Just returned from a marvelous ten-day trip to Italy, where I explored quaint villages on the Cinque Terre coast and mountain towns in northwest Tuscany. Then I met up with my niece Dr. Cameron McNabb, and toured the northern half of Italy, from The Leaning Tower of Pisa, to the Ferrari Museum, to the Italian Alps, to grand old Venice.
Part 1: Driving in Italy. Everybody said, “Don’t rent a car in Italy. The roads are narrow and twisting and winding, and those Italians are crazy drivers!” Well, please don’t throw me in that briar patch. I had requested an Audi A3 (a suitably sporty coupe) but ended up with a four-door hatchback Citroen DS5 Turbo-Diesel. Ugh! A French diesel car? Well, to my delight it turned out to be the perfect ride for this trip—and it was brand new. Still had new-car smell. Granted, with the diesel it was no rocket ship, but with a six-speed gearbox it scooted well enough (and went over 1000 kilometers on a tank-full). Plus it cornered like a slot car! As for Italian drivers—yes, they are very aggressive, but at the same time they are accommodating. If you are willing to drive like an Italian they’ll work with you—but they expect you to go when it’s your time to go. This is particularly evident on the Autostrada (interstate). What at first looks like utter chaos is actually a well-oiled, albeit complex, machine. Italian drivers are alert (no cell phone talkers or texters!) and very intent on getting where they are going. I attribute this to all the coffee they drink. Trucks stay in the right lanes and the far left lane is cars-only. This works great! Speed limit signs seem to be just an offhand suggestion. If someone runs up on your rear bumper, move over and send them by. Likewise if you run up on them they won’t hesitate to pull aside and let you by—no middle-finger signaling or road rage name-calling. This is just how it works and everyone complies. In my week-and-a-half of driving—over 2500 kilometers, I saw only one accident. As for the secondary roads, they are indeed narrow and winding—and loads of fun to drive! A quick word about round-abouts—most Americans hate them, but I love them. Again, you must be aggressive and alert, but I think they are the most efficient way to move volumes of traffic through an intersection.
Ferrari: The most exotic, most beautiful (not to mention insanely fast and expensive) sports/GT cars (and race cars) in the world come out of the Ferrari factory in Maranello, Italy. For the small town of 16,000 Ferrari is its life blood. Cameron and I spent the better part of a morning at the Ferrari Factory Museum where we saw (and in some cases could walk up to and touch) spectacular road and race cars, like a 1962 250 GTO, Michael Schumacher’s 2000 Formula One ride, and Ferrari’s newest (and inexplicably-named) LaFerrari (see photos below). This place is a Willy Wonka Factory for car guys (and girls)! Upon exiting the museum we were approached by a race-suit-clad Italian fashion model wielding a clip board. “Would you like to test drive a Ferrari?” “No. I don’t think we have time to…” Cameron looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Are you nuts!!? Don’t you want to drive a Ferrari?” It’s not free—180 Euros for 20 minutes, but worth every penny-times-1.3! We chose the Ferrari California convertible because it has a minuscule kid-sized back seat and we could fit three of us—me, Cameron, plus our test-drive chaperone, into one car. First, the specs: 483 horsepower, 7-speed paddle shifter, 0 – 60 in 3.8 seconds, top speed 194 mph, cost $201,000. After zipping around town for a few minutes, our chaperone directed me up on to the Autostrada, and then had me slow to a crawl in 2nd gear until we had a lull in traffic. While watching the rear view mirror he instructed me to “Wait, wait, wait…okay GO GO GO!” I floored it, redlining all the way up through 5th (about 130 mph I later calculated). The paddle shifter is a blast. No clutch. Just hold it on the floor and tap the paddle on the steering wheel each time you reach 8000 rpm. Neck-snapping acceleration—molto veloce! We caught the traffic ahead and it was all over in about 8 seconds. Then it was Cameron’s turn to drive. She gets to test the Ferrari’s cornering ability—skid-pad zinging around the round-abouts and power-sliding the tail out at stop signs. All this is encouraged by our Ferrari chaperone, by the way, and the town of Maranello seems perfectly happy with it.
From Maranello we got back on the Autostrada and headed north up to the beautiful Italian Alps. At the top of my Italian-trip bucket list was driving the famous Stelvio Pass, a snaking road with forty-eight hairpin switchbacks, leading up over the second highest mountain pass in the Alps (9088 feet), made famous by car magazine road-testers and the guys at TopGear as “one of the world’s greatest driving roads”. Unfortunately we discovered that it was still closed for winter and not scheduled to re-open until the week after I leave. But there are plenty of scenic Alpine villages to see along the way up to the pass, so we opted to drive as far as we could (about two hours west of Bolzano where we were staying) until we reached the gate and had to turn around. From Merano, Strada Statale 38 climbs up into the mountains to the tiny fairy-tale village of Trafoi, where we expected to find the gate closed. But the gate was open. And there was no one there to tell us we couldn’t continue up the road, so of course we continued. We were now officially on the Stelvio Pass road. We could tell because the hairpins are numbered and we passed 48, then 47… It’s all tight first-gear switchbacks, connected by narrow first-to-second-gear straightaways carved into the almost-shear mountainside, that climbs skyward. Low stone walls are our only impediment to the “fast way” down, so I wanted to take it slow at first, but before long I couldn’t resist blasting around the turns. Soon we came to a road paving crew and a temporary speed bump in the road. The guy driving the paver gave us a perplexed look as Cameron got out and moved the speed bump aside. As we drove by, he wagged his finger at us as if to indicate that we were not supposed to be on this road. We smiled, waved, and drove on. Just past hairpin number 25 we arrived at a gorgeous view of the upper half of the road where it tops the pass. I stopped, got out, and leaned over the wall to take pictures. Before long a car came zooming up the mountain and stopped abruptly next to us. It was the local Polizia, and he was not happy. In fact he was yelling at me in Italian. I played my best dumb-turista role, and shrugged “Mi dispiace. Non parlo Italiano.” “I’m sorry. I do not understand Italian.” Apparently he did not understand English either. He frantically pointed downhill and yelled “Segnale! Segnale!” I remembered “segnale” from my “Learn Italian While You Drive” CDs. So I responded, “No segnale, no guardiano!” Which means, “I didn’t see no stinkin’ sign or guard!” I pantomimed an open gate, to try to expound on my explanation, but he was having none of it. Finally Cameron (not wanting to tour the inside of an Italian jail) told me it was probably time for us to go back down. So, I did get to drive half of the famous Stelvio Pass Road. Check that one off the bucket list.
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon.