One of the (many) delights of Italy is its roads, bordered by medieval cities, sunflower fields, rich vineyards, mountains, and hills as far as the eye can see. That being said, it is only natural that many travelers opt for exploring the country by car. Driving in Italy is not particularly difficult: the roads are divided into autostradas (motorways) and estrada extraurbana principale (main extra-urban road), with an infinity of small, secondary roads branching off of them. Since they tend to follow the shortest route available, most GPS will choose these narrow and bumpy rural routes over the main motorways, which are better maintained. Nowadays, most European rental agencies are affiliated with the likes of Hertz and Avis, so finding an Italian agency doesn’t necessarily mean getting cheaper rates. It’s definitely worth booking a car before arrival though, using an aggregator or booking sites to research for the best price available and keeping in mind to stick with flat rates (which will invariably include the “Collision Damage Weaver” and “Theft Protection”) and try to outsource insurance from a third company in order to find competitive rates. There are many options: from the budget prices of Thrifty and Europcar to Sixt’s Porsche and Audi.
Without stops, a road trip from Santa Maria to Rapallo takes around 8 hours, but if time is at disposal, the option of meandering through the many cities along the way should be considered. It is roughly 800 kilometres of land to cover, which could be split into two different routes: a toll-less, coastal option through the E80 or a more straightforward, inland route via the A1. After driving through Pompeii – the once-thriving Roman city that was buried in ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius – and catching a glimpse of Naples – Italy’s less-traveled capital of the south, with its Baroque masterpieces and negative preconceptions – the first main stop would be Rome, where the routes diverge.
Rome is a city that needs no introduction. Remnants of the ancient Roman era are concentrated to the southeast of Capitoline Hill, while a predominantly Art Nouveau architecture extends through Quartiere Coppede; palm-shaded parks at Villa Torlonia contrast with the modern-day masterpieces of Marancia’s street art scene. Rome is a trip in itself, so for those who wish to explore a bit more of Italy, it would be wise not to give in to the city’s spell. Choosing lush-green plains over white-sand beaches, the road keeps to starboard of Bracciano-Martignano National Park.
Around two hours north of Rome, Civita di Bagnoregio is a great opportunity to get out of the motorway for a while and do a bit of sightseeing. Known as “la citta che muore” (the dying city), this small village sits on the top of a hill, which has been slowly but surely destructed by erosion. Civita di Bagnoregio has extremely picturesque lanes that, together with its dramatic landscape, produce a journey back in time sensation among its visitors. Not far away lies the village of Montepulciano – another Medieval hilltop town. From its high grounds, it is possible to appreciate panoramic views of Val’Dorcia and get lost in narrow alleyways that hold renaissance palaces, old churches, and charming squares. This town was also a setting for The Twilight Saga film, New Moon.
Just an hour north of Montepulciano is the ravishing and mysterious Siena. During the Middle Ages, the city fought with Florence over the commercial power over the region. Nowadays, it is famous for hosting the Palio di Siena, one of the world’s oldest horse races, which takes place at the handheld-fan-shaped Piazza del Campo – the physical and spiritual heart of the city – between July and August. Another highlight of Siena is the Palazzo Pubblico – with its majestic, 14th century belfry – and the Piazza del Duomo, whose cathedral was projected to be larger than the Florentine duomo (until the outburst of the 1348 plague, when funds were limited). The city is an open-air museum, with a collection of majestic Gothic-inspired constructions; as well as a nice option for an overnight stop as it has great infrastructure for tourists and a variety of hotels. Before heading to Florence, it is worth visiting San Gimignano, only an hour away from Siena. Surrounded by a tall wall, the city features 15 medieval towers, once symbols of wealth and status.
Florence is the last main stop before reaching Rapallo. As the capital of the Tuscany region, the city breaths culture, flavours and aromas, and boasts a wide ensemble of Renaissance art and architecture. By walking through its narrow streets, the heritage of centuries of history becomes ever so evident through the rare concern with beauty. Impressive monuments have a jaw-dropping effect on any passerby: the expansive Duomo, with its mix of green, white and pink marbles, is on the top of the list. In Florence’s famous museums, remarkable works of art – such as Michelangelo’s David – are inspiring, to say the least. The Ponte Vecchio, one of the city’s postcards, gives a romantic atmosphere to Florence, while its tiny windows exhale a somewhat melancholic air over the Arno River. Once indulged by the historical beauty of some of inland Tuscany’s city, the route redirects towards the coastal, going through Pisa (or Lucca, depending on which road was chosen), and continues through to Rapallo – where the eyes and legs are finally rejoined with the warm Mediterranean air.