The road south from Germany to Italy is perhaps one of Europe’s most scenic routes. Made famous by Goethe’s 1816 novel ‘The Italian Journey’, depicting his departure from a life in Germany (at the then mid-life-existential-crisis age: 37) to an altogether more romantic sojourn south.
“We are all pilgrims who seek Italy,” wrote Goethe. His adventures may have happened over 200 years ago (1796, to be precise) but they still inspire many a German road tripper today. And we were no exception—after making our start from Berlin, several of the stops mentioned in The Italian Journey also became ours. Like Goethe, we too sought out the art, architecture, and warmth of the Tuscan sun. Our only agenda: to take as many scenic routes possible, avoid overplaying our Grammy Nominees of ’96 mixtape, and to stop each day as dusk drew near to watch the sun set.
The lure of the open road was made even more pleasant by avoiding the sombre tunnels through the Alps, switching off the GPS (for a while, at least) and taking in the spectacular surroundings along the way. The journey was long but in a camper van bedecked with a roof-raising loft bed, ample storage, picnic table and chairs, and even a kitchen sink, we were lulled into a transient daily routine.
Navigating the exhilarating series of roads in the mountains of Austria, known simply as the Alpine route, our journey was propelled from the bustle of Germany’s principal cities to an abundant series of picture-postcard scenes. Western Austria’s Innsbruck made a fitting stop—the city, which is renowned for its 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympic games, is home to Zaha Hadid’s Bergisel Ski Tower. The tower and ramp were opened in 2003 with a viewing terrace at almost 50 meters high—the perfect vantage point from which to shoot the city hugged by the Alps—and, as it turned out the mist, fog, and heavy rainfall, too. The striking silhouette of Bergisel in the grey served to extend the natural fluidity of the slopes up to the Alpine bleak sky—a dramatic scene only to be beaten by a sunny snow day captured when ski jumpers are in training.
Upon entering the Brenner Pass, the first trans-alpine Roman road, the views opened out to valley upon valley, shimmering in the sunlight like a mirrored mirage. Were we the only road trippers listening to TLC’s “Waterfalls” while watching trains seamlessly snake through pastures? Possibly. No longer in the rookie phase of our journey, and finally far enough south to be free of perpetual rain, we weaved between meadows, lakes, traditional alpine lodges and fairytale castles. It was hard to distinguish where Austria ended and Italy began as elevated hairpin bends wound down to glistening, can-we-jump-in-yet water holes before reaching the South Tyrol region and the city of Bolzano.
The gateway to the Dolomites, South Tyrol is the northernmost point in Italy and a region as rich linguistically as it is fertile: Italian, German, and the local minority language Ladin are all spoken and the climate affords the area to be the largest fruit growing region of Europe (particularly for apples). Traveling further south, we found lush valleys were replaced by flat farmlands spiked with cypress trees. Signs of traditional Tuscan architecture began to reveal themselves with terracotta rooftops and sandy, crumbling stonework dissected with roses, and flanked by dizzying rows of grape-laden vines. To get to our most southern point, the UNESCO world heritage site of Pienza, we cruised through the valley D’Orcia bypassing (sadly for our wine glasses) Montepulciano and Montalcino for the walled Renaissance city—a fitting finale to the 20-hour-long halfway point for this epic FvF road trip.
Heading south on the road most traveled from Berlin to Pienza
A 20-hour road trip across Germany, Austria and down to the province of Siena, Italy
An evening in the Bavarian capital
The Bavarian capital might be best known for its Oktoberfest and centuries-old beer halls, but Munich isn’t just the city of Lowenbrau and bratwurst. The city is the second largest publishing center in the world, home to some of Europe’s most prestigious classical music venues and has a burgeoning modern art scene—the Pinakothek der Moderne has housed collections of modernism since 1900, along with new media of the last two decades. But of course, after a seven hour drive, it was only fitting that we check out the 1774 Bavarian beer hall Fraunhofer.
Innsbruck’s Bergisel Ski Jump
Nestled between the Alps, the capital of Tyrol is framed by mountainous vistas. Towering over the city is the ski-jumping venue, Bergisel. Designed by Zaha Hadid, the concrete and wall-to-wall glass observation platform afford the best views of the city and daily ski-jumpers below.
Gateway to the snow-capped Dolomites, Bolzano sits in the valley surrounded by vineyards and apple orchards. The colorful city is a mix of Gothic, and medieval buildings with ornate 15th century frescoes, turrets, and pastel facades lending a filmic quality to this alpine retreat.
The capital of South Tyrol, Bolzano is a city at the gateway to the Dolomites and surrounded by lush green hills with vineyards and apple orchards.
The architecture in the city dates back to the late Gothic period with narrow facades, bay windows and intricately frescoed and stuccoed details.
The walled town steeped in history
In the province of Siena, Pienza qualified as a UNESCO historic center. Described by UNESCO as “The first application of the Renaissance Humanist concept of urban design,” the town played a significant role in Italy’s urban development with particular attention given to Piazza Pio II designed by architect Rossellino.
Watching the mist roll in from the walled Renaissance town, Pienza.
The secret garden of rare blooms tucked away in the province of Siena
“Hard to find” is an understatement for this off-the-beaten-track wildflower farm just outside Pienza. After driving along the same stretch of road four times, we finally navigated the narrow gravel path to Mara, Laura and Teresa’s farm. The three sisters, who each have a background in fine arts rather than agronomics have reinvented their family business. Taking the organic flower farm one step further, Puscina specialize in wildflowers and antique varieties, producing vibrant custom creations.
“We work with wildflowers, Mediterranean aromatic plants and local trees—it’s effectively our open-laboratory from years of research and experimentation,” says Teresa Cugusi, one of three sisters who runs Puscina Flowers.
Our journey would not have been possible without our home on the road, the very generously loaned Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo Camper Van. Inspired to plan your own getaway? Flick through our travel stories or meet personalities from Germany, Austria, and Italy in our archive.