EUROPEAN ROAD TRIP
Speed, style and spectacular scenery: a spin in a Lotus Evora proves the best way to see Europe
I may not be your typical revhead, but if I’m ever going to become one, now would be the time.
We’re whizzing around the dramatic Ligurian coast in my mad-keen motorist uncle’s Lotus Evora, gazing down on tiny pastel-painted villages set like jewels into jagged cliffs. Every hairpin bend reveals a new dazzling vista as we wind and swirl down a plunging peak, pausing at blind corners before zooming gallantly on.
We’re cruising the continent as part of Dave Thomas’s Driving Adventures. The organised group road trips span the globe from Australia and New Zealand to America’s windswept west coast and the mythical northern reaches of the UK. But the tour de force is this European jaunt, now in its sixth year. Before the maiden voyage, Thomas spent four weeks behind the wheel – notebook in his lap – hunting down the best spots while mapping and plotting every twist and turn (and there are many!). The result is a Europhile’s dream: 19 days, six countries and 3949 kilometres of jaw-dropping landscapes, Michelin-worthy cuisine and luxurious lodgings – plus some racy roads thrown in for good measure.
A fleet of five to ten cars, each fitted with a pre-programmed navigation system, makes the starting line-up – a mix of couples, mates and father-and-son/daughter/niece/nephew duos. Car rivalries are rife and there’s plenty of jostling about whether the Lotus or Porsche will prevail (although as Thomas proceeds to tell us, this is not a race).
We kick off in Stavelot, Belgium, home to the Spa-Francorchamps Formula One circuit, where we take a spin on the seven- kilometre course. This is backed up in epic proportions the following day at Germany’s Nurburing, the most famous racetrack in Europe. Our group, at least those game, take to the “Green Hell” for a few fast laps, burning rubber on the spine-tingling 20-kilometre loop.
It proves the perfect warm-up for day four when we hit the Autobahn, largely unrestricted on both speed and adrenaline. Drivers on the tour can set their own pace, either cruising from A to B – stopping for sites and long lunches along the way – or blasting down the motorway to the next destination. In truth, road works crush our dreams of sending the speedometer off the dial; instead we sit in a sea of Volkswagens and Audis as we trudge into Salzburg.
But from here, the roads reach new heights, literally and figuratively. We can almost hear Julie Andrews warbling as we swoop through the rolling green hills before making our ascent up the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest peak rising 2477 metres. There’s a reason the High Alpine Road has been tagged one of the most scenic mountain drives in the world, a moving vista of shimmering lakes and pearly white glaciers reflected in our rear vision mirror as we make 36 tyre-squealing bends.
We cross the border from Austria into north-east Italy; soon the Dolomites appear in the distance, 18 craggy peaks seemingly painted onto the sky. Our port of call is the quaint ski village of Cortina, a magnet for well-heeled Europeans in the winter months, peaceful and pretty in September. A rest day provides opportunities for high-end shopping or another alpine drive.
Cortina is the kind of place you could linger for longer, but as Thomas explains, that’s not the point of the trip; Driving Adventures acts as a “reconnaissance” or “taster” of these special spots – return at your will. So it’s back behind the wheel; next stop is the fortified medieval town of Sirmione where we fight with throngs of pedestrians for road space on the narrow cobblestone lanes. Kids are yelling in delight and iPhones are out in force taking our – or rather the Evora’s photo.
Then it’s off to Maranello, home of Ferrari, before spiralling down to Tuscany. A 250-kilometre drive (an average day on the tour) brings all the region’s stereotypes to life – endless olive groves, scenic hilltop villages and russet-roofed farmhouses. From there, we venture north to the Italian Riviera, weaving in and out of mountain-burrowing tunnels and catching our first glimpse of the impossibly sapphire Mediterranean. A zip around Cinque Terre eventually leads to Portofino, a posh promontory splashed in sun-baked shades, peeled paint belying the prime waterfront real estate. We make like the jet-set with a night at the famed Splendido (George Clooney’s rumoured to have a permanent motorbike spot here).
After that, starting with Monaco’s Col de Turini, the driving gets serious, ticking off any motoring fanatic’s bucket list in one fell swoop. We head into the Alps and over the Great St Bernard Pass, re-creating the opening sequence of The Italian Job (minus the Lamborghini Miura). Of course along the way, there have been plenty of chances to check out iconic vehicles with visits to car museums including Porsche, Mercedes and Ferrari, plus an optional weekend at Britain’s classic car show Goodwood Revival tacked onto the start of the itinerary.
But Thomas saves the best for last – the final days see us tackle the legendary Stelvio Pass. A pilgrimage for petrol-heads, the natural rollercoaster straddling the Swiss/Italian border features 48 dizzying switchbacks climbing 2757 metres above sea level. Top Gear deemed it the greatest driving road on the planet, and our group sits in near unanimous agreement.
Of course, a convoy of ten automobiles roaming around Europe is never going to be all smooth driving. One year a couple ended up in Salzburg, Germany, rather than Salzburg, Austria, a mere six hours from the rest of the party. At the Grossglockner pass, an annual vintage tractor convention coincides with our visit, meaning we share the precarious mountain roads with 500 stinky SMVs; while in Tuscany, constant road re-routing leaves us in a maze of cyprus-lined lanes that haven’t even made it to Google maps. But it’s all part of the charm.
Back in the Cinque Terre, we move into the cliff-hugging fast lane, blue skies above, cerulean seas below and open roads ahead.
I may become a revhead yet.