Grand touring in an open top

Darius Sanai left London to follow in the footsteps of Byron and Goethe - but rediscovered the Continent for himself

When British aristocrats made the Grand Tour fashionable in the 18th century, it was a revelation. Had people ever travelled so far purely for self-improvement and pleasure? Sons of dukes and earls were setting off to write lyrical accounts of French cities, to take in the Mediterranean sunshine, to buy Canalettos from Venetian galleries, to fall in love with Tuscan beauties - before returning to Britain three years later and spreading the word. Before long, even their sisters and daughters would be jumping into horse-drawn cabs and heading for the south.

From my northerly perspective, the routes of the Grand Tour still looked much the same, even if three weeks felt like a more reasonable time to follow in the footsteps of Boswell, Gibbon, Goethe et al. Where my predecessors had courted artists and mused on the relationship between nations, I would hop between tourist sights and write postcards.

And I had my own musing to do. As a child, I had been bundled into the family wagon by my father every summer and dragged off on tours of Europe's museums and art galleries. My father died when I was 17. But how much would his Continent have changed in these 20 years?

For my own Grand Tour, I set off in a suitably elegant convertible which I had picked up second-hand in Germany for the price of a Ford Escort. Britain had proved unhappy for the gaudy red beast; it needed continental roads and sunshine. The only question was how far I needed to drive to escape the grey winter now closing in on northern Europe.

"You'll catch up with the sun between Florence and Rome," a friend had said. Rain, sleet and hail battered the windscreen as I drove through France and Germany. But bizarrely, at 80mph all moisture was blown away and not a drop came inside the car. When I slowed down to shut the roof, though, I got soaked.

Foul weather continued down to the northern edge of the Alps, where the motorway vanished into the St Gotthard tunnel. Ten miles later, I emerged into a miraculous twilight. Setting off through Italy, I found memories of old holidays I never knew. What was the name of that wine I had found years ago in my father's possessions after his death? Gaja-Barbaresco? I had wanted to pour it into a pasta sauce. It turned out to be Italy's most expensive wine.

I had been wondering about the Barbaresco vineyards ever since, and now here they were: stuck to the side of a hill south of Turin. It was harvest time, and the vines were stripes of flame-red and yellow, raked down steep slopes. The owner arrived and ushered me into his cellar, where he poured me out a glass of red. He was worried about the weather. "Once you start harvesting grapes," he explained, "you have to pray it's not going to rain until you finish."

I was driving towards Florence on the autostrada when I saw a sign: "Balsamic vinegar!" By some unfathomable force I felt myself being sucked into the town of Modena. In Giuseppe Giusti, a tiny shop which once counted Verdi as a customer, the owner gave me a tasting of 20-year-old balsamics. They tasted sweet-sour, like Chinese plum sauce. He told me they would only be sold if they met the approval of the Consorzio overseeing their production. I tried to imagine having stored a vinegar since 1979 only to be told it did not meet the required standard.

This was my kind of Grand Tour. Unlike those 18th-century travellers, I avoided the big cities with their traffic jams, museum queues and car thieves. Instead I stopped off in little-known Pienza, which my father had described to me lovingly years before. From a balcony on the edge of the village, I looked out across half of central Italy. In mid-autumn, there were red forests, terracotta vineyards, ploughed fields shaded in burnt sienna, thickly green hillsides, and a sky with a chilly deep azure.

The tourists of my summertime childhood holidays had gone and the Continent had become industrious. A restaurant on a hillside next to Pienza served me its dish-of-the-day, tagliatelle with freshly picked porcini mushrooms and freshly dug black truffles. It tasted like all the autumns I had never had while sitting in an office block in London.

I saw Tuscany come alive. Men scurried around with baskets of grapes on their backs, women hauled big bags of mushrooms. The weather in Pienza felt like summer. I was, as had been predicted, exactly halfway between Florence and Rome.

Three weeks, not three years. It was hard, but this unnatural heat seemed to tell me that the moment had come to turn back. I set off west in the direction of France, to see what the seaside looked like in autumn.

St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat was a place so exclusive that it felt more alive in autumn than in summer. The owners of the homes of this little village on the coast near Monte Carlo could come off-season because they didn't have to work. A coastal path winding along a rocky beach led out of the village, past immaculate villas. This, perhaps, was where the modern equivalents of the original Grand Tourists had their summer houses, with wealth beyond my dreams.

At the tip of the Cap, the path reached a summit where I stared out at the white-grey sea, so flat it seemed to have been tamed by the millionaire residents. Behind me the Cote d'Azur spread out on two sides: the compact, high-rise glamour of Monte Carlo on one side, the curve of the Promenade des Anglais on the other. It felt like the calling point of my 20th-century Grand Tour.

From here I followed the autoroute A7 from Aix to Paris for several hundred miles. Somewhere north of Avignon the intense Provencal light gave way to a pallid, northern European grey. Boswell or Gibbon would surely not have liked it, and neither did I.

THE ONLY WAY TO TRAVEL...

GETTING THERE

You can hire a silvery blue classic Porsche convertible from Bespokes (tel: 0181-421 8686) from pounds 575 per week if you travel mid-week to mid- week. Ferry crossings from Dover to Calais with P&O Stena Line (tel: 0870 600 0600) start at pounds 209.

TIPS FOR THE ROAD

Drive on the Continent when it's not peak season and you'll avoid toll- booth queues, overcrowded service stations, overbooked restaurants and armies of German motorhomes. September, October, May and June are ideal.

German motorways can be overcrowded, so spend extra money on the French toll autoroutes instead. The St Gotthard tunnel through Switzerland is the easiest route to Italy. Once there drive to your destination at night, when most of the maniac drivers are in bed. Park your car where you can see it. The Swiss motorway services at Hilderswil resembles a Conran restaurant with better food and views.

WHERE TO STAY

The joy of the off-season is not having to book ahead, though for the best hotels you still need to. Il Chiostro di Pienza (tel: 00 39 584 30 7777), a converted 15th-century monastery with wondrous views, has double rooms from pounds 50. At St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat stay at Chateau de la Chevre D'Or (tel: 00 39 4 91 10 66 66). Opulence and fantastic views can be yours for pounds 190 for a double.

RECOMMENDED READING

As a general guide, for chic accommodation in Germany, France and Italy to go with your chi-chi car call Relais & Chateaux (0800 960 239).

Darius Sanai travelled as a guest of Le Shuttle (tel: 0990 353535) and was insured with AA Five Star (tel: 0800 444500; coverage starts at pounds 11 for one day).

FURTHER INFORMATION

French Tourist Office (tel: 0891 244123). German National Tourist Office (tel: 0171-317 0908). Italian State Tourist Board (tel: 0171-408 1254)

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