Little car, big thrill

Fancy re-living 'The Italian Job' and hurtling round the country in a Mini? Linda Taylor had the time of her life doing just that

It's just after 8am in Trento's Piazza Dante; the rain's coming down, it's bitterly cold, and it's almost impossible to make out the officials in waterproofs as they prepare to count us down. Stopwatches are synchronised, horns sound, and tyres screech in the wet as we are waved off, Le-Mans style, at 8.15. A cavalcade of 90-odd polished and souped-up Minis roars across the start line. The Italian Job Rally has begun.

It's just after 8am in Trento's Piazza Dante; the rain's coming down, it's bitterly cold, and it's almost impossible to make out the officials in waterproofs as they prepare to count us down. Stopwatches are synchronised, horns sound, and tyres screech in the wet as we are waved off, Le-Mans style, at 8.15. A cavalcade of 90-odd polished and souped-up Minis roars across the start line. The Italian Job Rally has begun.

Based on the cult classic 1969 film - remade in 2003 - the Italian Job Rally was conceived in 1989 in a Brighton restaurant by Mini fanatic Freddie St George. He and friends decided it would be fun to motor down to Italy in his beloved old vehicle and make some money for children's charities along the way. Some 15 years later, this annual event has become a classic in its own right, raising millions of pounds. The great thing is, anybody can be a part of it, and, if your eyes can leave the road, you get to see a fascinating swathe of northern Italy.

Trento, the provincial capital of Trentino, lies at the heart of the Adige valley, close to the Dolomites and Lake Garda. It's a region rich in agriculture and industry, a treasure trove of art, history and culture, the link between Italy and Germany and Austria to the north.

Over the next three days, this wacky race will take us down the back routes of some of the finest Italian countryside. Emilia Romagna stretches from Rimini on the east coast, through Modena and Parma, to Piacenza in the west. Bologna sits dead-centre. This region is pure Italy and home to everything we know and love: Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, decent Lambrusco wine and balsamic vinegar. It is also the beloved residence of the car and motorcycle companies of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ducati.

The cast of vehicles includes Mini Coopers old and new, a couple of Alfa Romeo Giulias (police cars in the original film), an Aston Martin Volante, and a Lamborghini Jalpa. I am in a more recent Mini BMW - eyed suspiciously by purists - with my boyfriend, Andy, and we tear out of Trento and brace ourselves for the ascent of Monte Bondone, a climb of 1,800 metres with 33 hairpin bends.

We survive the first section and our confidence grows as we head west to Terme di Comano and then on to Pergolese for lunch. The next leg of the rally takes us back to the Grand Hotel in Trento, where, mercifully, we have time for some serious shut-eye before dinner.

An unwelcome wake-up call at 6.30am heralds day two. Bleary-eyed, teams head for Trento's Piazza Duomo, a magnificent cobbled square lined with cafés and shops and dominated by the cathedral. The assembled cars attract a lot of attention. Elderly women smile and wave, old men, idly gossiping with friends, applaud. The 200 mad Englishmen and their funny little cars respond with hooters, beeps, and air-horns. In another Grand Prix-style start, we are waved off.

Our mission today is to reach Castel San Pietro, near the Formula One racing track at Imola, and then on to our next hotel. It's time I had a shot behind the wheel, and for Andy to do a spot of map reading. But after several wrong turns, we revert to our former roles, road book and tempers still just about intact.

Golden autumnal sun lights the way as our colourful convoy motors south beside Lake Garda. Several teams pull off, and we head for one of the many waterfront cafes, wonderfully deserted at this time of year. I order two lattes and soak up the view. Andy wanders off and returns with a bottle of Bulgari perfume (my reward, perhaps, for being so good-natured about his woeful map-reading skills.)

Later, over a beer, thoughts hang heavy. Andy and I are beginning to wonder what on earth we are doing here. This intense and gruelling rally certainly fosters a sense of belonging, a certain camaraderie, and we've seen parts of Italy we'd never normally see. But we are exhausted.

Day three and another early start, not helped by our hangovers. Our destination is Castel del Rio. This stage includes some great Roman roads, carving dead-straight lines through the rich flatlands. Terracotta farmhouses and bolt-upright pine trees line the road as we slow down for the final helter-skelter of hairpin bends into town.

I'm behind the wheel now and next up is the Ponte Alidosi, a 15th-century humpbacked bridge designed to separate the men from the boy racers. I take her up and can only see sky. I should have been in a higher gear, but I made it. At this point I realise that we are really caught up in this venture. We've become as obsessed as anybody - with times, driving, the route, the road book, and whether the new BMW really is a superior being. Everything is calculated in fractions of a second, even a trip to the loo.

It's on to Forlì, and the breathtaking Piazza al Saffi. We wander off to one of the cafes that nestle behind ancient stone colonnades. A quick shot of caffeine then on to the Formula One track at Imola. Teams line up behind pace cars, and our circuit of the famous track begins. We are not allowed to do more than 60mph, but even at that speed several cars skid out of control on tight bends.

Next day is spent in and around Imola, but the day after, we are exploring again. We awake to the sound of revving engines and dropping spanners. The first stage is a gentle 47 miles through the vine-strewn landscape to Vignola followed by a perilous 191 miles up the autostrada to Turin, location for the original film. Perilous because of the pouring rain.

Fans of the film will remember the moment when Minis drive across the roof-top track of the former Fiat factory in Turin, which was converted into Le Meridien hotel by the Genoese architect Renzo Piano. Most drivers are eager to get their Minis up to the roof to re-enact that famous scene. For my part, I'm eager to get to the shops. The hotel is part of a multi-purpose complex that includes a galleried shopping arcade, hosting some of Italy's finest fashion outlets.

This is our last night and we bid our farewells. I'm not going home with a van load of gold but I've got some great memories and we managed to finish. The BMW Mini certainly passed the test, even if Andy didn't. Reckon I'm going to trade him in for a Mini Cooper S.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The 2005 Italian Job rally runs from 29 October to 5 November. Raising money for the National Children's Homes charity is a condition of entry, with a target of around £1,500 per car. The entry fee is £500 for a car and two passengers, who can also be sponsored. The organisers provide ferry crossings and an itinerary to the event. Accommodation and meals, arranged by the organisers, average £65 a day and £300 should be budgeted for petrol and tolls. The car does not need to be rally-prepared and a UK driving licence is sufficient.

Further information

Contact Freddie St George on 01273 418100 ( www.italianjob.com).

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