Ever since the Etruscans carved roads through sheer rock and the Romans threaded valleys with aqueducts, Italians have had a reputation as great engineers. Today we British buy Italian-built Pendolino trains for our rail network, and thrill at the racy machines of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati.
Fiat is another famous Italian name, but one whose reputation has swung between high and low over the past fifty years. Currently on an upswing, I decided to put one of the company’s snazzy new models through its paces. I’d drive it from one end of northern Italy to the other and back again – crossing high mountains and languid plains, meandering round lakes, through cities, and off into the countryside. Epic road trips across Italy invariably involve a north-to-south itinerary – starting somewhere at the top of the boot and working steadily down to the toe. But by crossing the whole of the wide north, from Piedmont to Lombardy to the Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, I’d be voyaging through the heartlands of modern Italian industry and engineering. A pilgrim through the home of the machine.
Of course I had to start in Turin, a.k.a. ‘Fiatville’. Unimpressed by its outskirts full of characterless apartment buildings, I park and catch a clean, air-conditioned tram to the city centre, happy to note that for all its domination by the car industry, Turin is green-sighted and forward-thinking enough to have superb public transport. The centre is immediately likeable, with grand yet unfussy Baroque buildings and miles of arcaded pavements. The broad Po river slides serenely past the eastern streets, sprinkled with egrets and bounded by leafy hills dotted with villas. And all the while the craggy Alps loom high in the celestial distance. I wander the city happily for four hours, then get on the road.
It’s 33°C as I pull out of Turin, and I seal the windows to savour the air-con. I need to keep a cool head; I must navigate a route and negotiate urban traffic at the same time. Torinese drivers are generally courteous and safe, especially by southern standards, but as everywhere in Italy they are pushy at junctions and will squeeze into any tiny gap. I’m forced to be assertive, and feel emboldened by my Italian license plates. When I reach the motorway, everyone drives way over the speed limit. Except big trucks, which crawl along and oblige you to overtake. The lanes are unnervingly narrow by British standards, and the tailgating terrifying.
There are roadworks. There are jams. I get lost. And my journey of about 140 miles takes me five hours. Meanwhile, the weather takes a turn for the theatrical. Oceanic clouds bring on an artificial night, and inch-wide raindrops start hammering furiously across the windscreen – satisfyingly pushed aside by my Fiat’s big wipers. On the stereo system, Air’s brooding, smooth Moon Safari album is the perfect accompaniment to the weird dark weather and my traffic jam ennui. Finally I leave the flat Po Valley and drive into lush green Alpine foothills. Tongues of lightning brighten the battleship-grey sky, while the homes scattered around grow noticeably more Alpine-style and chalet-like.
My first view of Lake Como is in total darkness – the shoreline picked out in streetlights, flashes of lightning briefly revealing the silhouettes of towering mountains. The incessant rain reaches monsoon proportions as I arrive in Varenna, where I dash barefoot through an avalanche of water to ask for directions to my hotel, and get back in the car soaked through to the skin.
I awake to find the rain-washed sky dazzlingly blue, the lake glittering. I wander stupefied along the water’s edge, stunned by the beauty and the tranquillity of the place. High, serrated green slopes plunge into the water, sprinkled with fruit-coloured, fin-de-siècle villas and graceful cypress trees. I stop for coffee on the world’s most serene terrace and fall into chat with an English couple who turn out to be regular readers of the magazine I write for back in Britain. I promise to put them in this article, and I wave hello to them through this sentence. Back in the car, I tootle round the lake, take a car ferry to Bellagio, and recuperate from yesterday’s journey by lounging on the idyllic lakeside.
The next day I face the longest single drive of the trip – 400km covered in six hours, on tiny mountain roads and motorways. I leave Varenna at 11:30, heading north into ever higher and craggier terrain. The light is savagely clear and the vegetation luminously green in the clean Alpine air. The sun glints off flat facets of rock on the mountain peaks, and I’m thrilled to see snow cradled in the dips between the tallest of them – in August! There’s a surprising amount of industry and settlement up here. It certainly doesn’t feel as remote a backwater as the difficult terrain ought to make it. On telegraph poles and the smooth concrete flanks of bridges, I spot northern separatist graffiti again and again – “Lega Nord”, “Padania Libera”, “Lega Veneta Padania”. The sophisticated, wealthy Italian north does indeed feel like a different country to the sleepy south and I almost begin to feel some sympathy for those who want the north declared a separate state. It could be Europe’s richest.
I stop for petrol in a village about five miles from the Swiss border, the flower-decked dark-wood chalets all around making it difficult to believe I’m still in Italy. I meander through the mountains for a while, on hair-raising sheer-drop roads, stop in pretty Edolo for lunch, then decide to weave my way back toward bigger, straighter roads and their promise of swifter progress. Heading down from the Alps toward the motorway, I power through long tunnels blasted into rockfaces, across ravine-spanning bridges, past sleek trains serving myriad mountain stations. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the effortless display of Italian engineering all around me. The terrain is no obstacle, the infrastructure superb.
I’m singing along to Abba by the time I join the autostrada to Padua, the sun at my back and the beautiful Euganean Hills sprouting to my right. Trucks are swinging round me thick and fast, but I seem to have found my inner Italian and remain unperturbed, watching the suicidal tailgaters and sudden lane-switchers with an amused detachment.
I like Padua instantly, despite its bland, unpromising outskirts dominated by retail units. The old centre is a delight, full of casually beautiful buildings and relaxed Padovesi sitting at tables neatly arranged in lovely piazzas. I stroll around for a happy few hours, then spend the night dreaming of lumbering trucks, jagged mountains, endless tarmac...
Guidebooks are sniffy about Padua, claiming its chief appeal is as a cheap accommodation base for daytrips to Venice. It’s a wonderful little city. But I confess I made a daytrip to Venice. By train of course. Only a fool would drive to Venice. Where would you park when the streets are made of water? Italian trains are smooth, reliable, frequent and cheap – and the network is wonderfully comprehensive. A return ticket from Padua to Venice cost me just €5. Imagine paying £3 for a 40-mile return rail journey in Britain. Unthinkable! The Italians seem to get the balance right. They charge (reasonable) tolls to use the motorways, and subsidize the railways so train travel is cheap. That’s just enough to entice many would-be motorists from their cars and into more eco-friendly vehicles. Not like in the UK where those of us who would prefer to take the train often won’t do so because it’s so much cheaper to drive.
When I finally pack up and leave Padua, I head south on the A13 to Bologna, crossing the pancake-flat Po Valley. Sunlit fields of wheat bristle alongside the autostrada, and an unbroken line of towering cumulonimbus blooms over the Apennine mountains filling the horizon ahead. At Bologna I switch to the A1, following the route of the ancient Roman Via Æmilia running from Milan to Rimini. I’m in affluent, super-civilised Parma three hours after setting out. I explore the place by bicycle, smugly adding that mode of transportation to my week’s list: plane, car, tram, train, boat, bicycle. The little city is cheerily redolent with contentment and ease, and I can easily believe what’s often said about it having Italy’s highest standard of living.
I wake up with ghastly stomach pain and spend several hours as prisoner to my en suite bathroom. This has been coming on for a few days, I think, but how ironic that I should finally succumb to all-out gastric disaster in Parma, the capital of gastronomy! By 2:30 in the afternoon I feel brave enough to limp out in search of breakfast. Parma is gorgeous in the mid-afternoon sunshine, its buildings bright and its cyclists smiling, but the sight of its luscious foodstuffs glistening behind shop windows makes my stomach lurch. I manage a modest salad at a café, then wobble back to the hotel to recover.
At five I saddle up the Fiat and head into the hills south of Parma. This is the real gastronomic heartland of Italy. It’s here in these Apennine foothills where the ham and cheese are coaxed to perfection, here where each remote village ristorante effortlessly scales a new epicurean pinnacle. I had hoped to bring a mighty hunger with me, but all I can summon is empty nausea. First stop is Langhirano, reputedly home of the very best Parma ham, delicately flavoured by the herb-and-flower-scented mountain air. I stop and buy a kilo of the stuff for my gastronome boyfriend back in Britain, revolted in my delicate state by the sight of the scar-coloured flesh encased in its thick yellow fat. I ask the lady behind the counter if I might use a toilet somewhere in the building, and she shyly leads me down into the warehouse. The door opens on an astonishing vista of thousands upon thousands of hams hung on racks, crammed into a room the size of a football pitch.
Feeling obliged to dine somewhere in these gastronomic hills, I carry on south, climbing higher and higher through lushly green terrain. The tiny, winding mountain roads are in fabulously good condition – the smooth black asphalt and the sharp white lines look like they were laid only yesterday. Even up here on the edge of mountain wilderness, Northern Italy’s super-competence is apparent. I dine at the foot of a craggy mountain topped with a castle. Half-closed for August, the restaurant can only offer me a simple pasta dish – tortelli filled with herbed potato and sprinkled with parmesan. It’s stunning. A classic example of Italian food wizardry – the most basic ingredients rendered improbably sublime.
As I begin the drive back to Parma, a huge coin of moon is emerging from twilit veils of cloud to gaze across a mountain valley. I stop to photograph the dreamy scene, and as I clamber out of the car two ginger-coloured deer delicately pick their way down a sloping field, trot across the road in front of me, and bound elastically away across a meadow. The sight of them seems like a final piece of magic, a farewell gift from Italy on the eve of my departure. Tomorrow I will power back to Turin and fly home to Oxford. I watch the deer disappear into the fold of the valley and imagine them snuggling down somewhere to see out this soft, warm night, in this gentle land of plenty.