I got a few weird looks as I unloaded my soiled wellies from the back of a Maserati as I checked into Monaco’s elegant Hermitage Hotel. Where on earth had I been, the valet must have thought.
Some 48hrs earlier I was ankle deep in what Uncle Monty would have described as ‘beastly mud and oomska’ at the Festival of Speed. Goodwood was glorious in many ways, not least for the historic machinery charging up the hill. I was particularly drawn to the art deco pre-war land speed challengers that seemed to have more in common with locomotives than motor cars. The roar of the comical-capacity engines and the sight of the gentleman racers hunched above the rear wheels and sawing away at the steering was enough to forget, for a few seconds, that my entire body had pruned from the incessant rain. After three days of festivaling I was ready for a bath, so the promise of the luxurious Goodwood Hotel was a welcome one.
I had received a call a few days earlier: Would I like to drive a Maserati GranTurismo MC Stradale from Goodwood to Monaco, fuelling myself with gourmet grub along the way? I waited a full second before biting their hand off to the shoulder. They even drove me up the hill in their new Levante SUV, which hasn’t been officially released yet. Though I still fancied commanding something with a bonnet the length of an oil tanker the luxury 4×4 was plenty thrilling as it glanced Lord March’s wall.
On Sunday evening we settled into a fine meal of scallops with cauliflower mousse and caviar followed by pork belly. Our dining room companions included Sir Stirling Moss and Emerson Fittipaldi. It had the feel of an old fashioned clubhouse, our weekend of heart-pounding driving far from over. First thing in the morning we were up and out in my murder-black Stradale and headed for Folkestone without a minute to lose. The race to Monaco was on.
Apologies for the gratuitous food references but these are a key ingredient (pardon the pun) of any road trip worth its salt (dammit). The cars loaded onto the Eurotunnel, our hosts from the trident marque produced luxury picnic hampers and I proceeded to eat scotch eggs and pork pies off the Maserati’s carbon-fibre rear wing as we hurtled under the English Channel.
The weather was still dire as we set south from Calais and I was cautious of any gendarmes who might like to punish a UK registered exotic for the Brexit vote that had been announced just three days before. Suddenly the continental roads for British holidaymakers are more fraught with danger than the tank tracks out of Fallujah. But as we headed further south the sun appeared and the speedo needle started to rise along with our spirits.
Having driven for over six hours it was time to pull off the autoroute at Beaune and take our lodgings for the night. The Hostellerie de Levernois is an old favourite of mine and Nicolas Sarkozy as it happens. The former French premier, President Bling Bling, has helicoptered in dinner companions in the past including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. But there’s nothing Bling Bling about the Levernois, it is as discrete and rustically chic as anywhere in wine country. The French export Bordeaux and they keep the Burgundy for themselves, or so they say. Here we were just a couple of miles from the most celebrated chardonnay domaines on the planet and within minutes of arriving there was a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet on my room service bill.
Dinner was a pleasingly gluttonous event. Lobster tempura; shellfish gnocchi; crayfish with morilla mushrooms; roasted veal; and a chocolate and caramel moose that looked like an alien spaceship. The Maserati takes 98 RON, I’m on the 1 Star Michelin.
The next day’s weather was spectacular and by the time we reached Serres it was 34 degrees and I’d earned my lunch. We had swerved off the autoroute and, after following the route Napoleon took from Elba to Grenoble we took the E712 that scissors alongside the 25km long Verdon Gorge. This has got to be the most spectacular road in Western Europe. It’s certainly the most breathtaking view and involving road I have ever found in France. A green thread of water trickles through the canyon 700 metres below and on it frolic vacationers in pedalos and kayaks.
My sporting nature prefers 460 Italian horses and a V8 that delivers neck-snapping grunt. The Verdon’s switchbacks were never-ending. Each time we went around a hairpin the rear would drift out ever so slightly before burying the traction and leaping into the next bend. Overtaking had to be prepared with surgical precision as the opportunities were hazardous, and I did hear the odd yelp from the passenger seat. But this was as satisfying as driving gets, in a car with immense balance, poise and character.
Past Serres the roads opened up but the mountains continued to rise until we descended into Nice and cruised along the Corniche. We had left Goodwood in the drizzle the day before and here we were arriving in Monte Carlo bathed in early evening sunlight just in time for aperitifs and the Yacht Club.
I swung the Stradale under the Hermitage’s Belle Epoque awning and proffered my muddy wellingtons to the porter. I’d come a long way the last 1,000 miles, but the Maserati looked perfectly at home.