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The Grand Tour? We did our own - and so should you

Grand Tour road trip
Three mates, three cars, and the whole of France to explore Credit: Tom Begley

Even in today’s world of first-class flights and high-speed trains, the idea of the classic road trip is one dripping with glamour. Mention it, and immediately thoughts of piloting an Italian sports car through the Alps wanders into the mind, perhaps to the strains of some Puccini.

Or maybe attacking the Autobahn in a high-speed piece of German machinery is more your cup of tea, or crossing the USA from coast to coast.

It’s not a new concept, of course. In times past, young aristocrats would embark on a journey around Europe to broaden their horizons, from whence the term “Grand Tour” came. Messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May have adopted the name for their new TV show, which grew out of the road trip specials they came up with when at the helm of Top Gear.

Watching those shows might have had you idly daydreaming of such a trip – especially if you happen to have access to the perfect vehicle. But it need not end there. You too can enjoy the magnificent stretches of tarmac, the glorious scenery and the fantastic experiences that make such journeys so life-affirming without too much difficulty.

Up too early, and ready to leave on the Eurotunnel Credit: Tom Begley

Just across the channel and a day’s drive away, for example, lies a road officially classified as the N85. It’s better known as the Route Napoléon, and is famed among car and bike enthusiasts for taking in some of the most dramatic scenery – not to mention, some of the best hairpins, switchbacks and S-bends – in Europe.

It’s just one of a host of fabulous roads Europe has to offer, and most are within easy reach. In other words, it really isn’t that hard to turn that road trip dream into a reality.

To prove it, we decided to do it ourselves. “We” being a trio of friends with more than a passing interest in cars, a love of driving and a distinctly blokey relationship. Sound familiar?

Our convoy was idiosyncratic, to say the least. In the finest tradition of Jeremy Clarkson, my BMW 635CSi was, obviously, the best car for the job: a golden oldie with a touch of class but the legs for long-distance cruising and a fine six-pot engine to make the most of those mountain roads.

Three cars with three very different personalities Credit: Tom Begley

It was joined by Tom’s Renault Clio 172, a small, pugilistic hot hatch at the wheel of which you could imagine Richard Hammond, and George’s Jaguar XK Convertible, a wafty GT that’d be James May’s ideal choice. Probably.

I could try to unite these three with a common theme, à la old Top Gear, but frankly, I’d fail. Let’s go, quite simply, with “cars we happened to own when we had this idea”.

So we found ourselves setting off at the crack of dawn on a September Thursday, crossing the Channel swiftly on the Eurotunnel before cruising south. Even this part of the trip was a joy; a blissful high-speed schlep a world away from British motorways clogged by traffic and choked further by roadworks. 

It also gave me plenty of time to ponder the trip. Mixed in with the obvious excitement, there was, it’s fair to say, more than a hint of trepidation.

The BMW, my pride and joy, was 27 years old. How on earth would it take to sprinting up and down mountains? Would its brakes, its automatic gearbox, its slightly creaky suspension bushes hold out?

Cruising south in the BMW: soon to become a liability? Credit: Tom Begley

As we arrived in Grenoble for our first overnight stop, the signs were promising. The BMW was running beautifully, as were all the other cars. And, joy of joys, it even started first time the next morning, too.

The climb out of Grenoble was pretty, but hardly the stuff dreams were made of, leaving us to wonder whether this Route Napoléon malarkey was all just a big con. But then came wide, sweeping corners with dramatic vistas of mountains stretching away into the distance, and suddenly we started to understand what makes this part of France so special.

After passing through Gap and grabbing croissants from a local bakery for breakfast, we stopped for photos, posing against a fairly mediocre backdrop of suburban houses in a roadside parking area.

We immediately wished we hadn’t, though, as afterwards the road crossed the turquoise waters of Lac de Serre-Poncon and wound its way up through Savines-le-Lac and out along one of the most exceptional roads I’ve ever driven.

We’d opted to leave the N85 briefly, for between Gap and Digne it transforms into the unremarkable A51 motorway. Instead, we were hugging the coast of the lake, on a corniche which squirmed and wriggled its way along, a lushly forested slope on one side and the glistening lake on the other.

One of many (many) fuel stops Credit: Tom Begley

Our walkie-talkies went silent but for an occasional burst of lyrical exclamation as yet another impossible view hove into sight, or yet another unspoiled section of tarmac revealed itself. Ironically, just as we left the N85, we’d found one of the best roads of the trip so far, which just goes to show how easy it is to find such magnificent driving in these mountains.

As we wound our way south, the roads became narrower, and the traffic thicker. Here it was less easy to drive quickly, so we spent most of our time dawdling behind campers, happy to soak up the views, the sunshine and the endless, liquid sky.

In the village of Seyne, we stopped to grab pizza at a deserted café on the main square, watching what was left of the weekly market packing up and heading home, before pushing on to Digne, where we rejoined the N85 proper.

Now the road widened again, allowing us to press on. Sluggish campers, labouring up the hills, could be dispatched easily by all three of us on the open straights, allowing us to dive into the smooth, squiggly sections that follow.

The best road of the trip, south of Savines-le-Lac Credit: Tom Begley

The Clio was in its element here, having been built with precisely this kind of driving in mind. The Jaguar was holding its own, mind you, and the BMW was displaying a surprising turn of speed, rolling slightly before settling for each corner, its smooth, crisp steering allowing deft control of the line it was taking.

As we approached Castellane, the N85 turned into the D4085, but remained the Route Napoléon. We bimbled through the old town carefully, gazing up at the cracked plaster and fading paintwork of the tumbledown townhouses that line the centre, before kicking our heels as the road wound back once again into the mountains.

As we drove further south, the softly forested mountains gave way to Mediterranean conifers and craggy outcrops. Tamarisk and lavender wafted in on the hot summer breeze, mixed with acrid whiffs of hot tarmac – and hot brakes.

The BMW’s weight was, by now, starting to count against it, and in this hot weather the brakes felt distinctly less positive than they had done when we started. I was now rowing through the gearbox on downhill sections to get the engine doing some of the braking, and easing off uphill to give the discs enough time to cool.

All one needs for cross-continental motoring in a 1988 BMW Credit: Tom Begley

Just north of Grasse we stopped for fuel, and I surveyed my front wheels. No smoke yet – undoubtedly a good sign – but the delicate crossed spokes were covered in thick black dust, evidence that I would be going home with considerably less meat on my brake pads than I arrived with. A 20-minute break gave them a chance to cool off, and when we got going again the pedal felt considerably more solid, prompting a wave of relief.  

Around one of the next bends we were stunned by the sight of a prison, perched high up on the mountain slope. We tiptoed past beneath it, thinking how taunting it must feel to be incarcerated here, with this weather and this landscape, but unable to enjoy it freely.

By now the landscape was wide and open; the mountains giving way to wide open plains and, to the south, smaller hilltops that rolled away to the sea. We were taking it easy now, wafting lazily along in the late afternoon heat rather than hustling the cars through each bend. A cold beer sounded about right just then – but there are still miles to cover.

As we entered Grasse, we joined the tail of a traffic queue that seemed to occupy most of the town centre. By now, of course, it was home time on a Friday afternoon, and the romance of the Route had given way sharply to the drudgery of the evening commute.

We had had worse days than these Credit: Tom Begley

From here, it was a simple run down a dual carriageway to Cannes, and then on up a section of autoroute to our overnight stop – and that cold beer – in Nice. By the time we arrived, we’d been on the road for over six hours; a quite staggering amount of time to cover 169 miles.

But they had been 169 of the best miles of my life. And though we ventured into Italy next, and then back across the Alps toward Annecy before the motorway cruise home, they weren’t bettered.

The BMW made it home without giving any real trouble, as indeed did all three cars, proving that no matter what you drive, this sort of trip is perfectly achievable. And that, if you ever fancied a Clarkson-esque road trip, there should be nothing to stop you.

There you have it. These places sit on our doorstep, just a day’s drive away, barely spoiled and rich in culture. They also play host to some of the best driving roads in the world. Experience them while you still can, before autonomy takes over and it becomes illegal to drive ourselves. The time has never been better to indulge in your own Grand Tour.

Thanks to Eurotunnel for providing the channel crossings for this trip.

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