Driving in Italy – the most passionate motoring country in the world and home of evocative brands ranging from Ferrari and Bugatti to Pirelli and Ducati – is always a pleasure. You can cruise for miles along empty roads sweeping through stunning countryside or, in delightful contrast, enjoy urban spins through picturesque walled towns with narrow streets, stopping for a shot of espresso and a view of the historic architecture.
Does one size fit all, I wondered? Will any car suffice for both kinds of driving or is it better to choose the type of car to fit the job?
And that's why, when faced with a tour of the Amalfi coast and a drive through the bustling streets of Naples, followed by a seven-hour drive to northern Tuscany, I decided to experiment and hire two very different cars for our family holiday. Why compromise with a sensible all-rounder, I thought, if you can enjoy a nippy car in the city and a saloon for some long-distance luxury?
Why compromise with a sensible all-rounder if you can enjoy a nippy car in the city and a saloon for some long-distance luxury?
“So you want two cars?” the woman in the car-hire office at Naples airport asked, raising an eyebrow. “Yes, something small for Naples and the Amalfi coast,” I replied, “and something cool and spacious for the drive to Lucca.”
She nodded approvingly, but when I declined the extra insurance she looked me in the eye. “You're going to Amalfi,” she said. “Take the insurance.”
The Amalfi coast, she suggested, is an accident waiting to happen...
We skirted Vesuvius and headed south towards Sorrento in an Audi A1 Sportback, which is compact and perfect for urban driving, before climbing on sharp switchbacks into the hills of the Parco Regionale dei Monti Lattari. Or course we all longed for a Fiat 500 for this part of the journey, but where would we put our four large travel bags?
The next morning, we visited the delightful towns that totter on the sea cliffs – Positano, Praiano and Amalfi itself. At first the road was wide, the tarmac smooth and the speed of other drivers relaxed. In scorching heat, we stopped at a roadside shack beside the glittering Mediterranean for a refreshing lemon granita – a cooling mix of crushed ice and the perfumed juice of the largest lemons I have ever seen. Bellissimo!
Squeezing through Amalfi
As we approached the last turn into Positano, I was still wondering if I had been wrong to worry about the traffic? And then we saw it: a queue of cars snaking out of the town and along the cliff road. Progress was slow, but once there the fun really began. In places the road was too narrow for cars to pass each other, or there were just millimetres to spare. Hesitancy was not an option as oncoming drivers greedily snaffled any space that had been graciously left.
Hesitancy was not an option as oncoming drivers greedily snaffled any space that had been graciously left
Then a bus appeared. The driver – a genius who had honed his skills on that very road for years – seemed to find space where none existed... until he stopped almost directly in front of us. He revved and advanced. I inched forward into the gap. Was it big enough? I expected the sound of metal crunching metal, but the Sportback slipped though. Just. A larger car? No chance.
We drove through Positano and on to Praiano, a quieter and more laid-back town, where we parked and descended the hundreds of steep steps though the village to the sea. We enjoyed grilled fish in a bar and then went for a swim to cool off before climbing back up. Wobbly kneed we slumped into a bar and celebrated with a Negroni. “Welcome to the top!” said the smiling barman.
Having passed its test on the narrow roads of Amalfi, I was confident the Audi A1 Sportback would shine in Naples with its ramshackle but seductive old town, a bewildering network of streets and alleys, confusing one-way systems and the permanent background buzz of anarchic Vespas and car horns. And it did.
Although a lover of maps, I lazily decided to follow the sat-nav. As we got closer to our destination, the streets got narrower and narrower, but the computer's directions were clear and helpful. Until they weren't. “Turn left,” it advised and I obliged, entering a claustrophobic alley. I managed to squeeze past two or three cars and then realised I was going the wrong way along a one-way street.
I stopped and let the cars squeeze past in the opposite direction. Yet none of the drivers looked irritated. If anything, they seemed impressed by my ambition. In Naples, I gathered, rules of the road are there to be broken. But my only option was to turn around... and in the Sportback I did my first ever seven-point turn. Or was it nine? In a longer car, I would have had to join the queue of cars and, pointing in the wrong direction, reverse out of the road.
None of the drivers looked irritated. If anything, they seemed impressed by my ambition. In Naples, I gathered, rules of the road are there to be broken
The next day we switched to an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, an SUV with the performance of a luxurious sedan. We were sad to say arrivederci to the Audi, but loved its extra space and sheer Alfa-ness. We settled back, turned on the AC, blasted Spotify playlists from the sound system and headed north for Lucca.
The impressive Apennines were a constant companion on our right as Italy's countryside rolled serenely by: olive groves, small towns and churches of subtle terracotta browns with flashes of purple bougainvillea in Lazio; the rolling hills and distinctive cypress trees of Tuscany. We stopped for lunch in Siena – the Piazza del Campo is special – and took hackneyed pictures of the leaning tower in Pisa.
The Audi would have managed the journey, too, but the solid yet responsive Alfa effortlessly gobbled up the kilometres and delivered us to Lucca in time to meet our friends for a well-earned sundowner. As I drank a chilled Birra Moretti, I realised the drive had been a motoring pleasure rather than a transport chore. The two-car experiment had been an unqualified success.
They say horses have their courses. It seems cars do, too.