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David Cicconi

Photo: David Cicconi

A bedtime Cognac and a good night's rest had eased any aching car-bound muscles by the next morning. With renewed energy, we made our pilgrimage to France's National Museum of the Automobile, whose 420 cars span automotive history, beginning with an 1878 Jacquot steamer. Founded by the unfortunately named industrialist Fritz Schlumpf in 1964, the museum was rebuilt from the chassis up and reopened in 2000. Its Bugattis, Rolls-Royces, Peugeots, and Panhard & Levassors, elegantly displayed and appropriately lit as works of art, assume an iconic quality; reverential patrons speak in hushed tones, as if in church, while they stroll the "streets" lined with faux gaslights.

But there was nothing reverential about the way we plowed out of Mulhouse that morning—we still had to log about 250 miles of mountain driving to reach Évian-les-Bains, our stop for the night. Two hours later, in the green deeps of the Jura range, we arrived at Ornans, called "the little Venice of the Franche-Comté" because of the ancient houses whose foundations crowd the banks of the Loue River. The village and its surroundings are familiar to fans of Realist painter Gustave Courbet, born here in 1819.

We stopped just long enough to take in the scenery (and a lunch of trout, freshly plucked from the river). Then we continued into the Loue Valley, coming finally to the stream's source, near Mouthiers. Europeans are fond of visiting the sources of their rivers, and the Loue was no exception: several dozen visitors were milling about. The water spews from the base of a 300-foot-high limestone escarpment, then cascades into a pool beneath a moldering 19th-century stone bridge. The scene, so full of country charm, would make for a shamefully saccharine painting, but in reality its beauty was hypnotic.

The shortest route to Évian-les-Bains leads down the south slope of the Jura into Switzerland, through Lausanne, to the south shore of Lake Geneva. As we passed the Vevey-Montreux buckle of Lake Geneva's money belt, the Savoy Alps reared in the distance, towering over the towns on the French side of the lake. Sleek boats filled the yacht basin; flowers of every color festooned roadside planters and chalet window boxes. We rounded a bend in the heart of Montreux to see a fountain suddenly geyser skyward.

Considering our surroundings, it seemed entirely appropriate to splurge on rooms at the Hôtel Royal in the slightly stodgy spa town of Évian-les-Bains. The gardens around this buttermilk-hued château aren't manicured so much as sculpted. The Belle Époque hotel was built in 1909 to honor Britain's high-living highness, Edward VII, who the developers hoped would visit—bringing a trail of social-climbing aristocrats in his wake.

Everyone on staff was friendly and gracious, from the receptionist who chatted amiably as we checked in, to the smiling waitress who answered my cocktail order with a giggly "Tout de suite, monsieur!" The view from the Royal's terrace spread nearly from one end of the 45-mile-long dolphin-shaped lake to the other, overhung with a darkening sky as big as all of France—and Switzerland too.

On the third and final day of our race to Monaco, we took inspiration from the Coupe des Alpes, the famous road rally in which fearless drivers and their navigators speed over Alpine passes en route to the Côte d'Azur from their starting point in Évian. We left Évian after a quick café au lait in the old part of town and made our way through a series of gorges, the northernmost segment of the dramatic Route des Grandes Alpes. Here were the true Alps—peaks covered in snow year-round, lively Swiss-style towns devoted to hiking and skiing, folds in the mountainsides that rarely catch a glimpse of sun. Coming out of a valley at Cluses, a major crossroads, I realized that the slow and winding Route des Grandes Alpes would require more time to drive than we had, so we agreed to detour to the A40 motorway.

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