The road trip of a lifetime?
I have not spent Ferragosto in Italy for absolutely ages, my August family holiday usually limited to just over a week, due to the obvious work commitments. This year some exceptional circumstances (change of job!) meant that we could take a slightly longer Italian break to fit in a family wedding as well as our habitual week in Cilento. We then tried to figure out how we could take our pooch Amber and well, we’re not about to ship her to Napoli via cargo so we had to buy a car and travel via France all the way to Southern Italy. Quite quickly @bmcboy sourced a beautiful, stylish second hand Jaguar convertible, gave it a lot of TLC and off we went, in the hottest summer Europe has seen in decades, and in the busiest period of the entire year for Italy. We like a challenge, don’t we? #TheLongWayDown thus begun.
Leg 1 – London – Calais – Dolancourt (370 miles)
We left a sunny and pretty hot London on a Sunday at midday, having found Euro Shuttle availability only the day before for the following afternoon. We arrived early, were put on an earlier train and then got delayed for over half an hour (perhaps due to the migrants’ crowds? We experienced no trouble at all leaving Old Blighty). We resurfaced 40 minutes later in an overcast and much cooler France and we made for the southern champagne region, towards a small village called Dolancourt. We pushed on, or rather, @bmcboy pushed on as yours truly is car phobic and doesn’t drive at the moment (indeed, he drove the entire #longwaydown, I navigated, Amber suffered slowly). Our car was packed to the rafters, with a massive cooler box, car cover and assorted spares, a bottle of single malt for the family, and dog treats amongst other things. A few hours later we came off the motorway as the sun was beginning to set, opened the car roof and enjoyed a ride through empty French villages, past pretty stone houses and fields with cattle grazing. We located our hotel in petit Dolancourt village, where we hastily made our way to the restaurant (it is France after all, you can’t eat past 9pm). Moulin du Landion is a 3* small hotel part of Chateaux et Hotels Collection and very dog friendly: Amber was even allowed in the restaurant. The dinner was pretty good: I chose perch two way with risotto and @bmcboy chose lamb gigot, followed by a molleaux au chocolate. The best thing about the dinner however was the cold, light glasses of local champagne we had. We deserved for sure!
Leg 2: Dolancourt – Dijon – Tournus – Chambery (275 miles)
We left a cloudy Champagne and drove south towards Burgundy. Champagne houses gave way to vin petillante producers and by the time we reached Dijon, it was properly raining, so much for August! Clad in our hoodies and summer jackets we parked the car and walked around the picturesque city centre, snapping here and there the pretty medieval buildings and looking for a place for lunch.
We stopped at Les Moulins Bleus where we sat outside under the heaters; very tempting to order galettes, but we both opted for salads, mine a delicious concoction of Roquefort, walnuts, grilled lardons and lots of creamy sauce like only the French can do. An ice cream and a good local coffee (Malongo) completed an actually nice meal with very friendly service. I then made @bmcboy drive towards Tournus, as I had noticed it was on the way to our next stop and I remembered it had something medieval to see. Indeed St Philibert is a stunning French Romanesque cathedral with some amazing stone work, set in a quaint village. We stopped for a cup of tea in a sweet cafe with a grumpy and slow waitress before proceeding onwards. Our stop for the night was going to be Chambery, not far from the Italian border: he wanted to push through it but I thought he’d had enough roads for the day and we should also save the Alpine crossing for a new day. I frantically loaded booking.com and located a cheap hotel somewhere near the centre of the city. Our hotel requirements during the trip were double: private car park (as our car was loaded) and dog friendly and booking an hour or so ahead of staying somewhat restricted our options. The hotel I booked was Altedia hotel, a bargain at 58euros but it had no air con and, much to our disappointed surprise, had the restaurant and bar closed for the summer! Not wanting to drive back to town we drove to the nearest petrol station, conveniently part of a shopping centre, and enjoyed our second French meal in a Carrefour’s self service called ‘Flunch’. No, seriously. It wasn’t even that bad and made for some interesting people watching.
Leg 3 – Chambery – Mont Cenis – Novalesa – Rapallo (246 miles)
We woke up again with a cloudy sky over the towering Alps, and made our way towards the border. We opted not to go through the faster but less scenic Frejus tunnel but chose instead one of the most panoramic crosses, the Mont Cenis. The landscape turned slowly into picturesque alpine villages, their pretty wooden chalets brightened by blooming flower pots at the windows, restaurants grilling local meats and clear blue sky. The temperature was perfect as we kept going higher, passing now closed chair lifts and winding our way up towards the pass itself. At the top, by the baby blue artificial lake, we stopped to take some photos and walk Amber for a bit. So many have crossed the Alps before us, including Hannibal, a cute memento of these past crossings right at the roadside.
We finally descended through more winding roads and the occasional waterfall, and suddenly France gave way to Italy. No border as such (magic of Schenghen), the only evidence other than the road signs the roaming signal swapping to Wind. We were headed for Sacra di San Michele, but I saw a sign for ‘Novalesa 8km’ and racked my brain quickly. Yes, there is a medieval abbey, why not check it out? We did, in the heat of the midday sun and right next to the Abbey, conveniently located, was an ‘azienda agrituristica’ with chequered table cloths and lots of herbs and chilli plants around it, slowly filling up with locals on a day trip. I detected the Piedmont accent (vaguely reminiscent of my sweet granny Laura who grew up in the area) and decided it was the perfect stop for lunch. And it proved to be, except that I made the mistake of not visiting the church before lunch, and it was of course, closed by the time we finished. Yet lunch at C’era una volta was lovely. Really slow, but with plenty of other dogs for Amber to chat with, and great locally produced food.
I had agnolotti del plin for the first time, with nettle and majoran, while @bmcboy had a peculiar but really tasty hand made tagliatelle with boar ragout and chocolate.I also loved my dessert, a creamy and delicious home made yogurt with local honey while he chose a chocolate dessert. Two hours after we sat down, we were on our way again towards Liguria, and while on the road, I booked a hotel with parking and dog friendly in Rapallo, one of the seaside touristy towns. We got here around 6pm and found the parking was quite a tricky affair for our massive car, and the ‘junior suite’ I had booked (the last room available) was not really worth the 250euros we paid (crazy!). The hotel Canali is an attractive, early 20th century mansion with a small garden and nicely furnished interior and a friendly concierge, a fairly standard breakfast and a 10 mins walk to the promenade. After a shower and a bit of rest, we made our way to the sea front, really packed and busy this time of year. The tower by the bay is pretty enough, shame for the masses of people (not as pretty) all over. After an aperitif at Caravaggio Caffe, trying to avoid the main tourist traps we reached nearby Hostaria Vecchia Rapallo, tucked away in a side street. Judging by the regulars this seemed a good choice, and I certainly enjoyed our meal. We shared Alici fritte (fried anchovies) and I then had a very good if not so typical seared tuna dish, while @bmcboy discovered spek in his Taglierini dish. Two glasses of local white wine was what we needed after a long day on the road.
Leg 4 – Rapallo – Lucca – Orvieto – Monte Fiascone (247 miles)
We departed from Rapallo the next morning hitting the holiday traffic towards the coast so opted not to stop at all at Cinque Terre and headed straight for Tuscany. We drove past Massa Carrara and stopped in Lucca, which I had never visited before. And what a beautiful place it is! We parked outside one of the medieval town doors and walked across the city walls towards the cathedral. It was really hot, and both Amber and @bmcboy were none too happy. The town seemed empty of locals and quite full of tourists like us, and lots of Brits. After visiting the cathedral we decided to hail a taxi and ask him to take us around the city in the remaining half hour we had to show us some sights. This, patting myself on the back, was a great idea as we managed to take in the stunning Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, San Michele and a few of the city’s medieval streets. In hindsight, we probably should have stayed for lunch; instead we headed south on B roads hoping to find a quaint Tuscan agriturismo to enjoy some delicious local fare. Not quite. Like before, I am not impressed by the famous Tuscany countryside. While its rolling hills green with vineyards and olive groves and attractive old stone houses are rightly famous, it has also a lot of ugly industrial buildings and.. well not as many food stops as one might expect. Again, in a deserted village we did manage to find a truck stop (Elisa Bar in Castelmartini), where under the typically loud and blaring TV, we did enjoy a genuine meal, if nothing memorable it was pleasant, with friendly service and cooling air con. We hopped back on the motorway and picked Orvieto as next stop. I thought we’d stop for the night, yet when we got there (hoping we did not get any speeding or ZTL fines in the process), @bmcboy decided he wanted to press on, so we spent an hour walking around this stunning medieval town, full of heritage sites, main amongst them the Cathedral (closed sadly but simply majestic). The sun was beginning to set as we left Orvieto behind, taking the roof down and letting the wind and the fresh air through our hair (no, Amber does not enjoy such fuss).
Once more frantically loading booking.com, I located a dog friendly and not expensive agriturismo near Montefiascone and booked it. We also left Montefiascone behind without visiting (sadly) and manage to locate Antico Borgo La Commenda, some 10 mins drive outside the town, bang in the middle of the country side. The place is really pretty, set at the end of a long dirt road, sided by cypresses. The structure is an old, self contained hamlet, with some structures still to be restored (one resembles a church) and the main body of it already set up as self catering accommodations; it also has beautifully manicured gardens surrounding a pool with a bar, which I am told is active during the day and dishes out pizzas and snacks. In the fading light, it had an almost gothic feel to it, the dark stone, the trees and the absolute silence. We were welcomed by a young chap who helps with the running of the place who took us to our room on the first floor (really spacious and clean) and then told us that the restaurant (which on booking.com is presented as part of the feature of the place) was of course, closed! We feared we’d go starving for a moment (not wanting to drive all the way back to Montefiascone) but he then told us about a hotel next door with a restaurant. We made our way there for dinner; another truck stop, with slow but friendly service, and so so food, but a good white local wine yet again, made us feel better again and ready for the next day.
Leg 5, the last leg – Montefiascone – Anagni – Villammare (307 miles)
Without breakfast we headed straight for the motorway, where we stopped at the first rest stop for some fuel, for us and the car. Today was the last leg and we were almost in Southern Italy! I was quite excited by now, having travelled what felt like an enormity (evem if a lot of people have done it before and do so each week). I was not sure where to stop for lunch and a break… I was almost thinking Capua in my region, but then my Neapolitan background of never trusting anyone took the better of me and for safety (of our belongings, not really our persons) I thought we should stop slightly earlier, in a place called Anagni. My interest was of course, also Medieval having heard a lot about the town’s heritage but I sort of did not quite mention this to @bmcboy as I am sure he was by now quite fed up with my Medieval stops. I am so glad we came to Anagni! We paid the parking ticket for three hours to visit the town as best as we could under the sweltering sun. I visited the stunning, magnificent cathedral and its crypt (one of my favourite Medieval stops ever, I should add). The town was empty but for a handful of tourists and it was just beautiful. Again I wish we had more time, less heat and no dog in tow to walk for longer and see more. It is called the city of Popes as a few were born here (including Boniface VIII) and their palaces and mansions contribute to Anagni’s charme. We noticed a pretty looking enoteca in the main square which was perfect for lunch and here, under the breeze, we just had a great meal overlooking the square and the church, drinking yet another very good white wine and enjoying some very good food.
At Enoteca La Piazzetta I had Maiale Nero (a heritage variety of pork, local to the region) and he had a good dish of roasted chicken with red peppers, followed by a home made gelato (coffee for me). Great stop, but it was soon time to move on again. No more stops, no more touristy bits. The next destination was finally Villammare, where we arrived, leaving Napoli and the Vesuvius behind, around 6pm, welcomed by the family. #TheLongWayDown was over.
More photos on Flickr – please do have a look to see how amazing Italy is (and France, of course). I feel lucky to have visited such incredible places.