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
Sunday 13 July 2008
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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