You and Italy: the road movie

Bored with fixed destinations? Follow free-as-a-bird Ray Kershaw on a dizzying whistle-stop tour south through the peaks and ports of Italy's dazzling west coast
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The Independent Travel

Only minutes before, the radio stations had been as Gallic as croissants; now every voice was as Italian as the blue sky. Three kilometres below Mont Blanc du Tacul, it seemed our reel had been switched from a rainy film noir into a luminous Fellini.

Only minutes before, the radio stations had been as Gallic as croissants; now every voice was as Italian as the blue sky. Three kilometres below Mont Blanc du Tacul, it seemed our reel had been switched from a rainy film noir into a luminous Fellini.

Ringed by Europe's highest summits, Courmayeur glittering below, stretching ahead were 1,000 miles of truly grand touring - Mont Blanc to school geography's Calabrian toe.

Squeezed between the Matterhorn (here Monte Cervino) and Gran Paradiso's soaring national park, Aosta city's ancient Roman heart makes a perfect setting for our first cappuccino. Then Autostrada (motorway) 26, sinuous as a roller coaster, spins us down the Val d'Aosta - the castle-rimmed old gateway to the south - before depositing us breathless on the Lombardy Plain.

Under miles-wide blue skies, purring towards a poplar-pierced infinity, we find ourselves singing. Like Toad of Toad Hall, that most devoted motorist: "Here today - in next week tomorrow!" we're barely able to resist a partisan "Poop! Poop!" This is the motoring that car ads try to sell: the open road's allure, redolent of antique Michelin Guides - when a spin was really fun.

Volare... Cantare... while my wife dozes, I daydream my own road movie - each day further south measurably hotter, romance around every corner, changing landscapes, different customs, wines and foods.

Skirting Vercelli, Italy's capital of rice, the motorway wades through Europe's biggest paddy fields, rustling with millions of embryonic risottos. Soon we soar into the forests of Liguria, plunging to Autostrada 12's gull's-eye view of Genoa and the sea.

The A12 to La Spezia, swirling into tunnels, soaring over bridges, resembles a white-knuckle funfair ride. A tour de force by some Leonardo of motorway design, it burrows along the Ligurian coast with tantalising glimpses of impossibly-perched villages and azure water inlets whose sirenic string of exit signs reads like a travel brochure: Camogli, Portofino, Rapallo, Sestri Levante. We corkscrew down through forests for a break at Levanto, hidden in its bay at the head of the vine-terraced Cinque Terre coast.

The A12 reaches Tuscany and the renowned Carrara marble quarries. Flanking the motorway are huge export-ready blocks of the Renaissance's hard stuff. Michelangelo was a customer.

Toscana, Liguria, Piemonte, Val D'Aosta. The names titillate the tongue like a trattoria menu. Just ahead is Pisa for a sprint up the newly re-opened tower. Parking is nearby on the city's northern fringe.

Lucca, Pistoia, Prato, Firenze... dodging conurbations, the views from the motorway make Italy an Arcadian back-projection. Greater Florence's urban sprawl is far from sight.

On the Rome/Milan A1, traffic hots up. With eyes peeled for Ferraris on the left wing, the autostrada drivers are faster but more disciplined than those on the tailgating M1. To the west are Chianti's rolling vine-clad hills.

The A1, as all roads do, is leading to Rome but the southbound lanes aim for Tivoli. We stop for Hadrian's Villa (he of the Wall) and the Villa Gregorian's waterfall gardens. Nearby Ostia Antica, Rome's antique port, gives a picture of early Roman life.

Rome to Naples is a fast 100 miles through mountain scenery. We no longer point out views. In Campania are buffalo grazing - mozzarella on the hoof - the pictures on hoardings triggering dreams of the pristine-white orbs drizzled with virgin olive oil and fresh basil.

Italian drivers' mileage between shots of caffeine is low. Their autostrada cafés vie to produce the world's best espresso. Serving bulging panini, prosciutto and salamis, they reflect the passing regions asgastronomic samplers.

The A24 bypasses Naples with a rear view of Vesuvius. Climbing by valleys remote as when Spartacus hid, we were alone to the crater. A three-mile detour winds to Pompeii.

Christ Stopped At Eboli was Carlo Levi's novel of life in the harsh south. Passing the town, traffic now sparse, the A3 is toll-free, an EU-thrown lifeline to the region's economy.

In Basilicata forests seem denser, mountains more precipitous. With night coming on, we discover tiny Lauria's Hotel Santa Rosa. Lauria is celebrating its former priest's canonisation. New saints bestow prosperity. Bars and cafés throng, the region's patron saint, the Madonna del Monte, is gratefully paraded.

Through ever-wilder landscapes, the Autostrada del Sole races to Calabria - our first heady view of the Tyrrhenian Sea is flattered by our aerial perspective. The coast road reveals a straggle of concrete hotels. Unspoilt beaches surround picturesque Tropea on its isolated promontory. Inland are the rugged Aspromonte mountains, high enough for skiing, with the Calabrian National Park - the final fling of the Apennines followed from Liguria. Italy here is scarcely 20 miles wide.

Suddenly we see Sicily. Across the Straits of Messina, smoking, snow-capped Etna looks as ethereal as a mirage.

At Reggio di Calabria - a destination blighted by the Mafia, earthquakes, unemployment - the motorway runs out. But from Villa San Giovanni car ferries for Sicily sail every 15 minutes, £20 return - another beckoning odyssey hard to refuse.

Bums a bit sore, limbs a bit stiff - among banana plants and palms Mont Blanc feels very distant, Britain a faint memory. "Poop! Poop!"

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