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An Epic Road Trip From Munich to Monaco

Our writer makes the journey his destination on a high-octane European tour in a very fast car.

The Stelvio Pass

The Stelvio Pass is truly a long and winding road.

I'm racing a BMW M4 through a slalom course at an old ­airfield outside Munich. Walter Haupt, a former race-car driver and my teacher for this lesson, is barking instructions over a walkie-talkie. “You killed a cone!” yells the long-time BMW automotive engineer. (So much for my haste to clock a fast time.) In the exercise on how to execute an emergency stop, I speed toward a wall of more orange cones; worried about hitting another, I brake. Haupt’s voice is full of consternation: “Nein, nein, nein. Too early. We invented the ABS; use it next time!”

 Munich’s Augustiner Keller.

Shift into slow beer at Munich’s Augustiner Keller.

My fellow students are 31 Canadian auto aficionados who have come to Munich to pick up their M brand cars fresh from the factory. (On the plant tour earlier in the day, one of them hummed the “Wedding March” when robots “married” a drivetrain and a body.) After delivery, they’ll drive from pine-covered Bavaria to the palm-lined Riviera, tracing a 1,500-kilometre route through six countries in six days – sort of like in that old film If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, only on steroids.

RELATED: 6 Things to Do Between Munich and Monaco

Unlike the other group members, I needed the refresher: On the rare occasions I do drive at home, in the San Francisco Bay Area, my ride is a stately 1976 Mercedes diesel four-door, not something as powerful and gadget-filled as my brand new loaner M6. Luckily, I’ll be splitting the driving with my car-geek partner, David.

Interalpen-Hotel Tyrol in Austria

Soaking in the views at Interalpen-Hotel Tyrol in Austria.

Refresher course done, I’m eager to hit the road, but not as eager as the guy who scores the fastest time on the slalom without nicking a single cone. Michael McElree, a pharmacist from Courtenay, B.C., has had his phone counting down the days until pickup, and his brown eyes, framed by chunky BMW glasses, glisten when he talks about next day’s handover. “It said 100, and now it says one. Just one day.”

Making time for a pit stop on Italy’s Ligurian coast.

Making time for a pit stop on Italy’s Ligurian coast.

The following morning, a shuttle whisks us from our hotel in Munich’s old town to the futuristic BMW Welt, a huge silver disc not far from the stadium complex that hosted the 1972 Olympic Games. Cars are a religion in Germany, and Welt, as group members call the building, is a temple. When we arrive, one of the tiniest cars BMW ever produced, the three-wheeled Isetta, meep-meeps around the vast lobby. I spot restaurants, an automotive museum and shops full of branded, well, everything. I follow the new owners up to a room where they sign papers and sip champagne, then walk out onto a bridge that overlooks the staging area. They’re in a frenzy figuring out which vehicle belongs to whom: “Mine’s the Tanzanite blue, with the Cohiba interior.”

BMW Welt in Munich

Left to Right: Starting at BMW Welt in Munich, drivers get behind the wheel of their brand new cars; racing for the light at the end of the tunnel.

After lunch, we set off in one great convoy. It’s a relief to get out of Munich and onto the autobahn to let it rip. When I put pedal to the metal, it feels like that moment in Star Wars when the universe goes liquid around the Millennium Falcon. Still, the other tour members soon blaze by me and disappear. Although we’re on a tight schedule, my aim is to see at least something of the continent we’re whipping through. David and I make our first stop at a hillside castle built by Mad King Ludwig. Less famous than his Neuschwanstein, the sta-gey Linderhof is modelled roughly on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, with little conversation nooks enclosed by hedges and a fountain-filled lakelet that the king used to be rowed across in a swan-shaped boat.

Switzerland and down into Italy

Sometimes taking the road best travelled also means taking the high road: At a top elevation of 2,757 metres, the Stelvio Pass route, which snakes its way up from Switzerland and down into Italy, is the loftiest paved drive in the Eastern Alps.

We dawdle in the ancient market town of Murnau am Staffelsee, checking out its baroque church and offering a couple of prayers to its dolorous Mary. We linger outside a Konditorei over that German afternoon staple, Kaffee und Kuchen. An accordionist plays “O Susannah” while swallows carve arcs above the cobblestoned street, our table in eyeshot of the Alps we’re to cross. It’s a rare idyll on this headlong trip, one that comes close to costing us; notwithstanding our car’s power, we almost miss dinner.

 The Castello di Rapallo, on the Ligurian Sea.

The Castello di Rapallo, on the Ligurian Sea, was built in the mid-1500s to deter pirate ships. Today it’s a beacon for sunbathers.

If it’s Wednesday, this must be Austria – and there must be the breakfast to end all breakfasts at our mountaintop lodge. At the Interalpen-Hotel Tyrol, honey drips from a comb. There are pitchers of berry juices, 23 kinds of bread, seven mueslis and the buttermilk loved by Austrian hikers. I walk off some of the jam-slathered brotchens and have a hills-are-alive moment, feeling dwarfed and ecstatic before the massive Tyrolean Alps. The garage is alive too, with proud new owners polishing their cars with the chamois cloths and creams they’ve brought along, like so many mothers primping their debutantes before a ball.

The Casino de Monte-Carlo and green in Ascona, Italy.

Left to Right: The Casino de Monte-Carlo arches over the Principality of Monaco; it’s easy being green in Ascona, Italy.

And it is a big occasion the cars are headed for today. Top Gear rated the Stelvio Pass road the best strip of driving in the world. Slipping out of Austria and into a valley in the Italian Tyrol, we assemble at a lake with the bell tower of a submerged church sticking out of it. Then begins the 1,871-metre climb from the valley up to the pass into Switzerland. One of the fastest race drivers in history, Stirling Moss, went off this road, and I’m scared nearly witless as I grab the wheel for the ascent. Don’t look down, don’t by any means look down; avoid the bicyclists, the traffic coming at you, the damned marmot that decided to scuttle across our path. My partner, who’s a way better driver than me, is motivated by self-preservation when talking me through the route’s 48 marked hairpin turns. It’s an ordeal, but I do it, feeling relief when I reach the top. For Vancouver home builder Billy Sze, though, the climb is pure pleasure. He’s on the tour with his wife, Wing Lau, and their four-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn. “I was worried my daughter would find the Stelvio too scary, but she kept crying out, ‘Faster, Daddy. Faster!’” When I see the girl that evening at dinner, her pigtails are horizontal. The god of speed has acquired another worshipper.

Puttering along in Portofino

Puttering along in Portofino.

Switzerland whizzes by, with its waterfalls and furry cows, needle-like steeples atop its Calvinist churches. We’ve been warned by the Germans about the Swiss intolerance for speeders: “They don’t make cars, just chocolate; they don’t get it,” one of them jokes. After checking out a famous bit of contemporary architecture in Saint-Moritz, the jelly-bean-shaped Chesa Futura chalet designed by starchitect Sir Norman Foster, we descend, with ears popping, toward the Mediterranean coast. We sprint down Italy’s autostrade, where I hit my land-speed record, until we reach Portofino. The Ligurian coast is celebrated in verse by Lord Byron and in film by The Talented Mr. Ripley. Over pasta served in a wheel of parmigiano, group members speak not of films and poems past, but of tire types and whether BMW’s new design chief, Canadian Karim Habib, did a good job reinterpreting the company’s signature kidney-shaped grilles.

Chesa Futura chalet in Saint-Moritz

Designed by Sir Norman Foster, the Chesa Futura chalet in Saint-Moritz might have you bubbling over.

Nearing the tour’s end, I decide to ride with one of the new owners to see what kind of moves he can get out of his vehicle. Vancouver pilot Chris Carpenter seemed so mild-mannered, so thoughtful at dinner. He’d come on the trip alone, so maybe he wouldn’t mind a bit of company? And so I find myself in the passenger seat of his M3, near the front of the convoy, hurtling along a curvaceous road through the Maritime Alps into France. He’s driving – they’re all driving – like fanatics, hitting each point with the precision of an F1 driver, the tops of umbrella pines visible far below. I’m hurled about in my seat, holding his GoPro, trying to capture this “midnight ride of Paul Revere” for posterity, but for what posterity I don’t know. By the time he’s brought us safely beyond the treacherous curves, I’m a gelatinous mess.

BMW going through tunnel

Cruise control on the Italian autostrada.

On our last day, we roll into Monaco, with its billionaires’ yachts in the harbour and statuesque women model-walking through the hotel lobby. On the top floor of the Fairmont Monte Carlo, a farewell feast is prepared, cooked by a chef who has achieved the ne plus ultra of culinary honours, being a Meilleur Ouvrier de France. Jokey awards are given – Carpenter: Best Solo Artist; Sze: the Next Generation Award; McElree: the Full Throttle. Travelling groups don’t always gel, but this one has. And why not? Whenever more general conversation flags, they’ve got the pros and cons of ceramic brakes to discuss.

All things being equal, I prefer to take my time when I travel, to cover less ground than this and to stop more frequently. But at a certain point, midway through our road trip – was it Austria or Switzerland? – I decided to stop regretting the many battlegrounds, museums and cathedrals we zoomed by in our great headlong rush. Because sometimes, it’s so much more fun to just hit the gas and enjoy the ride.



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