's nav had brought up a warning about it, but the previous night's Google Maps exploration had said something about toll roads on the route. A 2-euro coin in the slot and I continued on my way, the traffic congestion completely alleviated after the toll booth.
And, finally, the fun began. Off the exit to Entremont, I was on just the kind of two-lane mountain road the Mini was built for. Even in lengthy Clubman style, it showed its kart handling on the curves. And there were plenty of curves. The excitement was made more exciting by the fact of narrow European roads and the fact of no shoulders and the fact of guard rails consisting of low stone walls laid down in, I'm guessing, the 16th century.
Weekend traffic kept speeds moderately fun, but the scenery was something else. Snow-covered peaks shot up to the right and left, in front and in back. Traffic slowed down to a crawl in little ski towns along the route. In one spot, dog sleds paralleled the traffic on the road.
At Entremont, I programmed in the next waypoint, a town called Seez. The Garmin's and the Mini's navigation stayed in sync, giving the same directions on which exit to take out of each roundabout along the way. Until, in one valley, the Garmin said go north and the Mini said south. I gave the Mini the benefit of the doubt, this being its native continent. The Garmin quickly adjusted, as either direction would have worked.
And both brought me to the quiet, picturesque little Alpine town of Beaufort. Passing through, the route climbed up a narrow gorge that rarely sees full sunlight. And here, a sign topping a mound of dirty snow blocked the road, saying, "Road closed to any vehicles in winter time." March 5 still rates as winter, a concept on which Californians like me are not all that clear.
Doubling back, I decided Seez was out of the question, so hit both nav systems with Briancon. Both said go south. Both said follow more Alpine valley roads. Both led up and down hills traversed by switchback roads, a little extra good time for the Mini. Then both nav systems directed me to another big, multilane conduit.
This route took me through some of the famous Alpine tunnels. Speed limits went up to 130 kmh, or 80 mph in U.S. terms. The Mini easily kept up, its sixth gear coming into play for long stretches. But ascents challenged the small engine, calling for a downshift to greater rpms.
And after a short while I was in Italy, and confronted with a new toll booth, this one demanding 36 euro, more than 50 dollars, to go through another tunnel. But this was a long, long tunnel. Two lanes, not really divided, just a wide piece of pavement between. There is little more boring than driving through a long tunnel, obeying the 70 kmh speed limit, wondering when the whole thing will end. It was somewhere close to 10 kilometers, I believe.
Finally through, the major highway continued, passing along the sides of gorges. Until the navigation systems, both of them, said it was time to get off that major road and back onto a narrow little switchbacked road, going up, over a mountain, and through yet another little ski town, behind a big tour bus most of the way, so slow going.
Descending the other side of the mountain, at each switchback I was treated to the sight of Briancon, way down in the valley below. This town is marked by a fortress sitting on a bluff, a position that looks as if no invading force could take it. At least in the age of cannon and muskets. A substantial tourist town spreads out below the fortress, keeping its solitude to a minimum.
However, this was not really my final destination. After a stop in the town, I programmed my actual hotel into the navigation systems, which was some 15 miles away. Down through a valley, going through small towns the buildings of which, built when horses were a primary means of transport, squeeze in on both sides of the road, there is another fortification, that of Mont-Dauphin.
It sits on an escarpment overlooking the valley and the main road. I followed a twisting, winding side route to the back of the escarpment, the only means of access, and the entrance to the fort. As I drove the Mini to the main gate, wide enough for just one car, I was more than delighted to find that my hotel was in a fort that actually had a moat. The stone bridge leading across it gave way to a shorter wood section, a drawbridge in former days.
The Mont-Dauphin fort, built by the Marquis de Vauban, an engineer who built many strongholds around France in the 1600s, including Briancon, is large, designed to hold a military garrison and civilian population. It holds a few hotels and restaurants all in the original buildings, and is a stunning place.
I put the Mini to bed, looking forward to the next day's driving down to Cannes.