See Italy – from the wheel of a Ferrari

The Grand Tour of Europe was a rite of passage for the well-bred Englishmen in the 1800s. It's a great trip for the 21st-century traveller, too. And, as Peter Victor discovers, one company is offering an exciting new way to explore the Continent

Ten hot, fast kilometres into our journey along the Cassia road to Siena, sun glinting off the windscreen and a warm Tuscan wind rushing through what little hair I possess, I pinched myself.

I grabbed a greedy nip of flesh and squeezed – hard. I was awake, not dreaming; I really was driving a gleaming red Ferrari through a picture-postcard Tuscan landscape with a beautiful woman by my side.

We had left a gloomy, credit-crunched London less than 24 hours earlier. Drained by the chaos of malfunctioning Gatwick train services and airport check-in roulette, we arrived at Pisa airport to find a driver waiting to whisk us to the Petriolo Spa and Resort hotel in the forested hills between Siena and Grosseto.

Tuscany is hugely popular for Brits on walking holidays, food and wine jaunts, cycling breaks and painting trips. Now, a British travel company is offering a new experience: fine cuisine, five-star hotels and Ferrari sports cars – and we were there to sample it. Briefly, it felt almost sinful to be enjoying a trip so much. Dinner and a glass of prosecco on the balcony outside our suite shooed such qualms away.

After breakfast, it was time to be formally introduced to the Ferraris. Lorenzo Libotte, tour director with Red Travel, the Turin-based firm that supplies the cars, and his colleague, Guido Salassa, had brought along a 430, a 430 Spider F1 convertible and a 599 GTB F1 – all entitled to their place among the finest sports cars in the world.

After a briefing by Lorenzo on the day's itinerary and the technical specifications of the cars, we were taken to "meet" the Ferraris. One does not rudely plop into the driver's seat of such a machine without observing the niceties. Duly briefed, I was soon behind the wheel of the 430, its powerful engine singing in my ears.

A quick walkie-talkie check and, with butterflies in my stomach, we were off. Lorenzo led the way in a red Alfa Romeo Brera; my partner Katy and I followed in the Ferrari in front of Guido in a huge Audi Q7. A green holiday this definitely is not. I may well be offsetting it for the rest of this year, but it will be worth it.

My trepidation about driving such a massively powerful car on the "wrong" side of the road faded when Guido attached an orange revolving light to the roof of the Q7 and stuck a large orange flag out of his window to block the traffic so I could swoop out on to the main road.

I spent the first 10 minutes on tenterhooks. The 430 switched gears automatically; traction control was on full, and I watched the back of Lorenzo's Brera as though my life depended on it. Then, as I relaxed, things quickened. My first overtaking manoeuvre unleashed a hint of the beast and I was hooked, thrilled by the power and poise of the car propelling us through the Chianti region. I switched off the automatic gearbox, snicked the traction control to sport and slipped up and down the gears, twitching the Formula One-style paddles behind the steering wheel.

More than once I shifted down just to hear the V8 engine open its throat and roar as the needle on the big rev counter pushed past 3500. Lorenzo, a skilful negotiator of the winding Italian roads, pushed on. I was grateful for the superior acceleration, handling and awe-inspiring braking of the Ferrari.

By the time we arrived at San Gimignano, we were coursing with adrenalin, though I suspected Katy's was inspired less by my driving flair and more by concern about our longevity. We agreed, though, that swooping through some of the most stunning scenery in the world, in one of the most amazing cars in the world, took some beating.

This was not, however, a holiday break for petrolheads. The scenery, climate, food and wines, and the Italian people themselves make Tuscany a great place to have any kind of holiday. We strolled hand in hand, shopped and explored the historic, walled medieval town of San Gimignano, with its remarkable architecture and dramatic stone towers.

As we lunched al fresco at Relais La Collegiata, our backdrop was the town's medieval towers and rolling hills of olive groves and vineyards. Before long we were motoring back to the hotel, where we spent the afternoon swimming, in the sauna or testing the hydrotherapy pools. Relaxing to such levels takes effort and dedication.

Grand Tourist, the travel firm which has started offering the Ferrari breaks, specialises in luxury holidays in France and Italy. It's about as far from the sun, sea and sangria package holiday as it's possible to get.

Managing director Janet Simmonds said the firm's clients are selective and are searching for individual, memorable travel experiences: "We specialise in the finest that Europe has to offer. We design unique, magical, tailor-made journeys for individual clients and small groups. Our customers look for the elusive quality of travel experience that is so hard to find in today's hectic consumer-driven world."

With 20 years' experience in luxury travel, she can pretty much provide whatever her customers desire. One couple wanted to tour the Palladian villas – by bicycle. The trip will take three weeks, staying in luxury hotels en route. Another customer had a lifelong wish to throw coins in the Trevi fountain. The firm arranged for her to make the journey by train, staying in luxury hotels along the way.

"It's about rediscovering the art of travel," continued Ms Simmonds. "Just as the Grand Tourists experienced the spectacle of glaciers in the Alps, Renaissance palaces in Italy and the magic of the Venetian lagoon, these treasures remain to be rediscovered today."

The next morning, we experienced the impossibly accomplished Ferrari 599. By comparison with the more sports-car-like 430, it was smoother, its V12 engine effortlessly swift. Katy preferred it, although my heart was stolen by the more pugnacious 430. Lorenzo assured me that, unleashed on the race track, the larger car has all of the firepower of the 430, and more.

As we travelled in convoy – the Alfa Romeo, two Ferraris and the huge 4x4 – heads turned. When we stopped, people gathered to take pictures of each other and the crimson cars, a huge source of Italian pride. Motorists honked and flashed; grandmothers pointed them out to small children and young men nodded in appreciation.

In Montalcino we made our first stop of the day to visit the Biondi Santi vineyard, owned by friends of Lorenzo. The region produces outstanding wines. One of Biondi Santi's brunellos featured in Wine Spectator's top 10 wines of the century.

Then, on to historic Siena. By now we had relaxed almost totally, enjoying the sights and smells of the countryside, the feel and sounds of the car. We parked on the outskirts and caught a taxi into town. Only days before the Palio di Siena, we sat drinking lemonade on the edge of the Piazza del Campo, where thousands would gather to watch horsemen risk their lives at breakneck speeds amid architecture dating back to the 10th century.

It was time to say goodbye to Tuscany. The drive from Gallina to Civitavecchia on the outskirts of Rome is a must-do, once-in-a-lifetime experience, in any car. Piloting the convertible Ferrari Spider along roads that would induce the Top Gear team to sell significant relatives for just a mile or two at the wheel, I was tempted once again to pinch myself.

As the sun fell in the sky, we stopped at Bolsena for ice cream and gazed over the Lago di Bolsena. We switched back to the beloved 430 for the last leg of the journey to La Posta Vecchia hotel on the coast outside Rome.

After 380km that day alone, I would happily have driven back again. Instead we pulled up outside the restored 17th-century villa. Once owned by John Paul Getty, it was described by this newspaper as "the world's most exclusive". I don't know if that's true, but I believe it.

Between us, Katy and I have stayed in some of the best hotels in the world but perhaps only this one will stay with me for the rest of my life. Shown to our suite, I had to bite my tongue to keep from blurting: "I think there's been some mistake!"

The Medici Suite is furnished with beautiful antiques, including a bed bigger than some hotel rooms. The bathroom is the only one I've ever seen with a balcony indoors, and two marble staircases sweep down around a bath that's massive enough for three of me to lie flat side by side – I'm six feet two.

After a sumptuous meal on the hotel's restaurant terrace, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, we took a brief tour of the second-century Roman ruins, discovered beneath the foundations during Getty's restoration of the building in the 1960s.

In the morning as we waited to be picked up for the trip to Rome airport, to return to the chill and the credit crunch, I felt the tiniest pang of loss. Then I remembered a quote from Enzo Ferrari himself: "The Ferrari is a dream – people dream of owning this special vehicle and for most people it will remain a dream, apart from for those lucky few." For a while, Katy and I lived the dream. We few, we happy few.

HOW TO GET THERE

A three-night luxury break with Grand Tourist (01829 751038; grand-tourist.com) costs from £3,500 per person, based on two sharing, including breakfast, lunch or dinner at a superb restaurant each day, two full days of driving cars including the Ferrari 430 Spider, preparation, training and support and guidance with a lead car. The cars are supplied by Red Travel (00 39 011 6165219; red-travel.com). Prices vary depending on length of stay, date of travel and the precise requirements of Grand Tourist customers. For a quotation, contact janet@grand-tourist.com.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
News
newsVideo for No campaign was meant to get women voting
Sport
Wayne Rooney talks to the media during a press conference
sport
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?