The Route des Grandes Alpes
Travel

The Route des Grandes Alpes

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Four friends, three days, two bars and a dream itinerary. It’s the perfect countdown to a micro road-trip. The first for the Machinistic team, who plan to reach Menton from Thonon-les-Bains via the Grandes Alpes route. Three days? Did we call on Thomas Pesquet and the European Space Agency to move so quickly? Almost. BMW has provided us with a ground-to-ground rocket, a kick-ass three-series in which we can pack all our stuff: the latest M3 Touring. Ready to take on the most beautiful passes in the French Alps, loaded down with local cheeses and photo equipment, between the bar of our friends from Classique Autowerks and Benzin’s, we set off for a barathon with a difference.

Oh, it’s so good to get out on the road. The journey really begins just before Annecy, where we’re due to meet up with Kévin. Aboard the M3, Yannick, Frédéric and I get our first taste of life when the suspended A40 road offers us the first beautiful panorama of the trip. “Wow that’s rad!”; that’s just the first one. Once the team is complete, we quickly head for our first stop for the evening, at Classique Autowerks.

Stage 0 – Autowerks Classic

Just outside Thonon les Bains, we arrive at a place that immediately appeals to us. Johann and Samuel have built a bar around what they love and their business of selling custom parts for vintage vehicles. It’s Classique Autowerks, and we’re welcomed like royalty by Johann, his girlfriend Louanne and Uhini the Dachshund. Craft beers, Mont d’Or: paradise. The bar is housed in a tastefully decorated former forge, with an industrial ambience. As the discussion progresses, it becomes clear that creating a place to live in the automotive world has not been easy. Administrative obstacles and a very tight budget resulted in a flurry of good ideas to make the spot really cool. We feel right at home here, and even if the M3 raises a few debates about the future of the car [more on that later], it’s right at home with us, at the foot of the bar, between the Chesterfields and the brick walls. After a good evening, which, like all good evenings, passed too quickly, we left our friends with full bellies and heavy hearts to return to the arms of Morpheus, for one last night in a bed before three days of bivouac…

Stage 1 – Thonon-les-Bains – Valloire Bourg-St-Maurice

The bedroom windows are fogged up, it’s early and daylight filters through the blinds. It’s time to get moving! We have a mission to complete, new lands to explore. Tonight we have to be in the Maurienne, and on board our ship we have a list of passes to pass. Like good tourists, we stop off at the kilometer zero stele on the Route des Grandes Alpes. If the trip goes well, we should land on its twin sister in Menton in three days’ time. An opportunity for Yannick, still dizzy from the previous evening, to do some gymnastics, and above all to enjoy a beautiful view of Lake Geneva.

The drive starts well, we draw lots to see who gets to drive the car first… and, without cheating, I win the driver’s seat. Incredibly, we cross the Gorges du Pont du Diable. It’s a bit crowded, but the car’s power, even when loaded to the roof, means we’re soon out of traffic. We take turns at the wheel, and everyone becomes aware of the weapon of mass destruction that is the M3, while the others enjoy the scenery as it flies by. The Cols des Gets, Colombière and Aravis are passed with flying colors, and we don’t dawdle too long as we have a date to keep.

Jessy is waiting for us in Beaufort, where we have to stock up on cheese and Savoy wine for the sunset. A mission within a mission, so to speak. The little CRX of our videographer friend, a local guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s roads, serves as our hare. Heavy bombardment as far as the Roselend dam. If, up until then, the road had been beautiful, we’ve suddenly changed universes.

The lake water is turquoise and the setting sun gives us the ochre light of October. It taps. Naturally, we take the opportunity to get to know Jessy better, and take some pictures together. After a stop at Chapelle de Roselend, we enjoy an aperitif at Le Cormet, the sun offering us a little more warmth on its final descent.

We set out with the idea of a bivouac in mind, but equipped like good tourists (yes, again), we quickly realized that it was too cold to spend the night at this altitude. Once again, it’s with a heavy heart that we leave Jessy, with whom we would have liked to have spent more time. Next time, with his S2000, for a different experience! We decide to drive towards Bourg-Saint-Maurice, where we find a grassy spot along the Isère to spend the night. On the spot, we open the map, and realize how far behind schedule we are… ” Hello earth, we’re going into afterburners.”

“We find a grassy spot along the Isère to spend the night. On the spot, we open the map, and realize how far behind schedule we are… ” Hello earth, we’re going into afterburners.””

Stage 2 – Bourg-St-Maurice – Briançon

As the sun slowly rises, we cross the Tarentaise with cuckoo’s-eye gaze. But the scenery, the excitement of the trip, the snow tunnels we pass through soon wake us up. We wouldn’t say no to a cup of coffee, but we pass Lac du Chevril and arrive in Val d’Isère just as the light is starting to show. We have to do the Iseran pass proud, and bring you back some great images. To hell with the coffee, our turn-on will be the road. And it’s after passing the “Caution marmot crossing” sign that we emerge from hibernation.

Seat as low as possible, back straight: the attack position as advised by Jean-Michel Fabre. Kévin deploys the power, and the Saint-Charles bridge bend serves as a launching pad. Turn after turn, the heavy white station wagon takes us by surprise. You don’t feel its weight, even though loaded as it is, it looks more like a van than a sports car. What a Swiss Army knife. Speeds are unavoidable, with bits of rubber coming off the tires and banging into the wheel arches. Fortunately, the aptly named Notre-Dame de Toute Prudence welcomes us to the summit. Phew, we’re alive.

The excitement of the Col de l’Iseran is also due to the fact that it opens the door to a galaxy of mythical passes: we continue with the Mont-Cenis, and after this morning without coffee, we decide to stop by the lake to eat some good Savoyard diots and drink a good beer. Hunger torturing my stomach, for once I push down the right pedal, knit the paddles, and park in front of the restaurant like princes. You can’t let yourself go. Once we’ve had our meal, we realize that we’ve only got a day and a half to get to Menton, and that basking in the sun won’t get us there. We’re heading back down to the Maurienne, to refuel the six-cylinder, and above all to have some fun on the next pass…

The Col du Galibier is just around the corner! The keystone of the trip. If only a couple of thousand sheep weren’t blocking our way! Our fast-moving beaver doesn’t scare off the balls of wool creeping around him for a second. It’s fun, the mountains are winning us over.

Once past this moving obstacle, Yannick takes the encouragement written on the road literally: “COURAGE”, “ALLEZ POUPOU”. Carpet! The rocky outskirts of the track require him to steer the beast with precision, and not to tangle the pedals. At the summit, we spend some time with a bunch of crazy people. British road trippers, too, but in Citroëns. From the fast and furious AX to the C5, via DS and SM, they cover a 7,000-kilometer loop. Proud to show us a broken driveshaft further down the assembly, and repaired on the side of the road, we say to ourselves that it’s not so bad to have a new car, for once.

We pack up our camera gear and set off down the valley to Briançon before nightfall. Still keen to sleep in tents, we’ll set up camp at a campsite, because there’s no shame in a good shower now and then. The delay is half-caught up, and by leaving early the next morning, trying to travel at the speed of light like the Millennium Falcon, the mission could be a success.

Stage 3 – Briançon – Menton ?

Briançon is wet this morning. As Fred would say, “we pack fast and warm up in the car”. Totally, okay. We start the day with the Col d’Izoard. The landscape in the morning, with the soft light of the rising sun, is superb. On the climb, we quickly move from forest to rock, the road is perfect. We vintage car purists confess to enjoying this brand-new M3. I’m sure the timing has something to do with it, but the car remains lively, comfortable, fast… fun! Once over the top of the pass, the landscape changes again, with wide gorges and the road winding through the middle. The sun is already high in the sky, and as we drive towards the mythical Col de la Bonnette, we learn during a coffee break that it’s closed…

We have two options. Option number one: go through Barcelonette and take rolling roads. Option number two: go over the Col de Vars, the Col de la Madeleine, cross the Italian border, come back over the Col de la Lombarde and finish on the Col du Turini… Knowing that we’re due to have dinner with Benzin’s friends, and that time is short if we don’t want to fail in our mission, the first option is preferable. That said, given that the four of us barely have the brains of a reasonable adult, we take the route with the most passes, for one reason and one reason only: curves are our reason for living. Perriod.

On the road to Vars, after a quick hello to Tam-Tam Photo on the side of the road, who’s probably more used to taking photos of leg-less cyclists than of a station wagon blowing hard, we head for the Col de la Madeleine. The road is suddenly diverted, as the road works are busy “purging the mountain”. Don’t worry, river water is not replaced by DOT4. But rocks were threatening to collapse onto the road, and dynamite was used to clear the mountain of the rocks threatening the main road. On the escape route, a sign reads “Vehicles at your own risk”. Yannick laughs, “It’s okay, the rocker panels are for the GT3 RS, we’re wide! Here we are on a track, the worst nightmare of those who drive downgraded cars. Fortunately, the soil is well compacted, and the presence of stones and ruts is rare. It’s hellish, but Yannick, who thinks he’s in a Nissan Patrol, rides at ease. Probably the effect of the special Dakar grip…

We pass the Col de la Madeleine, and cross a little Italian countryside, between small tunnels, villages with typical architecture, and above all: the Col de la Lombarde where the only sign to follow is “Francia”. Behind the wheel, I switch to the M1 driving mode, which has been dubbed “the stupid mode”. DSC OFF, over five hundred horsepower at the rear wheels. Who knows why, but that’s how I enjoyed driving this car the most. Four-wheel drive is too safe, and you’re not afraid of the power. It passes by, without concentrating, and becomes mind-numbing. In idiot mode, you have to concentrate and not over-rev the throttle, otherwise you’ll have to phone BMW France to announce that the car has merged with a fir tree. It’s scary, but so good. Steering is still very filtered, but you can finally feel the motricity in the back of the bucket, and some of the sensations you’ve come to expect from an oldtimer. Thanks to the Col de la Lombarde, I’m beginning to appreciate its dynamic qualities. We’re back in France…

The Col de Turini, although highly reputed, was a tricky passage. This is the last pass of the trip, but it’s so narrow that our wide car is hard to place in traffic. Fortunately, the M3 pinches hard, allowing us to weave in and out of trucks and tight hairpins. We soon reach the top of the pass, and even though a good beer… is tempting us on the terrace, we decide to get back on the road to have time to dip our toes in the water in Menton.

An emotional moment as we reach the heights of Menton. The perspective is breathtaking: the valley occupied by the city is cut out by the viaduct, against a backdrop of the Mediterranean. Hello sea, it’s good to see you. It feels like a return to civilization, it’s strange. The road has been ours for three days, and suddenly we have to share it with NPCs who seem to be in such a hurry. As in Thonon, we make a symbolic, but no less important, stop at the kilometer zero sign. All done. We’ve done it. The Route des Grandes Alpes in three days, with four people. One last photo for posterity, one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind…

Final stage: Benzin Le Stand

A few stages ago, when we were still in our right minds, wasn’t this micro road-trip billed as a kind of barathon? Welcome to Stand Benzin, a café recently opened by Anthony and David to bring together enthusiasts from the Nice region. Cheese boards, sausages, beers, it’s the comfort we needed! Anthony’s beloved Lancia Fulvia and the saintly Dodge Viper catch our eye inside this lovely place of recollection. We chat around the cars, then head off to eat the pizza we’ve been dreaming of since the start. The South is beautiful.

For this first micro road-trip, we’re delighted to have crossed the French Alps in this M3 Touring provided by BMW France. It’s a hell of a machine, and even though it can be debatable in terms of its design and the way it performs, and even though it’s been confusing for vintage enthusiasts like us, it’s been a fantastic partner on the road. No backache to complain about [and yet we’re all in our thirties, editor’s note], a frightening level of performance, and plenty of room! As for the road, it was FANTASTIC. We’ll share the precise itinerary with you below, and we can only invite you to take this route, which will delight both driving enthusiasts and lovers of beautiful panoramas. In three days, our one and only regret is that we didn’t take the time to stop at certain places, such as waterfalls or viewpoints requiring a few dozen minutes’ walk. But that’s really quibbling, because it was crazy. We can’t wait to get going again, now we just have to choose a destination…

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