It's over half a century since the Alfa Romeo Spider's cameo role in one of the defining films of the 1960s. Jeremy Taylor took one for a spin round Italy, taking in Lake Como and Tuscany, to see if it still cuts a dash.
Fifty years ago, London was abuzz with talk of a new film that captured the spirit of the ‘Summer of Love’. The Graduate starred Dustin Hoffman in his first major screen role, famously steaming up the screen with seductress Mrs Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. It made him famous, gave Simon & Garfunkel a string of hits – including The Sound of Silence and Mrs Robinson – and created a star out of a pretty Italian, the Alfa Romeo Spider. It only played a cameo role, but the red soft-top has symbolised romance and adventure ever since.
These days there are companies out there who realise that people will want to bring a bit of that magic into their own life, and I’ve travelled to Italy in search of some authentic dolce vita in a classic convertible (hired via www.driveinstyle.co.uk) that could’ve been driven straight off the film set. The hired Alfa Romeo has lost none of its ability to turns heads, and enthusiastic locals grin and wave as we roar through the backroads of northern Italy.
Delightful from any angle, it’s also a joy to drive. However, the question remains: does a classic touring holiday on modern Italian roads really make for a romantic blockbuster or does it set the scene for a disastrous B-movie flop?
There’s little time to get acquainted with the Spider before I join the Milanese rush-hour traffic. The dashboard controls are basic enough, but I’d recommend a map and a hand-held fan, too – satnav wasn’t invented in the Swinging Sixties and, back then, air conditioning meant winding down the window.
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I’m heading an hour’s drive north to Villa d’Este, one of the world’s most celebrated hotels, at Cernobbio on the shores of Lake Como. Fortunately, the hotel more than lives up to its fêted – and romantic – reputation and it’s well worth the journey. Among the many couples to have graced its rooms are Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor and Nicky Hilton – although I can’t see Mrs Robinson on the guest list.
Villa d’Este was built in 1568 by Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio as a summer residence and has housed the great and the good ever since. It was formerly the home of Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales – the estranged wife of the future George IV – and as a hotel has become a popular celebrity haunt, with neighbour George Clooney among the regulars.
If the magnificent vistas across the lake don’t impress, the sumptuous, classically styled bedrooms probably will. My room has a spectacular view of the floating swimming pool and mountains beyond, while others face the stately gardens.
Italians celebrate their cars, something I discover the next day as I head south from Lake Como in the Alfa and, after four hours on the road, arrive at Belmond Villa San Michele on a hillside above Florence. The driveway up to the front door is swamped with classics taking part in a rally. There are several Spiders, but even they can’t detract from the beauty of this former monastery.
The building is a refreshing mix of Renaissance atmosphere and 21st-century comforts, as well as some delightful modern artworks. There’s also a shuttle bus to the main sights of Florence, so guests can enjoy the relaxed, out-of-town location without feeling too cut off.
Villa San Michele’s stepped gardens aren’t just for a stroll: they can also accommodate spa treatments with a view or there’s the swimming pool – both good places to ease away the pains of driving a classic car on Italy’s pothole-dotted roads. No wonder the locals all drive robust SUVs.
Next day, it’s a two-hour drive across the rolling hills of Tuscany to the coastal resort of Punta Ala, the seaside destination of choice for well-heeled Italians. Baglioni Hotel Cala Del Porto sits on a headland overlooking the smart marina and islands of Giglio and Montecristo. Many people come here to play in boats rather than cars, but, with the Spider’s roof down, I can already smell the sea air as I pull up to reception. There are plenty of photographs of the Dolce Vita era on the walls and the style is simple, coastal chic.
Later, I watch the sun sink over the island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled for almost a year. It’s difficult to imagine a more romantic spot. I may not have Mrs Robinson on my arm, but I do have a star car waiting for me outside.
You can hire a classic Alfa Romeo Spider from £700 for two days with Drive In Style – www.driveinstyle.co.uk
Rooms at Villa d’Este from £500 per night – www.villadeste.com
Rooms at Belmond Villa San Michele from £529 per night – www.belmond.com
Rooms at Baglioni Hotel Cala Del Port from £300 per night – www.baglionihotels.com
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