There is nothing quite like the freedom of a road trip, trundling along to wherever serendipity takes you. Perhaps more than any other country, driving across Italy lends itself to this type of exploring. The ever-changing succession of remote hill towns, winding mountain roads, coastlines, and castles ensures that there is always something new to see.
Our trip is ambitious – driving across Italy in a month, from Rome north to Tuscany and Liguria, from Liguria south along the Adriatic coastline, through Le Marche and the Abruzzo into Puglia before heading back to Rome. As winners of a seven-day Auto Europe Road Trip Sweepstakes (which is part of this journey), there are three specific locations we must visit – Rome, Camogli (Liguria) and Puglia. For the rest, we wander freely, visiting iconic landmarks and unknown corners, sampling the various regional cuisines, and enjoying life on the road.
The adventure starts in Rome on a beautiful sunny autumn day. No matter how many times we visit the city, there is always something new to discover or revisit. This time, recent renovations to the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Circus Maximus and other iconic treasures make Rome shine.
Our hotel, the ultra-luxurious Palazzo Manfredi, overlooks the newly restored Colosseum. From its rooftop Michelin-starred restaurant, Aroma, spectacular sunrise and sunsets over the ancient arena, as well as mouthwatering cuisine, are a treat.
A food walking tour of Trastevere (part of the prize) takes us through cobblestone streets with ivy-covered buildings to the neighborhood where the traditions of Roman cuisine are still preserved. Along the way, we stop at a restaurant/wine bar with a cellar that is 150 years older than the Colosseum, a trattoria with an eclectic menu and mismatched chairs, a shop specializing in pork sausages and a hole-in-the-wall selling Roman street food — fried rice balls and pizza! A cookie bakery and a gelateria round out the walk and our “meal.”
Driving out of Rome is an adventure all on its own; however, we eventually find ourselves heading north to Monteriggioni. This spectacular Tuscan hill town near Siena is entirely surrounded by a wall, protected with 14 watchtowers. We make this our base for a week exploring the iconic areas of the Crete Senesi and Val d’Orcia, the wine country around Montepulciano and the Strada Chiantigiana between Siena and Florence, including a stop at the Castello di Verrazzano (home of the famous explorer) near Greve.
From Monteriggioni the road takes us northwest towards Genoa. South of the city, the Riviera di Levante (Sunrise Coast) with its cliffs and bays is home to picturesque towns and villages. A hair-raising drive down the cliff road leads to the charming Cenobio Dei Dogi Hotel in Camogli. Its terrace overlooking the sea is the perfect spot to enjoy an evening aperitivo as the sun dips into the Mediterranean. Steps lead down to the beach where the water is warm enough to swim, even in October.
From here, a short walk along the colorful seafront promenade takes us to the harbor where ferries leave for Portofino, the quintessential, most luxurious, coastal village favored by the rich and famous, whose super yachts dot the harbor.
Just south of Camogli are the legendary Cinque Terre – five dramatic medieval cliff-top villages accessible only by train, ferry or on foot. Basing ourselves at the Hotel Pasquale, a delightful family-run residence on the edge of the harbor in Monterosso al Mare, we hike to the village of Vernazza and take the train to Manarola, Riomaggiore and Corniglia. Each has its special charms, and it is difficult to tear oneself away from the magnificent vistas.
From Camogli the road leads all the way east, to the province of Abruzzo, one of the least known in Italy. Its national parks, high mountains, deserted hilltop hamlets, medieval villages, coastal towns, and castles provide some of the most spectacular panoramas in Italy.
In the mountaintop village of Civitella del Tronto, we are the only guests at the Hotel Zunica, housed in a 17th-century building under the brooding walls of the Fortezza, the largest medieval fortified castle in Europe. The views from our room extend from the Grand Sasso Mountain to the blue Adriatic coastline, shimmering in the morning sunlight.
Considered to be one of the best in the province, the hotel restaurant serves a menu that changes with the seasons. A private three-day cooking school provides a hands-on experience shopping for fresh ingredients and then working with the chef to prepare dinner.
Most recently in the news because of the spate of earthquakes that have devastated part of this area, Le Marche is another of Italy’s lesser-known regions filled with national parks, medieval villages, castles and a rich history. For us, it is a day-trip to visit the picturesque town of Ascoli Piceno.
Located on the banks of the Tronto and Castellano rivers, Ascoli Piceno is even older than Rome. Known as the ‘City of 100 towers,’ 50 medieval structures still stand over the “City of Marble,” with its expansive piazzas and unique architecture.
Puglia looks like a short drive from the Abruzzo. However, distances are deceptive because the narrow roads serpentine up and down the cliffs. What looks like a short 30-minute drive turns into a two-hour odyssey.
Our first stop is Vieste on the Gargano Peninsula, the spur on Italy’s boot. Built on top of the steep Pizzomunno cliffs, the city perches on a promontory jutting into the azure Adriatic.
Basing ourselves here, we explore the area with a number of day trips, including to the magnificent Castel del Monte, a 13th century citadel and castle built by Emperor Frederick II. Trabucchi, the old, traditional, fishing contraptions dot the coastline, while the rarely visited Tremiti Islands sit a few miles offshore in the Adriatic.
Our last stop in Puglia is the fantastic Masseria Il Frantoio near the so-called “White City” of Ostuni (in the Salento region). The region is filled with fantastical, conical, stone Trulli structures, medieval castles, and beautiful white sand beaches. Olive trees, some over a thousand years old, stretch to the horizon between ancient stone walls. From here you can explore the iconic towns of Alberobello and Locorotondo as well as several coastal towns, including Ostuni.
The Masseria is a 500-year old fortified farm, its unique rooms decorated with some of the artifacts that Armando Balestrazzi and his wife, Rosalba, found when they bought the property some years ago.
The dining room is the scene of lavish eight-course meals prepared by an army of grandmothers in the kitchen, using the homegrown produce from the farm. In all our travels there are few places we have found as welcoming as the Masseria Il Frantoio. We leave reluctantly, having adopted a 1,000-year-old olive tree as part of a plan to preserve them for future generations.
Our road trip to Italy ends all too soon with a long drive back to Rome for our flight home. There is so much more to Italy than the major cities. If you are the slightest bit adventurous, have an open mind about wandering aimlessly with no firm destination and don’t mind getting lost from time to time, then consider an Italian road trip.
IF YOU GO
We spent a month traveling across Italy. Although this itinerary can certainly be done in a shorter period, there are some constraints such as the speed you can travel on the back roads and mountain roads, the sheer number of places to visit, and the desire to make the adventure about the journey as well as the destinations.
The following is a brief outline of where we went driving across Italy, and some of the places we stayed.
Hotel Palazzo Manfredi
Via Labicana 125
1 Rome to Monteriggioni – Driving time 3 hours (156 miles)
Via Primo Maggio 4
DAY TRIPS FROM MONTERIGGIONI
Greve and Castello di Verrazzano (This is the correct spelling of the name)
2 Monteriggioni to Camogli, Liguria – Driving Time 4 hours (175 miles)
Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi
Via Nicolo Cuneo 34
SOME OF THE DAY TRIPS FROM CAMOGLI
3 Camogli to Monterosso al Mare driving time 1 hour (50 miles).
Monterosso al Mare is the only village in the Cinque Terre where you can park. Many hotels have parking available (for a fee) but you must be sure to reserve your spot when you book your room. They go very quickly.
Via Fegina 4
Monterosso al Mare
4 Monterosso al Mare to Civitella del Tronto, Abruzzo – Driving time 6.5 hours (400 miles)
Hotel Zunica 1880
Piazza Franciscus Filippi Pepe 14
Civitella del Tronto, Teramo, Abruzzo
SOME OF THE DAY TRIPS FROM CIVITELLA DEL TRONTO
Ascoli Piceno in Le Marche
Gran Sasso National Park Abruzzo
Santo Stefano di Sessanio Abruzzo
5 Civitella Del Tronto to Vieste, Puglia – Driving Time 4 hours (186 miles)
Vieste is a resort town with many luxury hotels but they are seasonal. When we traveled in October, very few were open. We stayed at
Rocca Sul Mare Bed and Breakfast
Via C. Mafrolla 32
Vieste, Foggia, Puglia
Although the rooms are quite basic, the views from the seafront rooms are spectacular.
The best restaurant with the freshest, most delicious seafood is just around the corner
Osteria Degli Archi
2 Via Ripe
Vieste, FG, Puglia
DAY TRIPS FROM VIESTE
Isole Tremiti (by boat)
Castel del Monte
6 Vieste to Ostuni Driving Time 3.5 hours (167 miles)
Masseria Il Frantoio
Strada Statale 16, Km 874
DAY TRIPS FROM MASSERIA IL FRANTOIO
Polignano a Mare
7 Ostuni to Rome – Driving Time 6 hours (335 miles)
For additional photos from this trip, visit http://www.allegriaphotos.com/EUROPE/Italy