When you cross the border from France into Italy everything changes. The steep hillsides become greener, hill top towns are a more intense terracotta hue and church spires are taller, more defiant. The Mediterranean Sea is still there, sparkling and restless to the south.
The coastal motorway weaves its way through numerous tunnels, cut through the mountains. It’s a demanding drive, bright sunlight, tunnel darkness, intermittently for hundreds of miles. Leaving Monaco behind after four days of the nostalgic and wonderful Historic Grand Prix I’m filled with a mixture of anticipation and sadness. The road is clear, the sun is shining, an easy drive south-east to Tuscany lies ahead. ‘Benvenuto in Italia’ proclaims the sign as I cross the frontier into Italy. Just a few miles further on and there’s a motorway cafe selling delicious Italian coffee and breakfast pastries. I order a cappuccino and a brioche and marvel at the bill – just Euros 2.60 for coffee and pastry – that’s nothing it would have been Euros 15 or more in Monaco. The gift ship is selling ‘ITALIA’ football shirts and all types of Italian pasta, wines and biscotti. I’m here, I’m in Italy, there is no doubt about that.
Ahead of me on the autostrada there is a massive transporter, fully loaded with cars. Each car is covered in a plastic cocoon of grey plastic. As I get closer I realise the cars are actually Maseratis. In fact there are two fully loaded transporters carrying a total of fourteen Maseratis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many of these ultra-stylish Italian cars in one place before. I wonder what the collective noun for a group of Maseratis is – a clutch of Maseratis? A gaggle of Maseratis? I’m reminded of an amusing visit I made to the Maserati factory in Modena several years ago. In my capacity as a travel company owner (specialising in Italy) I’d been asked to visit the marketing team at Maserati to discuss promoting ‘Maserati Driving Holidays in Italy’. The idea never really got off the ground – the Maserati folks were convinced that they could charge tens of thousands of euros to prospective drivers – I begged to differ. They were not interested in hearing my opinion. I didn’t take it personally – I was glad to have been invited to the factory. It was highly entertaining. Needless to say their idea didn’t go anywhere. I still like the cars though – and I did own a Maserati at one point. We sold it when the warranty was due to expire. Even when the car was brand new things kept falling off. My husband, good-humouredly, referred to the build-quality as ‘not great’ and put it down to the idiosyncratic nature of the car. I’ve stuck to a BMW ever since.
I pass the turning for Santa Margerita Ligure and Portofino to the right. Portofino is a tiny picturesque fishing harbour, popular with boat owners and in the 1960s with the ‘jet set’. It is still very pretty, although very touristy these days – don’t go there for a bargain.
Shortly afterwards I find myself in the region of Tuscany, Toscana as the Italians call it. Tuscany was the birthplace of the ‘renaissance’. One of the wealthiest and most successful territories of the Italian peninsula. The mountains are separated from the sea here by a flat, fertile coastal plain. To my left I can see the steep, forbidding cliffs that lead up into the Apuan Alps. These spectacular mountains are composed of ancient metamorphic rocks which have been heated and compressed by the Earth’s tectonic activity over millenia. Some of the finest, purest and most brilliant white marble comes from these mountains especially the quarries of Massa and Carrara.
When Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt a gigantic image of the biblical character ‘David’ in the early 16th century, he worked with a huge block of pure white Carrara marble. The finished work is more than 5 metres tall and took three years to complete. It is interesting to think that the result of Michelangelo’s skill, more than 500 years ago is still one of the top tourist attractions in Florence today. In fact the queues to get into The Accademia where the David is on display can be thoroughly off-putting.
As I drive along this coastal motorway with the marble quarries to my left I can see the vast stone yards to my right, filled with enormous blocks of marble waiting to be shipped around the world. The cranes and moving equipment adjust and pile these gargantuan stones like building blocks in a children’s playground.
A little further south and I’m driving across the valley of the River Arno. The Arno is the river that links Florence and Pisa with the Mediterranean Sea. Slightly to the north is Lucca, with its medieval walls and famous olive oil producing history. Lucca is a wealthy little town. Then, just south of the Arno is the city of Pisa, arch rival of Florence for generations. Pisa was a maritime city, a trading city and is the home of one of the top universities in Italy. The average tourist comes to Pisa to see one thing and one thing alone – and it’s not the Museum of Antique Boat Construction. We all come to visit Pisa to see the ‘Leaning Tower’ or as the Italians say ‘La Torre Pendente di Pisa’. Pisa is a small city and I’m able to park quite easily. Although, still in Monaco mode I manage with 6 euros to buy two days of parking instead of two hours….oops. I make my way, following my nose to Piazza dei Miracoli and the spectacular combination of religious buildings that includes the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The fabulous duomo, baptistery and campanile are sparkling in the sun. The facade is pure white marble from the Carrara marble quarries that I’ve just admired.
The Leaning Tower actually developed a tilt early in the construction process. The 12th century designers and engineers hadn’t allowed for the displacement of the soft, alluvial sediments on which the tower’s foundations rested. In fact, on observing the tilt, there was an attempt to correct it by building upwards from a tilted base, this didn’t really work! However extensive monitoring of the tower and positioning of carefully-placed counter weights has stabilised the tower for the time being. Ascending the tower and the feeling of looking down from a ‘leaning’ tower is most unsettling……………..I also didn’t like the smoothness of the white marble which becomes slippery and slick in damp weather. It is said that Galileo, a native of Pisa, conducted experiments from the top of the tower, by dropping weights to the ground below and measuring the time that various objects took to reach the ground. He was able to observe that all objects, regardless of their mass, experience the same acceleration when in free fall. This meant that various lead spheres of differing weights and sizes hit the ground at the same time.
Once I’ve admired the Tower I head into the back streets to find a non-tourist restaurant for lunch. I find one, it’s family-run and the wife spends most of her time bemoaning the state of Italy and how hard it is to make a living. The food is good though, I have home-made tagliolini with an interesting sauce of radicchio lettuce and agrume (oranges), that’s a first!! A curious combination of flavours. Then it’s back to the car, via the huge, chaotic, pedestrianised Pisa General Hospital Campus, whose numerous buildings are in various states of disrepair. This is a big teaching hospital and covers many blocks of the centre of town. It is a disorganised mixture of super-modern and desperately ramshackle. It would make an excellent setting for a thriller – where a haunted and terrified individual tries to escape……along the lines of ‘The Prisoner'(see note).
I’m back in the car now and I’m heading east along the valley of the River Arno towards Florence. I’m actually heading for a spot of indulgence. I’m going to book myself into the Grotta Giusti Spa Hotel, which is located in the hills of Montecatini, just north-west of Florence. These hills, with their convoluted geological history are full of geo-thermal springs and the town of Montecatini Termi has become wealthy selling its spa treatments to visitors. Grotta Giusti is actually a natural cave in the hills, with a humid, warm atmosphere. You can go in the grotto and relax – it is like a natural steam room. In fact I’m heading down there just now for a massage.
Freshly back from my massage, which I have to say was marvellous, I’m now planning the next elements of my road trip. I’m actually spoilt for choice. The charming villages of Chianti beckon to the south. Whilst to the north there is Maranello, home of Ferrari and the rather industrial (but fascinating) cities of Bologna and Modena. What’s more I’ve just discovered that the Mille Miglia (literally The 1000 Miles) a road race that has taken place in Italy since 1927 is actually on this weekend. My plan is to watch the cars zoom by just as they come into the charming small town of Ferrara, which is late tomorrow afternoon. I have to be there – it’s not negotiable!
For me the thrill of the Open Road is very special. Just think of Toad in ‘Wind in the Willows’. He loved his car, his motor. It gave him liberty, freedom, movement. I’m with Toad on this one………………….
- The Prisoner was a British-made TV Series from the 1960s. It soon developed a cult following. It was stylish and exciting with a modern, science fiction vibe.
- More on the Mille Miglia to follow soon.
- Grotta Giusti – healthy food and beautiful setting!
- Thanks to Juliet and Nick who helped me understand why Galileo’s experiment was important. This little diagram helped me! My scientific friends kindly explained to me that Sir Issac Newton went on to build on the work of Copernicus and Galileo proving lots of very important principles including ‘gravity’. As a historian I know he’s commemorated in Westminster Abbey – I’m guessing that’s probably why……