Italian Road Trip – Part Five

Those following this journey solely for the racing might do well to look away now, for the balance of our trip sees almost no competition activity.

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From Florence, we head further south into Tuscany. We have a couple of nights booked in a gorgeous hilltop hotel about 15 minutes from San Giminiano. Amid a pretty breathless couple of weeks, this represents a chance to relax, catch up on our reading and take a dip in the pool. Our home is Poderi Arcangelo, a small, independent hotel hidden way up a track among the rolling Tuscan hills, surrounded by its own vineyards. This is a pretty spectacular location and feels extremely private. At least it does until we get chatting to a couple who live ten minutes from us in West Yorkshire. Sometimes the world is just too small…

The location is spectacular and nicely positioned for visits to San Giminiano, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of some repute. It is a typical Italian hilltop fortification, but blessed with unnaturally beautiful buildings surrounding a central piazza bustling with tourists. It’s remarkably well preserved and its modern renaissance as a tourist town has been strangely seamless with no cars allowed within the walls.

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One morning, it’s a surprise to find the Porsche has managed to clone itself. Well, almost. A convertible 997 Turbo has joined us in the hotel garage (such as it is); this one LHD and hails from Germany. Quite apart from its numerous Porsches, the hotel also makes its own wine and olive oil, among other products. We stash a crate of red and a couple of litres of olive oil in the snout. While that rear engine might make for challenging handling characteristics, it does offer very useful luggage capacity.

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As pleasant as Tuscany is – and it is very, very pleasant – we have a long drive to get back home and we have only a couple of overnight stays between us and Rotterdam, almost 1,000 miles away. Our first night is still in Italy – right on the apex of Italy, France and Switzerland at Aosta. As much French seems to be spoken here as Italian and it sits right in the foothills of the highest Alps – with the mighty Matterhorn looming in the distance.

For driving enthusiasts, the area is famous for the St Bernadino passes – Grande and Piccolo. Sadly, like so many of the high passes, both are closed at this time of year but our host for the evening is a car nerd of epic proportions and he joins me for a guide on some less well-known local roads. We drop the windows and enjoy a wonderful 45 minutes searing uphill between hairpins before dropping back down into town with a fraction more circumspection.

If Aosta endeared itself as a result of our genial host and the fine driving, we probably didn’t offer the town and surrounding area sufficient time. We resolve to return another time to visit the famous St Bernard dog kennels and to explore those mountain roads.

From Aosta, it’s a couple of hours north and back into Switzerland, where we are destined for Gruyères. We drone through the Mont Blanc tunnel in the company of an enthusiastic Brit in a Maserati and we occasionally trade blares of noise. Emerging on the Swiss side of the tunnel, we find superb driving. We haven’t contrived a route, preferring just to let Waze direct us and we end up on a wide, winding valley road for mile after mile.

We end up on the back of a queue of cars moving at slightly under the speed limit. Slightly cautious of the Swiss police’s reputation for Draconian speeding penalties, I elect not to attempt a banzai overtaking move. Suddenly I spy a shock of white hair in the mirror behind me. A lady deep into her 70s has arrived on my tail with tremendous speed. Her mount is a Peugeot 307 and she’s sitting inches from the steering wheel. Before I have time to clock any more detail, she’s dropped a cog and blasted past me; and the three cars in from of me. While approaching a hairpin. Bloody hell.

She makes off into the distance like Sebastian Loeb on the Col du Torini. Well, that just won’t do; I’m on a mountain road in a 911 Turbo and I’m not going to be burnt off by a granny in a shopping wagon. At the next available opportunity I dispatch the three cars in front of me and head after Madame. Unfortunately Madame is a madman and, in spite of a spirited pursuit, I don’t catch her until a village ten minutes later when she is slowed by other traffic. She soon performs another banzai overtake and is gone…never to be seen again.

Gruyères is a quite remarkable place. It sits cradled among mountains, high above vast, verdant plains. The centre of the village – for it feels too small to be called a town – is cobbled and does not welcome vehicles. We park a small way out of the village and walk up to be greeted by a totally unspoilt Swiss vision of quaint perfection.

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While famous for its fabulous dairy products, this serene idyll was once the home of H R Giger – an artist with a gruesome vision of dystopia. Best-known for dreaming up the visuals for Alien, he created vast worlds of biomechanical hell. Today his legacy lives on with a museum stuffed full of original work and a remarkable bar sculpted as if it were leftover from Alien.

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Gruyères is the most unlikely spot for ghoulish artistry but Giger’s work is fascinating – much of it recognisable from popular culture. Among our favourite pieces is one of two original microphone stands Giger designed for Korn singer Jonathan Davies. This was a critical part of the band’s aesthetic when we were impressionable teenagers. Sadly no photos are allowed in the museum but it’s parts dark and sprawling and others light and lofty (quite literally because it spreads up to the loft).

Directly across the road is the bar and it’s an absolute treasure. The theme is all-encompassing, with the whole interior a mass of stylised spinal columns, skulls and biomechanical fantasy. It’s a nightmarish vision but beautifully executed. We stay long enough for Mrs Motorcardiaries to drink some absinthe; which naturally sends her utterly demented. We are almost run out of town after she earnestly tries to converse with some resident chickens. Mercifully we manage to score some locally-produced chocolates and high-tail it to Germany in a hurry. It’s such a charming place, though, and we determine to return for an overnight stay so we can sink a little more absinthe in the sinisterly silly H R Giger bar.

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Our final destination is Heidelberg. Like Tubingen, this is a university town – and one with among the finest reputations in Germany. It’s also relatively unspoilt, with dramatic topography, an ancient castle and a proliferation of old buildings lining cobbled streets. It’s postcard-perfect realisation of an old German Rhine town – thought it’s not quite on the Rhine, but instead one of its tributaries.

We are staying high above the centre and use the last morning of our holiday to venture downtown. It’s a long, steep walk but we stop to examine the schloss – an historic castle which has suffered intermittently from preservation and neglect. At one time it was plundered for its stone to build dwellings elsewhere in the town. Our legs don’t thank us for the endless descent to the old town and the river Neckar but at least a funicular railway drags us back up to the car after a wander around the historic streets. It’s a fine and atmospheric town but perhaps not the ultimate tourist destination.

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The rest of our day is simply a slog north on the autobahns, back into Holland and ultimately the ferry to Blighty. We encounter some truly biblical weather at one stage, bringing the whole autobahn down to a crawl. The rain is bouncing off the road, rivers forming within seconds. It’s scary.

We call at a service area for sustenance and find a TV showing F1 qualifying so we pause for half an hour and enjoy a bite to eat. As soon as the session finishes, the chap running in charge of the remote immediately switches over. He doesn’t want to miss the start of the Nürburgring 24 Hours. What a guy!

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And then, with just a buttock-clenching few minutes as a passenger while Mrs Motorcardiaries samples unlimited autobahn running, we’re back on the ferry and another amazing trip is over. We’ve enjoyed a wonderful mix of roads, excursions, motor racing, sight-seeing and even some brief rest. It’s reaffirmed my belief that the road trip remains the best way to see the world – to meet the locals, find those little places off the beaten track and even make a few friends along the way. We immediately start to plot the next one…USA 2017.

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