On our second full day in Italy, we decided that we’d like to visit some ancient hilltop towns, the kind that idyllically appear in the distance over rolling hills of vineyards. We pictured the cliché images of a Tuscan-themed Barnes and Nobel calendar coming to life before our eyes. We imagined driving dreamily through the countryside as Bocelli sang in the background.
And then we actually started driving.
Our first mistake was to caravan. There were twelve of us, split among three toy cars. When not one of you knows where you’re going, it doesn’t help to caravan. It also doesn’t help when an error is made and all three cars have to U-turn in the middle of a freeway. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We decided to visit two famous hilltop towns, San Gimignano and Volterra. Allow me to illustrate.
You can see that there is not a major expressway one can use to glide thoughtlessly to either town. That may be why our route ended up looking like the way taken by little boy Billy from the Family Circus.
We headed south from the villa around 10AM, with Dave and Nancy taking the lead. They, along with my father, had done some brief map work earlier that morning and felt fairly confident. After forty minutes of winding through single-lane roads that were being used as double-lane roads, we pulled over. I ejected myself out of our car from nausea.
After a brief powwow, we got back on the road with cheerful outlooks that all would be well. And then we reached the freeway.
“Freeway” is an interesting term here, because one doesn’t realize one has entered until it’s too late. One minute we were driving country roads, then a whip-fast roundabout and a wrong turn later and suddenly we’re supposed to be going 120 KPH.
The funny thing about Italian roads is you need to make four decisions in a span of ten seconds, any of which could be horribly incorrect. You leave the roundabout, hoping you took the right exit, only to be immediately presented with a fork in the road with twelve signs accompanying it. After that harrowing close call, the road splits again, with both signs pointing to the same town. Pretty soon your nerves are shot and you’ve lost your caravan. Oh, and they hate you.
This is more or less what happened all the way to San Gimignano. We were very lost, so our fearless leader, Dave, pulled to the side of the road in the middle of a highway. Italians must expect this of us, because they have built little pull-over areas along the major freeways. The problem with this is not the exit from the road, it’s the reentry. There is absolutely no, and I mean not a smidgen, of on-ramp. You must watch a thousand cars race past you at 130 KPH and try to jump into their flow from a stopped position. And bonus! You must do this with a stick-shift toy car.
The real talent comes in blocking out the terrified screams of your passengers, at which I must say, Mike excelled.
At this point in our journey, at least seven of us had vowed never to travel by caravan again. The rest simply vowed never to travel again.
Only once did we completely lose each other, and it happened so fast none of us actually knew what happened. We exited a roundabout as a group, then Dave got on one freeway and suddenly realized it was wrong. Like I explained earlier, immediately after getting on the freeway there was another fork in the road ahead of him, and he had no idea which one to take (none of us did), so he pulled up to the fork and stopped. In the middle of the freeway.
Several expletives escaped the mouths of those riding in my car, and Mike quickly realized there wasn’t enough room to pull over behind Dave so with one glance he pulled a U-turn across a freeway that shaved fifteen years off the lives of his passengers, not to mention his mother-in-law in the car behind him.
Despite the danger of this activity, my father quickly followed suit, and we met up in a safer area back by the roundabout. After several phone calls, we realized Dave had continued on the main road, so we got back on the freeway (after three attempts) and found him.
When we at last arrived at San Gimignano, no one even wanted to be there. We were so frazzled and fried from the journey that the destination only held our contempt for drawing us there in the first place. Plus, there was no parking.
We exploded out of our cars, airing our grievances and shouting at the sky “I’m not mad AT anyone IN PARTICULAR, I’m JUST MAD!” Things of that nature.
Finally my mom made the call: let’s skip this and go straight to Volterra. Even though the idea of getting back in the car was suicide for most of us, we agreed that the sooner we got somewhere less insane, the better.
On we went, and things were fine — right up until a semi truck rolled up behind us. Our caravan was moving along, minding the speed limit like good little Americans, and then the truck driver reminded us, by forceful use of his horn, that this is not how things are done in Italia.
“This truck is ON MY ASS!” Mike hollered, while the rest of us turned in horror to see a truck, literally inches from our bumper, that was so big we couldn’t see the driver. The monstrosity of this truck made our car look like one of the car game pieces in The Game of Life.
He blared his horn and revved up behind us as we screamed. Mike yelled for me to get on the phone to the lead car, and tell my dad to GO FASTER. LIVES ARE AT STAKE.
My mom answered. “We can’t go any faster. We read somewhere that there are cameras on Italian roads that capture you breaking the speed limit, and then fine you,” she explained.
I told her if that were true, why were all the other cars speeding? She said she didn’t know, but she did know “your father will not go any faster.”
I politely told her which songs to play at the funerals of Brian, Amy, Mike and Abby, and hung up.
Shortly after the truck turned off of our road, we were still venting our frustrations and railing against the difficulty of getting around a foreign country, when Brian said, “Guys. Are you seeing this?”
We looked out our windows and gasped. That cheesy Tuscan Barnes and Noble calendar? It was live in front of us. Bocelli? He started to sing. Our eyes took in miles and miles of vineyards, olive groves, undulating hills made golden by the sun. And some astounding hilltop villas, just to send us over the top.
And we got it.
“Ugh,” we said sheepishly. “We’re the worst, aren’t we? I mean perspective, yes?”
“This is blowing my mind, honestly, LOOK AT THIS,” he added.
“Take a picture! Where’s my camera?!” Amy chimed in.
“Mike – not you! You keep your eyes on the road,” I instructed.
The same reaction must have been happening in the other two cars, because soon my dad was pulling over, and this time it wasn’t the side of the freeway, it was a winery. Hallelujah.
We were the only people there (wine tasting at noon might have something to do with it) and we tasted their homemade olive oil and wine, purchasing several bottles to enjoy later that evening. We were revived by the wine and by forgiving each other’s driving, we were climbing our way back to sanity, and soon enough, we arrived in Volterra.
We had a fabulous time exploring the medieval city, and the journey home was absolutely painless. Later, over the bottles of wine we bought, we agreed that perhaps the morning was our crash course, and now we were weathered masters of the Italian roads.
It’s also possible that victorious sentiment was inspired less by actuality, and more by our second glass of hard-earned wine.