Route Napoleon

Phil Llewellin
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Route Napoleon
0410 Gd Map 445

The French Riviera has been fashionable since the end of the nineteenth century, when toffs from Europe and America were first seduced by mild winters, classy casinos, and a relaxed attitude toward extramarital relationships that appealed to such major-league philanderers as the British prince who became Edward VII. But progress is a two-edged sword. Photographs reveal how beautiful old towns and picturesque Mediterranean fishing ports have been replaced by high-rise ugliness. I knew a feisty lady who left Monte Carlo because of what "that dreadful little man Prince Rainier" had allowed to happen to his tiny realm.

But beyond the tasteless crust, which is only a few miles thick, scrumptious roads wriggle into the mountains. One of my favorite drives starts after a leisurely breakfast at the Chteau du Domaine St-Martin in Vence, a few minutes from Nice. The ritzy hotel's charm is enhanced by spectacular views of the coast.

You turn left out of the gate onto the D2, a spellbinding road that zigzags across a rocky landscape to the Col du Vence, climbing 2000 feet in six magical miles. Steep gradients make it good to be driving a car that has grunt as well as grip. My most recent mount was Aston Martin's delectable DB9, which gets about as close as possible to reconciling affordable with supercar. The first fruit of chief executive Ulrich Bez's determination to make Aston Martin a truly great marque lives up to its beautiful, purposeful appearance. Ferrari's visually flawed 612 Scaglietti delivers even more power and slightly more space, but I would buy the DB9 and save a boatload of bucks.

The road becomes even more spectacular beyond Grolires, threading its way through short tunnels blasted from the mountain's flank. Two senses get titillated here as views are glimpsed while listening to the 5.9-liter V-12's inspirational exhaust note bouncing back from steepling cliffs. Traffic is so light that the most saintly would be tempted to drive very fast, but the road demands respect as it inspires derring-do. Get it wrong, and you choose between hurtling over a precipice or into a mountain. You also risk encountering a local trucker whose courage for the downhill journey has been boosted by brandy in his breakfast coffee. At certain times of the year, you might encounter black ice in sheltered spots, as I was reminded when the DB9 wiggled its shapely hips while swooping down to a tight left-hander. That was just before the D2 joins the Route Napolon near Castellane, a pleasant little town where shops, cafs, and hotels flank the tree-lined square.

More prosaically labeled N85, the road to Grenoble follows what was then the rough track taken by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, after he had conquered most of Europe, ventured to Egypt, and sneaked back to France following his brief exile on Elba. His highway becomes busier beyond Dignes-les-Bains, but nothing can detract from the scenery's splendor as limestone crags dominate westward views.

An evocative human contribution to the landscape stands in a meadow at Laffrey, just before the N85 plunges to Grenoble. A statue depicts Napoleon on horseback, having encountered troops who had been ordered to stop his march on Paris. He walked toward the soldiers, flung open his coat, and challenged them to shoot their emperor. Instead, they threw down their muskets and cheered. Bonaparte's dream ended three months later at Waterloo, but dinner in Grenoble's historic Auberge Napolon is the best way to end the day. This applies no matter what you have been driving, but good food tastes even better after having fun in a DB9.

Trip Notes

Location: Southeast France.

General information: French Tourist Office (410-286-8310; www.francetourism.com).

Where to stay: Chteau du Domaine St-Martin, Avenue des Templiers, Vence (011-33-4-9358-0202; www.rivieraby.com/stmartin); Park Hotel, 10 Place Paul-Mistral, Grenoble (011-33-4-7685-8123; www.park-hotel-grenoble.fr).

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