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)

13. Lugano, Switzerland

Where there are people willing to talk to me without getting paid for it

Lugano is a slightly unusual entry in my ever expanding list of adventures. I didn’t come here to see a thing, or a sight, I came here to visit a couple of friends and chill out for a few days. Besides my day trip to Monza (see previous post), I did very little during my three nights here, which was perfect.

The highlights of this quiet period included a warm stroll along the side of the lake with Cristina (who cooked me the best meals I’ve had on my travels so far), watching utterly bonkers Italian TV gameshows, and my first ever ride on the back of a scooter, during which the terror of impending doom was blunted by the sights of the mountains and the aforementioned lake.

Lugano itself is a relatively small town that typifies my Swiss experience – stunning views, fresh air, a generous splash of character, and ridiculously expensive (although not having to pay for accommodation or most of my food certainly helped with that). A very pleasant experience that rounds off the Swiss leg nicely and leaves me with fond memories of this gorgeous country.

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No, we did not climb those steps.

A big thank you to Cristina and Francesco for putting up with me for a few days, and when I eventually settle down and get a place of my own, the invitation for a reverse trip will always be there for the both of you. Eventually.

12. Autodromo Nazionale Monza, Italy

Cathedral of Buzzy Feelings

Occasionally, during my journey, I will have the opportunity to fulfil a lifelong dream, and finally see or experience something I’ve been wanting to see or do for a very long time. Today was one of those days, as I fully indulged my passion for motor racing, and visited one of the most iconic and historical motor racing venues in the world – Monza.

Even if you’re not particularly fond of people trying their utmost to guide big lumps of metal around glorified circles as quickly as possible, the magic and history of the circuit here at Monza, just north of Milan, is instantly recognisable, and practically inescapable. Famous corners with poetic names such as Parabolica, Ascari, and Lesmo, scenes of thousands of passionate Italian fans flooding the track to celebrate a Ferrari victory, these are well known images to die-hard and casual fans alike, and now I can say, I was there.

Granted, the day wasn’t all about being all giddy-eyed whilst walking around the track and listening to the mesmerising tone of Ferraris and Lamborghinis. In fact, my day started with a highly unwelcome 8am stroll up a steep hill towards the train station in Lugano, Switzerland, where I was staying at the time. What followed included getting lost in Milan station, spending half an hour in a crowded, sweaty car rental office because they’d hideously overbooked, getting lost again walking to the car park where the car was stored, waiting for them to finish washing the car before I could get in it, getting lost again coming out of Milan, going down the wrong Autostrada, and spending what seemed like three weeks queuing to enter the track.

But, once I was inside, all that stress was quickly replaced by a wondrous buzzing feeling, created by millions upon millions of pounds worth of road car, GT car and Formula Renault, sat proudly in the pits, waiting for their turn to roar around the iconic track.

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Having gawped at the cars from up close, it was time to take my seat, which was located, well, anywhere I wanted. My ticket got me into the circuit, and after that, I was free to wander to whichever section of the track I wish, and sit down anywhere that wasn’t already occupied by a fellow petrolhead.

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Having watched the start of the Formula Renault race from the main grandstand, which was quite exciting, I opted to move further down the main straight, just before the first chicane, to watch the start of the main spectacle – the 3-hours of Monza GT Race. The spot I had chosen seemed to be an unpopular one – too far down the straight to see them cross the start/finish line, and not far enough to be on top of the inevitable melee into turn one.

No more than five seconds into the race, however, and I was rewarded for my choice of location by a massive crash that took out ten cars and saw the race red-flagged for half an hour.

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The Bentley (middle) gets a great start and tries to squeeze between the front two cars…

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…but in doing so, runs the Lamborghini onto the grass.

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Facing the wrong way with 44 other cars heading towards it at ever increasing speeds, the Lambo tries to recover…

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…but not everyone in the packed field can get out of the way in time, and chaos ensues…

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(please forgive the low lighting in most of those shots, I got all excited and forgot to adjust my shutter speed)

Needless to say, my empty grandstand wasn’t very empty for much longer.

After everything had settled down and the race had restarted I opted to take some pretty pictures of the pretty cars going round other parts of the pretty track, and then I was done, heading home before the similarly inevitable melee getting out of the circuit after the conclusion of the race.

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To witness race cars driving round a track as famous and as steeped in history as Monza is a memory I will never forget as long as I live, and to say “I was there” not just at a race in Monza, but right in front of a huge incident at the start of a pretty important race, gives me The Pang all over again.

A fantastically enjoyable day, even if I did get lost again trying to drop the car off in the evening.

11. Geneva, Switzerland

Pretty(ish) in pink

It was always going to be difficult for wherever followed Lucerne to impress as much as that Swiss jewel did, and despite its best efforts, Geneva just didn’t quite hit the mark with me.

Having spent a couple of days there, one gets the impression that Geneva is more interested in bankers and businesses than tourists and travellers, the swathe of fancy hotels and wallet-burning restaurants a constant reminder that this is an expensive city in an expensive country. So expensive, in fact, that Domino’s pizza became my preferred option not because it was an occasional treat, but because it was the cheapest hot meal I could find.

But while the city itself may be overpriced and not as pretty to walk around as some, it does have its highlights.

Wander away from the city centre on a fine spring day, and Lake Geneva contributes towards an enchanting blend of blues and greens, making a stroll along the shoreline a refreshing, if a tad windy, experience.

The colourful theme is extended in its parks, too, including the whites and deep purples of Parc Moynier in spring bloom, and the unexpected pinks of the flamingos strutting their stuff at the Jardin Botanique.

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Despite these spectacles, it’s hard to get away from the price of absolutely everything – from food to hotels to even a single ride on a tram, although the hotel I stayed in helpfully gave me a free pass for the public transport system for the duration of my stay. So unless you’re not concerned about money, I can’t really recommend coming here.

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Geneva offers plenty of ways to unwind, from a friendly game of chess…

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…to some close-up bird spotting in one of its parks.