High in the Alps behind Monte Carlo lies the Col de Turini, a 1607-metre peak dotted with two small guesthouses and a pair of ski lifts. These serve the French and Italian skiers who descend upon this tranquil spot as soon as the snow falls.
For the remainder of the year the place is a backwater, connected to the rest of the world only by a trio of narrow, winding ribbons of tarmac which converge at the Col's summit. Here, passing traffic is limited to the odd lost tourist and the comings and goings of the handful of local residents.
One of these residents, a woman in a headscarf, is occupying the phone booth outside the empty cafe on the summit. The silence is deep, the only sound carried on the gentle mountain breeze being the top notes of animated conversation leaking from within the confines of the phone booth.
This peace is at first shaken, then shattered by the building roar of a car. It peaks in a crescendo of searing revs and squealing tyres as a Ford Focus ST hammers into view over the crest of a hill, slews violently right in an arc directly towards the phone booth then hurls itself hard left, scrabbling out of sight in a flurry of spinning wheels.
As the autumn leaves stirred up by this violent intrusion return to the floor, calm settles across the summit again. Amazingly, I notice the woman in the phone booth, now grinning ear to ear, hasn't so much as missed a beat in her conversation.
Had this been most other places in the world she would have been screaming blue murder at the departing driver. But Col de Turini isn't most other places, especially not where fast cars are concerned. The roads around this summit have long played host to the Monte Carlo Rally and the special stage held at Turini is the most legendary of all on the World Rally calendar.
High praise, but when one road packs more hairpins than your wife's washbag and when the race held upon it must contend with snow and ice across the summit and dry roads at the base, without a tyre change between the two, you can see why the words 'legendary' and 'Turini' make such comfortable bedfellows.
Legendary is a tag that also sits well with the driver of the speeding Focus. His name is Ari Vatanen, 1981 world rally champion and one of the world's greatest rally drivers.
Ari is a seasoned campaigner upon Turini's treacherous slopes. The tall Finn may have retired from rally competition on the world stage in 2003, but given the manner in which he has just crossed the summit, it's clear he's lost none of the driving aggression that made him a favourite with fans and team managers alike.
He returns to the Col at a more sedate pace before climbing out of the car, clearly relishing being back on Turini.
"You cannot remain indifferent to this place," he explains, inhaling deeply as if to better take in his surroundings. "Col de Turini has a magic, because it is so difficult. As a rally driver, it gives you a lesson in humility. You don't rule it, and must remember that before every race."
Driving the route down from the summit with Vatanen, it becomes clear what he means. It is flanked alternately by battle-scarred rockfaces or sheer drops several hundred feet to the valley floor below for much of its length. It twists and turns like no road I've ever seen.
As a tourist, it's a pleasure to drift down the route's playfully sinuous path taking in the heady views as the sun beats down and the trees make their steady turn to autumn. However, to race in winter, in the dark, coated with snow and layered with ice, it's easy to see how Turini could become a terrifying beast, swift to wreak painful vengeance on the smallest mistake. I ask Vatanen how he dealt with racing here.
"What can I say," he muses, "sometimes you raise yourself to another level. You open Pandora's box and your mind is literally lifted out of your body and suddenly everything becomes completely automatic. And when you look back at the footage on TV you wonder who was really driving then – was it you or someone else? I wouldn't say it's divine intervention but it is as if some bigger hand is driving and your nature takes over."
While explaining this, his calm, measured speech and relaxed ease behind the wheel belie the fact he is piloting the Focus at searing pace down the mountain.
The rockfaces are skimming inches from the car’s mirrors and there are regular protesting squeals from the ST's tyres as another hairpin is chewed up and spat out. Yet, despite the speed, it's clear from the passenger seat that for him we are barely scratching the surface of truly fast driving. It's an eye-opening experience.
As we arrive in Moulinet, where the stage finished in his day (it now finishes further down the mountain at Sospel) we stop for a coffee and the calmer Ari Vatanen, the one well-known for stopping during rally stage recces if a restaurant or bar took his fancy, is revealed.
"This is what life is about. Coming to a place like this, time slows down. You stop for a coffee, maybe a dessert, and just watch the world pass by. As for this road, well, driving anywhere else you are going from A to B, but here you are doing much more than that. You are enjoying every metre, every corner."
This road is far more than one of the best rally stages. It's open to everyone and a great place to explore. Something that is hard to refuse when you know you'll be driving in the footsteps, or perhaps more accurately tyre tracks, of giants like Vatanen.
Look out for Marcus Gronholm's favourite stage soon