Italian Road Trip 2016 – Part Two

It’s a wrench to drag ourselves away from Weggis with its blissful isolation and cleansing atmosphere but we have progress to make and our next stop is glamorous Lake Como. I finally relinquish control of the wheel and Mrs Motorcardiaries is given the opportunity to experience some Swiss motoring. The early driving is along easy, winding roads along the lakeside, with the usual views of the water framed by high mountains. To our left are jagged rock formations interspersed with high, green fields. Soon we’re ducking between tunnels and we must ease through a hundred of them over the course of the day; some long and illuminated, others just short sections of concrete; open-sided and cantilevered above our heads. I take the opportunity to savour the views and indulge in a bit of car-spotting, with a number of interesting motors heading towards us, including a fabulous two-seat racing bodied Riley special of the sort so beloved of our Continental cousins.

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Soon we are cruising along broad two-lane highways through the mountains. We’re surrounded by snow-tipped peaks and dense forest, with the road ploughing on through the centre of the wilderness. Each turn of the wheel brings yet another breath-taking view. It seems hard to believe this is simply a conventional motorway linking one urban sprawl to the next.

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Sadly, several of the most dramatic of the Swiss Alpine passes are closed for another few weeks due to snow but we locate one which looks fun and, like the best of the passes, links nowhere very significant with somewhere else not very significant. The Passo del Lucomagno isn’t far from the St Bernadino but doesn’t share the latter’s fearsome reputation.

We start at the south end of the pass at Biasca, where the road initially rises in a series of hairpins before levelling out. From there, it’s a really pleasant hour’s run up to Disentis. The climb is never dramatic in the Stelvio sense of the word but one suddenly finds oneself up above the tree line, with nothing but broken rocks and snow for company. There are some fantastic stretches through verdant valleys, the landscape punctuated by isolated timber houses. At one stage I’m alarmed to find the road has been dug up and we’re forced to trek our way across loose stone. In spite of my extreme paranoia, it presents the perfect opportunity to gloat over the capability of the 911’s four wheel drive system.

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The Lucomagno is a fabulous road and one you can really drive. It doesn’t present a huge amount of jeopardy – unlike, say, the Furka – but it’s fast, open and remarkably devoid of other traffic. It’s an effort to keep the Porsche on a leash and the way it piles on speed through third and fourth gears makes open sections occasionally a battle of self-control. We are also afforded the chance for some full-noise tunnel running. With the windows and sunroof open, the enclosure offered by harsh, concrete tunnels reveals the Mezger’s racing origins. At this level of proximity, all turbo whooshiness is lost to pure, sawtooth bark. Hard acceleration in second gear reveals an anger and savagery which is lost in usual motoring, where that character is smothered by the calming effect of those big turbos. It reveals a new, raw side to the otherwise decorous 911 – and perhaps shows that it isn’t so far removed from its GT3 brethren.

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Sadly, we can’t play on the passes all day and need to continue making progress south into Italy. The motorways make for easy passage. We stop periodically for pit stops and among the highlights is a service area dropped into the most incredible Alpine location, mountains towering over us in all directions. It’s a treat to find ourselves filling up next to a gloriously orange Alfa Romeo Montreal – pure ‘70s psychadelia.

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It’s actually hard to tell when we finally cross into Italy, but you’re very aware of how ‘Italian’ the motoring is once you hit Como. Everything appears to be orchestrated by chaos theory and blind hope. It may not be a match for rush hour in Delhi but it feels awfully busy after a couple of days of wonderful, open roads. The narrow little lane along the water’s edge passing through tiny, rustic villages on the lake’s western shoreline does little for my nerves. Coaches occupy both lanes of the carriageway, with suicidal locals overtaking irrespective of visibility, speed limit or suitability of vehicle. It’s a relief to finally reach our home for the next four nights and ditch the car for a couple of days.

Hotel Darsena at Tremezzo offers balconies directly over the lake, affording unfettered views of Bellagio on the opposite shore and the chance to watch fish swimming directly below one’s feet. Close your eyes and picture Lake Como – this is pretty much the postcard experience. We’re enormously fortunate.

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Como is famous for its spectacular vistas, glamorous villas, charming towns and fine gastronomy. We do our best to take advantage of all these attributes, taking to our feet and shuttling across the water on the ferry. It’s worth remembering the time of the last ferry, though, as we nearly find ourselves stranded on the wrong side of the lake one evening after some daytime over-indulgence in a Bellagio bar.

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The jewel in Como’s crown – for us at least – is Villa Balbianello. Located on an arboreal peninsula half an hour’s walk out of Lenno, it’s a small, magical villa set in the most beautiful grounds. Its unique location affords perfect views in all directions, with the architecture of the house (and wider grounds) set out specifically to maximise any opportunity to expand one’s horizons out across the lake. Even the trees are pruned to ensure they don’t grow too tall and obstruct the windows.

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Villa Carlotta, the most famous in the area, is slightly disappointing by comparison. A vast, white symbol of wealth and status, its gardens are fabulous and feel almost tropical at times. Inside is a tribute to the world’s greatest artworks but it’s displayed in huge, cold marble rooms and never feels intimate or personal like Balbinello. Interesting but nothing like as special as its neighbour.

All this culture is becoming rather oppressing, though, and I desperately need some automotive action to keep my vacational interest levels up. By useful coincidence, the Mille Miglia is kicking off in Brescia and a wet day is in prospect. Sit inside reading and staring at the rain or embrace it and watch some old cars? Each of us takes a different stance but soon we are tramping our way along the autostrada towards Parma, ready to dive left and head towards the little town of Valeggio sul Mincio, where the Mille has a control point.

Drizzle in Tremezzo has turned to a deluge further south and the driving is less than fun. I (rather stupidly, it transpires) have elected to take a slightly longer route, cutting out Brescia and the Mille route, reasoning that it promises to be utterly chaotic. This means a four-hour drive to our destination, with at least one of those hours traversing old cart tracks, topped with a few millimetres of threadbare macadam surface dressing. I’m not sure Mrs Motorcardiaries will ever forgive me, nor the poor Porsche which isn’t blessed with the world’s most yielding suspension set-up.

Still, eventually we land in Valeggio sul Mincio and the street party is in full swing, with several roads closed to allow the Mille competitors clear passage through the town. In spite of the devilish downpour, there’s a good crowd in attendance, many waving little paper flags featuring the event’s logo.

First cars through are modern Mercedes, soon giving way to a cavallino cavalcade, as scores of Maranello’s finest dodge the puddles through the town’s main square. From the latest 488GTB through to classic Berlinetta Boxers, there’s the full palate of Ferraris – and the owners seem unperturbed by the conditions.

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No sooner have the modern red cars sung their way off towards the next control point than the proper competitors start to land. Open pre-war sports cars look like hard work in such dire conditions, offering their occupants no protection from the elements. Spectacles are wiped, brows are mopped and any efforts at waterproofing look forlorn and redundant. Still, there are smiles all round and the next day promises fine sunshine.

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If you crave the awesome spectacle of old racing cars slithering around on their treaded tyres, a Mille Miglia control point might lack a certain sparkle. But, if the presence and atmosphere in old cars piques your interest, then this is the event for you. As I stand on the roadside, looking up a narrow Italian town street, I’m struck by the authenticity of the aesthetic. Geriatric locals amble along the pavements as real racing cars hurtle past. There’s real endeavour here, splashing through the puddles in a properly old car with genuine race pedigree. Ignore the theatrics and the occasional celebrity cameos for a second…this is how the Mille Miglia looked during its golden era. It’s properly special.

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Mercifully for a soggy Mrs Motorcardiaries but sadly for me, we’re so far from home that we only watch the first half of the 350-strong field file past before having to return to Hotel Darsena. What a treat, though, to see pre-war Alfas, Bugattis, Mercedes, BMWs and Bentleys out and about, battling the open road, the elements and their competitors.

Links:

Hotel Darsena

Detailed Mille Miglia Route

Mille Miglia Entry List

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