Alps roadtrip – Days 7, 8, 9 and 10

Day 7 – Turin to Maranello

The original plan for this route was a relatively swift and simple three hour drive – more-or-less directly East along the E70 autostrada to Piacenza, then South East down the A1 to arrive in Maranello. But the night before I was having second thoughts – I’d forgotten that the Italian Grand Prix had arrived, so the roads around Monza and Milan would probably be a complete nightmare. Even though our route shouldn’t have taken us within 30 miles of the area, I began to explore more coastal-oriented options instead.

A helpful tweet from Ferrari’s man in the UK, Jason Harris, suggested that I try the mountain roads in from La Spezia or Abetone. Rather than choose between the two, I decided to compromise – driving down to Genoa, then coming off the autostrada at La Spezia, taking the moutain route from Aulla (A) to Bagni di Lucca (B), then swinging North through Abetone (C) to the home of the Prancing Horse, seven miles South of Modena (D).

This turned out to be a pretty decent choice of roads. In general, the road surface on these stretches couldn’t match that of the passes in the South of France, but the atmosphere is wonderful, and you get a proper look at real life in rural Italy. The second thing you’ll notice – after the patchy surfacing – is the volume of Mk1 Fiat Pandas that adorn these roads. I was astonished. Whilst I’d noted certain cars seeming more popular than others in Turin a day earlier, that was just down to trends and fashion. This was something else entirely. This is a car that started to define rural Italy for me – everyone up in the hills seems to have one, or have had one, and there are hundreds that have been left for dead in a plethora of breakers’ yards and countryside garages along this route. If you ever find yourself in the market for an original Panda, don’t bother scouring UK classifieds and paying thousands for a timewarp example, just head to the hills North of Lucca…

Abetone is pretty desolate this time of year, but in the peak ski season I imagine it thronging – there are anglo-focussed eateries absolutely everywhere, and scores of hotels littering the pass. That said, it’s a great little resort in any weather, and I’m guessing the rates at this time of year would be a bargain. Mr Harris’ recommendation is certainly well-founded from Abetone onwards; it’s a great scenic route and keeps you well away from the reckless shattering of the speed limit on the autostrada.

It’s relatively late in the afternoon by the time we get to Maranello, but we still have a bit of time to soak up the atmosphere outside the Galleria Ferrari before night falls. A gathering of Austin Healeys and E-Types are outside when we arrive, but depart soon after – the burbling of the exhausts almost outgunning the high-revving V12s roaming the car park. If I’m honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect here, but outside of the static display cars near the Galleria, what surprised me was the number and variety of Ferrari roaming nearly all of the roads around the factory. It wasn’t just new metal either – a 308 GTS, 412, F512M and Daytona all make an appearance. Sunset and Scuderia shields make a great combination.

This evening we’re staying in the brilliant Locanda del Mulino on the outskirts of town along Via Nuova Estense. It’s a cosy little establishment in a converted water mill, with great staff and great food that brings in plenty of locals for dinner. A tome on Enzo lies open on a lectern by the front door – this is clearly my kind of hotel…

Dinner is worth mentioning all by itself, if only because the beef fillet with marsala wine and figs is by some margin the best thing I have had the whole week. Or possibly the whole year.

Day 8 – Maranello to Genoa

This day’s entry should have been titled ‘Maranello to Bormio’, but for reasons that will soon become clear, all that changed in a split second.

After breakfast, we loaded up the car as usual, plugging in the destinations and route points to the Sat Nav to take us along our chosen roads, to our next stop in the mountain resort of Bormio. The journey from Maranello to the southern tip of Lake Garda was uneventful – smooth, fast autostrada all the way to Verona, then the A22 junction off to Affi and Garda towards the lake itself. The plan here was to drive the 40-odd kilometres following the water all the way to Nago-Torbole at the northern tip, then back to the motorway for the stretch to Bolzano and beyond.

We had gone a little over a tenth of the 40 lakeside kilometres when the day fell apart.

I’m not going into details here, suffice to say that our car is now sitting in a garage in the hills above the lake and is in no fit state to be driven. And before anyone starts putting together theories based on no evidence whatsoever, nobody involved was hurt or was breaking any laws or was driving recklessly. It was arguably an entirely unavoidable incident, but one that we had to deal with quickly.

Whilst it all passed in something of a blur, what occured in the hours after the accident was – in hindsight – incredibly fortunate, and will hopefully make for an uplifting read.

After the requisite police attendance and conversations between parties, within no time the car in front of me was on its way with little to show for it. God only knows what happened to the car in front of that – its driver’s actions were a key factor, but they must have disappeared before we had a chance to notice. Once we were on our own, we needed to figure out what to do with the car, and more importantly, what to do with ourselves after that.

The first character in this afternoon of heroes was an Italian woman who was a friend of the owner of the cafe we happened to be nearby (this was pretty much the only visible bit of civilisation around). She spoke near fluent English – a stroke of luck, and invaluable to helping us in the hour that followed. It was barely 15 minutes before we’d managed to arrange for recovery to the local garage – astonishing considering that this was Sunday lunchtime, in Italy of all places.

It seemed to take no more than half an hour before the truck arrived, and before long we were heading into the hills in the cab of the flatbed. We had left our multi-lingual friend behind and were now stuck with what appeared at first to be a mono-syllabic (and evidently mono-lingual) mechanic. We’d confirmed where we were going and how much it would cost, but little else. I had absolutely no idea what we were going to do once we hopped out of the truck at the other end. Fortunately, the driver was way ahead of us. When we arrived at the garage, it became clear that his calls from the cab (which I’d unfairly assumed were just chats with his mates) were in fact to arrange for his taxi-driving friend to meet us there.

Had we decided to stay put, said taxi driver would have happily motored off again, but as it was we were incredibly grateful that he’d given her a call. Once we’d clarified what was happening to the car, exchanged contact details and emptied the boot, we talked to this third character of the day about her recommendations for our next move. We needed to get somewhere less remote to give us options, and Verona airport seemed like the best bet. With trains, planes and hire cars all in one place, this made by far and away the most sense.

Within minutes of the taxi leaving the garage, it became clear that this talkative blonde cabbie was in fact Italy’s answer to Sabine Schmitz. The (legal) speed, smoothness and car control on display in the following 30 minutes was incredible. Her new E-Class was adorned with a custom badge on the rear – the five slanted columns of ever-decreasing size were juxtaposed not with ‘AMG’ as normal but with ‘EVO’. I have no idea what was under the bonnet, but she used it with unbelievable gusto.

Once at Verona airport, we started discussing options for hire cars from the various providers. The initial feedback did not bode well. Many of the companies had no cars available, while others only had Belgian (that apparently couldn’t be dropped off elsewhere) or Italian cars (that could be left in France, but which would incur an eyewatering four-figure drop-off surcharge). Our experience was backed up by family in England ringing around too – Hertz in Trento had a vehicle, but to leave in Calais would mean a total cost approaching £1,200.

We hadn’t eaten or really drunk anything for hours by this point, and given the afternoon’s events so far, we went for coffee and food to regroup and rethink. Weighing up the choices made us realise just how costly all the options were. There was no cheap way out of this situation. Curtailing the holiday would mean paying for last-minute flights back from Verona (and an overnight stay if there were none left that day), and a certain amount of unrecoverable hotel room costs for the rest of the trip. Then there was the hire car route, which seemed excessively punitive. Europe is evidently not much of a Union when it comes to vehicles beyond borders.

Heading back to the hire car lobby, we weren’t really comfortable choosing either option, but mostly felt that it was worth continuing if at all possible, given what we’d already put into the trip. It was then that the post-incident events took another incredibly fortunate turn. The friendly Hertz employee who was well briefed on our plight took the phone down from his ear, put his hand over the mouthpiece and called over to me: “I’m just speaking to a colleague about a different booking… we have a French car at Genoa airport – are you happy to drive an Italian car there tonight to make the switch?”. Knowing full well that this would avoid the astronomical drop-off charge and take the cost back down to a reasonable price for the week’s hire, we practically bit his hand off.

Hiring a car seems to be one of the few processes that’s quicker and simpler in person than over the internet. Within moments we had the keys to a Fiat Idea, and after bundling our belongings into the boot, we were heading in the opposite direction to the one we had intended this morning to rendez-vous with our next carriage in Genoa before 11pm. Despite horrendous traffic near Tortona, we were in the port by 8.30pm, and had exchanged our little Fiat for an Opel Insignia on French plates. There was – of course – no way we were going to get back on our original route, all the way up to Bormio, by a decent hour at this point, so we checked into the Sheraton next to the airport, ordered room service and reflected on everything that had just happened.

With every hour that passed, we became more and more pragmatic about the whole situation. The slightly sickening feeling, of losing something that you weren’t expecting to, was subsiding, and the most important thing – after all – was that we were both OK.

Day 9 – Genoa to Cannobio

In the actually rather warm light of day, we found ourselves feeling better still. I’d spent an hour or so last night watching the news – being Sunday 11 September, it provided some pretty sobering context in which to place the previous day’s events. You’ll notice I don’t use the word “disaster” or “tragedy” in this post, because by any measure, it wasn’t one.

Context aside, we had breakfast, then got started on the process to either recover or write off the car. The day before I had been thinking that this would be an overly-complex task with a ridiculous amount of hoop-jumping required to get anywhere. After a half hour on the phone, it appeared surprisingly straightforward. With the wheels in motion, we got cracking on the day’s itinerary – no mucking about, just directly North to the Italian lakes in general, and Cannobio in particular.

The motorways out of Genoa are fantastic – tunnels every few kilometres, remarkably well-maintained tarmac, and beautiful scenery all around. The following 240km passed pretty quickly, and before we knew it we were driving alongside the stunning Lake Maggiore.

If you’ve never been to the Italian lakes, it’s difficult to comprehend just how vast these bodies of water are. Maggiore isn’t even the biggest in Italy, but it’s nearly 70km long. Consider this: you couldn’t even fit it inside the M25. The driving route closest to the shore is about 160km, and will take you about three and a half hours. Rather than tackle this, we settle into the wonderful Residenza Patrizia before taking a stroll into the old town. The piazza overlooking the lake is crowded with a variety of decent, tasteful restaurants, and there are a handful of unbelievably good Gelateria along Via Magistris here. The shops that line the hill beyond the piazza are certainly worth a look too – traditional crafts along with food and cooking havens make it a charming street.

Having had a bit of street food in the afternoon, we tucked in to dinner at the lovely ‘Restaurant il Pontile’ on the main cobbled piazza. Cracking pasta and ‘spinaci al burro’ were the order of the evening. The views from all of the eateries along this stretch are superb, particularly once the sun has gone down and the moon has risen from behind the mountains on the other side of the lake. If you’re a keen photographer, don’t forget to pack your tripod – you won’t want to miss it.

Day 10 – Cannobio in the sun

Rather than use the car for a trip around the lake or into the mountains above the town, we decided to leave it in the underground garage and enjoy the sunshine and the swimming pool instead.

After a lazy breakfast and some early morning reading, we headed down to la piscina around 11am. Even though it was 33C, it’s September, so there are essentially no other guests around. School holidays aside, I have no idea why people bother coming down here among the hordes in July/August. Weather doesn’t usually turn until mid-month at the earliest; first two weeks of September FTW I reckon…

The pool is amazing – two thirds outside, one third indoors via an arch, leading to a first class fitness and sauna complex. We snag the best loungers (not that we have any competition) and soak up the incredible views. The Fairmont in Monte Carlo may have the sea and the city around its luxurious sun deck, but the mountains around this humble establishment make the perfect setting.

The rest of the day passes quickly, consisting of a trip down to town, more gelato (natch), and dinner at the quayside once more. It’s a pity we don’t get to spend more time here – it’s probably our favourite place of the trip so far. We’ll definitely be coming back.

Next: Day 11 and the drive to Beckenried, via the San Bernardino pass, Tamins and an unbelievably misty Andermatt.

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