It’s 11:48am in Verona. I’m on my third strong espresso and I’m still not 100% sure if I’m even awake. My back hurts, my knee hurts, and I’ve managed to pull a muscle in the top of my foot. This is because I was foolish enough to look at a map, and think “Italy, well, I’m basically halfway there already…”.
Of course, in actual fact that wasn’t the case. The hard truth had come out during 1,100km and 12 and a half hours on the road. In a Bentley or a BMW 7-series, this would have been a delight. In a little Abarth 695, it was quite a physical effort.
You see, Abarth’s 500-based creation is highly compromised. It’s loud, it’s tiny, and it’s hard, pretty silly when you think about it. It's everything a GT car isn't. I had the brilliant idea of buying one, and it’s been sensational as a daily runabout, but as my friends and editor will tell you, not all ideas are brilliant. The jury’s still out on whether travelling across Europe in the 695 was one of the good ones.
Since I was (quite a bit) younger, the romantic vision of driving your car across Europe to reach the caffeine and petrol powered nation of Italy was always there. Later in my teens, who wasn’t influenced by the likes of Clarkson, Hammond, and May jumping into GT’s and booming south to some sort of objective? Mine was Verona, the beautiful North Italian city famed for being the setting of Romeo and Juliet. This trip was far from romantic though.
At 7:30am I was on the French A4 motorway covering the first few kilometres of my long drive south, and immediately run into the Frenchest of French issues - a protest. The A4 was like a sardine tin, except the fish were a vast collection of French metal, packed in as hard as possible and after 45 minutes of going nowhere, my patience had ran out. I boomed off at the next exit, my Akrapovic exhaust popping as I lifted off at the top of the slip road. The navigation was having none of it and wanted me to get back on track, so I forced it to find me an alternative route through the towns and villages of the countryside, away from the normally exceptional motorway - and that’s when it really hit me.
France is a big country. Ok, don’t laugh, hear me out. It’s all well and good looking at a map and seeing a nation and thinking ‘yeah, that’s bigger than the UK’, but you just don’t realise how big a nation really is until you’ve driven across it. The nav stated on more than one occassion that in ‘80+km’ time I’d be turning off. Great, I thought, must be getting closer - nope. Another 100+km would appear, and another 100+km after that too. On the long, straight country roads of France, it was a huge effort fighting bordom, especially as overtaking the numerous trucks avoiding paying motorway tolls was proving difficult.
Much like the Swiss tunnels, the tight, high-sided streets of central Verona made the perfect arena for the Abarth to show off its Akrapovic-tuned soundtrack.
Eventually, I ended up in Basel, Switzerland. If you arrive in Basel, it’s fair to say you don’t immediately get the stereotypical ‘wow’ factor of Switzerland. It’s an industrial zone, mostly and the first job was to find a special expensive sticker to put in my car. Yep, that’s how you’re allowed to use the motorway in Switzerland. £30 quid or so for a small green sticker, and you’re good to go. Spending £30 on a sticker makes you grateful our motorways are free, but goodness me is there a jump in quality between our roads and Europe’s toll-based motorways.
Switzerland - like France - is also quite big. Especially vertically. The vastness of the mountain ranges there is only matches by the vast number of tunnels going through them - one tunnel was 18km long, and when you’re running an Abarth with a saucy Slovenian exhaust, this is good news. Carefully - because we know what Swiss police are like - not exceeding the speed limits, full use of the acoustic qualities of Switzerland’s semi-subterranean motorway system was made, and fuel consumption dropped significantly. It was during the next stop that the tiredness was starting to hit me - double-digit hours on the road already, and still plenty to go.
As darkness set in, it was time to cross into Italy via what might have been Lugano, it was hard to tell from the blinding lights of roadside Casinos. Milan was the next waypoint, and the motorway around Milan happens to be an exact replica of Britain’s infamous M25. Except, where motorists on the M25 largely obey the rules when queuing, in Milan it’s a free-for-all. It took what seemed like forever, but progress was eventually made and as tiredness really took hold, I rolled into Verona. That’s where I am now, the morning (barely) after, writing my story in my favourite Veronese cafe - Cafe Wallner - drinking the best coffee in town, and wondering when I’ll stop seeing lights, queues, and road signs when I close my eyes. Soon, I hope. Still, it was worth it. The Abarth 695 is a terrible grand-tourer, but a fantastic little hot hatch and it feels right at home here in central Verona where the streets are narrow and pride for Italian marques is rampant among the local population.
- Jonny Edge, Verona.
Few road trips are perfect, but what happened later on during this trip made this stretch seem really rather straightforward. After all, I wasn’t in any danger at this point…