We began our journey in Marseilles, the capital of the Bouches-du-Rhne region of France, which sits on the Gulf of Lions, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea. The second largest city in France, Marseilles is noted for the sight of it-a gleaming white city rising on a semicircle of bare hills-from the sea. The downtown seaport was used as the staging area for the '63 Alpine Rally.
As quickly as our organizers could have it, we left the motorway behind and began to drive through the narrow roadways of small French villages, to ascend the majestic Alps, the majestic and legendary mountains that stretch form Spain to Italy and form the geological basis for some of the most exciting events in the world, including numerous rally races and, today, the Tour de France.
Millions of years old, these rocks are rich with history. Mont Blanc, the tallest of the peaks, was first scaled in 1786 and continues to taunt the most seasoned climbers with its treacherous passes. Going back further in time, Hannibal, the emperor of Carthage in Africa, floated elephants across the Mediterranean and drove them across the Alps to battle the Romans 2,500 years ago, during the second Punic War. Today, visitors can cross the peaks via cableway, gondola, bicycle, or on foot or, as in our case, in MINIs.
The driving on day one came to a close in the picturesque village of Sisteron, which dates back to before the Romans. Built at a slice in a narrow rocky gap where the Durance and Buech rivers join, cliff walls rise on the west side to a rocky peak topped by the imposing 13- to 17th-century citadel, built to protect the town. From the north, the main road enters the town through a tunnel beneath the citadel, and the town is still protected by parts of the 14th-century walls. While the 11th-century origins of Sisteron's chateau are long gone, but the donjon is from the 12th century, and the current battlements, built in the 16th century, are impressive.
Our Alpine journey came to an end in Nice, the capital of Alpes-Maritimes in southeastern France and the most famous resort on the French Riviera. Tourists flock to this picturesque village, which is next door to Cannes and its glamorous annual film festival, and the old port of Nice handles both commercial fishing and passenger service to the island of Corsica.
Established by Greeks in the 5th century, Nice underwent several tumultuous centuries, politically, and was annexed to France in 1793, restored to Sardinia in 1814 and again ceded to France in 1860. At the beginning of the French Revolution the city was a haven for Royalist migrs, and it was our brief haven before our travel back to the U.S.
On our last night, supping on a six-course meal in a fine restaurant, now with our own reminisces of the Coupe des Alpes, McCluggage regaled us with stories from four decades before. But, now I had my own stories with McCluggage at the wheel, and I was Rosemary Sears. At one point on day two, one of our support crew passed us in the classic Mini. "That car screams like a scalded cat," she said, "and those Irish cats are good drivers." Denise came alive, and off we went through the French countryside, apexing blind corners and with Lady Leadfoot's hearty laugh trailing in the wind.
Post Note: Although the high-speed duo of McCluggage and Sears was in the running for a top spot in the '63 rally, they were forced to "retire" due to mechanical woes. McCluggage was the only competitor from America, signed by the British Motor Corporation to represent its factory team, piloting a factory-prepared Austin Cooper sedan.
Denise McCluggageOnce regarded as "the best woman driver in the U.S. and one of the six best in the world" (Ken W. Purdy, Sept. 1967, PARADE), Denise McCluggage is truly a pioneer. Competitor, journalist and author, she has forged a unique career, covering primarily skiing and motor racing while on staff at the New York Herald Tribune, at a time when female sportswriters were rare. She developed a reputation for participating in everything she covered, which also included jumping out of airplanes.
She raced with the North American Racing Team (NART), Bill Harrah's Racing Team, Rover Motor Co., British Motor Corp., Ford of England, Ford America, General Motors, L'Equipe Renault, Team Volvo, Camoradi and Briggs Cunningham's team, motoring in competition cars that included Ferrari, Porsche, Maserati, Jaguar, MG, Volvo, Mini Cooper, Rover, Triumph, Lotus, Fiat, Ford, Renault, OSCA, Elva, Alfa Romeo, De Tomaso and Corvair.
Her chief successes were in some of the world's most famous races, such as the 1st Gran Turismo, Sebring (1961), Copa de Damas, Grand Prix of Venezuela, Coupe des Dames Trans-Canada Rallye, and the Coupe des Dames American International Rally. She achieved a number of class and overall victories, including a first in class at the famed Monte Carlo Rallye, and at Nassau, Bridgehampton, Daytona Beach, Elkhart Lake, Lime Rock, Watkins Glen and the Nrburgring. Her co-competitors were many of racing's greats, such as Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and Curtis Turner.