19. San Gimignano, Italy

Ice cream, you scream

These days, we’re constantly being bombarded by companies over-selling their products by making grandiose claims about them. “The closest, shaviest shave yet”, “The best kebab in London”, “Lose all your weight in five minutes”. It’s all very tiring and unnecessary.

Happily though, there is a little town in rural Italy where such a bold and ambitious claim does actually live up to its billing.

It’s a popular little tourist spot, just off the main road from Florence to Siena, its (mostly) vehicle free town centre characterised by old fashioned hilly streets, with the main square in the middle(ish) of it all. If you can find the main square – which is not always an easy task if you don’t have a map to hand – and you make your way to the “bottom” corner (you’ll know what I mean when you get there), you’ll come across a gelateria that claims to sell the “best ice cream in the world”.

With cautious optimism, I ordered my 4 euro cone with three scoops (other options are available), and gave it a go.

Second best thing I’ve had in my mouth this year.

I quickly realised why this charming little town had become so popular with tourists – mainly Americans, it seemed – with nearly every one of them enjoying a similarly delicious experience as myself, whilst desperately searching for a decent place to sit in the square. My choice of flavours was, of course, perfect. The sweetness of the mango, tartness of the lemon, and richness of the chocolate flavours combining beautifully to create an experience that does actually live up to the self-claimed hype.

Oral explosions and John Torode impressions concluded, it was time for part two of Reasons Why I Drove To San Gimignano – La Museo Della Tortura.

I’ve always had a morbid fascination with medieval torture instruments and methods, and the museum in San Gimignano gave me the opportunity to fully indulge in it, with a fairly impressive display of ways and means of inflicting pain, suffering, and in most cases, death.

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With my wallet somewhat lighter and my blood sugar level significantly increased, it was time to hop back in the car to drive to my next destination, my second home.

More on that later.

18. Monte Mauro, Italy

On top of the world

Here’s one for you: you’ve walked a lap of a famous race track in a town that has little else to offer, and it’s still only early afternoon. What do you do? Answer: drive to the top of a mountain and witness one of the best views you’re ever likely to see. Obviously.

Yes, I know, I’ve already raved about spectacular views in other recent posts, and I probably will again in the future, but despite already being treated to the drama of Lucerne and the tranquillity of Bologna, nothing quite prepared me for my experience at the summit of Monte Mauro.

Situated not far South of Imola, reaching the peak of this impressive-but-not-quite-tall-enough-to-be-snow-capped hillock involves driving up a “road”, that pushes the boundary of the very meaning of the word. Successfully negotiating the narrow “I hope I don’t meet a double decker bus coming the other way” dirt track, with all its hairpin turns tighter than a nun’s nethers, is rewarded by, of all things, a church.

Yup, it seems the Italians love to put churches on top of hills, but while the Santuaria in Bologna was a popular tourist destination on top of an easily(ish) accessible hill, the Eremo di Monte Mauro is a modestly sized, quiet little structure that receives far fewer visitors per day. Those that do visit, though, are treated to one hell (sorry) of a view.

Situated right next to the church is a solitary bench, which, occasional massive-quadded cyclists notwithstanding, allows one to sit and contemplate in peace, with the glorious view of the Parco Regionale della Vena del Gesso Romagnola (yes I copied and pasted that rather than trying to remember it) and beyond laid out in all its various shades of green in front of you.

The picture at the top of this post is some of that very same view, as much as I could fit into my lens anyway, but if that isn’t enough tranquillity and fabulousness for you, and you have a decent pair of walking shoes and the ability to climb some steps that would make your health and safety boss at work wince, then there’s an even better view just up ahead.

And when I say better, I mean this much better.

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Now imagine that, but in 360 speech-stealing degrees.

Of course, there are taller mountains and higher spots in the world, but this is the highest peak within the confines of the horizon, so standing at the summit – which consists of little more than around fifteen square feet of flat stone – really gives you the sensation that you’re standing on top of the world, a sensation unlike any that I’ve ever felt before.

I’m often (by which I mean never) asked what my favourite view of all time is, and before I set off on this planetary conquest, my answer would be the view from a bench, on a hill, near the town of Pateley Bridge, in North Yorkshire.

Now? I’m not so sure.

17. Autodromo di Imola, Italy

Where legends are made, and lost

The third (and probably final) leg of my tour of famous European race tracks comes from a circuit that is able to evoke emotion like no other: Imola.

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Built in 1957 and hosting Formula One races regularly from 1980 to 2006, Imola is a fast, demanding circuit that rewards bravery, and punishes mistakes. It is also very undulating, as I experienced first hand whilst walking a lap of the track during one of the circuit’s public open days.

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For cyclists, joggers and other get-fitterers, the lap of the Autodromo Di Enzo E Dino Ferrari provides an opportunity to sweep the corners and climb the hills with little concern for traffic besides the occasional over-excitable child. For Formula One fans – such as myself – it’s a chance to get up close and personal with one of the most iconic racing tracks in the world, but it’s also a chance to reflect.

Imola is infamously dangerous, and there was no better example of this than the 1994 F1 race, when, early in the race, Ayrton Senna lost control of his Williams at the freakishly fast Tamburello corner, and crashed into the wall. The injuries he sustained would be fatal.

This is not the only time a racing driver has been killed while on duty – indeed only the day before Senna’s crash, Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was also killed during the qualification session of what would turn out to be one of Formula One’s darkest weekends.

However, as I write this blog, I’m sitting on a park bench just a few yards away from the statue that has been erected in Senna’s honour, and the constant swarm of people – of all ages – taking pictures and paying their respects is a mark of just how loved and respected he was.

On the face of it, being a racing driver shouldn’t be a particularly big deal. So what, you can drive a man-made machine around in circles quicker than anyone else. Well done, have a prize. But motor racing is more than that, it’s about pushing the capabilities of a human being as far as they can possibly go – and sometimes even further. It’s about the constant desire for improvement, even though you can already do something most people can’t. It’s about putting your life on the line to achieve something nobody else can – that is what people respect.

In Senna’s case, people respected him more than most purely because he was one of the most talented and fastest racing drivers ever. But it was his desire and ability to do whatever it takes, his focus and determination to sacrifice whatever he needed to in order to achieve his ambition, that turned him from a driver who was respected, into a man who was loved, a man who is missed.

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16. Santuario Madonna di San Luca, Bologna, Italy

Pew with a view

When I was planning this trip, I spent a long time carefully studying exactly where I wanted to go, how long I wanted to go for, and how much I thought it would cost me. My itinerary was as impressive in its detail as it was in the nature of its content.

But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels so far – besides not putting a bottle of liquid detergent next to your passport in your rucksack – it’s that, with regards to where to go and what to see, impulse decisions are normally a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, a general sense of direction and a modicum of common sense are fairly important, but there is definite value in looking at a map of the nearby area that you’re currently in, seeing what shouts at you, and saying “let’s go there and see if it’s any good”.

That’s exactly what I did during my stay in Bologna, and boy did it work.

The city itself I found pretty, but relatively uninspiring, but drive up the right (very long) hill, and you reach the Santuario Madonna di San Luca, or, in English, one of the most impressive churches you’re ever likely to see.

When I say impressive, I don’t mean millions of tons of stone, thrown together to create a vast cathedral. What it is, however, is unique. It’s orange exterior provides a beauty from the outside, whilst the deceptively large interior is beautifully presented, with the tourists and worshippers both gathering their thoughts in respectful quietness.

The focal point of the interior is the icon of the Madonna of San Luca. This is why the religious – of which there seem to be quite a few in Italy – make the journey to the top of the hill, some of them by walking it under the famous portico, with its 15 chapels and 666 arches, which was built in the 1700s to protect the Madonna during her annual descent. The portrait sits proudly at one end of the church, accompanied by a constant throng of Christians of all shapes and sizes, praying, reflecting, or simply admiring the beauty of what lays before them.

As if a uniquely beautiful building with an unusual pathway and a world famous religious symbol isn’t enough, the Santuario has one more, breathtaking ace up its sleeve. If you’re willing to give a handful of Euros to a cheerful young lady at the front of the church, you can climb the steps to the top, where you will be greeted by a panoramic view of mile upon mile of Italian countryside. The view is, to crudely shoehorn a pun in this blog because I haven’t done so in too long, biblically beautiful, and a fitting reward for those who braved the everlasting ascent under the portico (I didn’t, because I’m lazy and didn’t really know what I was doing).

So if somewhere looks interesting on a map, go check it out, because you might just get rewarded with a spectacular view. Sadly, I can’t share this view with my adoring fans because Italian internet still hates me, but trust me, it was pretty damn awesome.

Sorry for swearing.

15. Nice, France

Old dog, old tricks

Visiting Nice is a lot like visiting someone else’s grandma for the first time. When you first walk in it’s a fairly underwhelming experience, she’s old and tired and doesn’t seem particularly interesting, but by the time you leave, her personality and character have won you over, and you’re glad you came.

This was my first trip to the south of France, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. With a reputation for being a lavish, expensive part of the world reserved for the wealthy and the slightly jealous tourists, I prepared myself for a grand, clean, sumptuous, pricey few days.

However, after walking from my hotel room to the (pebble) beach with a modestly-priced hot dog in one hand, and an as-yet-unused camera in the other, I realised that what Nice offers is actually quite different.

Walk through the main streets and it feels like any other town, with big brand shops dominating the bigger roads, whilst sole traders pepper the avenues. Get to the beach, and it’s, well, a beach. The slight curve to it, with Nice in the background, adds an element of splendour, but it’s not exactly the glitzy show I was expecting.

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The thing is though, the more time you spend here, the more you start to fall in love with the place. Its narrow streets near the beach are full of character, and it throws in a few extra touches, like the water fountains that illuminate in red, white and blue in the evening, or the rather lovely view from the Colline du Chateau. It’s tired look quickly turns from a disappointment into a charm, and the quietness of the evening beach gives one an opportunity to enjoy the sound of the waves without interference (besides the occasional plane preparing its descent to the nearby airport).

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Nice has taught me a lesson: don’t go somewhere you’ve never been before with expectations or ideas, just arrive, and take in and enjoy what it offers for what it is, not what you think it should have been.

14. Monte-Carlo, Monaco

Casinos and crashes

There are a few places in the world that man has turned into something that, for one reason or another, defies logical belief. One of these places is a settlement on the Mediterranean coastline, just to the East of Nice, which most people will know as Monte-Carlo.

Apparently this is where the rich and possibly famous like to chill out when they’re not making far too much money doing things they probably shouldn’t be doing. One only needs to glance down at the marina with its copious show-offery, or the price column of a typical restaurant, and you know you’re in a place where money talks louder than the angry tooting of cars stuck in a jam caused by two busses unable to pass each other round the Fairmont hairpin.

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However, the best example of the ridiculousness of this principality happens once a year, in late spring. One day, back in the 1920s, someone looked at the narrow, tight, twisty nature of Monte-Carlo’s streets and thought “hey, this is the perfect place for a racetrack”. And so, every year, incredible machines capable of driving at speeds of over 220mph and cornering at over 5G, descend upon these streets for the unique, how-are-they-not-hitting-the-wall-at-every-corner Monaco Grand Prix.

As an avid Formula One fan, the opportunity to visit the “jewel of the calendar” and walk a lap of perhaps the most famous racing circuit in the world was one I was not going to pass up, and it was a special experience I will never forget.

Every corner around this special circuit has its own story to tell, its own piece of history – whether it’s the second Portier turn, where Ayrton Senna famously crashed his dominant McLaren in 1988, the left-handed Tabac, where Takuma Sato’s massive engine failure in 2004 covered the track in smoke, causing carnage behind him, or the final bend, where the late Jules Bianchi made a brilliant “banzai” overtaking move on the last lap to give Manor Racing the only points in their short history.

What made my visit ever so slightly more special was that, due to it being less than a month before this year’s race, the grandstands and barriers were in the process of being put up, so I was able to see the town as it transformed itself from a haven for the overly-rich, into a playground for the fastest men on Earth. This wasn’t particularly good news for the motorists at the time, who had to navigate their way around what was essentially a massive construction site (and in today’s case, some fairly miserable weather), but it did allow me to immerse myself just that little bit better in what is, for a fan of all things F1, the best town in the world.

(Unfortunately, due to internet connection speed issues, I am unable to upload any more pictures at the present moment)