Speeding from Paris to Monte Carlo in the new Jaguar X-Type

David Cicconi
| Credit: David Cicconi

Shirley Bassey belted out her classic 007 song as we sped through the countryside. The sun was high. We were in France. Going fast. In a Jaguar.

"Bond drove a Jag in Goldfinger, you know," David said as Shirley continued to wail. Actually, Bond drove an Aston Martin DB5 in that movie, selecting it over a Jaguar 3.4 from the Secret Service motor pool—mainly because he liked the Aston's switcheroo license plates and hidden gun compartments. But I decided not to shatter David's illusions. He looked too comfortable in the passenger seat, spying on the vineyards of Champagne.

Navigator and photographer on this trip from Paris to Monte Carlo, David had Jaguars on his mind because of the car we were driving: the new X-Type, a smaller version of the manufacturer's popular S-Type sedan. The car sells for $29,950, making it the most affordable Jaguar ever built. Introduced to the U.S. market in August, it has beaucoup de comfort and loads of options: motorized seats that conform to your body; rain-sensing windshield wipers; an auto-dimming rearview mirror; a muscular 3.0-liter engine that can race from zero to 60 in 7.1 seconds; a 10-speaker sound system with six-disc CD changer . . . this car could just about drive itself.

Our favorite accessory of all, though, was the DVD-based satellite navigation system with seven-inch touch-screen display and a cooing female voice that spoke to us in French. We called her Josephine, but disagreed about the woman behind the dulcet tones. I said she was a Gallic earth mother—kind, comforting, endlessly patient; David insisted on saddling the voice with Sapphic properties, and wondered if she had a "hot girlfriend."

Our goal—which ironically cramped our natural inclinations to simply drive as far and as fast as we could—had to do with racing. Over the course of three days we'd head to Mulhouse, in Alsace, to see the world's largest automobile museum. We'd follow the route of the Coupe des Alpes road rally, in spirit if not mile for mile, from Évian-les-Bains to the south of France. Ending up in Monaco, we'd test the Jag on the 2.1-mile Monaco Formula One Grand Prix course through the heart of Monte Carlo.

And at some point during the trip, I promised myself, I would drive faster than I'd ever driven in my life. After all, what's the use of driving a Jag if you can't make good time?

"This doesn't even seem that fast," David said the first time the speedometer hit 100 mph. True, the ride was smooth, without a shimmy or shudder. But the French families blithely whizzing past in bulky Citroëns and the grandmères tailgating us in puny Renaults took some of the thrill out of our first triple-digit speed.

That first day was a blur of signs—pointing to World War I battlefields (Château-Thierry, Verdun), famous cathedrals (Reims), and Champagne caves (Épernay)—but we kept to the highway, hurtling onward. By the time we found our hotel in Mulhouse, it was past 10 o'clock.

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.

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.

As we drove the course, my mind wandered. In some ways, our three-day jaunt from Paris to Monaco was nothing more than a stunt, yet I felt as though I had accomplished something—if nothing more than proving to myself that driving 125 mph is stupid and scary and lots of fun. But we still had one final task: to return the Jag to Paris within 48 hours.

"We could drive up the A7 through Lyons," David said, turning our Michelin map book from side to side. "Or we could go through Italy and cut back into France near Chamonix. How do you want to do it?"

I leaned back in the driver's seat and gunned the engine. "Fast."

DAY 1 Take the A4 motorway from Paris past Reims, then the D994 and the N4 to Nancy for lunch at the Taverne de Maître Kanter (61 Rue Pierre Semard; 33-3/83-35-47-13; $27 for two), which specializes in Alsatian cuisine. In Mulhouse, the Hôtel du Parc (26 Rue de la Sinne; 800/223-5652 or 33-3/89-66-12-22, fax 33-3/89-66-42-44; www.hotelduparc-mulhouse.com; doubles from $118) is a four-star built in (and recently renovated in the style of) the 1930's.

DAY 2 Start with a visit to the Schlumpf Collection: National Museum of the Automobile (192 Ave. de Colmar, Mulhouse; 33-3/89-33-23-23; www.collection-schlumpf.com). Then take the A36 west to Besançon. Follow the N57 and D67 through the Loue Valley. Lunch at Le Courbet (34 Rue Pierre Vernier, Ornans; 33-3/81-62-10-15; $27 for two). The N57 becomes the Swiss N9, which goes all the way to Lake Geneva. End the day in Évian-les-Bains at the Hôtel Royal (33-4/50-26-85-00, fax 33-4/50-75-61-00; www.royalparcevian.com; doubles from $277) and dine at the hotel's La Véranda Rôtisserie ($96 for two).

DAY 3 Follow the D902 south from the lakeside town of Thonon-les-Bains. In Cluses, signs point to the A40 motorway, which leads to the southbound A41. Join the Route Napoléon and follow it to the sea; then take the A8 autoroute to Monaco. Sleep at the Hôtel Columbus Monaco (23 Ave. des Papalins; 377/92-05-90-00, fax 377/92-05-91-67; www.columbushotels.com; doubles from $230).

The Monaco Formula One Grand Prix is held the last weekend in May on the streets of Monte Carlo. You can buy a bleacher seat on the route ($40—$340) or pay several thousand dollars to rent a private terrace overlooking the circuit. Tickets go on sale as early as February; contact the Automobile Club of Monaco (377/93-15-26-00, fax 377/93-25-80-08; www.acm.mc). Unlike Grand Prix racing, the Coupe des Alpes and other road rallies aren't spectator sports. Car rallies range from speed contests to competitions that resemble scavenger hunts rather than wheel-burning races. To learn more, get in touch with the Sports Car Club of America (800/770-2055 or 303/694-7222, fax 303/694-7391; www.scca.org).