If you want a travel adventure that will test your ability to manage outside of your comfort zone, try DRIVING in a foreign country. I took this plunge a number of years ago, and while I did not go as far afield as driving on the “wrong side” (vis-a-vis England or Australia) or attempt to follow signs using non-English lettering (Chinese, Russian, Arabic, etc) I still faced quite a challenge and once again can tell stories about the mishaps.
A number of years ago I hit a particularly significant birthday and given the alternative was totally thrilled to have made it that far. A few friends and I decided to celebrate the event by renting a villa in Tuscany, including a rental car (Mercedes)! In what we thought was brilliant planning we also purchased an Italian chip to insert into a friends’ portable Garmin, so we could “easily” traverse the area. Ah, again famous last words.
I offered to take the first leg driving from the airport in Pisa to the villa, which was in Arezzo, on the Ferragamo Il Borro Estate. These Ferragamos are not the fashion family, but rather are owners of a 700 acre estate since 1993. Besides running a winery there, the Ferragamos are committed to preservation and restoration of an area that was hard hit during World War II. Our villa was one of a number of homes that were rebuilt after being bombed:
But getting there wasn’t simple, as the fourth member of our party, who was christened Miss Garmin, recommended that we take the Autostrada – Italy’s version of the Autobahn, a two lane superhighway that runs North to South. Speed limits are 130 kilometers, or approximately 81 mph. According to our calculations, going from Pisa to the Valdarno (Arezzo) exit of the Autostrada should have taken about 1.5 hours. Sounds good – all straight highway, little opportunity to go astray, right? Wrong. After close to two hours without seeing an EXIT we started to panic , especially since the only signs we saw pointed to Rome – Guess Geoffrey Chaucer was correct when he wrote that all roads lead there:
“Right as diverse pathes leden the folk the righte wey to Rome” –
Treatise on the Astrolabe (Prologue, ll. 39–40), in 1391
Spying a Police Station, we decided to use our limited Italian to get better directions, as Miss Garmin had been silent for quite a while: “Come arriviamo a Arezzo? Turns out we had overshot the exit (thanks for giving up a heads up – NOT, Miss Garmin). The police allowed us to use the emergency lane to turn around and without too much more ado, we found the Valdarno exit. Now all we had to do was follow a winding steep one lane country road UP the mountains. I don’t know which was scarier = the locals driving at top speeds (the one NARROW lane road served BOTH directions – or the fact that we were so close to the edge/falloff. I have never gripped a steering wheel so hard.
Finally, after about three+ hours we arrived at the Il Borro Estates – and the beauty of it greatly assuaged my exhaustion (that and the magnificent wine we were about to imbibe).
Next up was a visit to a local market to purchase vegetables, fruits, meats, cheeses, fresh pasta and WINE, which in itself was great fun as the family that owned the little store insisted we speak in Italian to order our supplies for the villa (in return we got lots of extras “gratis”). We made our first meal and retired early to get an early start.
The next morning we decided on a seemingly simple little excursion to Perugia – a quaint town not more than 1.5 hrs away that is known for its chocolate music and art:
With a fresh driver at the helm we loaded the destination into the GPS system, made our way off the mountain and then – ran straight into Miss Garmin’s inability to clearly navigate through the area’s traffic circles – surely more than I ever encountered in New Jersey (no offense to The Garden State). To say “take the third exit off the circle, one would think implies that we count from the place where we entered – Miss Garmin had some other algorithm in mind as we found ourselves going around in endless circles:
After many, many passes, my friend got so frustrated that she threatened to go back to our lovely villa and spend the day lounging and drinking at our pool. While tempting, we just couldn’t let these jughandles get the better of us – so after a quick smoke (her anger may have had some impetus from the need for a nicotine fix) we tried again and made it onto the main highway (NOT the Autostrada). Our next dilemma – Miss Garmin couldn’t figure out which exit would get us to the center of town. NB: yelling at a GPS system is ineffective, Miss Garmin couldn’t have cared less what we thought of her. So, we made a guess at got off at Madonna Alta, for no other reason than it said Madonna.
Here is where the magic of travel occurred. Turns out, you can not drive directly into Perugia. The hilltop capital of Umbria, Perugia was built to repel invaders. This Etruscan stronghold, surrounded by a massive travertine wall has also proved treacherous for motorists. So in 2008, a Mini Metro train began taking visitors to town on a light rail that tunnels right through Rocca Paolina, a medieval citadel. The Mini Metro starts at the valley floor and climbs for 3 km and in 11 minutes leaves travelers at top of town, with an exquisite view of Assisi and the rolling countryside below.
Turns out, the exit we took was at one of the main stops for the Mini Metro:
The view at the last top took our breath away:
Also a surprise – we got to Perugia the day after the Amanda Knox trial had ended in an acquittal – how ironic that they have again reopened the case and are trying to get Miss Knox extradited back to Italy. Fortunately we missed the media circus at the time and only saw a few straggling media groups:
We ventured on, bought our chocolates and found an outdoor cafe which had about the largest pizza menu I have ever seen as well as the most delicious house sparkling wine:
We ordered what the waiter suggested would be an appropriate size pizza for three women – what we got was a Margherita pizza slab that was three feet long/wide. We ate/drank what we could and they generously packaged up the sizeable leftovers for us to bring back to our villa.
There is nothing so tasty as reheated fresh pizza, home-made antipasto and prosecco, eaten out on your own villa front porch, watching the sunset. La Dolce Vita – didn’t I say that i my last post? Io amo l’Italia – in fact we are going back again in early fall – this time to the Northern Lake Region – be on the lookout for daily posts from Lake Como etc (no, we are not invited to George Clooney’s wedding)!
And Miss Garmin is NOT invited.