Touring Tuscany By Car and the Drive Back to England via Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium

Updated on September 25, 2018
Glenis Rix profile image

Glenis lives in England. She enjoys travel in the UK and in Western Europe with occasional trips further afield.

I was full of admiration for the spirit of adventure in which a friend in her sixties purchased a holiday home in rural Tuscany. She travels back and forth by ferry and car several times each year, a round trip of around 2800 kilometres, often with only her dog for company. Sometimes a couple of friends are invited to stay. This is what happened when another friend and I flew out to join her.

The Bell Tower of the Cathedral at Pisa

The Leaning Tower
The Leaning Tower | Source

What to Watch out for When Booking Accommodation in Pisa

My traveling companion and I landed at Pisa airport late one evening in June and stayed overnight in nearby rented rooms. Warning—we had been under the impression that rooms that we had booked were in a hotel but found to our surprise and dismay that we were in a self-contained apartment that had other people in one of the bedrooms. Quite a startling revelation, as during our initial exploration of the apartment we opened a door on a couple doing what people normally do in private! The airport is within walking distance of the establishment and we formed the impression that the place was an overnight stopover for flight crews. In our opinion, it's totally unacceptable to place guests amongst strangers in insecure and unmonitored accommodation. You may wish to check more carefully than we did if making bookings over the internet for rooms in Pisa. A sleepless night was followed by a paltry breakfast of coffee from a self-service machine and a few dry rolls and biscuits that had been left in our rooms. We, of course, gave a review on Tripadvisor.

We had arranged to rendezvous with our hostess on the Ponte Solferino on the morning following our landing; and after an anxious wait, during which we practiced our limited vocabulary in an attempt to confirm that we were on the right bridge, we managed to find each other. It was now that time spent memorizing a few phrases of Italian conversation with the aid of the Michel Thomas Italian Language CDs started to pay off. The credentials of the Michel Thomas method speak for themselves - when alive he taught many prominent figures, including Bill Clinton and the actress Emma Thompson to quickly acquire a working knowledge of foreign languages, using a listen and repeat system.

Ponte Solferino in Pisa


The Leaning Tower of Pisa

After rendezvousing with our hostess we, naturally, couldn't resist the opportunity to visit the leaning tower, within walking distance of the Ponte de Solferino. The tower leans because it was constructed on inadequate foundations of ground that was too soft on one side. The tilt gradually increased over the centuries until the subsidence was stopped, the tilt slightly corrected, and the tower stabilised, in the 20th and 21st centuries.The area around the cathedral and Campanile is a tourist magnet, and very commercialised, as you might expect. For this reason, it is a destination to which I would not be drawn back. Watch out for pickpockets. After a mediocre pasta lunch at an outside table of a nearby restaurant, we were pleased to hit the road.

We drove a distance of around 80 km, passing through Aulla, the nearest town to our destination, and eventually started to climb a steep winding road fringed by densely wooded hills. We were heading for a small village, little more than a hamlet with a church, a graveyard, a small store that opens intermittently, and a handful of farmsteads dotted on the hillside. On the last few yards of our approach to the house, we passed a small monument to a fourteen-year-old boy who had been executed by the Nazis during WWII, evidence that the conflict had reached even this quiet and isolated place.

Our friend's holiday home is situated mid-terrace in a small row of ancient houses with thick stone walls. The patio outside the kitchen door affords a magnificent view of a castle and partially ruined medieval settlement on the other side of an enormous vegetation-filled hollow—which might be an extinct volcano, the geology of Tuscany being what it is, or a bomb crater from the war years.

As darkness fell on the silent surrounding hills we relaxed on the terrace enjoying a glass of locally produced wine, enthralled by the fireflies dancing in a neighbouring small orchard. But it can sometimes become very chilly in the Tuscan hills, even during June, and unfortunately, that was the only evening when it was mild enough for us to sit out on the terrace during our stay.

Map of the Ligurian Coastline of Italy

Pisa, Province of Pisa, Italy

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54011 Aulla, Province of Massa and Carrara, Italy

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19032 Lerici, SP, Italy

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The Romantic Poet, Shelley, drowned in the bay off Lerici when his boat capsized A small, pleasant, seaside town with good seafood restaurants

19038 Sarzana, SP, Italy

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A lovely town built around a walled medieval fortress

Lerici and the Bay of Poets

Our base was within travelling distance of the sea so it was possible for us to drive out and explore the beautiful coastline. We visited Lerici, made famous as the place where the poets Percy Shelley, his wife Mary, and Lord Bryon spent some time. Shelley drowned in the bay when a sudden storm arose during an outing on his boat. It was here that we ate our lunch of platters of pescato frito (freshly caught fish fried in a light batter similar to tempura) at an outside table overlooking the water—known nowadays as The Bay of Poets. It was a quiet morning in early June. Eating in the sunshine, in a location frequented by Romantic poets of the early 19th century, albeit with a intermittent light shower ( we were under parasols so didn't mind), was a memorable event. The simple pleasures of life are often the best.

Dining al fresco in Lerici

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Dining Al fresco in Lerici We climbed the path to the fortress at Lerici, pausing for drinks at a cliff side restaurant, and then explored the tunnelsLerici after sunset
Dining Al fresco in Lerici
Dining Al fresco in Lerici | Source
We climbed the path to the fortress at Lerici, pausing for drinks at a cliff side restaurant, and then explored the tunnels
We climbed the path to the fortress at Lerici, pausing for drinks at a cliff side restaurant, and then explored the tunnels | Source
Lerici after sunset
Lerici after sunset | Source

Sarzana, Italy: Twinned With Southwell, UK

We visited the nearby large fortressed town, Sarzanna. (Since our visit, our hostess has been instrumental in establishing twinning links with Southwell in Nottinghamshire). Sarzana has much to delight both those with an interest in history, shopaholics, and those who simply like to linger in a lovely square with a glass of wine or an espresso.

The Fortress at Sarzana

"Sarzana-fortezza di firmafede3" by Davide Papalini - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
"Sarzana-fortezza di firmafede3" by Davide Papalini - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

The hop on hop off Ferry to the Villages of the Cinque Terre

We parked up at the small station at Aulla and took a train to La Spezia, where we boarded a hop-on ferry for a trip to the five villages that are part of the Cinque Terre National Park—a rugged area of coastline on the Italian Riviera. We hopped off at Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Vernazza, where the walk from the boat to the village is a narrow, precipitous and slippery ledge at the bottom of the cliff. When we later tried to re-board the ferry at Riomaggiore we found that the service had been canceled due to the choppy sea. Road access to the Cinq Terre villages is poor. We had no other choice than to take a short walk through the tunnel that leads to the railway station and travel back to La Spezia on the train.

The Coastal Towns of the Cinque Terre

Riomaggiore From the Sea

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The train station at Riomaggiore, accessed by  a tunnel under the rocks
The train station at Riomaggiore, accessed by  a tunnel under the rocks
The train station at Riomaggiore, accessed by a tunnel under the rocks | Source
Cliff top view of the harbour at Vernaza
Cliff top view of the harbour at Vernaza

Aulla to Zebrugge via the Gotthard Tunnel

After eight days exploring this delightful and rural part of Italy we set out on a car journey across five countries, heading for the English Channel and an overnight ferry to Hull. Our journey took us through countries which are signed up to the Schengen Agreement and through Switzerland, which has a border agreement with the EU. These countries eliminated border controls with other member States to make travel within the EU easier for EU citizens.

A Car Trip From Aulla in Tuscany to Zeebrugge in Belgium

Aulla to Zeebrugge
Aulla to Zeebrugge

From Italy Into Switzerland via the Gotthard Tunnel

We set off early in the morning and four hours later reached Swiss Customs and the Gotthard Tunnel. Stopping briefly at the service area to fill up with petrol, we took the opportunity to buy Swiss chocolates, and revive ourselves with coffee. Then into the 17 km long tunnel— the third longest road tunnel in the world. Luckily, we got through quite quickly—the frequent build-up of traffic at the tunnel is the stuff of legend.

The Approach to the Gotthard Tunnel

Gotthard Tunnel with snow capped Alps in the background.
Gotthard Tunnel with snow capped Alps in the background. | Source

Video of the Gotthard Tunnel

66 km further along the A2 and we were into the Kirchenwald Tunnel.

Driving Through Switzerland on the Autostrada

Driving from Switzerland into France

Almost ten hours after we left our holiday home near Aulla, and with over 400 miles behind us,we crossed the border into the Alsace region of France in the Haut-Rhine department, arriving in Colmar in the early evening. Here we broke our journey, staying overnight in a central budget-price Ibis hotel. After a quick freshen-up and a change of clothes and then we walked the short distance to the town centre in search of a restaurant. What a fabulous surprise! I had no prior knowledge of Colmar. I felt as if I was stepping into a fairytale; a place that time had forgotten. Though people certainly hadn't forgotten it! The place was buzzing, locals and visitors mingling at crowded open air tables for an early evening drink in the last of the day's sunshine.

Colmar: The Little Venice of the North

Colmar is known as the little Venice of the North. It is a city of history and tradition, canals, charming architecture, and famous monuments; it has miraculously escaped the ravages of two world wars and nowadays numbers a gastronomic reputation and local Alsatian wines amongst its attractions.

Colmar | Source

A Video of Colmar

Where to Stay for a Reasonable Price in Colmar

Colmar is a tourist magnet, and therefore expensive. But we stayed overnight at a pre-booked Ibis Budget Hotel, within walking distance of the town centre. Certainly no frills but it was reasonably priced, very clean, perfectly acceptable, and provided a great breakfast. The prices are per room . Each room has a bathroom and can accommodate three people. I opted for single occupancy of my room.

A Typical Room in a Budget Hotel

Ibis Budget Hotel (formerly Etap). Good for an overnight stop on a long journey
Ibis Budget Hotel (formerly Etap). Good for an overnight stop on a long journey

The Drive from Colmar to Luxembourg

Back on the road after a night of sound sleep there was 610 kilometers behind us and the same distance ahead. After 260 km we crossed the border into Luxembourg. It's a small country! 22 km later we were in Belgium, stopping for fuel and refreshments in a place where everyone spoke in Flemish—a language which none of we three understand.

Homeward Bound on an Overnight Ferry to Hull

We took the car ferry from Zeebrugge to Hull
We took the car ferry from Zeebrugge to Hull | Source

Car Ferry from Zeebrugge to Hull

Due to a major road hold up en route, we made it to the car ferry for the overnight crossing to Hull with just minutes to spare. We had driven through five countries in fourteen hours—Italy, Switzerland, Luxembourg, France and Belgium. England—here we come!

On board the ship, we dined in The Kitchen, a self-service restaurant, which for a fixed price offers as much as you can eat from a wide range of dishes. The food was good and it's a great deal for anyone with a large appetite. There are two other restaurants on the ship and I think that in future I would opt for one of those, as I have a small appetite and would have preferred table service.

A little last minute shopping, a leisurely drink in one of the onboard bars, and then to bed.We had booked a standard cabin for occupancy by three of us. Adequate for one night (at any rate better than the alternative of sitting up all night) but quite cramped. Two slept on fixed beds and one on a drop down bed accessed by a ladder. There was a small shower cubicle and space to hang our clothes. The cabin was below the waterline, so no porthole. A premium cabin would have given us a choice of a preferred location on the ship. Premier cabins have more space, a view over the water, and a flat screen television. Worth considering.

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    © 2015 GlenR


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