The open, winding roads of Abruzzo are best explored behind the wheel of Italy's little wonder car, writes Penny Watson
The province of Abruzzo is just like Tuscany,' says our heavy-set, gesticulating Italian guide, Nikki. He pauses before delivering the punchline: 'Tuscany - but without the English.'
His Pavarotti-esque laugh echoes around the mountainous peaks so heartily that it jolts the Russian sitting next to me out of a jet lag-induced doze. Evidently confused, the Russian instantly takes on the role of appreciative audience, much to Nikki's delight. Soon we're all laughing.
What Nikki says is true in part. The province, sitting snugly on the lower calf of Italy's cartographic boot, is refreshingly free of British tourists (not to mention Germans, Australians and Americans). While the hot spots of Tuscany and Umbria have become a magnet for Europhiles worldwide, Abruzzo has only recently set its sights on the lucrative tourism market other provinces have enjoyed for centuries.
An easy comparison it may be, but it's as unfair to weigh Abruzzo against Tuscany as it is to pit Beijing's Forbidden City against Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower or Sydney's Harbour Bridge against Melbourne's colonial laneways. True, Abruzzo lacks the Renaissance cities and rustic landscapes of its Tuscan counterpart, but it has its own wonders. To prove the point, the province's government has backed a new venture it hopes will help put the region firmly on the tourist map. For more than a decade, Vespa tours have attracted people to Tuscany. Now, visitors who prefer four wheels can tour the countryside of Abruzzo in a retro Fiat Cinquecento (500).
There is no more fitting a way to motor about. The diminutive, bug-shaped cars, with their pug-nosed bonnets, fold-back canvas soft-tops and headlights that look like they wink and blink, are as important to Italy's automotive history as the Mini is in Britain and the VW Beetle is in Germany.
Upon its release in 1957, the 500 was the design equivalent of today's Alessi bottle opener or Armani suit, but unlike those Italian style staples, the 500 was made for the masses. It was the first small car in post-war Italy - an affordable and practical option for zipping around in bumper-to-bumper city traffic.
Today it's still lauded. Fiat celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the 500 in 2007 by releasing a flashy new model. Its sleek lines, comfort and smooth handling - not to mention air-con and CD player - have given it a solid fan base. But no car buff can overlook the stitched leather seats, mini steering wheel, retro dash and billiard ball gear stick of the original.
But it's not all about the wheels. Beyond the teeny cabin of the 500, the lovely province of Chieti, a little-known part of the Abruzzo region, begs to be appreciated.
The lush landscape of the central-eastern Apennines, stretching down to the Adriatic Sea, is ideal touring country. Tranquil roads flanked by autumnal foliage twist ribbon-like through fertile sheep-grazing land and tri-coloured crop squares.
On the higher reaches, the valleys and ravines of Maiella National Park, one of a handful of national parks in Abruzzo, provide a talking point, the lofty carbon-black peaks are snow-capped as early as October.
Locals brag about being beachside in the morning and on the piste in the afternoon, and road-trippers can indulge in a geographical diversity where high-gear mountainous slopes give way to cruisy coastal meandering. There are views aplenty along the Chieti coastline. Vineyards, olive groves and provincial villages overlook 70km of beaches, clear blue water and the occasional rocky peninsula where curious spindly fishing jetties known as trabocchi punctuate the scenery. The handcrafted constructions, unique to the area, were traditionally built over coastal rocks so landlubber locals could fish without taking to boats.
If you care to stretch your legs, Chieti is also pit stop territory for history enthusiasts. In the foreground of the mountains, church spires grace the skylines of small medieval villages, many of them remarkably well preserved. One of the most impressive is Roccascalegna, where a spectacular medieval castle teeters on a cliff face above the township, casting long afternoon shadows across the narrow streets below.
In another, Guardiagrele, tapered streets wind down to a bustling town square where the 12th century Church of St Maria Maggiore is the focal point of the town's past and present. On an exterior wall a series of stone coats of arms serve as a reminder of the region's once-powerful families. Next to it, a huge fresco is a nod to the town's artists, artisans and craftsmen, whose work can still be seen in the church museum or bought in workshops on the edge of the old quarter.
Whether you're in the cobbled streets of an old town or on the winding open road, don't expect anonymity. Fiat 500s, especially red ones with hubcaps as shiny as mirrors, turn more heads than a Prada handbag. The engine is a dead giveaway - while you motor along, the old-fashioned mechanics emit a guttural poke-poke sound reminiscent of a time when fixing a car was as easy as grabbing a spanner and flipping the bonnet.
My gear-change technique might have something to do with the attention. I'm trying to double-clutch, but the resulting bunny hop is making me regret years spent driving an automatic. When I park the 500 in the seaside city of Vasto, on the Adriatic Coast, I'm relieved to see the stationery vehicle - minus the driver - also draws a crowd. A group of hat-wearing elderly Italian gentlemen gather around for some leisurely tyre kicking. It's fitting scenery.
Vasto's old town centre is crowded with Renaissance manors, a castle, tiny churches and the exquisite Teatro Rossetti theatre. In the side streets, cavernous restaurants serve up brodetto di pesce alla Vastese, a renowned local tomato broth brimming with fish and crustaceans.
Back on the road, the region's agricultural landscape also alludes to culinary credentials at least as good as anywhere in Italy. Beehives and olive groves dot the roadside and basket-bearing mushroom and truffle hunters can be seen stalking their fungal prey in wooded paddocks.
Although small, the 500's boot is plenty big enough for an obligatory bottle of Masciarelli extra virgin olive oil, an oversized lump of Pietra Penta pecorino cheese and a vacuum-sealed piece of ventricina, a local cured pork still produced by hand.
The local Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a regular selection on wine menus around the world, ids on offer at agreeable prices at local cellar doors - that is, after a taste test.
As it happens, Nikki's baritone laugh and comic timing are at their best after a few glasses of red. Thankfully the support car and relief driver are on hand so I can pass over the keys to the 500.
As afternoon turns into evening, Nikki's conversation returns to his home province of Abruzzo and just how superior it is to Tuscany. After a couple of glasses I'm starting to believe it myself.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to Rome. You will need to transfer across to Abruzzo.
Getting around: For a Fiat 500 tour visit italyby500abruzzo.com. For more details on the region, go to regione.abruzzo.it