Mille Miglia, 1000 beautiful miles trough northern Italy
The Mille Miglia, or thousand miles, was an endurance race that was organized 24 times between 1927 and 1957. Participants raced with their Gran Turismo cars over the open roads of northern Italy from Brescia to Rome and back on an 8-shaped route. Due to frequent fatal crashes the race was banned in 1957, but since 1982 it was revived as a touring trip for old-timers. We went to Brescia and followed this legendary route trough the stunning landscapes of northern Italy.
In 1926, two Italians had the idea to hold a motorsport event in and around their hometown of Brescia. They decided to organize an endurance race of about 1500km (1000 Roman miles) trough Italy. To show participants where to go, they designed the now famous red arrow with white letters. The first edition of the Mille Miglia was held on March 26 in 1927 with 77 cars participating.
Since then, the race became a yearly event (with a break during the Second World War) attracting lots racing legends and public. However, with the cars becoming faster and more powerful, open road racing became very dangerous. After a Ferrari crashed into the public in 1957, killing 12 people, the race was banned.
In 1982 the race was revived as a 4-day road rally for cars built between 1927 and 1957, the golden age of the Mille Miglia and Gran Turismo racing. We will follow the original 8-shaped route from Brescia to Rome and back.
Brescia – Verona
We start our trip in the old city center of Brescia. Located at the foot of the Alps, this beautiful city has a very rich history. Several influences of the Roman era, the middle ages and the renaissance can be seen in the many historic buildings throughout the city. We set off at the Via Trieste, right next to the Duomo Vecchio. This old cathedral was built in the 11th century and is known for its circular shape.
We follow Via Trieste eastwards until it joins the Viale delle Mille Miglia, who brings us out of Brescia to Rezzato. The origin of this town name is thought to be the medieval "Regadium", which meant "royal court", a term used to designate the area surrounding the city of Brescia. Rezzato is well known for its marble. Stone cutting was the predominant business in Rezzato from the 15th to the early 20th century. On our route we can see Villa Fenaroli. This spectacular setting was built in the16th century and serves now as a luxury hotel. We continue our way on the S114 and SS11 to Desenzano del Garda.
Desenzano del Garda is located on the South shore of Lake Garda, the largest lake of Italy. With its beautiful view of the Alps and its three large beaches, Desenzano is very popular with tourists. In the summertime its main squares are crowded all night long.
We keep following the SS11 to Sirmione. This small commune is located on a peninsula, splitting southern Lake Garda in two. The main historical landmark of Sirmione is the Grotto of Catullus, the best conserved Roman private edifice discovered in northern Italy. Other sights include the 13th century caste that served as a port fortification and the frescoes of the church of San Pietro in Mavino.
We leave the peninsula and head south to Solferino using small countryside roads. On our way we’ll see the 74m high tower of San Martino della Battaglia, a monument erected to honour Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy. Many fields pass by our window as we drive trough the typical Lombardian landscape.
Solferino itself is an oasis of rest comparing to Lake Garda. This little place is known as the site of the Battle of Solferino. In 1859, a French-Italian army fought here against the Austrians. Horrified by the suffering of wounded soldiers left on the battlefield to die, the Swiss Jean-Henri Dunant started a process that led to the Geneva Conventions and the establishment of the Red Cross.
As we drive back north towards the SS11,we pass trough Pozzolengo. This village located in the hills around Lake Garda has some great scenery. Enjoy a glass of wine on one of the terraces with view on the castle.
We rejoin the SS11 (the old route from Venice to Milan) near Porto Vecchio. We’ll keep following this road trough the papaver fields to Verona. The inner city of Verona is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site. This isn’t surprising because only Rome itself has more Roman buildings than Verona. Due to its favorable position near the Brenner Pass, the Romans used the city as a base for conquering northern Europe.
Things to see in Verona are the Roman amphitheatre, which is one of the best preserved ancient structures of its kind, the medieval Castel San Pietro, the Basilica di San Zeno and the fortified Castelvecchio Bridge.
Verona - Bologna
The next stage of this trip will take us straight trough the Italian countryside. We’ll encounter lots of little hamlets and villages spread across the endless fields. During this stage there are no real attractions to see. It’s just you, your car and the fabulous Italian landscapes.
We leave Verona by taking the SS12 to the south. After 30 miles, near Ostiglia, we leave the province of Veneto, entering Lombardy again. There we’ll cross the river Po using the old metal bridge to Revere. 8 miles later we’re leaving Lombardy for the second time and drive into Emilia-Romagna. This region is known for its Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. This hard granular cheese is informally known as the "king of cheese" and is often used grated in pasta dishes or soups.
We continue on the SS12 a drive trough Mirandola. 5 miles further we leave the main road at the roundabout, and take the SS5 to Camposanto. There we have to take some narrow country roads to Cento. The name Cento is a reference to the centuriation: the reclamation, deforestation and subdivision of the Po Valley into farmland by the Romans in the second century BC.
Its main sight is the defensive fortress, which dates back to the late 14th century. It was rebuilt and altered over the centuries in the style of more recent military architecture and to withstand repeated assaults by enemy troops. Over the centuries the Fortress lost its original function and came to serve mainly as a prison for political prisoners and bandits. Today it is mainly used to host cultural and gastronomic events.
As there is no main road from Cento to Bologna, we have to take again little roads trough the fields to reach our destination. Bologna's 350 acres historic centre is Europe's second largest, containing an immense wealth of important Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque artistic monuments.
Bologna developed along the Via Emilia as a Roman colony; the Via Emilia still runs straight through the city under various changing names. Due to its historical heritage, the car-free central streets of Bologna follow the grid pattern of the original Roman settlement.
Several medieval defensive towers are still visible in the city center. They are the remains of the over two hundred towers that were constructed to keep the city protected throughout the centuries. Two of them, called The Two Towers, are the symbol of the city. They are located at the intersection of the roads that lead to the five gates of the old ring wall. The taller one (97m high) is called the Asinelli while the smaller but more leaning tower is called the Garisenda (48m). The Garisenda Tower was initially 60 m high, but had to be lowered in the 14th century due to a yielding of the ground which left it slanting and dangerous.
The cityscape is further enriched by arcades for which the city is famous. In total, there are some 38 kilometers of arcades in the city's historical center, which make it possible to walk for long distances sheltered from rain, snow, or sun. The Portico of San Luca, one of the longest in the world (3.5 km, 666 arcades) connects the one of the twelve old city gates with the San Luca Sanctuary, located outside the city proper.
Bologna – San Marino
Since Bologna is the world’s capital of pasta dishes, you can’t leave this city before you have lasagna of spaghetti in your stomach. After a great meal we continue our journey south-east on the SS9. This road is also knows as the historical Via Emilia. This was a trunk Roman road in the north Italian plain, running from Rimini on the Adriatic coast, to Piacenza on the river Po. With its construction completed in 187 BC, it’s one of the oldest roads in the world.
On our way to the Adriatic Sea we’ll pass by the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, better known as the racing circuit of Imola. The circuit is named after Ferrari's late founder Enzo and his son Dino. It was the venue for the Formula One San Marino Grand Prix. Imola, it is seen as the 'home circuit' of Ferrari and masses of tifosi come out to support the local team.
Later on we arrive in Cesena. This town is home to the first European civic library that was open to everyone: The Malatestiana Library. The library is also the only one in the world which has preserved structure, fittings and codexes since its opening for more than 550 years. The main doorway and the the wonderful walnut door date back to 1454.
At last we can see the Sea for the first time on this trip in Rimini. We cross the Tiberius Bridge to enter the city. This Roman bridge still connects the city centre to Borgo San Giuliano and leads to the consular roads Via Emilia and Via Popilia that lead north. Built in Istria stone, the bridge consists of five arches that rest on massive pillars with breakwater spurs set at an oblique angle with respect to the bridge’s axis in order to follow the current. The bridge’s structure on the other hand, rests on a practical system of wooden poles.
Rimini is one of the most famous seaside resorts in Europe, thanks to its 15 km-long sandy beach, over 1,000 hotels and thousands of bars, restaurants and discos. It is also an art city with ancient Roman and Renaissance monuments. In recent years it became one of the most important sites for trade fairs and conferences in Italy.
We leave Rimini and take the SS72 to San Marino. This mini state is an enclave surrounded by Italy. Its size is just over 61 km2 (24 sq mi), making it the third smallest country in Europe, with only Vatican City and Monaco being smaller. San Marino is the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world, as the continuation of the monastic community founded on 3 September 301, by stonecutter Marinus of Rab.
The country’s main attractions are the Three Towers of San Marino. These towers are located on three peaks of Monte Titano, overlooking the capital. They are depicted on both the Flag of San Marino and its coat of arms.
Into the mountains
The best part of this road trip starts here. We are now climbing out of San Marino on the SP2 into the Apennine Mountains. This mountain range runs from north to south along the whole length of the Italian peninsula. When arriving in Pietrarubbia, we take the SP1 trough the Regional Park del Simone e Simoncello where we drive over the Cantoniera mountain pass (alt. 1007m).
The SP1 ends at Ponte Messa, where we take the SP258 southwards, following the river trough the valley. This road brings us to Sansepolcro, situated on the Tiber river. There we leave the SP258 and start following the roads parallel to the Tiber river all the way to Assisi (about 50 miles). On our way we’ll see lots of medieval towns like Citta del Castello and Umbertide.
Assisi was the birthplace of St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan religious order, and St. Clare, who founded the Poor Sisters, which later became the Order of Poor Clares after her death. This makes the town a pilgrimage, with many churches, cathedrals and monasteries to be seen.
The town’s main sight is the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi (St. Francis). The basilica is one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage in Italy. The basilica, which was begun in 1228, is built into the side of a hill and comprises two churches known as the Upper Church and the Lower Church, and a crypt where the remains of the saint are interred. The interior of the basilica is decorated with frescoes by numerous important medieval painters.
The road to Rome
Our next stop is Spoleto, an ancient town located at the head of a large, broad valley, surrounded by the Apennine Mountains. Roman influences can be seen in the Roman theater and the amphitheater. The last one was turned into a fortress in 545. Another interesting landmark is the Rocca Albornoziana, a majestic stronghold with six sturdy towers. After having resisted many sieges, the Rocca was turned into a jail in 1800 and used as such until the late 20th century. Last but nut least is the Ponte delle Torri, a striking 13th-century aqueduct, measuring 236m long and 76 high.
We drive from Spoleto to Monteleone di Spoleto using small mountain roads. As we climb higher, the landscape becomes more alpine, and is showing some breathtaking views. After many turns we take the SS471 from Monteleone di Spoleto to Leonessa. There we take the SP10, which changes into the SS4bis to Rieti.
Rieti’s town centre rests on a small hilltop, commanding a wide plain at the fertile basin of the Velino River. Once a major site of the Sabine nation, the town was conquested by the Romans and the village became a strategic point in the early Italian road network, dominating the "salt" track (Via Salaria) that linked Rome to the Adriatic Sea. We follow this ancient track on the SS4 to Rome, 50 miles further down the road.
Because there is simply too much to see to describe in this magnificent city, we’ll just give two links to the Rome’s Wikipedia page and Wikitravel page. You should count at least 5 days or a week to see all of the city’s major attractions.
We leave traffic heavy Rome behind us and take the SS2 out of the city. About 20 miles north of Rome you can visit the Vallelunga racing circuit. It was built as a sand 1.102 miles (1.8 km) oval in 1959. Later on, the circuit hosted the Rome Grand Prix, and a new loop was added when the track became the property of the Italian Automobile Club. In 2004 work started on a 1 kilometer (0.6 mi) extension, bringing the track up to its current length. The circuit has received homologation from the FIA as a test circuit, being used by various Formula One teams.
At the road junction near Gabelletta, we leave the SS2 and follow the SS311 for about a mile. At Belvedere Lidia there is another junction where we chose the SP1 to Viterbo. On our way we see Lake Vico, a volcanic lake located in a crater. With an altitude of 510 m, it’s one of the highest major Italian lakes. It is part of the Lake Vico Natural Reserve.
The area is famous for its extensive beech forest, which is one of the most southerly in Europe. The combination of the elevation and the location in the crater, create cool enough conditions for the continued survival of the trees. A large part of the northern side of the crater is a nature reserve to protect this forest.
Our next stop, Viterbo, was one of the most important cities in Europe during the middle ages. The historic center of the city is surrounded by medieval walls, still intact, built during the 11th and 12th centuries. Entrance to the walled center of the city is through ancient gates.
The city’s historic center is one of the best preserved medieval towns of Italy. Many of the older buildings are built on top of ancient ruins, recognizable by their large stones, 50 centimeters to a side. The main attraction of Viterbo is the Papal Palace, that served as a country residence and a repair in time of trouble in Rome.
Taking the SR143, we are now driving along the shores of Lake Bolsena, another crater lake. Later on, the SR143 becomes the SR2, which we will follow all the way to Siena. This part of the trip is showing Tuscany at its best, with little villages spread trough the marvelous hills and valleys.
Siena’s historic centre has been declared a World Heritage Site. It is one of Italy’s most visited tourist attractions, thanks to the city’s many old monuments and buildings. Siena is also famous for the Palio, a horse race held twice yearly, on July 2 and August 16.
The Palio horse race circles the Piazza del Campo, on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid, three times and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. It is not uncommon for a few of the jockeys to be thrown off their horses while making the treacherous turns in the piazza, and indeed it is not unusual to see unmounted horses finishing the race without their jockeys. If you’re not into horses, try to avoid Siena during the Palio, as the city will be crowded by overenthusiastic Italians with most of the streets blocked. Main sights are the cathedral and the shell shaped Piazza del Campo.
We continue our road trip on the SR222 and follow it trough the hills of Tuscany to Florence. We’re now driving trough the vineyards of the famous Chianti wine. This Tuscan red wine was a synonym for bad wine in the past. The last decades however, the quality was improved and the wine received the DOCG quality-label. The Chianti wine has a bright, red color and smells fruity.
Florence lies on the River Arno and is known for its history and its importance in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. It was the centre of medieval European trade and finance and one of the wealthiest cities during that time. Florence is also considered the birthplace of the Renaissance. Due to the city’s artistic and architectural heritage, it has been ranked by Forbes as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and the city is noted for its history, culture, Renaissance art and monuments.
The best-known site of Florence is the domed cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, known as The Duomo. The nearby Campanile and the Baptistery buildings are also highlights. The dome is 600 years after its completion still the largest dome built in brick and mortar in the world. As with Rome, this city has too many highlights to describe them all, therefore we link to the Wikipedia page of Florence.
We leave Florence on the SS65. This regional road is 70 miles long and will take us over the Apennine Mountains to Bologna. On our way we’ll cross the Passo della Futa. This mountain pass has an elevation of 903 m (2,963 ft) and separates the valleys of Mugello and Santerno.
Italian sports cars
We leave Bologna on the SS9 to Modena. Modena is also known as "the capital of engines", since the headquarters and factories of the famous Italian sports car makers Ferrari, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati are located nearby.
Apart from these supercars, Modena also has a rich history that is translated into several beautiful buildings such as the Modena Cathedral (a world heritage site) and the Ducal Palace.
To leave the city, we take the SP3 to Maranello. This city has been the location for the Ferrari factory since the early 1940s, when Enzo Ferrari transferred the Scuderia Ferrari Garage in Modena due to World War II bombings. The public museum Galleria Ferrari, which displays the rich history of sports and racing cars is located next to the factory.
After a stop at the museum we drive to the nearby village of Fiorano Modenese where Ferari’s private race track is located. As Fiorano is a testing track, it has a wide range of corner types to simulate corner and track types of other Grand Prix circuits. The track can be seen from the road nearby, and it’s common to see Tifosi watching when a new F1 car is tested.
When we know everything about Ferraris, we head for the SP467 and follow it to Reggio Emilia. Like all other Italian cities, we can see lots of historic buildings and monuments here. The Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese we mentioned earlier is, together with Lambrusco wine, one of the town’s typical products.
Only a few miles further on the SS9 we arrive in Parma, which is know for its Parma ham. From there we follow the SP343R north to turn right on the SP87 to Cremona. We take the SP45bis north here, the last straight line back to Brescia, where our 1000 mile journey started a few days ago.