- Peter Volny & Linda Goddard
The Road Less Travelled: A Driving Trip Through Italy, Corsica, and Sardinia
There’s an idiom ‒ ‘Getting there is half the fun’ – but regrettably this does not often apply to flying to a destination, especially in these days of airport and airline staff shortages, lack of availability of rental cars and outrageous rates, and ever-changing COVID-19 regulations.
We were, therefore, very pleasantly pleased when we boarded a British Airways A350-1000 and discovered that BA has finally abandoned its horrendously cramped 2-4-2 seating in business class in favor of a 1-2-1. To say this is a quantum leap forward is not doing it justice. In fact, it’s even better in some respects than their previous first class. Now they have an actual compartment with a door and, while the door does not extend to the ceiling presumably for safety reasons, it does offer substantially more privacy. The in-flight entertainment system is also greatly improved with a large screen and far better resolution. Now if they would only upgrade their food and wine offerings.
Transiting through Heathrow, we connected to a flight to Nice where we picked up our leased Peugeot 308 diesel, six-speed. In North America, we have very few diesels, but they are ubiquitous in Europe where diesel fuel actually costs less than gasoline. Still we were mortified that it was about $12 a gallon. Short-term leases are by far the best way to go as long as you are spending at least three weeks. You get your specific choice of vehicle from a range that even includes vans and SUVs. They come with a fabulous built in GPS with software from Tom Tom. The touch screen is very easy to use, and the detail is amazing. In fact, in Corsica it even guided us from the parking lot onto the ferry to the mainland. The car was perfect for the two of us and our suitcase, roll aboard, backpack, and sundry items fit nicely in the trunk.
Another wonderful feature was automatic locking and unlocking as you left and approached the car. We did not check fuel economy, but it seemed to go forever on the proverbial sniff of an oily rag. Hopefully Stellantis will see fit soon to import Peugeots into Canada again. (https://www.autofrance.net/)
Good Road Maps
As I’ve written in previous articles, good road maps are a must as GPS will not help with planning routes to the myriad of small towns, but more importantly the scenic roads. Michelin and Philip’s both have excellent ones. There are also a few great on-line planning sites that help with distances, travel times, and even tolls. The two we use are:
Our trip was five weeks so you will likely want to miss some of the places in which we overnighted or split the trip into two – mainland Italy and Corsica/Sardinia. Two weeks in each part is enough.
Leaving Nice, we bypassed the supposedly picturesque town of Eze and headed out of town along a very picturesque coast road and then a back road to Turin. Well the road was fantastic, through the mountains with virtually no traffic and we were delighted until we came to road construction with alternating flow and had to wait several minutes. This was soon followed by another, and another, and another;, then a gravel detour; and onto a barrier closing our side of the road. We passed this and continued up the mountain pass until the road was completely closed. This was just a prelude to the incompetence of the Italian roads department, but more later.
By now we had driven well over 100 kilometres, but had no option but to drive all the way back to the coast. At least it was on a great road, which at the coast became a high-speed toll road affording great views. We stopped at an Autogrill to get gas and had a pit stop and light snack. If you’ve never been to one, it’s worth a look as the bigger ones are a combination gas station, restaurant, and store.
We finally arrived at our hotel, the Turin Palace more than two hours later than scheduled, having paid €29 in tolls, no doubt the first of many. Between tolls and fuel, I don’t know how Europeans can afford to drive. On the subject of fuel, we found out that the terminals in the self-serve gas stations will not accept our North American credit cards, so we had to find manned places.
Turin is a big industrial city, the capital of Piedmont and the home of the giant Fiat corporation. The main shopping areas are lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants where the people watching over an aperitivo, the Italian version of Happy Hour, of prosciutto and parmigiano with an Aperol Spritz is a perfect induction to the Italian ‘dolce vita.’ While in Turin, we had dinner at two wonderful restaurants, both within easy walking distance of the hotel. Giovanni is more upscale while Taverna della Rose is very casual, but both offered wonderful meals at very reasonable prices, with a greatly depreciated Euro helping.
A traditional must-do for which Turin is famous is Bicerin coffee, a triple layer of coffee, rich chocolate, and heavy cream which you do not stir, but drink through the layers. Try one at the original Cafe Al Bicerin.
Leaving Turin, we drove on to the Barolo wine area, just a short hour or so to the south. Here we stayed at one of those gems that you are occasionally lucky to find. Castello di Sinio is a 12th century castle that was converted some 20 years ago to a boutique, luxury hotel by Denise Pardini, a gourmet chef originally from California. It’s ideally situated to explore the many towns and vineyards and restaurants in the area. We had the Tower Suite which occupies half of the top floor and has wonderful views in three directions. This is as close as we are ever likely to get to living in our own mansion in Europe (www.hotelcastellodisinio.com/en/).
We were welcomed with a glass of Prosecco, which was refilled as they explained things to us. There is a lovely garden with a pool and a secluded dining area under an arbor where gourmet breakfasts are served. The pièce de resistance, however, was dinner, which in our humble opinion is worth of at least one if not two Michelin Stars. The selection is large and the descriptions tantalizing. It does change according to the seasons, but I urge you to go on their website and feast your eyes (www.hotelcastellodisinio.com/cgibin/1470477274Menu-July-29-2016–.pdf).
The roads in this area are wonderful and, for the timid, there are some you may want to avoid, but there always less challenging ones that take you to the same places. There many small towns and villages and the team at the hotel can help you decide and plan routes.
Of course, there are numerous wineries. We chose the Ceretto Winery, about 15 minutes away. A large brick building sits at the top of a hill with the vineyards descending below on both sides. Walking through a dimly lit huge cavern of barrels, we came to an expansive, modern display area at the end of which was a large, cantilevered glass bubble where the patchwork rows of grape vines stretch out as far as the eye can see, punctuated by small villages all with church steeples.
We were welcomed by Roberta Ceretto, the granddaughter of the founder who explained the history of both the area and her vineyard, finishing up with a lovely wine tasting of their white Arneis, then a blended Barolo and Barbaresco, and finally two single vineyard Barolos. A nice way to start the day, drinking at 10 a.m.. Roberta told us that wine-growing land in the area costs €4 million an acre, so if you’re planning on buying a vineyard, bring your wallet (www.ceretto.com/en/home).
We had dinner one night at Le Case Della Saracca in the medieval hilltop town of Monforte d’Alba. The exterior gives no hint of what to expect inside, so on entering you immediately get a very pleasant shock. Someone with incredible imagination has transformed four dilapidated and derelict buildings dating back to the 1200s into a delightful fantasy. Eons old brick and stone walls and stairs now have steel and glass railings with secluded tables in alcoves on multi levels. The meal was as wonderful as the setting (www.saracca.com/#).
Another fabulous dinner was at Felicin. Here, make a reservation and specify a table by the railing for yet another incredible view. Go a little before sunset and watch the colours change. Don’t miss the ‘Tajarin’ – fresh pasta noodles fresh rolled and cut by hand. (www.felicin.it/en/restaurant-langhe-piedmont/).
A highlight of this whole trip was a lunch at Bovio in La Morra. Reserve well ahead and ask for a patio table by the edge where you will have picturesque views of the vineyards in the valleys far below. Lunch is prix fixe six course and at just €50 is an amazing deal. The biggest problem you’ll face is picking a wine from the wine book, not a list but an actual book (www.ristorantebovio.it/en/home).
Sadly, there was no convenient back roads to our next stop at Parma, so we reluctantly took the highway. The Novotel seemed to be the best choice, but do specify a suite as the rooms are quite small. Parma has a very busy pedestrian street lined with cafes and restaurants cheek by jowl, perfect for lunch, dinner or Aperitivo.
Our reason for visiting Parma was to do a parmesan cheese tour. We chose the San Pier Damiani farm. The wife of the owner toured us around and we had to put on sterile coats, caps, and overshoes. The tour lasted about 1½ hours, during which time we saw the entire production process from how they pour 1,100 litres of milk from their own cows into huge copper vats and apply heat until it boils. Then with a large wooden shovel, they pry the settled cheese from the liquid and hang it in a cheesecloth to shape it into a round, from which they force it onto a mold. Those 1,100 litres produce only two rounds of 50 kilos each, which explains why it’s expensive. The tour also includes the warehouse where hundreds are aging from a minimum of 12 months to many years with a tasting of various ages (www.sanpierdamiani.com/en/).
Leaving Parma our next destination was the city of Bologna with a detour to visit a balsamic vinegar factory. This actually turned out to be a private house where the lady who lives there gives the tour and explanation and her husband is the balsamic maker. We climbed three floors to where each small room is lined with wooden barrels maturing the balsamic. It has to have a minimum of 10 years of aging to be a genuine balsamic, but some are 60 to 100 years old. It was interesting to learn how it’s made and, like Parmesan cheese, gives you an appreciation of why it is so expensive, especially for the really good stuff. We sampled about 10 varieties and bought a 100 millilitre bottle of the 15-year-old aged in cherry for €65 (www.acetaiadigiorgio.it/en/).
Bologna is quite a large city and, like most places in Italy, has a rich history and lots of sightseeing. If you’re energetic it’s well worth climbing the 498 steps to the top of the 97 metre Asinelli Tower smack bang in the middle of the city from which you can see the whole town. In the main square, there is a statue of Neptune and the clock tower where you can see the machinery that operates the clock. Bologna also lays claim to the world’s longest colonnade at over two miles leading uphill with no shortage of steps to the magnificent Basilica San Luca.
As you would expect in a city of this size, there are shops, restaurants, and cafes everywhere. We dined at il Passatello and il Cantuccio for an amazing seafood dinner, but do not miss out on aperitivo one afternoon in the very busy Quadrilatero area:
From Bologna we drove on the highway to Livorno to catch a ferry to Corsica and here we ran into yet another Italian road snag. There were two tiny road construction sites of no more than 20 metres, but the highway was cut down to one lane for many, many kilometres, so traffic was stop and crawl. Unfortunately, there really is no practical alternative route.
We overnighted at the M Gallery, part of the Accor chain, in a stately old waterfront building and our room on the second floor had a perfect sea view, but the hotel could do with a refresh. Livorno did not seem to have anything to offer, but was a necessary stop as the ferry left at 8.30 a.m. When they say ferry, one does not expect an enormous ship that holds hundreds of cars and trucks jammed in like proverbial sardines. A word of advice. Do not book premium seating tickets as we did because we were horrified to find that these are located amidships with no windows. On the upper decks, there are lots of free seating with windows by the various restaurants and cafes.
The cruise to Bastia in Corsica took about four hours and driving off was easier than driving on. We stayed at the Hotel Des Gouveneurs, part of the Small Luxury Hotel Collection, in Suite 32 on the top floor with a good view of the harbour below. There are lots of restaurants on the horseshoe shaped small harbour, perfect spots for moules frites with a crisp white wine.
Leaving Bastia we drove along a scenic
coastal road to Saint Florent, a small, picturesque town, from which we turned inland to Calvi where we stayed at the L’Abbaye Hotel. Just a five-minute walk away is the historical centre with a narrow, twisty alley lined with shops and the obligatory restaurants. Locals claim that Christopher Columbus was actually born here and have erected a statue commemorating this (www.hotel-abbaye-calvi.fr).
Our next overnight was at Corte via one of the most exhilarating stretches of road ever, but definitely not for the faint of heart. The first part is along the coast with yet more wonderful views of craggy headlands on one side and mountains on the other.
At the small town of Porto, we diverted to an 11-kilometre stretch to Piana. The already narrow road narrowed even more as it hugged the cliff side with enormous sheer drops. As the road cuts through cliffs, there are low overhangs on one side so higher vehicles need to come onto the other side. The road is two-way, so you do encounter traffic coming the other way, some drivers being very cautious and others, particular the bikers, being very aggressive. Massive granite mountains surround with the vista more breathtaking around every turn and Maquis, the Corsican version of Irish heather, grows wild all over the island. Corsica may very well have the best driving roads of any place, that’s if you like lots of curves.
In Corte we overnighted at Dominique Colonna, a wonderful boutique hotel set in the woods right on the banks of a rushing mountain river and owned by a lovely lady from Quebec. The town itself is a short drive up a steep hill and well-worth exploring. We had a delightful dinner at U Campanile and recommend the wild boar stew on noodles:
After breakfast the next morning, we drove on to Ajaccio where we stayed at the Palazzu u Domu, conveniently located smack bang in the middle of the part of town with the action. We had Suite 410 on the top floor and a view of the harbour and had a fabulous dinner at A Calata, just a five-minute walk from the hotel. Ajaccio is the birthplace of Napoleon, and you can visit the house in which he lived (www.palazzu-domu.fr/en).
Bonifacio, on the southern tip of Corsica, from which we took the ferry to Sardinia, has a great citadel complex dating back to the 9th century. We stayed at the Roy d’Aragon which sounds far more impressive than it is, but it is right on the small harbourfront with a myriad of restaurants right underneath and just a few minutes from the ferry dock (www.royaragon.com).
Unlike the ferry from the mainland to Corsica, the ferry to Sardinia is much smaller and much rougher, not the voyage but the ship itself. The trip to Santa Teresa di Gallura took only 50 minutes, and both loading and unloading goes quickly thanks to the small vessel. Once ashore, we elected to take the long, scenic route north following the coast passing through Castelsardo on the way to Alghero. Here we stayed at one of those non-descript high-rise hotels, in a corner room on the eighth floor with good views of the fortified town and harbour. Within the massive city walls, and walking along the top of them between several watch-towers, there are lots of sights, and lots of cafes and restaurants. We had a lovely dinner at one called Nautilus where we dined on the small balcony overlooking the harbour:
We had included a day in Oristano where we stayed at the Regina d’Arborea, a bed and breakfast in a beautiful building built in 1860 that is a historical monument smack bang in the middle of the main square, operated by a descendant of the original owners. When you travel occasionally something happens that you did not expect and so it was in Oristano where they were having a Zorro Festival for peace. A large group of people, all dressed in Zorro outfits and carrying signs from dozens of countries, moved from place to place singing and chanting. I don’t think we have ever seen anything stranger (www.reginadarborea.it).
The drive to Cagliari started on more mountain roads before descending to the coast where there are several beaches with amazingly clear water.
The Palazzo Doglio is part of The Leading Hotels of the World and a beautiful classical series of buildings in a triangular shape with a large open courtyard so do reserve a room facing this.
The upper town is the historical part reached via lots of steps, but worth exploring. Right by the harbourfront are alleys with outdoor restaurants. Most doing a roaring trade but, like every place in Italy and France, people eat late ‒ many don’t even open for dinner until 8 p.m. (www.palazzodoglio.com/en).
Cagliari was our southernmost point in Sardinia, from where we headed north along the east coast to one of the most eclectic hotels we have ever seen – Su Gologone near the town of Oliena. Rambling over a forested hillside with folksy artwork everywhere, our suite was the uppermost one with a large balcony with an outside tub and shower, and a marvelous view over the valley. In fact, we found out that both Madonna and Beyonce had stayed in it.
There is a large pool and a lovely, shaded terrace for lunch right by it, but the pièce de resistance is the bar at the very top of the resort. The ideal place for a sunset drink, it offers perfect views of the adjacent craggy mountains (www.sugologone.it/en/welcome.html).
We were catching the ferry back to Corsica on our homebound journey, so we drove north stopping at Costa Smeralda to see all the Russian oligarch’s mega-yachts, but evidently they have either been seized or are hidden away elsewhere because not one was docked there.
We continued on to our hotel, the Capo d’Orso in Palau, set in lush grounds by the water.
Our ‘sea-view’ suite turned out to be set far back with so many trees in front that the sea was almost totally obscured. In fact, all the accommodations, and the breakfast patio and restaurant, have trees obscuring the sea. The private beach is small and there are nowhere near enough loungers and sun umbrellas ‒ all in all, a disappointing place (www.hotelcapodorso.com/en).
Wanting to be close to the ferry dock for our early morning departure back to Corsica, we moved to the Hotel Colonna Capo Testa. The nearby town is well-worth exploring, but the highlight was a fabulous dinner at S’Andira, just a few minutes’ drive from the hotel. Set on a hillside, the patio overlooks the harbour and has a perfect sunset view. Everything was delicious and beautifully presented, but don’t miss the appetizer of grilled octopus with honey and lime, which looks like a Joan Miró painting:
The ferry took us back to Bonifacio from where we drove up the east coast stopping for a few hours of exploring the cute town of Porto Vecchio before continuing on to Bastia and the ferry to Livorno. It was from Livorno back to Nice that the absolute worst part of this whole five-week, 4,000 plus kilometre trip took place. There is only one way to get there and that’s on the alleged highway. However what should have been a pleasant 3½-hour, 350 kilometre drive took six hours. The traffic was horrendous and long stretches were stop and crawl for no apparent reason. To add insult to injury, this cost a whopping $50 in tolls.
Once in Nice we checked into the Hyatt Palais de la Méditerranée right on the waterfront, where we strongly recommend room #917 on the top floor with a perfect view of the Mediterranean. Nice is a large and very busy city, but so much fun. The beachfront boardwalk stretches forever while an infinite variety of bars and restaurants occupy the opposite side of the street. Sadly, the beach is composed of pebbles, which doesn’t seem to deter the myriad of people lying on them.
The entire area all around the Hyatt is full of shops and sidewalk restaurants, and lots and lots of people. The port area is perhaps an hour’s walk away, but crammed with shops all the way. In fact, about halfway there is a wonderful street market with meats, cheeses, breads, pastries, and lots more to tempt. In the small port you are likely to see some very large private yachts (www.hyatt.com/fr-FR/hotel/france/hyatt-regency-nice-palais-de-la-mediterranee/ncehr).
Nice is a perfect place from which to explore the surrounding area. We drove up to the artists colony of St. Paul de Vence where you can easily wile away a day exploring the myriad of narrow, hilly cobblestone alleys all lined with studios, shops, and interspersed with cafes and restaurants.
We continued on to Tourrettes-sur-Loup, yet another impossibly cute town. Also in this area, and all these towns are within very short distances of one another, we went to Gourdon situated at the top of a gorge, so the road is ‘exciting.’ We had a fabulous lunch on a patio at La taverne provençale overlooking the gorge and valley far, far below. If, like me, you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss their profiteroles – just the sugar rush you’ll appreciate for the drive back down on those roads:
This was our last day and we were very reluctant to leave but will be back to explore this region much more.
Some final thoughts. This is not the first time we have marveled at how much better European GPS is over North American. First of all, having a touch screen really simplifies and speeds up entries. It did, a couple of times, take us on seemingly weird deviations from what seemed correct, but it always worked out. In Bastia it even directed us from the wharf onto the ferry. Drivers in Europe are very aggressive and we can’t understand how there are not more accidents and injuries, or even deaths. On very narrow, winding, mountain roads they bomb along cutting off blind corners, so you really have to have fast reactions, but don’t let this deter you as a car just gives you the freedom you need.
On top of the roads being narrow, the marked lanes in towns are very narrow and the parking spots are really crammed. Most of the cars you see have dings or scratches. Life is lived at a far less frenetic pace than we are used to, and cafes and restaurants are busy all day until late at night. The bathrooms in restaurants are ridiculously small and how a hefty person can use them seems impossible. They do not seem to drink anywhere near as much alcohol as we do and they can sit for hours over a single espresso or Coke, smoking cigarette after cigarette. There are as many overweight and downright obese people as we have. Even a lowly 10 per cent tip elicits genuine gratitude from servers and most people don’t seem to tip at all.
The husband and wife team of Peter Volny and Linda Goddard are inveterate travellers and adventure seekers with almost 160 countries to date.