Last week, I drove from London to Tuscany. It’s a fairly long way, so I also stopped at the Ferrari and Lamborghini museums en route, took in a mountain pass in Switzerland, which was one of the most beautiful bits of scenery that one could ever hope to see, and the old Grand Prix circuit at Reims.
Places visited while in Tuscany included the Duomo in Florence, Arezzo Cathedral and town and the hilltop medieval walled town of Anghiari. The Florence Duomo is a must-visit; despite the 480-odd steps up to the top (which nearly killed me – other tourists looked at me in a concerned manner as I propped my panting, sweating self against a wall) the panoramic view of the city is worth every single painful step. Unfortunately, the church itself was closed when I visited, but if you’re a true masochist, you can go up the Campanile next to the Duomo. Florence itself is gorgeous, tiny cobbled streets and grand piazzas punctuated by kamikazi locals on mopeds.
Anghiari is another must-visit. It’s one of the most lovely towns I’ve ever seen. Parking at the base of the town, I was resigning myself to another interminable climb up stairs, but some enterprising local authority has installed a lift – a lift! – from the car park to the old town. Wandering around the deserted streets, with every turned corner a new visual delight, is a treat not to be missed.
The food ranges between excellent and awesome, even in tiny villages. Outside of large towns and touristy hotspots, the prices are very reasonable. One trattoria I visited in a village near where I stayed served up a delicious three-course meal for two with wine for 45 euros.
The Road to Rouen
Finally, a few words about actually driving in Europe. The French autoroutes are worth every cent; long, sweeping sections of smooth tarmac with barely another car in sight. Avoiding them is a false economy. Also, don’t be alarmed or offended if another driver tailgates you or flashes you out of the outside lane. Lane discipline in France is about a gazillion times better than in Britain – there’s none of this dozy middle-lane hogging or drifting along in the outside lane at 69mph. People overtake and then move back over. Don’t take the flashing and tailgating personally or as a signal to commence some sort of road rage. Leave your British queuing mentality in Dover – it’s not the end of civilisation if someone overtakes you.
Italian drivers, on the other hand, will want to overtake just because they can. They will sit so close to your rear bumper that they could pretty much read the part number, then they will pass you before pulling back in again and slowing down slightly. Mobile phone use while driving is rife, as is reckless overtaking on single-lane roads. And don’t think that elephant-racing (for the uninitiated, elephant-racing is when an HGV attempts to pass another HGV but is only going about 2mph faster) doesn’t happen outside of Britain. The two trucks featured in the picture above passed and repassed each other twice, much to the honking, gesticulating anger of drivers behind.
While the main Italian motorways generally seem to be pretty good, some of the A roads, especially when you get out into more rural areas, are suspension-testingly awful. Some of the roads I drove on, I wasn’t convinced that they were even open to the public, so poor were the surfaces. I may never complain about a pothole in Britain again.
The Gotthard Pass wasn’t open on my drive down, but was on the way back. It’s way better than the tunnel and the scenery is just jaw-dropping. Definitely go this way if you can. It adds very little time to the journey and is worth any extra minutes. Even driving through Switzerland near the Italian border is lovely; despite the rubbish weather on this leg of the drive, you can still see snow-capped mountains wreathed in mist and dozens of vertiginous waterfalls dropping down from the heights.
See here for more pictures.