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David Cicconi

Photo: David Cicconi

French motorways are built for speed, and I make it a practice to follow the local customs whenever possible. At least, that's how I jokingly rationalized my effort that day to set a personal land-speed record on the highway between Chambéry and Grenoble. The sun, high overhead, was bright but not glaring. The motorway was straight and flat. There were no other cars within miles. Conditions were perfect.

I increased my speed gradually and eyed my driving companion. But other than a single sideways glance at the speedometer, David kept his cool magnificently. In fact, I was more impressed by his sangfroid than I was by my rapidly accelerating speed—105, 110, 115. At last, with my heart racing as fast as the engine, I saw the dashboard arrow reach 125 mph. I exhaled victoriously and lifted my foot from the pedal. My arms, which had been fine until then, began to shake, even as we slowed to a piffling 100 mph.

"Well," David said, "that really cleared my sinuses."

We left the motorway in Grenoble to join the N85, the Route Napoléon, which the Little Corporal followed when he returned from exile in 1815, hoping to regain power. In French lore the road has achieved a mythic quality that is heightened by its rugged isolation in the Alpes-Maritimes. But before we could find the route's northern terminus in Grenoble, we became utterly turned around. Even trusty Josephine seemed confused.

"She's pointing us back the way we came!" I protested.

"Maybe there's a reason she wants us to go back," David said. "Maybe she's trying to . . . tell us something."

At which point I switched off the navigation system, and for the rest of the day kept a nervous eye on my traveling companion.

The N85 en route to Grasse is as twisty as a geometry student's french curve, frequently bounded by steep stone walls, and crossed by rock arches. After several more hours of muscle-straining hairpins and blind curves we reached the coast and, with some relief, followed the A8 autoroute the last few miles into the tiny principality of Monaco. We took rooms at the new Columbus Monaco, created by Scottish hotelier Ken McCulloch and partly owned by Formula One driver David Coulthard. Set on a quiet street in the Fontvieille quarter near the Princess Grace Rose Garden, the Columbus may appear to be just another self-consciously hip hotel, but the rooms' dark leather-and-wood furniture and gray-blue walls make for a warm and comfortable atmosphere—just the place to relax after more than 12 hours on the road.

In the morning, we drove to the starting line of the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix—a 2.1-mile route through the heart of Monte Carlo. Our goal: to discover why it's considered the toughest track on the Grand Prix circuit. It turns out that the streets are barely wide enough for two normal-sized cars—in fact, the two tightest turns have room for only one car. The second, at the Quai Antoine 1er, is a U-turn so sharp I could walk it faster than drive it. As David and I followed the circuit past the Hôtel de Paris and the Casino, we wondered how anyone in the lead could possibly lose the race, since it was next to impossible for one car to pass another.

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