Italy is the spiritual home of automobile design and the country’s love affair with the car shows no sign of lessening. Getting behind the wheel and taking to the open road is still the best way to share the passion Italians have for their food, culture, history and way of life. Here are five destinations we highly recommend for a self-drive holiday in Italy.
Tuscany & Umbria
The scenic landscapes of Tuscany roll away in vistas of iconic cypress trees, olive groves and delightful villas, while Umbria adds pretty medieval towns perched atop tree-covered hills.
Tuscany is famous for its food and wines, and its many historic towns and cities offer a chance to spend the night and sample the cuisine. Florence is an essential stop, dominated by its layer-cake Duomo. The Uffizi Gallery holds masterpieces such as Boticelli’s Birth of Venus and work by Caravaggio and Raphael, and the Accademia Gallery has the original of Michelangelo’s David.
It is some 40 delightful miles to Siena, with a perhaps even more impressive Duomo, and more works by Michaelangelo, Bernini and Donatello inside. Siena is famed for its annual Il Palio horse race on the Piazza di Campo, which is a perfect place to stroll and take in the atmosphere of this beautiful city. Other towns nearer to Florence to mark on the touring map include Lucca, hidden behind its medieval walls on a hilltop, and Pisa, with its famous Leaning Tower.
To really get off the beaten track, though, head inland to next-door Umbria. Centred on Perugia, famed for its jazz festival and chocolate Baci (kisses), this is a place for those who love the finer things in life. Besides its gothic cathedral, cafes and restaurants, the square also has one of the best gelateria in the region.
The winding roads of this rugged region will beckon you on to discover what lies further afield, over the next hill. The medieval hillside town of Spoleto hosts an annual arts festival that has added even more culture to a setting the poet Shelley called “the most romantic city I ever saw”. Equally striking is the setting of Orvieto, which will tempt any passing driver to stop and discover its famed white wine and artisan pottery.
Only 90 miles from the African coastline, a tour around Sicily will reveal Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Norman influences in its architecture and culture – not to mention its food. With so much to see, a car is essential once you get away from the busy centres of cities such as Palermo or Taormina. Traffic is light outside the main towns and fast, well-signposted autostradas make crossing the island straightforward.
Palermo is the vibrant capital, full of markets that may remind you of the bustle of North Africa, as well as a mix of fine buildings and monuments that reflect the island’s past. Rush hour here is a nightmare, but a drive into the mountains above the city is enchanting, with places such as Monreale to discover. Its gold mosaic-ceilinged 12th-century cathedral is a serious rival to Palermo’s more famous one.
The road east from Palermo along this northern coast leads to the fashionable beach resort of Cefalu, while equally popular Erice is to the west. Due south, is one of Sicily’s most popular historic sights: the Valley of the Temples. Just outside Agrigento, this UNESCO World Heritage listed complex of Greek temples rivals anything Greece itself has to offer.
A marked contrast to Palermo is Syracuse on the eastern coast, once the centre of a city-state of its own and also a Unesco World Heritage site. Its historic centre spans Greek, Roman and Baroque periods, and its Greek temple and 7th-century cathedral are must-sees.
Further north sits Taormina – often called the most beautiful town in Sicily for its spectacular setting. Its heavy tourist traffic makes it best explored on foot and all paths here lead to the amazing Greco-Roman theatre, sitting in the shadow of Mount Etna and overlooking the gleaming bay of Naxos.
Just as you can consider a glass half full or half empty, a drive around the Amalfi Coast can be a terrifying experience – or a thrilling one. The towns cling to cliffside settings that produce narrow, crowded streets where drivers face oncoming buses as they thread their car through impossibly narrow gaps. Then comes the realisation that everyone faces the same challenges and tackles it, despite the noise of horns and shouts, with real good humour and Italian warmth. The reward is some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
Amalfi is a vision of red-roofed, whitewashed houses, its centre dominated by the picturesque Duomo from which a maze of cobbled streets lead you on a path of discovery to hidden restaurants and welcoming bars. With a car to hand to carry the load, you can give in to temptation and buy a case of local wine, or boxes of the exquisite ‘bambagina’ handmade paper Amalfi is famed for.
Ravello is famous for its annual Wagner Festival and you can wander the gardens of the Villa Rufolo that inspired Wagner’s set design for the opera, Persifal. At Conca dei Marini, discover the Emerald Grotto, a less-visited version of Capri’s Blue Grotto, and enjoy the quiet charms of a town that was a retreat for celebrities from Jacqueline Kennedy to Carlo Ponti.
Positano remains a must-see, despite its fame and crowds. With the freedom to set your own timetable, wait until the late afternoon when the coaches have gone and browse the many shops for fashion, food or tiles, or enjoy a sunset view in a chic restaurant.
But your best memories may well come from getting off the coastal road and high into the hills. Here is where you may stumble on a tiny terraced vineyard, a wooded grove, an antique church or a sleepy village: the simple attractions that first made the Amalfi Coast so famous.
Although an island, Sardinia is deceptively large, making a car a necessity if you want to explore further afield. A fast drive just from top to bottom will take four hours, while a tour around the coast will need much longer, especially if you find a hidden cove with a white sand beach to pass a lazy day in the sun.
Sardinia’s miles of beautiful coastline, with dazzling beaches, rocky headlands and crystal-clear water, are its major attraction. But the island has only been part of Italy since 1861 and is still a place apart in many ways, repaying those willing to explore off the beaten track with glimpses of a distinctly different culture and history in its mountainous interior.
The first stop in understanding Sardinia should be the capital of Cagliari on the island’s southern tip. Its medieval heart, the Castello, is surrounded by white limestone walls that might have grown organically out of the hill on which it stands, while churches and palaces shade its cobbled streets. Underneath lie layers of history, from Carthaginian, Roman and Byzantine ruins to the city’s days as capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia.
From Cagliari, you can head southwest along the southern coast to the pretty beach resorts of Pula and Chia and the undiscovered Costa Verde, or due east towards Villasimius, gateway to the Capo Carbonara National Marine Park.
This sheltered southern coast has flatter, wider beaches than the north and Baia Chia has one of the finest, with dunes that run into shady juniper trees. Keep driving west and the road turns north along a flat, level coast where pools and lagoons are birdlife havens.
Further north, the coast turns wilder, evolving into the glamorous Costa Smeralda, the Emerald Coast, where rugged bays and coves hide stylish marinas, hotels and resorts.
Reaching out across the heel of Italy towards Albania and Greece, Puglia has more than a touch of the Aegean about it. The walled Greek city of Otranto and the cone-shaped whitewashed ‘trulli’ houses that are such a feature of the landscape define it as a place apart from the rest of Italy and a car is the best way to explore its fascinating character.
No one knows why the curious drystone ‘trulli’ evolved – perhaps just a simple way to build an affordable home in this limestone-rich region. Thick-walled and cool in summer, they have become chic places to set a restaurant, holiday home or self-catering cottages.
Their epicentre is the small town of Alberobello, which hosts a number of summer festivals when the traditional evening passeggiata in Piazza del Popolo goes on well past midnight. Neighbouring towns such Locorotondo, with its lovely views over the fertile, trulli-dotted Valle d’Itria, and Ostuni, known as ‘La Città Bianca’ for its whitewashed buildings.
Another essential stop is Castellana Grotte, where dramatic show caves with floodlit stalactites stretch almost two miles underground. Further south is 2,000-year-old Lecce which has its own nickname, ‘The Florence of the South’, because of its Baroque architecture (you can read more about what to see in Lecce here).
Lecce lies inland but Puglia’s coast may draw the eye with pretty resorts such as Rodi Gaganico, Peschici and Vieste, set on a northern peninsula around the Gargano National Park.
On the drive north, you will come to Bari, whose main claim to fame is the Basilica di San Nicola, the final resting place of Father Christmas. Just don’t tell the kids.
Top tips for driving in Italy
– In most of Italy, driving is fairly easy. The Italians have a reputation for being a bit aggressive on the roads, but if you stick to a pace you’re comfortable with and drive as you would at home, then you’ll quickly feel at ease.
– You’ll need to take the driving licence of each named driver of your hire car, plus a credit card in the name of the main driver.
– From 8 June, the DVLA paper licence will no longer be valid – you’ll need to print a copy of your licence from the DVLA website and provide your car hire company with a code that will enable them to check the licence online. Please note that the code is only valid for 72 hours.
– For peace of mind, it’s worth taking out the excess waiver insurance on your hire car.
– There are tolls on the motorways throughout Italy, so it’s advisable to have some small change handy (though some do take cards). The amounts vary by region and are calculated based on how far you’ve travelled.
– Hire a sat nav to make finding your way in the centre of towns easier. Keep in mind that in some regions (like Tuscany), it’s not possible to drive into the centre of town unless you’re a resident. You’ll get a fine if you do, so look out for the signs advising of the restricted areas.
Amalfi Coast photo: y entonces via Flickr