What never ceases to amaze Americans about Europe is the astonishing variety of distinct cultures separated, very often, by mere hours. And on few parts of the continent is this cultural diversity more surprising than in the 500 miles that separate Florence, Italy, and Stuttgart, Germany.
We start in Florence, where we consume as much history and culture and cuisine as our heads and hearts and stomachs can bear. An awestruck hour with Michelangelo's David starts our voyage off magnificently, as does a stop by Florence's cathedral, the Duomo.
Outside the city, the Tuscan countryside offers its own wonders-and wonderful roads. Head southwest to San Gimignano, press on to Pisa, and follow the Mediterranean coastline northward to Liguria and the Cinque Terre. Consider a stay at one of Italy's state-regulated agriturismos-working farms that offer bed-and-breakfast accommodations. One of these is the olive-growing Agriturismo Golfo dei Poeti, high in the hills above the seaside bustle of La Spezia.
With Florence behind us, we set off toward the Alpine skiing mecca of Innsbruck, Austria, and then cross into Germany to the Romantische Strasse, or "Romantic Road." A trade route during the Middle Ages, it starts in the tiny town of Reutte and winds northward some 225 miles to the city of Wrzburg. The route is well marked and dotted with picture-perfect Bavarian villages and farms and fairy-tale castles-the best of which is certainly Neuschwanstein in the town of Schwangau. Ludwig II (dubbed Mad King Ludwig for his limitless spending habits) built this sky-scraping fortress around 1869, inspired by the otherworldly imagery in the operas of his friend Richard Wagner.
We cruise into Stuttgart, a modern hub of commerce known to automotive enthusiasts as the home of Porsche and DaimlerChrysler. Only as far from our Italian starting point as Chicago is from Pittsburgh, Stuttgart, with its sleek glass-and-steel demeanor, seems a world apart from Florence and its earthy Renaissance character. Buongiorno. Auf Wiedersehen.