Day 1: Barletta – Silvi – Spello – Assisi, 490km
All good things must come to an end, or so they say. It was time to come back to Blighty for the last leg of our summer road trip. We packed up and left a sunny Barletta on a monday morning, hitting the motorway almost immediately, still surrounded by olive groves, bright sun shining above us and the Adriatic sea a constant and distant companion to our right. Motorway signs indicating famous seaside locations which we had no time to stop by: Gargano, Isole Tremiti, Vasto. Puglia made way for Molise, and we quickly arrived in Abruzzo, a region very close to my heart.
Landscape slowly changed from flat, extensive plains to green hills lush with pines trees. We drove through Silvi Marina and came off the motorway, following our friend Oriente Expresso ‘s tip on her favourite family restaurant, since it was indeed lunchtime and we needed a break. We made our way up to the winding road that takes visitors to Silvi Alta, the older town, the view from the road beautiful, over the trabocchi coast, peaceful on a late summer Monday morning.
We arrived at a hotel and resort, pretty deserted but the restaurant was open and they welcomed us in their still empty dining room. The menu felt familiar; la Griglia di Casa Nostra is a family run restaurant with plenty of choice and fantastic, genuine food. It gave both of us a comfortable sense of familiarity: I ordered gnocchi with artichokes, cheesy and delicious, followed by some of the best arrosticini I have ever had (goat’s skewers).
Our stop over in this region was sadly too short, and I did not even have time to look for ferratelle (local biscuits I am actually addicted to), but I know we’ll be back soon, so off we went back on the motorway heading north. The sights changed once more, as we entered Marche… at San Benedetto del Tronto we turned inland, leaving finally the Adriatic behind and drove across the picturesque Chienti valley past some famous medieval churches we visited a few years ago, and soon once more the landscape changed from plain to hills as we approached the Appennines.
The temperature started to drop just as the sun was losing its midday strength. We drove across some stunning landscape making me realise Marche is way too undervalued in its beauty and heritage and worth more than a visit or two. We passed castles, rocky outcrops, rivers, new potato and garlic sellers by the roadside; we stopped to walk Amber by a stream, and I picked up some more bush fruits, this time juicy and sweet blackberries.
We decided our next stop would be in Umbria, Spello, which we’ve been told to visit. Indeed I am so glad we did. What a beautiful town, another one of the many we had been lucky to visit already on this trip. A medieval, walled town, it’s very well preserved, and we spent about an hour walking around its steep stone alleyways, each corner a surprise find of colourful geranium plants or archways and wooden doors. We did try to spent the night here, but did not manage to find a place either with space for the car or indeed for us. This was probably the only day we had a bit of an issue finding a place for the night and I think I made about 6 phone calls to local hotels and BB before finding one, in Assisi.
We drove off leaving Spello behind us, in the golden sunset light it looked so beautiful, but I knew Assisi was going to be just as amazing. We arrived at Country House 3 S just before nightfall, parked and rested for about half an hour before attemping to walk to the old town, and realising we needed the car to get to it. So much for, according to the guy at reception ‘five minutes walk’. Yeah right.
At least in Assisi there are a lot of pay parking and garages so we had no problem. Seeing the Basilica of St Francis at night, and empty, was spectacular, breath taking. I could not wait to come back the next morning to visit! But finding food was not so easy.. we struggled in fact, and managed to find the only place open this side of town, where we had a good if boring meal at Il Frantoio. Tiredness from the long day came over us and we made our way back to our room for a restful night’s sleep.
Day 2 – Assisi – Tuscany somewhere – Le Grazie, 325km
We spent the morning in Assisi and we could have easily stayed the whole day, there is so much to see. We started with an early visit to the Basilica, which is incredible and had been on my bucket list for years. Sad to see the earth quake damage but so much has been preserved and to see Giotto, Cimabue, Lorenzetti and the other masters’ work with my own eyes was an experience not to be forgotten. Yet Assisi has so many churches to visit, so much heritage, it’s a jewel and no wonder Unesco patrimony.
We did go back to get Amber and the car, and drove to the other side of the town to visit San Rufino and Santa Chiara as well, and just before lunchtime, finally headed for the motorway, Bmcboy telling I had had enough churches for the rest of the trip (me arguing ‘only for the rest of Italy’). I picked up some delicious torrone and almond sweets in a beautiful and expensive looking pastry shop in Assisi to keep us going for the next few hours and go with my Estathe‘.
Passing Florence, we thought how nice would be to stop for a local agriturismo, we’re in Tuscany after all .. and we could do better than the way down. I searched via google, located a nice looking agriturismo just off the motorway and directed him there. Except that it wasn’t ‘just off the motorway’. It was half an hour drive through horrible roads. We got to it, following their useless sign posts, and of course.. it was closed! Hungry and pissed off we drove back to the motorway and stopped at the first Autogrill (San Miniato) for an exciting Tuscan meal. This being Italy, it was actually almost decent, but yet again Tuscany, for coincidence or fate’s joke, failed to deliver on food.
Liguria and the sea
Our next stop was going to be Portovenere, near Cinque Terre in Liguria, another area I would love to have more time to visit. Hotels in Portovenere were not easy to find, especially with a car park so we located a pretty good hotel in nearby Le Grazie and I am pleased we did, as it was much quieter, easier to off load and load the car and only 10 minutes drive from the main attraction. Hotel le Grazie was a good stop over, and our room had a fantastic view over the marina, and arriving at a decent time, we had a good rest before heading out for dinner.
We walked around the pretty seaside town, still packed with holidaymakers enjoying a sunset aperitivo by the marina. We reached the picturesque church of St Peter (sadly closed) and took in the scenery on the other side of the rocky outcrop, where some very lucky people were swimming in the golden light, so peaceful and beautiful I could have spent the rest of the evening here.
But we needed food so we headed back towards the old town and picked Tre Torri which was quite busy and looked not too touristy. We had indeed a decent meal, and I enjoyed one of my last seafood plates of the trip. Sustainable? I doubt it but fresh for sure.
Day 3 – Portovenere – Sanremo – Monaco – Vannes – Castellane, 398km
Leaving Le Grazie, we drove through morning rush hour in La Spezia, collected yet another speeding ticket, got told off for honking by a zealous traffic ward (‘piano, piano’) and hit the motorway. We drove through the length of beautiful Liguria, lush, green pine covered hills surrounding us, dotted by towers, castles and little villages enjoying the late summer sun. By lunchtime we were in Sanremo, another place I had never visited before. La citta’ dei Fiori, it famously hosts the Festival della Canzone Italiana every February. Indeed flower beds and elegant mansion blocks grace the seaside all along the coast.
We parked towards the station and walked towards one of the various beach side shacks in search of some food. This was the last meal by the sea of our trip and I tried to cherish one more squid salad, one more meal with a view over my beloved Mediterranean sea. After a pleasant lunch we walked on the beach a little, in the once again sweltering heat, plonked Amber in the reef (she hated it of course) and slowly made our way back to the Jag.
Off we went, heading towards Monaco. We had to, you understand. We crossed into France without even realising it (once again the only signs being the mobile provider and the radio stations) and stopped to take in the view of Montecarlo below us, the skyscrapers, the gardens and the luxury yachts in the calm sea. We drove down and around, past the aquarium, past the Casino, via the marina, through the F1 tunnel and off we went again, without stopping but taking in the sights around us. We headed towards Nice and then made our way towards Vence, where we wanted to visit the Chapel of the Rosary by Matisse.
Very small and very colourful, it was worth a stop for sure. From here, I looked at the map and suggested we made our way through the mountain road, rather than hit traffic again towards the motorway.
Good idea it was, as the mountain road is stunning and picturesque, but really really long. Winding through hills, the sea slowly disappearing from view, we drove.. and drove… and drove… what on the map didn’t look like such a long road was becoming more and more exhausting for Rob, however beautiful.
Night was closing in and fuel was getting low. No sign of life anywhere… until I noticed a village up ahead called Castellane and googling, I found one or two hotels. Not expecting much, we breathed a sigh of relief and headed towards it. Castellane turned out to be one of the best surprises of the whole trip. A small village in a valley surrounded by green peaks, a medieval tiny church right on top of one of these, waterfalls and river surrounding a picture perfect hamlet, a square right in the middle of a few hotels and bars and restaurants.
We soon figured out Castellane is a major water rafting starting point and also a pit stop on the Route des Moutards. Plenty of foreign travellers all over, we did not feel lost somewhere but actually bang in the middle of the action! we found a room in one of the hotels by the square (Hotel du Levant), had a quick shower and hit the town, well the village, taking a few shots of the pretty empty side streets before enjoying a very french and very wonderful steak and frites with a refreshing Provence rose at La Forge. What a surprise!
Day 4 – Castellane – Grenoble – Beaune, 490km
The next morning we had a quick breakfast in one of the cafes’, took in some more of the breathtaking views of the mountains and the blue sky and drove north again. Long trip through once more beautiful landscape, slowly changing from Mediterranean mountain to Alpine mountains. Today was when we experienced the worst meal of the whole trip, sadly.
On these mountain roads there were plenty of ‘rest stops’ which looked quite pretty yet nothing on Italian rest stops of course. We picked one where there seemed to be a few cars and biked already and oh mon dieu! We had a microwaved, plastic wrapped croque monsieur not even Amber wanted to touch.
Thankfully we still had with us some leftover cheese and ham from our delicious lunch in Bitonto (the power of having an ice box in the car!) and that saved our lunch. Back on the road, I frantically started googling and calling vets from there to Burgundy as we only had this day to get Amber’s de-worm and have her passport stamped. I located a very friendly vet in Grenoble and we aimed for their surgery.
We did not have a chance to visit this city, which is surrounded by mountains and I am sure it would look lovely in winter, but we had a grey end of summer day with plenty of traffic. The vet was bizarrely manned by women only, one better looking than the other so at least Bmcboy enjoyed this necessary stop before hitting the road again.
The sun came back up as we headed towards Beaune, with my eyes sadly caught by yet more medieval names on map (Autun!). I did not know much about Beaune and wasn’t sure what to expect but I am so glad we stopped, another discovery. Of course, the city is famous for its wines, its cellars, its history and heritage.
We stayed in a beautiful boutique hotel in the old town within the city walls and absolutely loved our night here. The hotel des Remparts was so pretty, and our room on the ground floor really spacious and welcoming. We did not waste too much time, and went off exploring this really stunning place with medieval architecture (the Hotel de Dieu is amazing) and elegant antiques shops. We managed a table in one of the main restaurants, and even if touristy, we had a gorgeous beef bourgougnonne (what else!) with plenty of local wine.
Day 5 – Beaune – Avallon – Saint Pere – Vezelay – Arras, 514km
I loved my morning walk with Amber in Beaune, as it was another opportunity to enjoy this fantastic place. I had breakfast in a local patisserie and quickly went back as we needed as usual, to head back on the road. Today however I had hoped to enjoy more sightseeing than motorway so we turned west and, while the destination was Vezelay (Vezelay!), driving through Avallon we figured out we had to stop and so we did.
Another discover, another fantastic place so full of medieval heritage! I was in my element, even stopping by at Notre dame de Saint Pere where a lesser known but no less impressive gothic church stands. Beautiful, just beautiful. Vezelay was the peak of this morning’s history lesson. I had been wanting to visit forever, this was on my bucket list of Romanesque masterpieces and certainly did not disappoint. I was in awe in front of its magnificent porch, its timpano and the stone work by the same master as Autun (Autun!). Incredible.
We stopped here at l’Auberge de la Coquile for our final authentic lunch of the trip, and how lovely it was.
Time to head north, back on the motorway. We sadly had to pass the Champagne and its producers, no time. Yes, we were gutted, but at least we have a reason to come back!
We spent the final night of our Long Way Home in a dog friendly small hotel near Arras, not wanting to stop in town (it looked grotty). We arrived late, tired and in need of some comfort food before crashing for the night. The next morning a quick dash to Calais and across the channel to England.
The big summer adventure was sadly, finally over.