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A road trip to Florence

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May 23rd, 2015, 07:11 AM
  #1
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A road trip to Florence

We love a good driving holiday and having used the train for our last trip to France and as, at the time, our next big trip was going to be Japan we thought it was about time we did another road trip. Having driven to Athens for the Olympics in 2004 we are used to holiday driving and long journeys - we share duties 50/50 and both love being behind the wheel. We wouldn't want to do it too often but love it when we do - the freedom of being able to explore, to stop off when you want and to see and experience a far greater variety than you might if you just fly or train in to a destination is not to be underestimated.

As ever, this site was an invaluable resource in making our trip way better than it would have been had I not trawled the forums for information, so thank you to all who made our trip a success - I hope that others find something useful in this trip report, despite the fact there are no disasters, no funny stories, no run-ins with local law enforcement, etc, etc.

I get that this type of trip won't be for everyone but if you've never done it, do give it a try. Especially if you are used to driving in Britain - European roads are so much nicer to drive on, so much less traffic and appreciably better driving. This trip report is not just about giving back it's also hopefully to encourage and if it makes a tiny iota of difference to someone taking a road trip it would be hugely pleasing. On this most recent trip the worst traffic jams and delays were on the first and last days on our own roads - this was no great suprise but very dispiriting nevertheless. On our longest driving day - 10 hours, we encountered just one delay due to roadworks that held us up for about 15 minutes.

The trip was partly to celebrate our 20th anniversary and partly to meet up with son Joshua who had been in Italy for the summer. And so we picked Florence as our destination. We'd not been before, which was a disgraceful state of affairs, and so even though we were to be there in August, I'm not good with too much heat, we went ahead and started booking things.

As usual our holidays tend now to revolve around one very special meal in a Michelin three star restaurant and this year it was Osteria Francescana in Modena, a short drive north of Florence. We actually had to put our planned dates back by a week to accommodate the fact that like many restaurants, it was closed earlier in August.

So with the restaurant booked everything else began to fall into place - we wanted to take no more than 5 days off work so the weeks delay happily coincided with our late August bank holiday. We made the decision to start our trip on the Saturday morning rather than the Friday night and this was a good one. Inevitably work is really busy in the run up to a holiday and this trip was no exception, by Friday night I was exhausted and in need of a few drinks and an early night.

I'm a fan of AA routeplanner for driving times and distances and started planning our nights by putting in Manchester to Florence, working out drive times and seeing where was fairly close to the route. Before we left I tested these times against our car's satnav and they were very similar. So I chose Ghent for our first night. I've always been impressed every time I've been to Belgium and having visited Brussels and Bruges, Ghent was next and I knew it had a reputation for being nicer than Bruges due to the lack of tourists. I wanted some time the next day to explore Ghent a bit so the next destination was Metz, just over 3 hours away, as we wanted to see the new Pompidou Centre. From there Interlaken in Switzerland and then Florence our destination for a few days.

Coming back we picked Modena, Switzerland again and then a long days drive to get close to Calais on Sunday night for what we hoped would be a morning's shopping before an early afternoon Eurotunnel and a long drive home.

The basic layout of the trip didn't get altered much in the months leading up to it, although we did drop Interlaken - the hotels were way too expensive, but what did alter were the detailed routes getting from one place to another. As I looked in more detail at each leg of the trip more got built in, particularly roads that would take us off the motorways.

Next some detail.
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May 23rd, 2015, 10:02 AM
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Sign me up! DH refused to drive and thought I'd turn into Mario Andretti too easily. I love the idea of the freedom to stop at anytime.
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May 23rd, 2015, 11:34 AM
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Day 1, Saturday 23 August, driving to Ghent

Our first day was scheduled on AA routeplanner to take 6 hours 10 minutes, not counting the time spent on Eurotunnel. Stupidly I forgot to take account of the time difference and so had to spend a huge £4 changing our departure time to an earlier train - rookie mistake! We also brought forward our leaving time from home to 9am to give us over 1 hour 30 minutes in hand in case we hit traffic, and in the end we set off just 10 minutes late - a pretty good start. With rest stops and the inevitable very slow traffic on the M25 we made it with just 15 minutes to spare so a massive thank you to everyone who counselled to build more time in. On the whole I find the actual drive times on the AA routeplanner fairly accurate but what you can never take account of is heavy traffic which in this country seems to be a probability and something that you will usually need to build in time for.

Eurotunnel is efficiently impressive and this was our third time using it, £167 this time, everything smooth and on time.

Arrived at Hotel Carlton in Ghent at 6pm - a long day but not tiring. This hotel is an absolute gem, the best, most informative welcome I've ever had at check-in. It's located in the museum quarter, a 20 minute walk from the old town but just 2 minutes from the main train station and there is a tram stop just round the corner, which makes getting around very easy. The proximity to the main train station would make it a great base for day trips too. It's rated #1 on tripadvisor and at just £80 a night it's a bargain. I know TA comes in for a lot of stick but I continue to think it's a fantastic resource if used well with some critical judgement. I'm quite sure that in our price range (under £100 a night) we stayed in the very best hotel in Ghent.

Given that this was a Saturday night I'd booked a restaurant in Ghent and we had plenty of time beforehand to freshen up and do some exploring around the historic quarter before dinner. I chose Belga Queen as it looked quite Belgian and it's always good to at least try and eat like locals do when you're on a trip. All the wine comes from Belgium or is made by Belgians abroad - unsurprisingly most of the wines were in this latter category. It also had an excellent and very picturesque location right in the heart of the old town on one of the main canals. The food was nice, if not great, but what stood out was the lovely, friendly service. The place was huge and old with a very modern interior and it had an excellent atmosphere - overall I was very glad we chose it and would definitely recommend.

Walked the 20 minutes back to the hotel, in the only light rain of the entire trip, and slept like a log.

(Am trying to figure how to get photos on here, will give it a few more hours tomorrow to figure out the best way)
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May 23rd, 2015, 12:55 PM
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I'm looking forward to the rest of this report! You can put the photos on a service like Picasaweb or Flickr and post the link here.
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May 23rd, 2015, 02:05 PM
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You absolutely have to visit the bassilica of saint Marc!
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May 23rd, 2015, 02:32 PM
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Great start!
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May 24th, 2015, 04:40 AM
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Day 2, Sunday 24 August - exploring Ghent and meandering down the River Meuse to Dinant and Metz

Our hotel http://www.carltongent.be/

In the morning we did more exploring, got off the tram at the furthest point on the far side of the historic quarter and just wandered back along the canals. The streets were wonderfully quiet and exceedingly pretty, the old buildings here really are lovely. What also impressed was that the new buildings seemed to have obvious quality to them as well. As we got closer to the centre it got busier and we stopped at a great little cafe for a coffee. http://www.mybarista.be/ We continued our meanderings through the old streets, stopping in the centre to listen to a brass band bedecked in braided uniforms that was setting up, practicing and performing in the main square - it felt very European and lovely for it, we are so lucky to be able to move so easily from one culture to another.

We finished up at the Sunday flower market and bought a huge glass vase for less than €10 - bargain! - the joys of travelling by car, though it does take up quite a lot of space so we wont be buying too much wine sadly. A tram back to the hotel and we headed off to Metz, just 210 miles and 3 hours 15 minutes away.

As we were in no great hurry we took the main E40 and E411 til we got past Brussels and then at Namur got off the highway on to the N92/N96 which follows the route of the River Meuse (according to Wikipedia one of the 5 oldest rivers in the world - how they know I've not quite figured). This was an excellent route as the views of the river are wonderful as it's so wide and so close to the banks, very unlike big rivers here, it made for a lovely drive.

At Dinant we stopped, simply as it looked such a lovely place and we'd not had any lunch yet. Despite it being a busy sunny Sunday afternoon we managed to find a parking space on a side street and set off round the town. The setting is lovely as the town is squeezed between the river and a steep rockface. As we were still in Belgium we had fries with mayonnaise for lunch. The town is the birthplace of Adophe Sax, inventor of the saxaphone and so as he was born in 1814 there are saxaphones everywhere for his bicentenary. The day before there had been a big service/celebration at the main church that had been attended by the King where a new set of bells had been delivered replacing those that had been destroyed 100 years ago to the day in World War I. There were many sobering photographs of the town taken 100 years ago. We felt lucky to have stumbled across this lovely little place in 2014 when it was marking such important history.

After spending longer than expected in Dinant we continued on down the road alongside the Meuse and eventually picked up a faster road once we crossed into France. Driving these quieter roads really is a joy, there is so little traffic compared to roads here. Staying off the motorways allowed us to divert from our route to check out a lovely little church we noticed.

We made it into Metz at about 6pm. I'd booked the Novotel as its located centrally in the city, an easy stroll from the Cathedral, which is Metz's stand out attraction, and the price seemed pretty good at £72. One thing to note is that the hotel is located in part of a sixties shopping centre, so pretty it isn't. The car park is a vast one beneath the shopping centre and we failed to see the signs showing where the most convenient parking spaces for the hotel were so we wandered for ages trying to find the access to the hotel.

It being a Sunday most restaurants were closed but the reception desk staff recommended a place close to the Cathedral, which was fine and fairly cheap but entirely unmemorable.

Have now sorted the photos - I wanted to do a link for each day but can't figure how to do that so here they all are.

http://www.shutterfly.com/lightbox/v...#1432465737308
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May 24th, 2015, 10:13 AM
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I hope you'll continue. I think you need to check the link for Shutterfly as it appears it's not 'public'.
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May 24th, 2015, 03:16 PM
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Thanks, I'll try to sort - first time trying to post photos of a trip!
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May 24th, 2015, 03:28 PM
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Hopefully this works https://tjhome1.shutterfly.com/
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May 25th, 2015, 05:56 AM
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Looking forward to more. We love road trips around Europe, and probably wouldn't explore nearly as much as we do if we had to rely on trains and schedules.
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May 25th, 2015, 06:36 AM
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Last time I was in Ghent we came across a brass band, walking up we discovred they were from Barnsley and had been coming nearly every year since the end of WW1.

Dinant is a nice little find, we've stayed there twice now and very pleasant.
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May 25th, 2015, 07:16 AM
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Day 3, Monday 25 August - Stained glass, wine, great new architecture, cow bells.

Our first stop of the morning, after the obligatory coffee and a croissant somewhere other than the hotel, was back at the Cathedral. It has more stained glass than any other building in the world as a result, in part, of it having one of the largest naves in the world. What we particularly wanted to see was the Marc Chagall windows. It's a very impressive building, all in all an awe inspiring experience.

After that we walked across to the opposite side of the city to the new Pompidou Centre, a fantasic new building that was opened in 2010. As we had a longer drive today we satisfied ourselves with a good walk round the building, a quick look inside to make sure none of the exhibits attracted us and lots of photos. It's an easy walk from the centre of town. This morning was one of the only three times it rained slightly - excellent weather yet again for our trip. Metz made for a nice stop and I had wanted to see the Pompidou Centre - possibly not somewhere that I'd come back to though.

Our destination today was a tiny village in Switzerland, Trub, and we had a 5 hour drive scheduled so after filling the car with fuel, which is so much cheaper in Europe, we set off on main roads. Unfortunately we didn't have time to stop off for any time in Nancy and headed on via the Vosges to our scheduled wine buying stop in Kaysersberg and then a little wander round the neighbouring village of Kientzheim, which is gorgeous. Being able to stock up on wine in this way is one of the joys of taking the car - as I write it's great to see a few bottles left.

We were concerned about traffic getting across the border into Switzerland, we'd travelled via Basel before and traffic was again heavy but there were no delays at the border - we'd wisely bought our Swiss motorway pass before we left.

Trub was an airbnb stop (just £79) and was a big house in the middle of nowhere. It was lovely though to be driving higher and higher on narrower and narrower roads and eventually we made it - the road ourside the house was single track with passing places like the small roads in the highlands of Scotland. It was a typical Swiss farmhouse in that it was almost entirely wooden, which was lovely. The owner was on the ground floor and we had a separate entrance to the first floor. This was an excellent choice - we were the only guests staying and had the whole of the first floor to ourselves - it was excellent to be in such homely and spacious surroundings with the wonderful sound of cow bells clanging. It felt a world away from the very standard and very impersonal Novotel - based on my experience so far I really can't recommend airbnb highly enough.

We drove into Trub village to the one restaurant that we were advised would be open - again we were the only guests in the dining room but were treated very well. Unfortunately, but perhaps not suprisingly (another rookie mistake) they didn't take cash so there had to be a drive to the nearest town to get cash. Another excellent nights sleep - the cows sleep too which was good. Absolutely loved this place - could definitely return.
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May 27th, 2015, 11:43 AM
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Day 4,Tuesday 26 August - Ice Caves and Ice Cream

After the most gorgeous breakfast of local produce, all of which came from within a 5 mile radius, we discussed with our host how we were going to get to Florence. He was very much of the opinion that our planned drive over the Alps was far too ambitious - that a succession of twists and turns on the five passes that we would have to negotiate would leave us exhausted and take far too long. We listened politely and did think about changing our route but remained of the opinion that we were only likely to do this trip once and that we weren't going to miss the opportunity - it was scheduled to be a long day though - 7 hours and 45 minutes of driving and that didn't include any stops at all.

And so we set off through gorgeous Swiss countryside, climbing higher and higher. Our route took us via Giswil, Innertkirchen and Realp over the Grimsel Pass "dubbed one of the world's most insane roads" according to dangerousroads.org. Unfortunately as we got higher the weather got worse and what I'm sure would have been lots of stunning views were considerably reduced by mist and low cloud.

The most wonderful thing though, and one of the best highlights of the whole trip was that we stumbled quite by chance upon a glacier - the Rhone Glacier, as the road over the Furka Pass passes close to it, although you can't see it from the road. We only stopped as we needed a bathroom break and we saw what I think was a big old hotel. It was raining lightly and the big sign for the 'ice grotto' didn't really appeal, but we did need that break so we parked up and paid a few euros to take a closer look at a small (alarmingly increasingly small) glacier, into which a tunnel had been excavated so allow you to go deep within the glacier. It was amazing to be able to be so close - the blue of the ice inside the cave was very pronounced. In all it only took less than an hour and was the most unexpectedly extraordinary hour imaginable - this is such a wonderful experience and so easily enjoyed. Had we known we would have made special plans just to do it - the fact that we stumbled upon it just made it even more special for us.

The Furka Pass is the road in the car chase in Goldfinger and is one of the highest passes in the Alps - it was the last of the five passes and it was nice as we were on the very last stages to see the queues of traffic waiting to go through the Gotthard tunnel. We shared the driving and having to concentrate so hard for so long was hard work but although the weather wasn't great we did have some stunning views and the most wonderful day - I wouldn't have missed this days driving for the world and we felt so glad we'd stuck to our ambitious plans.

By comparison the flat drive into Florence was quite dull as we stuck to the fastest roads.

Our three night stay in Florence was another airbnb selection. Staying in Florence had seemed wildly expensive and I found a tiny apartment for £93 a night in a lovely location within the historic centre but also fairly close to the main train station. This seemed to be perfect in retrospect in that the main sites were always a short walk but we were able to park the car in a long stay car park close to the station without too much problem at all. The apartment was very tiny though, smaller than the photos had made it look, but had a lovely little rooftop terrace with views of the Duomo.

After settling in we took a short walk away from the centre to a fish restaurant, Pesceria San Pietro, close to the train station which turned out to be so lovely that we went back on our last night. As with most first nights in new cities we took a long leisurely stroll after dinner and indulged in our first of several excellent gelato - it will come as no surprise that Florence is incredibly impressive and it was excellent to be staying so close to the centre.

Still not sure if these photos are working.

https://tjhome1.shutterfly.com/pictures
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May 27th, 2015, 01:00 PM
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The photo link works perfectly - and the photos are gorgeous.

Loving your trip!
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May 27th, 2015, 01:15 PM
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Excellent TR and photos, tjhome1! The architecture in Ghent (and area) is so interesting.

Hope you got a glacier shot.
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May 30th, 2015, 01:34 AM
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Thanks for confirming that photo link works - there's 3 glacier shots in there, one inside showing how blue the ice is.
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May 30th, 2015, 01:58 AM
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Day 5, Wednesday 27 August - Florence

To avoid queues we'd booked tickets for both the Accademia and the Uffizi. Today it was the Accademia at 10.00. Absolutely worth seeing this stunning work up close. After that we visited San Marco church which was fairly close by, a lovely tranquil church with few tourists which was a pleasant relief. Next we decided to do our long walk through the city over the river and up to San Miniato al Monte - a long walk in stiffling heat but so very worth it for the fantastic views back over the city - the photo we took here is one of my absolute favorites - who could fail not to want to visit Florence after seeing that. I'd absolutely urge everyone visiting Florence to get up to San Miniato al Monte and take in the wonderful vista.

The walk back down the hill was much easier and we treated ourselves to a couple of the coldest, most refreshing and probably most expensive beers at the Piazzale Michelangelo, again with excellent views over the city. The heat was also a cue for another of Florence's essentials - more gelato. We made sure we bought from places that sold 'artigianale' and the difference between great ice cream here and great gelato is very obvious with gelato being the clear winner.

One part of the reason for going to Florence was that son Joshua was in Italy for the summer. And so we'd agreed to meet up so that he could join us for our anniversary meal at a michelin 3 star in Modena. As things are with young people it turned out that when we were in Florence he was no longer in Italy but in the south of France.

Unfortunately getting from one to the other wasn't easy and it meant that he would have to join us a day early, today. Unfortunately I'd also decided that as we were in Florence we would also treat ourselves to a meal at Florence's only 3 star restaurant. Reviews I'd read led me to believe that it was vastly overpriced and not worth it and initially I had decided not to book. However expensive meals are one of my very few vices and just a few weeks before we were due to leave I phoned to see if I could book a table, not expecting that at such short notice one would be available. Luckily, though not for my wallet, one was and so now with Josh arriving today we felt bound to invite him along too, adding an extra 33% to an already overpriced meal.

His journey meant he arrived straight to the restaurant with his luggage and it was so lovely to see him after such a long time and so combined with excellent food and great wine that flowed like water (our glasses were just topped up the whole evening) I have to say that I found the whole evening entirely worth it. There were just two items on the bill - food and drink with none of the extras we had included at all, which I thought a nice touch. That said, it was astronomically expensive - here's hoping Josh remembers it when he's choosing care homes for us.

It was excellent that the sommelier gave us a tour of the cellars before we left - some amazing old numbered vintages. A nice treat at the end of a very expensive but totally fabulous evening.

After dinner we had another leisurely stroll around the city before returning to our tiny apartment where Joshua had to sleep on the sofa. Being within walking distance of anywhere in the historic centre is so very satisfying.
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May 30th, 2015, 07:42 AM
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here's hoping Josh remembers it when he's choosing care homes for us.<<<<<


Har! Glad you had a nice time. Did I miss the name of the restaurant?
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May 30th, 2015, 07:54 AM
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Ah yes, Enoteca Pinchiorri http://enotecapinchiorri.it/?lang=en They have updated their website
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