14 August 2019 by Norire Arakelyan
Below, I’ve picked out a selection of the finest continental self-drives. And, whether you’re after the headlines with the Italian Lakes or the lesser-known charm of northern Spain, expect the best in shore-side scenery and spectacular routes. Each is accompanied by a bookable itinerary.
Gorgeous mountain drives, pretty lakesides and stays in grand Belle-Époque hotels characterise this comprehensive introduction to the beauty of northern Italy. You’ll begin with Milan’s historic extravagance before following in the footsteps of Europe’s aristocracy to the Italian Lakes – Maggiore, Como and Garda. With stays in each, snow-capped peaks look down on island-dotted waters fringed by vineyards, sun terraces and idyllic fishing villages. My tip? Make use of the local ferries to explore the islands. I had the best octopus I’d ever had on Isola Bella, right in the middle of Lago Maggiore. Whatever you choose, you’ll end with Verona, whose rich heritage is evidenced by everything from Roman wonders to medieval grandeur.
While I’ve gone for some of the Italian icons above, I thought I’d also take you on the road less travelled to the country’s south. The Calabria and Basilicata regions are a vision of medieval castle towns, fishing villages and spectacular beaches. It’s all linked together by super-scenic coastal drives and stays in hand-picked hotels, from seaside villas to boutique spas. You’ll relax on golden sands, take in Greek necropolises and explore Matera’s ancient cave churches to learn why it was named European Capital of Culture 2019. I also have happy memories of tucking into pizza and salads in its backstreet osterias. And, on this drive, we’ve included plenty of food tastings, as well as a trio of private, archaeologist-led tours of the regions’ important sites.
Northern Spain is characterised by both its mountainous interior and the beach-sprinkled seaside towns of its coast. This itinerary starts with Bilbao’s Guggenheim modern wonder and tapas bars; I can’t recommend the sun-dried peppers enough. Then, after exploring the walking trails of Picos de Europa National Park, you’ll head for Gijon’s pristine beaches and Oviedo’s medieval old town. Like the pilgrims of the Middle Ages, it all culminates with Santiago de Compostela’s thousand-year-old cathedral, set among arcaded streets. Be sure to do your exploring in the morning, before the crowds roll in. Throughout, you’ll stay in historic parador accommodation, which ranges from converted monasteries to a 15th-century royal hospital, reputed to be the world’s first hotel.
Santiago de Compostela
Taking in both the rural charm of Portugal’s Alentejo interior and the wild coastal beauty of the Algarve, this is a truly gorgeous road trip. One moment you’ll be driving along sun-kissed beaches and the next stopping off at charming villages and medieval towns. Throughout, you’ll stay in historic pousada hotels. Destinations and national monuments in their own right, my favourites include the medieval castle in Alcácer do Sal and the 16th-century convent at Arraiolos, now complete with terraced gardens and a superb spa. However, it’s perhaps the off-the-beaten- track intrigue that lingers longest in the memory, whether that’s a clifftop walk in the Algarve or a visit to Alentejo’s whitewashed artists’ towns.