On a cafe terrace in Padua the conversation went something like this: "Yes - from St Etienne in France - but not until Wednesday night." While others get out the guidebook to decide on the day's various visits to museums and markets, you're engrossed in the road atlas or train timetable, plotting your route to the large industrial city.
And it feels great. This is travelling on fast forward - not at all about rest, and all about change. In Padua, the sugary croissants could only be Italian - from their glazed coating right through to the jammy middles. But the next three days held the prospect of traversing Italy's proud northern powerhouse of culture and commerce, crossing Europe's highest mountain range, and descending past Val d'Isere towards breakfast in Grenoble, one of France's finest cities, and le vrai croissant Francais - crumbly, buttery, and not a hint of jam. Who says you miss out on real cultural insights if you keep on moving?
Starting from Treviso, 20 miles north of Venice, it seemed churlish not to visit La Serenissima - just a half-hour bus trip away. But with open- jaw travel there are so many options that the obvious choices just don't cut it. So that's what led to the breakfast table in Padua.
Like most cities of the Veneto region, Padua succumbed to the Venetian Republic. Since then the Renaissance Waterworld down the road has had all the attention. But Padua has its own milestones of art and science and makes a good alternative for a less one-sided - and less expensive - view of the region.
There's nothing here to rival the grandeur of St Mark's Square, but Padua's finest cafe can take on San Marco's overpriced and overrated Florian and win hands down. Caffe Pedrocchi in Piazetta Pedrocchi is the place to be - as it has been for a century or so. Inside this chic salon-style cafe, the bar's elegant curves seduce you into ordering a cocktail to wash down the pastries. Outside, tall columns give the all-white terrace the look of an outdoor stage where groups of tourists give impromptu performances.
Before moving on, tick off two essential experiences. The first is a visit to Giotto's friezes depicting the life of Mary and Christ in the Scrovegni Chapel. And the second involves downing a pint or two of "heavy" in The Highlander - a Scottish theme pub that proves that culture in Padua doesn't stop at ecclesiastical art.
But with the entire north of Italy waiting, the open-jaw traveller can't get too seduced by such attractions. It could leave you wishing you were flying back out of the same airport, which wouldn't do at all.
Sticking to the rule of shunning obvious attractions, the route to France avoids the well-known trail through the Italian Lakes to the north of Milan. Stick instead to the flat plain of the Po Valley to the south. Parma, Piacenza and Cremona are all about three hours' driving time from Padua. Cremona has fewer tourists, and is certainly the least obvious attraction. So, Cremona it is.
The cosy town is easy to pick out from a distance thanks to its huge medieval tower, or Torazzo - said to be Italy's tallest - rising above the Po plains. The story of the place is told in foot-high violin-shaped nougat sweets displayed in shop windows around Piazza Roma. This is the home of Stradivari & Co, as well as some very enthusiastic confectioners. Inside, fleets of assistants make you feel that you're the first person in centuries to browse through the hundreds of sweets, all filed meticulously in labelled wooden drawers, waiting to be weighed out and wrapped in cellophane.
Heading from Cremona into Piemonte takes you away from the influence of Milan, and into the sphere of Turin. You know you're approaching it when you notice that every car on the motorway is made by the region's biggest exporter - Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino. Familiar models of Fiat and its sister companies Alfa and Lancia seem to give way to ones you've never heard of, until you end up feeling that every driver on the road is eyeing your bland rental car as they might a pony and trap.
Rather than heading straight for Turin, the map brought us to a stop in the sleepy countryside around Asti - home of the famous Spumante, the preferred fizz of the 1970's Essex set. With time to scout around the hilltop towns of this overlooked and underpriced part of Italy, there's plenty of tempting propositions for overnight stops.
Few could match La Locanda del Sant'Uffizio near Moncalvo, however. This restaurant cum hotel is famed locally for its honest and elegant cuisine. You'll want to stay another night just to see what will make it onto the next evening's seven-course dinner menu. One certainty, in season, is truffles. This ferociously expensive culinary cocaine is a Piemontese speciality.
By day, you can laze by the pool or borrow one of the owner's mountain bikes to tour the grounds. But as it's just a 40-minute drive from Turin, expect to share the place with the latest panel of privileged Fiat executives. More an amusing diversion than an annoyance, the corporate hospitality even extends to a car-wash team - in blue Fiat overalls, naturally - polishing up the new models for the next day's test drives.
With time running out after lingering longer than planned in Piemonte, it was a three-hour dash into the Alps via Sestriere, past ski chalets owned by our friends from Fiat, towards Briancon and the French frontier.
Grenoble is a surprisingly beautiful city, surrounded by jagged peaks and snowfields still visible in summer. This buzzing university town is France's only real Alpine city and the perfect place for that perfect French croissant - if only there had been time. Instead, Lyon beckoned, an ideal drive-by city, with a finer collection of massive murals than any other city on earth - as sublime as St Etienne's toy airport is ridiculous.
Ryanair (0541 569 569) flies from Stansted to Treviso, and back from St Etienne. Fares start at about pounds 70 but you could fly home from Turin instead. Alternatively, take Go (0845 605 4321) from Stansted to Venice (Marco Polo airport) and fly home from Genoa.
Matthew Cole paid pounds 80 for dinner, bed and breakfast at La Locanda del Sant'Uffizio near Moncalvo. He rented a Renault Clio from Hertz