Driving to Northern Tuscany

by Primaella

We recently travelled to Northern Tuscany by way of the French and Italian Riviera and with an overnight stop in Spotorno. We were in for a bit of a shock before we reached our final destination

There's something about being in Italy that makes me smile. I just love it. We were recently travelling to Northern Tuscany by way of the French and Italian Riviera, and I was impatient to get that Latin feeling. Now, whichever side of the border you may be, it all looks pretty much the same from the vantage point of your car. Mile after mile of motorway tunnels cast such a chill, every time you re-emerge feels like a mini-renaissance. It's not worth getting too excited over tantalising glimpses of sunlit sea, or the ochre mansions framed by tall cypress trees which grace the surrounding hillsides, because very soon you are whisked into those dark subterranean caverns once more, wondering if you are ever going to see the light again.

On the other hand, unless you are going to leave the motorway altogether and explore the area properly, this route of tunnels and viaducts probably affords the best overall perspective of this stretch of Mediterranean coastline. And so we sped on, reluctantly leaving Nice, Monte Carlo and San Remo to explore another time.

The Ligurian Coast

Our itinerary promised us a small taster, an antipasto of the Italian Riviera, in the form of an overnight stop at Spotorno. We chose this resort as it is well away from the motorway, and promised a hotel in belle epoch style fronting the promenade. And so we looked forward to our first brief stay on the Ligurian coast.

After peeling away from the international phalanx of speeding cars and lorries, we entered a completely different world of Italian provincial traffic. Immediately I found myself smiling. Now, it's normally no joke crawling through a town at 5mph, but in the charming town of Finale Liguria, it's different. Couples entwined around "Vespas", and little "Apes", those funny little three wheeled work vehicles where the driver is invariably so large his head touches the cab roof, buzzed past in all directions. Why should they care about the traffic regulations the rest of us were following. As we filed along the main route, I glimpsed attractive squares and the occasional tiny white church tucked away down narrow streets.

Our hotel

We followed the coast road through Noli and on to neighbouring Spotorno. The welcome at our hotel, Hotel Villa Imperiale in via Aurelia, was as gracious as the building itself with its white painted stucco and high ceilings. Our spacious room overlooked the courtyard, where palm trees reached so tall they must have been planted with the new building at the turn of the last century. This hotel offered us a perfect overnight stop at a reasonable rate (80€). For an Italian hotel, the inclusive breakfast was not at all bad.

Spotorno and Noli

The Italian Riviera di Ponente, which lies to the west of Genoa, is very low key. Spotorno, with its long stretches of wide sandy beach, and palm lined promenade, is a place to be seen strolling, or relaxing on one of the uniformly coloured sun beds that lie in serried ranks along the strand. Hotel Villa Imperiale has its own private stretch of beach in front, providing each guest with that essential parasol and lounger. All you need pay for is the sun lotion. Unfortunately it was a cool late September evening so I did not swim. But then swimming is not really what a holiday on the Italian Riviera is all about. Anyone swimming outside of July and August is considered a little mad. And so we spent the evening, as all Italian holidaymakers do, sipping expensive aperativos at a seaside bar, as the moon turn the sea silver. The wonderful antipasto of local olives, hams and mortadella came free.

Supper cost us a princely 5€ each later that evening at the Red Bull Pizzeria (via Garibaldi; +39(0)19745900). You don't have to pay a fortune to eat well in Italy, and my Margherita was amongst the best pizzas I have ever eaten. It was about the size of a cart wheel, and freshly cooked in a wood fired oven (drinks cost a little extra).

The next morning we returned to the small medieval town of Noli. This is even prettier than Spotorno, with winding streets, a beautiful monastery, and a hill-top fort which sends its walls forth towards the town like columns of marching soldiers. It was Saturday morning and everybody was out to enjoy themselves. Children clambered around the play-parks by the bay, while streams of lycra clad cyclists filed through town. A local fisherman sold his catch of sprats to old ladies in black, and of course “Apes” buzzed  to and fro on some mission or other. There I was, smiling again. Little did I know that we were shortly to receive a bit of a shock.

A surprise in store

Our ongoing journey took us beyond Genoa (worth a dedicated visit), and the Riviera di Levante, to Marina Massa. The coastline of pretty bays and rocky coves flattens out beyond La Spezia, becoming much less interesting. We left the motorway at Massa, planning to follow the mountain pass through the Alpe Apuane  towards Castelnuovo di Garfanga. We were looking forward to this new stage of the journey. I think it was then that I screamed. Directly before us was a white mountain peak shaped like Mont Blanc. It seemed we were about to cross a snow bound alpine mountain pass, without snow chains, in early autumn. As we climbed the winding road out of town, cars honked on the bends ahead. This would not be an easy passage.

Sno' joke

We reached the first village....roads were clear. At the next village there was still no snow, but the icy peak that we had seen from the coast seemed ever closer. We left the car to take photographs. Something wasn't quite right. Although we were climbing ever higher, it didn't seem cold enough for snow. It was then I realised that this mountain was not covered in snow at all. It was made entirely of marble. This was one of many marble quarries around Carrara, the region where Michelangelo himself stayed in order to select the perfect white stone for his work.

The top of the world

Eighteen kilometres from Massa, we reached the top of the world. Here, among the stark and jagged peaks of the Alpe Apuane, gouged  with white mine workings, we found a traditional alpine club mountain refuge, and a newly built refuge alongside. Chalet style double rooms here cost 40€ a night with breakfast, each with balcony and a view to die for. We enjoyed a drink in the bar while the friendly host plied us with maps and advice on the area. There was a large basket of freshly picked porcini mushrooms on the table. How we wished we could stay on for dinner, but we did mark this very special place out for a future occasion (Refugio Citta di Massa, Pian della Fioba,54100 Massa Carrara; +39(0)585319923).

From there it was downhill all the way to our cottage in Northern Tuscany. Getting there had certainly been a journey to remember. Next time we'll leave a little longer to explore the wonderful and unique Italian Riviera.