On the road to romance in Italy
His grandfather motored the length and breadth of Italy with a lover by his side. Forty years on, Jeremy Atiyah retraces their route
Sunday 05 March 2006
It has always seemed to me that I was born with the desire to live in Italy embedded in my DNA. It felt like an innate, instinctive desire for little coffees and bright light and expressive neighbours. And now it turns out to be true.
I have learnt that I can blame my grandfather. I never knew him because he died more than 40 years ago. But I am told that he was a passionate, cultured man who loved history, good food and robust discussion. The result was, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, that he ended up driving to Italy every summer with his lover.
It is the lover - now aged nearly 90 - who tells me this. She has told me about the blue Ford Consul motor car, and the roads that were not yet crowded with traffic. He was in his late fifties, she some 15 years his junior.
Their first destination was the aerodrome at Lydd, in Kent, where they loaded their car on to a plane. They were fun, those flights to Le Touquet: after a mere 17 and a half minutes in the air, you arrived in a world that was as exotic as India is today. The first thing my grandfather did on landing was to buy a packet of Gauloise cigarettes. He did it for the aroma, he declared; he did it for France (he had a passion for authenticity).
They then drove off, with the freedom of an entire continent beneath their wheels. Their route through France took them along roads lined with chestnut and walnut trees; they usually crossed the border somewhere above Domodossola, that little mountain village whose syllables so blatantly announce the onset of Italy.
Once there, my grandfather and his lover turned to their trusty guidebooks, two fragile, red Baedekers published in the first decade of the 20th century. These books have since come down to me: bundles of tiny print and exquisitely drawn maps on Bible-thin paper.
Why would my grandfather and his lover have wanted to rely on guidebooks that were 50 years old? Italy was still Italy, I am sure they would have said. The Italy of 1960 was still essentially the Italy of 1900. The intervention of two world wars was no more than a detail. As for me, I cling to the hope that neither of those Italys can be so irredeemably different from mine.
The format of an Edwardian guidebook is surprisingly familiar. Here is the section on how to reach Italy by rail. Here are the sections on conduct, climate and transport. Here are the potted histories, chronologies, introductions to art, maps, and hotel recommendations.
While the books are scrupulously polite regarding the Renaissance, they are less so when it comes to contemporary Italy. Much is made of the "able-bodied loafers" who clog Italian cities; Italian trains are "often, if not, indeed, usually, late". With regard to tips, the traveller is advised "to have no scruple in limiting his donations to the smallest possible sums".
I keep finding slips of paper from between the pages of these books: entry tickets to museums and galleries and theatres in Milan, Vicenza, Padua, Venice, Florence, Ferrara, Rome ... It was a crooked path through Italy that they drove, but its cultured theme is unmistakable.
Florence, I am told, was the city to which they returned with most gusto. And enclosed in the Florence chapter, I have just discovered a bill, from a long-defunct hotel named the Albergo Berchielli, dated September 1962. Four nights, including breakfasts, drinks and laundry, comes to 26,000 lire, equating to roughly £10.
During my own visit to Florence I stayed in a chic, air-conditioned hotel by the Arno that cost £200 per night. How I would love to have crossed the decades, for the sake of a room in the Albergo Berchielli with an iron bedstead, stone tiles and a sink in the corner.
One year, north of Rome, they crashed the Ford Consul into a ditch. His joie de vivre drained away, and she was obliged to step down and knock shyly on the door of a farmhouse. The young men of the family emerged in caps and waistcoats to heave them out.
Later they were exploring the ruins of the Roman Forum, studying the line drawings of the Temple of Castor and the Temple of the Divine Julius. Suddenly they glimpsed a rose among the stones. Today a petal from the same flower, still red after a 45-year pressing in the book, slips down from beneath a map and floats to the floor. I carefully restore it to its place.
They continued south to Naples and Amalfi. One year they even got to Sicily. For us, the foreignness of Sicily in 1960 is impossible to imagine: the bronzed skins of the local youth, the intense light, the pungent aromas, the loudness of the chatter, the power of the priests and of the vulgar, crumbling Baroque and the faint menace of the Mafia.
Soon after crossing the straits of Messina, their camera was stolen from the car. The chances of retrieving it seemed slight. And yet the carabinieri got on its trail: by some miracle, they recovered the camera. The matter was solemnly recorded in the local newspapers, and my grandfather's lover kept all the cuttings.
These cuttings tell the story of a tiny local drama, regarding the lost camera of an English tourist and his lady in Sicily. Here is a grainy old photograph of a policeman. It happened more than 40 years ago, but I will never tire of thinking about it.
THE GRAND TOUR: 10 MUST-SEE DESTINATIONS
1. San Remo
WHY GO? This was a top resort before the Second World War. It's still the place to head to for old-fashioned Riviera glamour. Place a bet at the Art Nouveau casino, an ornate palace.
WHERE TO STAY? The Royal Hotel (00 39 0184 5391; royalhotelsanremo.com), for its faded opulence and a vast, salt-water pool in sub-tropical gardens. Doubles start at €222 (£158) with breakfast.
Why go? For more than two centuries, British tourists have flocked to Milan to visit the most famous opera house in the world, La Scala (for bookings, contact 00 39 0286 0775; teatroalla scala.org). A tour of La Scala is socially acceptable. Where to stay? The Grand Hotel Et De Milan (00 39 0272 3141; grandhoteletdemilan.it), where Giuseppe Verdi often stayed. Doubles start at Û528 (£377) without breakfast.
3. The Italian Alps
WHY GO? Much of the Italian Alps, especially round Lakes Como and Maggiore, is a must for nostalgics, with 'belle époque' hotels, palazzos, luxuriant gardens and lakeside views.
WHERE TO STAY? For very posh accommodation, try the palatial 16th-century Villa d'Este Hotel
(00 39 031 34 81; villadeste.it) at Cernobbio, on the shores of Lake Como. Doubles start at €465 (£332) with breakfast.
WHY GO? The quintessential tourist destination looks much the same today as it did in 1960 (or indeed 1760).
WHERE TO STAY? The world-famous Danieli Hotel (00 39 041 522 6480; hoteldanielivenice.com) tops the hotel list in my 1906 Baedeker guide book and it's still one of the very finest places to stay in the city. Doubles start at €415 (£296) per night, including breakfast.
Why go? Long marvelled at as ItalyÕs most beautiful city, Florence can be overwhelmed by tourists. For the Uffizi, the Accademia and the Bargello book visiting slots in advance (00 39 055 294 883; or book online at weekendafirenze.com). Where to stay? In a 16th-century Medici palazzo just outside town, the Villa La Massa (00 39 055 626 11; villalamassa.com). Doubles start at Û260 (£185) per night.
WHY GO? This intriguing city, with its narrow and crooked streets, is one of the finest places in Italy to sample medieval art and architecture. It is also the location for the Palio, the world's most spectacular horse race.
WHERE TO STAY? At the 17th-century Grand Hotel Continental (00 39 0577 56011; royaldemeure.com) in the heart of the city. Doubles start at €216 (£154) with breakfast.
WHY GO? It's hard to avoid being nostalgic in a city that has dominated Europe on and off for 2,000 years. For a true Grand Tour experience, dress up a bit, go to the Spanish Steps, meet your lover andchuck a coin into the Trevi fountain.
WHERE TO STAY? For traditional hotels you are spoilt for choice. Try the Grand Hotel Plaza (00 39 066 74 952; grandhotelplaza.com). Doubles start at €265 (£189) with breakfast.
WHY GO? Capital of the south, this mad, chaotic, tragic city remains the tear-jerker that it has been for the past three centuries. Come here to become a teenager again, ride a scooter, eat a pizza, to hold a shouted conversation from a balcony.
WHERE TO STAY? At the Grand Hotel Parker's (00 39 081 761 2474; grandhotelparkers.it), which overlooks the city from the hills. Doubles start at €220 (£157) with breakfast.
9. The Amalfi coast
WHY GO? Tourists have been coming to this region since the days of ancient Rome, and for very good reason: it's beautiful. Hop across to the legendary island of Capri for an afternoon.
WHERE TO STAY? In Sorrento, at the Excelsior Vittoria (00 34 081 877 7818; excelsiorvittoria.com), a newly-renovated, 19th-century hotel, with terraces of orange and lemon groves. Doubles start at €390 (£278) including breakfast.
WHY GO? Sicily has always been a vital stage on the Grand Tour - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian tourist par excellence, called the island "the key to the whole".
WHERE TO STAY? Just outside the city at the slightly shabby chic belle époque Grand Hotel Villa Igiea (00 39 091 543 744; villaigieapalermo.it). Doubles start at €277 (£197) without breakfast.
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