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Smart Car Convertible

But our beach buggy proved too hard to resist. Off we buzzed along the coast: top down, sunshine rushing in, radio blasting Italian disco. I even worked up the nerve to try the autoroute, France's superhighway. The Smart didn't shake too much at top speed, though we did have to shout above the engine's roar.

After a while, I began to suspect that the gas gauge was broken: Why wasn't the needle going down?In the end, we stopped only once to fill the seven-gallon tank. Yet we covered plenty of ground—400 miles in all—from the far reaches of Cap Ferrat and Cap Martin to the lemon-grove hills above Menton, the most Italian of the Riviera towns. We went even farther than planned, making the trek up to St.-Paul-de-Vence to see the Mirós and Giacomettis at the Fondation Maeght, the magnificent, free-form museum and sculpture garden where indoors and out seamlessly merge. We explored the dizzying heights of the Grande Corniche, pulling over at every turnoff for a Mediterranean vista that was even more dramatic than the last.

And, of course, we had to go to Monaco. There was something irresistible about driving such a defiantly small, eco-friendly car into the world capital of excess.

Monaco has no tangible border; we knew we'd arrived only when we spotted a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow with a satellite dish on the roof. That, and the high-rise buildings balanced precariously on steep hillsides. There's barely any room left for new construction in this three-mile-wide kingdom, and even less room for automobiles. But this hasn't stopped residents and visitors from piloting their 20-foot luxury whales down Monaco's maddeningly twisted streets: we watched a fat cat in a Humvee attempt a simple left turn (the whole procedure took several minutes as he inched back and forth a dozen times). Forget Fahrvergnügen—this was pure schadenfreude.

In such frustrating traffic, we were glad to have the car, since it took us to neighborhoods we might not have explored on foot (Monaco's absurdly steep hills make walking a drag). There were the quiet residential streets of Beausoleil, high above Monte Carlo, with ocher Belle Époque façades, carved lampposts, and geranium-filled window boxes. The outdoor market in Condamine, with its brilliant flowers and produce, felt more suited to a country village. After Monte Carlo's polish and pretense, the salty air along the wharfs was refreshing.

While other drivers were forced to park in Monaco's countless subterranean garages—sometimes Monaco seems like one big garage with a country on top—we were always able to wedge into a free space on the street. Good thing, too, since finding your way out of those underground lots is a chore.

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