After sitting for a solid year behind the desk hashing out content for ColumnM, I though it was time to hit the unwind button and break loose of the norm in the only way a petrolhead can think fit – a road trip. With a limited time frame of one month (4 days less but we can still call it that) and a vast continent of Europe to explore, we really didn’t want to get into a mad rush of blasting from west to east like most do, instead we chose to explore Italy and Austria in the best possible way we thought we could.
The idea was simple, hire a car from Milan and head into the heart of Italy to spend a week in Tuscany. Once our bodies have soaked enough of the Tuscan sun and our palettes are rich with the taste of it’s wine, we would head up north into the Alps and on to Austria to drive on some of the most breathtaking Alpine mountain passes. The last part of our trip would take us back into Italy through the iconic Stelvio pass, but not without quirky melodrama. While we had decided on a small, yet convenient and very much fun rear-driven BMW 1-series for our trip, Europecar, our car rental agency was all out of those and instead gave us a well-maintained, scratch-less Audi A3. While the excitement of driving “The Ultimate Driving Machine” seemed to have crippled away, I did find myself in a car with a better spaced interior and a bigger boot… That said, the excitement of driving a 190 bhp rear wheel drive BMW (120d) as compared to a mere 150bhp (2.0 TDI) was a slightly dampening feeling.
Before everything else, lets get the elephant out of the closet. Italy is wonderful, beautiful, relaxing even, filled with some lovely and lively people who have a love for the good life like no one else in the world. But when it comes to driving on the roads, they turn into zombies craving for unruly driving ethics, always seeming to rebel to the notion of speed limits (or any road rules). Its not that they don’t adhere to speed limits… Its just that their idea of speed limit is a devious calculation that multiplies the signboard by two and then adds a few more digits just for entertainment. And even if you leave the left lane open for overtaking on the Autostrada, there will always be someone refusing to overtake you, tailgating so close as if they were looking for something on the backseat of the car. Driving in Italy is unnerving, scary and overwhelming at times.
Leaving the city of Milan where sharply dressed men on bicycles are capable of giving a supercar owner an inferiority complex, we started the drive towards Castellina in Chianti, our home for the next few days. Its here were the vineyards stretch for miles draping over the hills that compete with each other for meeting the horizon first, forming a ribbon of endless crests and troughs. As the sun starts to settle into a shallower angle with the horizon, its hard not to imagine what life would be if one was a painter, expressing his emotions though the contour of the hills meeting the sky in a mesmerising dance of colours. Trying to drive fast in Tuscany (specially in the evening) is as pointless as explaining the Mozart to a pimple-cheeked teen. It’s nearly impossible and every nerve in the body resists the thought. Every time i thought of shifting to the dynamic mode on the 2.0-litre A3 that would stiffen the steering and make the gearbox a bit more aggressive (allowing it to hold on the the cogs longer), the twisty roads would open to a new set of majestic scenery arresting my vision to look ahead, stop and just have a moment with it all. We drove hopelessly lost towards the approaching twilight as quaint towns came and went. In Tuscany, if anything can take the aggressiveness away from the drivers, it is the Tuscan sunset, apart from that extra glass of wine perhaps.
But if there is a best way to explore Tuscany and it’s true beauty, the best route is the one that the GPS suggests the last, or sometimes doesn’t suggest at all. Here’s where the locals would happily and with pride point in the direction of the best roads to drive on. With the help of Laura, our host at a lovely little farm in Castellina and the GPS tuned to avoid motorways and toll roads, we would set out in a particular direction each morning to explore what the region had to offer. These dual carriage provincial highways (Strada Proviciale) take you deep through the heart of Tuscany, passing towns that start and finish with the turn of the road. The view soon after would quickly open up with carefully cut fields and our faithful strip of tarmac snaking in between as if it was the signature of ownership between the estates on both sides. Not only are the Strada Proviciales more scenic to drive on but they are easier on the pocket than the heavily tolled Autostradas. In fact, the difference is so much that by the end of the day’s drive, just the toll money saved from not entering the Autostrada would be enough to buy us a well-aged bottle of D.O.C.G Chianti Classico or a Riserva, everyday.
One such provincial road connecting Florence, Siena and the small town of Radicofani in the south is a very special stretch of tarmac that ribbons across one of the most majestic scenery in Tuscany. This beautiful road passing next to Val d’Orcia (a Unesco world heritage sight) was once the holy grail of speed. Marked as SP53 (Strada Provincale 53) is where once the capable BMW 328 competed with countless Alfa Romeos and won three times in one of the highest achievements in endurance motorsport during the pre- World War days. It was here where the final leg of the Mille Miglia took place as the drivers blasted past towns at blistering speeds towards Brescia, completing the gruelling four-day endurance race. Today, the tarmac was dry and the traffic was thin, so for once i decided to see how it feels like to drive like an Italian as i slipped the casually humming A3 to dynamic mode.
The double clutch gearbox dropped a gear, as if it could almost see the corner ahead, my eyes hug the curving road, ignoring the scenery that had started to move past me quickly. Scenes from old films of the Mille Miglia were flashing in my memory as i dabbed the brakes and aligned the car for the next corner. The A3 is a fun little thing, i thought… and i wondered how would it have felt back in the day to drive down the same stretch of road. The SP53 is a dangerously blissful road to be on. Its gentle curves had started to make me greedy and i could sense my right foot inch nearer to the floor. My eyes tried focused on the road while my mind constantly rebelling the thought of looking left to catch one last glimpse of the majestic moors. As i revelled in the A3’s dynamic capabilities with a nostaliga of driving through one of the most famous roads in the history of motorsports, I wondered what it would have been like to race on these roads. Although i was keeping a pace that was legally correct (In a very Italian fashion), i was feeling safe, cocooned in a shell of solidly-built German-engineered machine that had ABS, traction control and airbags… Things that men who raced here back in the day, had none.
Racing down these narrow roads at speeds in excess of 100mph (160kmph) with almost no protection or electronic aids… in a car made from what can be best described as scaffolding of metal and fibreglass by modern standards. The Mille Miglia was not for the passionate, it was for the men who seeked more than that. On these roads, missing a curve wasn’t as simple as hitting a stack of hay or a tyre wall. At many places there were drops that would reduce the car to a crumpled ball of metal, sometimes with the driver in it. The Mille Miglia was the Colosseum of the Industrial age. An event that made motoring gladiators, who fought for glory as their ultimate trophy.
As we drove towards Siena, the road introduced new villages along the way. While there were no spectators to cheer me on as drove past Italy’s motoring history, the manufacturer’s names painted over stone walls were all that was remaining to imagine and relive the energy of the 1000-mile race.
It was time now to say goodbye to Italy (only to come back at the end of our trip) and cross over to the Alps to drive into Austria. Here’s a sneak peak into the next part of the trip.