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The windows are down in Spain, the tunes are on, and my passenger’s nose twitches like a happy puppy’s snout filled with the mixed scent of pine needles and sea salt. Pandemic, what pandemic? The quickest way to put recent events in the rear-view mirror is take a road trip, and literally hit the road.
And where to go but Europe! Specifically, roll towards the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It has it all for a long drink of soul juice – warm, gin-clear waters, eye wateringly beautiful scenery and a plethora of possibilities. But narrow a road trip odyssey to an intoxicating cocktail of three cultures, saying “si” to Spain and Italy with an Aperol Spritz in France en route.
Having your own (rented) wheels means ultimate freedom. Middle of nowhere bus stops, schlepping through train stations and grubby crowds? That’s so 2019. We’re throwing the timetable out the window and hitting cruise control to get off the beaten track.
There’s no such thing as a wrong turn in Spain, amigo. Unscripted detours will result in stumbling over medieval castles, tootling through lemon groves on dirt tracks that seem promising, or villages Siri can’t pronounce.
Chances are you’ll fly into Barcelona, where one of our favourite road trips begins, from the sizzling seaside city 600km through the fiercely independent Basque country, to pop out on the Bay of Biscay at the foodie heaven of San Sebastian. You’ll put the hazards on the way for some Costa Brava swimming and hit the bullseye of Pamplona in the foothills of the Pyrenees before coasting into San Sebastian. OK, San Sebastian isn’t ‘Med’, but it’s still ocean and the memories of pintxos bars stacked with deconstructed cheesecakes, anchovy sliders and pork belly snackies will keep you awake on cold winter nights. Take me back.
But the best Spanish road trip is IN the Mediterranean, on the island of Mallorca. It boasts 310km of coastline and is home to the Ma-10 from Pollenca to Andratx. Winding alongside the sea through the UNESCO listed Tramuntana mountains passing traditional hamlets like Fornalux and Deia and hidden coves, it’s one of the world’s most spectacular routes.
To up the ante, detour onto the Ma-2141 to Sa Calobra. The road follows the contours like a piece of spaghetti tossed carelessly from the mountain tops, a masterpiece of hairpin twists and turns. Some advice – after snaking down to a small cove (with the gradient dipping to a steep 11 per cent) a nerve soothing lie down may be required. Or an extra-long lunch at Deia’s Ca’s Patro March, a rustic fishing village restaurant with a jet set clientele. You’ve earned it.
There’s 800km of French Mediterranean coastline and it’s tempting to treat it like a multi course degustation. Over the Spanish border take a bite of wild Camargue, Western Europe’s biggest river delta, a labyrinth of lakes and sandy spits exploding with wildlife including neon pink flamingos. And it’s only 90 minutes from Marseilles, the spicy southern city re-energised a decade after being named a European Capital of Culture, now buzzing with hip hoods and urban cool.
Plus some of the Med’s best rooftop bars; after a day exploring a swag of museums and markets, watch the fiery run sink into the big blue from Tuba, Marseilles newest rooftop bar atop a diving club.
Unexpected? So Marseilles.
But you may want to fast lane for the main course, La Cote D’Azur from St Tropez to Monaco. Dripping in glamour and glitz, a road trip here lives up to the hype. But eschew the larger towns of Cannes and Nice and explore Juan Le Pines and Antibes – one word of warning, avoid August unless traffic jams are your thing.
For an easy day trip follow your nose to the perfume town of Grasse, 45 minutes from Nice. Luxury fragrances houses like Dior and Hermès source their ingredients here, but a top pick is the outlet for heavenly botanical Fragonard scents – a brand tricky to purchase outside France.
Ciao, bella Italia! Italy is so greedy – it has it all from hyper local food and wine, history, and action, plus the longest stretch of Mediterranean coastline, around 1500km from Ventimiglia in the north to Sicily’s Palermo in the south. Buckle up.
Immediately across the Italian-French border, slow to first gear and soak up the Italian Riviera (yes, Italy has one too), running like a ribbon to the Tuscan border. And what’s in these magnificent 350km? Only the Mediterranean jewels of chi-chi Portofino, and the connected five villages of the Cinque Terre balancing above the sparkling waters.
Tempting, but even more tempting is the Amalfi Coast. Start with the gateway Naples, that gritty, raw city with the added lure of Pompeii on its periphery and have a 100km driving warm up before diving bumper first into the glorious, hill hugging roads from Sorrento to Salerno.
It’s hard not to be distracted by the saturation of colour from the sapphire sea to the vibrant yellow lemons and fuchsia bougainvillea. So, stop often to choose a favourite village, from pastel perfect Positano to sleepy Conca Dei Marini, sandy Maiori or tiny Atrani. And when the crowds overwhelm, head into the mountains to search solitude in places like Sant’Agata, still with the Med in plain view.
For a two-week trip, you’re just a sea spray splash (a three hour drive across the boot) to Italy’s formerly most underappreciated region, Puglia, on the Adriatic coast. But Puglia, quite rightly, is having a moment, and is ideal road trip territory from the trullo cone houses of Alberobello to postcard-esque Polignare al Mare and prehistoric Matera, a set featured in the latest James Bond film.
As 007 discovered in his trusty Aston Martin, a road trip adventure here is licenced to thrill.
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